J.G Ballard, the genre busting English science fiction writer responsible for such novels as The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise and Empire of the Sun as well as some of the finest short stories in world literature, frequently remarked that he really wanted to be a painter in the surrealist tradition that he so loved instead of a writer.
This deep reverence and constant engagement with the visual arts can be most clearly seen in his demented and wildly perverse cult classic collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition. Referencing Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Dominguez, Matta, Bellmer, Delvaux, Tanguy as well as Pop Artists Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol in the frequent free association tests and ‘condensed novels’ that comprise the text, The Atrocity Exhibition could easily be used as a textbook primer on surrealism and popular culture in the sixties.
In 1990 RE/Search Publications issued an expanded edition with four new stories, Ballard’s bizarre yet illuminating annotations, disturbing illustrations by the medical illustrator/graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and photographs by Ana Barrado of brutalist buildings and weapon ranges. It also features a preface by the Hitman for the Apocalypse himself, William S. Burroughs.
Below are some of the many paintings mentioned in the text, some of which are very well known and others less so.
Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the writer of my favourite world-weary bon mot, ‘Living? Our servants will do that for us.’ was, as the name and quote suggests, of impeccable aristocratic lineage: the family name that Mathias (as he was known informally) so proudly bore had been ennobled for at least eight centuries and had included a Grand Marshall of France and the founder of the Order of the Knights of Malta. However the Revolution and his father’s madcap get rich quick schemes had emptied the families coffers. His relatives decided that Mathias was the one to restore the lustre and fortune to the line with his writings and by marrying a rich heiress.
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his genius and his other-worldliness neither plan came to fruition. For his friend Stephen Mallarme, Villiers was, ‘The man who never was, save in his dreams’, and as Villiers himself comments in his mighty Symbolist drama Axel, that he existed merely ‘out of politeness’. His trip to London to woo a wealthy English lady was an unmitigated disaster; he borrowed heavily to pay for the boat over and a set of outlandish clothes only for her to quickly flee Covent Garden when faced with the over ardent declarations of eternal love from the strange foreign gentleman.
His writing showed a complete and utter disregard for the commercial market. He achieved some recognition with his collection Contes Cruel and he was certainly possessed some influential friends, as well as Mallarme, Villiers could count Baudelaire, Wagner, Leon Bloy and Huysmans as close personal acquaintances. It wasn’t enough however, even when he secured a commission his savage satirical edge meant that no further work was forthcoming for a long while. His astounding early science fiction novel L’eve future, was serialised and then dropped midway by two different newspapers. One wonders what the readers thought of its dizzying imaginative leaps, its jaw-dropping virulent misogyny that dissects the female form body part by body part to illustrate its inherent flaws and how man can improve on nature to create the perfect woman,and the dense imagery culled from many varied disciplines including but not limited to; the Bible, Hermeticism, Cabbala, medicine, anatomy, psychology and science.
After the death of his aunt who had kept him somewhat afloat Villiers found himself penniless, a state that was to continue without remittance until his death at 51. Frequently homeless and always hungry his fierce pride refused any offers of assistance. One winter he slept on a construction site only to find one early morning a watchman’s boot grounding down on his face. He worked for a time as a sparring partner at a boxing gymnasium, basically being a human punching bag for sixty francs a month. Four days before his death he married the mother of his only child, an illiterate charwoman. On his deathbed, Villiers, a devout though frequently heretical Catholic was busying preparing his lawsuit against God.
‘On the first of August M.E died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918’ was how Max Ernst referred to his time in the army during the WW1. Hitler’s rise in Germany and the start of WW2, which led to several detentions and internments (see my post Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards) must have seemed to Ernst like he had died for a second time.
Out of the traumatic experiences of internment, flight and exile Ernst produced arguably the masterpiece of pictorial automatism Europe After The Rain II. Using the technique pioneered by Oscar Dominguez (see Chance Encounters 1), decalcomania, Ernst created a haunting post apocalyptic landscape with sinister petrified (yet seemingly alive, or on verge of becoming so) mineral formations. A helmeted bird headed figure menaces a woman in a baroque version of Edwardian dress lost in this inimical, alien world. A chilling vision of the future if we persist in our never-ending folly.
If Oscar Dominguez premonitory self portrait of his suicide can be rationalized as the result of a long standing death wish, Victor Brauner arresting and prophetic Self Portait with Eye Extract from 1931 is rather harder to explain. Continue reading →
Spain produced some of the finest surrealist visual artists, all of whom gravitated to Paris in the twenties. Picasso, although assiduously courted by Andre Breton was never officially part of the movement, however he remained a sympathetic fellow traveller, contributing to Surrealist periodicals and drawing inspiration from Surrealist techniques. Other heavyweights more directly involved were Joan Miro, an important innovator in pictorial automatism; the Surrealist film-maker par excellence Luis Bunuel, and of course the most outrageous Surrealist of them, Salvador Dali. Continue reading →