During the late 1960’s/70’s Dorothea Tanning creating her ‘soft sculptures’, pieces of fabric sewn together to create eerie cuddly toys from hell, resulting in perhaps the final masterpiece of Surrealism, the truly unsettling installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202.
In a seedy hotel room with wallpaper that emanates despair (remember the only thing going on in Tanning’s childhood was the wallpaper), soft but disturbingly visceral bodies burst from the wall or merge with the furniture. Inspired by a song from her childhood about the gangsters moll Kitty Kane who poisoned herself in Room 202 because the walls were talking, I don’t ever want to check-in into that room at the Poppy Hotel. The whole malevolent atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch, though Lynch wasn’t to make Eraserhead until 1977.
Quite recently I was researching H.R Giger’s illustrations for De Sade’s Justine when I stumbled across the work of the German artist Sibylle Ruppert. I immediately wondered how I had never heard of her before as I take some pride in being well versed in Surrealistic/Fantastic/Dark Art and here was an exceptional example of the genre, that furthermore took its cues from the masters of transgressive literature: De Sade (of course), Lautreamont and Bataille, all of whom I have written about.
One can only wonder at the vagaries of recognition. Although she did have some influential admirers, namely Alain Robbe-Grillet, Henri Michaux and especially Giger, who owned a large collection of her work (the only major retrospective to date was at the H.R Giger Musuem), the critical and commercial success that other Fantastic artists of the period enjoyed eluded her. Instead she worked quietly away at producing ever more horrific images from hell.
Born in Frankfurt in 1942 in the middle of a bombing raid of the city, Ruppert’s father was a graphic designer. She would sit entranced watching her father draw. One day she seized his hand and said that she would also draw nice colourful pictures like he did. Soon afterwards she presented her first drawing; it was a brutal picture of a fist striking a face. Sibylle was six at the time.
A determined and driven child Sibylle would produce twenty drawings a day as well as studying ballet. Too tall to be a ballerina, she became a revue dancer, touring the world until one day in New York she decided to quit and dedicate herself to art. Sibylle returned for a while to Frankfurt, giving drawing instructions at the art school her father founded, then moved to Paris, where she exhibited for a number of years before resuming teaching.
As well as the literary influences cited above, all of whom she illustrated, visual traces and echoes can be observed of Bosch, Giger, Fuseli, Bellmer, Blake and Bacon, though this doesn’t in any way detract from her singularly visceral and kinetic imagination. In her paintings and drawings the flesh is always in motion; writhing, straining, collapsing, before undergoing the final monstrous transformation. A truly infernal vision that lingers unsettlingly in the mind.
The Belgian Symbolist James Ensor macabre vision of the Second Coming, 1888’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 is generally considered his masterpiece and with its densely crowded canvas, vivid use of colour and grotesque caricatures clearly pointed the way towards a new art: Expressionism.
With all the distorted clarity of a nightmare Ensor portrays a heaving mob that includes skeletons, clowns and masked figures drunkenly await the entrance of the Messiah. Several banners line the processional route, however the leering faces in the foreground suggest that Christ’s entry will not be a triumphant one but will turn into a second Calvary.
Following my recent post and interview with the exciting Australian artist Anna Di Mezza, I am delighted to share Anna’s wonderful new painting Evolution.
Like all art worthy of the name, Evolution raises more questions and possible interpretations then it is prepared to answer. The following analogies are my subjective opinion alone, which Anna (thankfully) wishes to neither confirm or deny.
In the blanched, washed out afternoon light, three wavering, ghostly young women are in the process of a mysterious dissolution; of being rubbed out, literally erased from the picture. The source of the irradiating unreality is a rip (a tear in the space-time continuum?) in the centre of the composition which is half filled with a column of paint and has almost obscured completely one figure, the remaining lower part of her body is elongated and distorted. The two figures to the right are blurring proportionally to their nearest to the tear.
To deepen the mystery further the only spot of bold colour to be seen is the red in the corner of the cut-off doorway. At first glance the ball (or apple) seems to be floating but upon closer examination appears to actually be in place of a head. At the bottom left of the painting an oddly shaped shadow that apparently belongs to a figure outside of the frame can be seen. The relationship between the main group of three figures, the red ball in the doorway and the shadow is ambiguous and unresolved.
Although it appears to me that Evolution presents a scene of disappearance, the title contradicts this interpretation and suggests that actually the figures are evolving into being. Whether it represents a coming into being or an after-image of an hallucination , Evolution is a vivid snapshot from the kind of nightmare you have while falling to sleep watching a late night movie.
The masterpiece of the exceptional Surrealist Wifredo Lam, The Jungle from 1943, presents in its densely populated canvas a nightmarish, claustrophobic vision of riotous growth and rapid decay. Blending the human, animal and vegetation within his totemic masked figures with their proliferation of limbs and orbed protuberances, TheJungle exudes a sinister atmosphere of ritualised aggression and menace.
Lam was born in Cuba of mixed Chinese and African descent. His godmother was a famed Santeria practitioner and both his Afro-Cuban heritage and the orisha (the spirit deities of Santeria, the Cuban equivalent of Vodou) would play an integral part in his mature work. His association with Andre Breton would led to Lam illustrating Breton’s collection of poems, Fata Morgana and Lam was one of the artists and intellectuals that would contribute to the Surrealists re-design of the card deck (see Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards) while holed up in a Marseilles mansion while awaiting to escape Europe after the Nazi invasion of France. Lam would also accompany Breton and his wife Elise on his visit to Haiti (see Desire in a Different Climate).