John Deth

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John Deth (Hommage to Conrad Aiken)-Edward Burra 1932

Edward Burra frequently exhibited with the Surrealists during the late 30’s, including at the sensational International Surrealist Exhibition held at London’s New Burlington Galleries, which famously featured Salvador Dali attempting to give a lecture in an old-fashioned deep sea diving-suit while holding two hounds on a leash and having to be rescued from suffocation and death by the poet David Gascoyne.

Burra’s John Deth is a lurid phantasmagoria that displays in full the strong macabre streak that ran through his paintings. Skeletons were a frequent motif, sometimes used to comic effect, sometimes with darker intent.

Conrad Aiken was the American poet who was the mentor to the novelist Malcolm Lowry, whose masterpiece Under the Volcano tell the story of Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British Consul to Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town, on the Day of the Dead. Filled with occult allusions and symbolism, the  hallucinatory Under the Volcano is one of the great modernist novels of the 20th century.

Dreams of Desire 16 (Jacqueline and Frida)

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Jacqueline Lamba-Dans un Aquarium-Rogi Andre 1934
The above photograph is one of a series taken by Rogi Andre of Jacqueline Lamba preforming Dans un Aquarium at the Coliseum in 1934. Jacqueline Lamba was a performer and Surrealist artist who would become the second Mrs. Breton.

She accompanied Andre Breton on his visit to Mexico where he would sign with Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. Here Jacqueline would met and begin a passionate love affair with Diego Rivera’s wife and famed artist in her right Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s letter to Jacqueline after her return to Paris is touching:

Since you wrote to me, on that clear, distant day, I have wanted to explain to you that I can’t get away from the days, or return in time to that other time. I have not forgotten you, the nights are long and difficult. 

The water. The ship and the dock, and the parting which made you appear so small to my eyes, framed in that round port-hole, and you gazing so as to keep me in your heart. Everything is untouched. Later, came the day’s new of you.

Today, I wish my sun could touch you, I tell you, your eyeball is my eyeball, the puppets characters all arranged in their large glass rooms, belong to us both. Yours is the huipil with magenta ribbons. Mine the ancient squares of your Paris, above all, the magnificent Place des Vosges, so forgotten and so firm.

Jacqueline was the inspiration for Andre Breton’s L’amour fou and the mother of his only child, Aube. Although they divorced in 1943 they remained close. Jacqueline would sport long flowing skirts for the remainder of her life, in homage to her time in Mexico where she had worn indigenous Mexican dresses in emulation of Frida.

Smoke Signals

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Land of Medusa-Wolfgang Paalen 1937
One of the most important of the abstract Surrealist artists, Wolfgang Paalen invented the automatism technique of fumage, where impressions are made on paper or canvas by the smoke of a candle or a kerosene lamp.

Paalen was born of a wealthy Austrian Jewish family in 1905. He joined the Surrealists in 1935 . In 1936 he invented the fumage technique, the same year he discovered that his wife Alice Rahon was having an affair with Pablo Picasso, which resulted in the first of many depressive episodes. Like many of the Surrealists Paalen left Europe for Mexico during WWII, where he was to be at the centre of avant-garde activities with his art magazine DYN, which contained a critique of Surrealism that the even the autocratic Pope of Surrealism Andre Breton, not a man to take criticism lightly, took on board. Paalen would later reconcile with Breton and re-join the Surrealists on his return to Europe in 1951.

An archaeological expert on Pre-Columbian art and artefacts, particularly the Olmec civilisation on which he wrote a number of essays that radically challenged the prevailing orthodoxy, Paalen returned to Mexico in 1954. However his last years were dogged by debt, depression and his implication in the illegal sale of artefacts to the American market. In 1959 Paalen, like a number of Surrealists and two of his brothers, committed suicide.