In 1936 the painter and art dealer Roland Penrose (also later the husband of Lee Miller) and the art critic Herbert Read, who were organising the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, decided to pay a visit to the studios of the Irish born painter Francis Bacon in Chelsea. Bacon showed them four large canvases but the visitors were underwhelmed, to say the least. Penrose declared that they were insufficiently surreal to be included and is reported to have told Francis, “Mr. Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?”.
However much this must have stung, Francis Bacon apparently agreed with Penrose’s assessment as he would later, when very famous, ruthlessly suppress any pieces that pre-dated his breakthrough painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944; that is to say, that any painting produced before he had engaged, assimilated and felt in a position to response in a highly personal way to the great Continental European avant-garde currents (including, naturally enough, Surrealism), were to be excluded from his oeuvre. Quite rightly so, as the critic John Russell noted, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two,” which of course extended to Bacon’s own work.
Painted on Sundeala boards, a cheap alternative to canvas, used frequently by Bacon as he was often short of money due to his heavy drinking and lifelong gambling habit, Three Studies presents three nightmarish figures, Bacon’s horror take on Picasso’s biomorphs, with elongated necks and distended mouths, against a lurid, harsh, burnt orange background. Christ and the two thieves crucified have been transformed into the Furies. Bacon admitted to having been obsessed by the phrase in Aeschylus, “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”, and in a sense Three Studies is a raw, visceral, pictorial actualisation of such a striking and terrifying line. After all, Bacon was the best exemplifier of the Bataillean aesthetic in the visual arts; the body as meat, the world as an abattoir, the endless scream of being.
Subtly terrifying, Rene Magritte’s La Condition Humaine uses the picture within a picture device that was to become a Magritte trademark. The painting is realistically banal, showing a painting by a window that is an exact representation of the obscured landscape. Or is it? Is the human condition the fact that we are trapped in the realm of appearances and any attempt to tear asunder the veil will reveal only another deceptive surface without any depth?
Magritte was characteristically unrevealing in his comments on the painting:
‘In front of a window seen from inside a room, I placed a painting representing exactly that portion of the landscape covered by the painting. Thus, the tree in the picture hid the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room within the painting and outside in the real landscape.’
There is an anecdote about the young Yves Klein (see Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) lying on a beach in the South of France with his friends, the artist Arman and the poet Claude Pascal, where they decided to divide up the universe between themselves. Arman wanted the riches of the earth and tangible, material things, while Pascal claimed words and language itself. Klein chose ‘le vide’, the void, ethereal space empty of all matter.
Klein spent his career, cut short by his early death at 34, giving pictorial representation to the void, most famously in his blue monochromes using his own patented colour International Klein Blue, but also in the fire paintings, painted in his last years. Klein was something of an esotericist and was familiar with Rosicrucian and alchemical doctrine. As he noted ‘…fires burn in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man.‘
The above golden monochrome is part of a triptych (the other colours are blue and pink) that represents the colours seen in the heart of a flame. In a lecture given at the Sorbonne, Klein further elaborated on the transformative and unifying nature of fire . ‘Fire is both intimate and universal. It resides in our hearts; it resides in a candle. It rises up from the depths of matter, and it conceals itself, latent, contained, like hate or patience. Of all phenomena it is the only one that so obviously embodies two opposite values: good and evil. It shines in paradise, and burns in hell. It can contradict itself, and therefore it is one of the universal principles.’ Such comments are reminiscent of the patron philosopher of occultists, the gnomic Heraclitus who remarked that ‘everything is fire.’
Klein made his fire paintings using a flame thrower on specially treated cardboard. Supplementary techniques were also involved to evoke a synthesis of the four classic elements, for example a nude model would be moistened with water and directed to leave an imprint on the surface before Klein applied the flame.
The German Surrealist Max Ernst was one of the most outstanding artists and personalities of the Surrealist movement. Notable for the invention of a number of automatic artistic techniques, his body of work is also remarkable for its creation of a densely rich personal mythology.
Central to that mythology is Ernst’s alter ego, Loplop, Superior of Birds. As I noted in my previous post A Week of Max Ernst: Monday, Ernst wrote that he hatched from an egg which his mother had laid in an eagle’s nest. He traced the figure of Loplop to a traumatic childhood event: his beloved pet bird had died on the same day that his younger sister was born and he consequently conflated the two events to the point that he confused birds with humans.
As well as referencing Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Ernst, whose art is drenched in alchemy and esotericism, would surely have been familiar with the idea of the language of the birds; the perfect, divine language found in mythology and the occult sciences that can only be understood by the initiated.
One of the most famous portrayals of the female nude in Western Art, Diego Velázquez’s Venus at her Mirror, more commonly known as the Rokeby Venus, (so-called because it hung in the 19th Century at Rokeby Park, Yorkshire before becoming part of the National Gallery in London permanent collection), is a landmark of erotic art.
As Titian and Rubens were both connected to the Spanish court, it is likely that Velázquez would have been familiar with both Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and Rubens Venus in Front of the Mirror, which are cited as possible sources for the Rokeby Venus, however Velázquez was working in the severely censorious and repressive atmosphere of the Spanish Golden Age, where the Spanish Inquisition monitored art for immorality. Several Spanish Cardinals had called for the destruction of any artwork featuring nudity, but some Spanish courtiers and nobility held private collections of such work. Velázquez position as court painter to King Philip IV enabled him to become the first Spaniard to feature female nudity; it would be 150 years before another Spanish artist, Goya, would again take the risk, in his incomparable La Maja Desnuda.
As in Titian’s painting, Venus is shorn of her traditional mythological trappings, the only indicator that this is a mythological painting is the winged presence of her son, Cupid, who holds the mirror for her rapt self-appraisal. In a departure from previous representations of the Goddess, Venus is a brunette and is noticeably more slender than the fully figured versions of Titian and Rubens (especially Rubens). One of the most controversial features of the painting is the blurred face in the mirror in contrast to the precisely delineated derriere that is the focal point of the composition.
Outside of Spain, Velázquez wasn’t well known until the mid 19th Century, when he was discovered however he would have an important influence upon Modern Art. Manet, Picasso and Bacon are among those who have acknowledged their indebtedness.
The King of Kink, Helmut Newton (see Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton) knowingly references and updates the Rokeby Venus in one of his coolly fetishistic photographs from the late 70’s/early 80’s.