I have concentrated in the Dreams of Desire series on erotic images produced by the various avant-garde movements that followed the great rupture with tradition that was Impressionism, especially the Symbolist, Expressionist and Surrealist movements. However eroticism had long been a staple of Western Art, notably in the Renaissance.
Although Titian’s painting bears the title Venus of Urbino, it is immediately evident that it represents a break from the numerous preceding pictorial versions of the Goddess of Love. This is a Venus that is shown in a domestic scene as opposed to the bucolic countryside, and she has been largely stripped of her standard allegorical and mythological accoutrements. The viewer is presented with a sensual and erotic image of a earthly woman (probably a courtesan); nothing more, nothing less.
Also startling in a painting almost 500 years old is the frankness of the steady gaze of Venus, a frankness that certainly invites comparisons with Manet’s Olympia, a painting that caused such controversy and consternation upon being first exhibited in 1865.
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.
In 1936 Toyen returned to painting after a period concentrating on collages and erotic book illustration, and produced what is arguably her masterpiece The Message Of The Forest, a painting that seems to be an pictorial representation of a particularly sinister Central European fairy-tale.
A massive owl-like creature, painted in a startling shade of electric blue bears in its one remaining claw the severed head of a young girl. As is frequent in Toyen she plays with scale to induce a sense of disorientation in the viewer. The vivid green of the tree bark and the absolute inky blackness of the night contrast with the pallid mask-like face of the girl, suggesting that the forest, and by extension nature, is essentially inimical to humanity.
Anna Di Mezza is an Australian artist featured in my previous post Double Take. Anna graduated from Billy Blue Design School and worked as an illustrator for Disney Studios before setting out as an independent artist.
I contacted Anna who very kindly agreed to be interviewed and forwarded me a photograph of her new painting The Elevator (see above). For further information and examples of her work please visit her website Anna Di Mezza and her representatives Saatchi Art .
AS) In your Saatchi artist bio you unassumingly state that your primary subject matter is realistic portraits and the odd landscape or two. Although you paint in the photo-realistic manner, the collage like compositions and the Alice-In-Wonderland variations in size and scale completely subvert the conventions of pictorial realism. So when you say that what you paint are realistic portraits are you having some mischievous fun or are they accurate portrayals of your subjective vision? AM) When I first started with Saatchiart my paintings were more in line with conservative renderings of people and landscapes. Later on, I started to evolve as an artist and experimented with conceptual work, which was around three years ago which brings me to where I am now.
AS) How do you select the found images that you incorporate into your paintings? AM) Most of the images I work with are found on the internet. If I am lucky, an image may come by easily, otherwise I have to work hard to look and forage through hundreds of old photos until I find the right one that would work best for my objectives. I try to look for images of anonymous people going on about their daily lives. I want to celebrate their anonymity and uproot the setting for them so they are involved in some sort of narrative that is the fine line between reality and dreams.
AS) A lot of your paintings have a limited mono-chromatic palette yet others have bold, vibrant Pop Art colours. What dictates your use of colour? AM) The photos I paint from are usually in black and white so that usually dictates the reason why I go for these monochromatic colours. I like the occasional use of colour as I enjoy colour too for added visual interest. I would like to experiment a lot more with colour in the near future.
AS).You mention Magritte and De Chirico as influences. Have other surrealists influenced you, if so, who? AM) I’m not sure they would class themselves as Surrealists, but definitely the contemporary painters Paco Pomet and Gottfried Helnwein.
AS) Is the Surrealist influence upon you confined to the works of the figurative, pictorial school or does the other aspects of Surrealism, the abstract, collage and film bear upon your paintings? AM) There is a lot of collage work by contemporary artists I have seen that I admire. They mostly make their art digitally. Some examples are Eugenia Loli and Sammy Slabbinck. Their works are to what I am doing except I paint the images. I admire a lot of left of centre films that have surreal aspects to them. Films from David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick in particular.
AS) In your painting closeencountersmashpotato there is a glitch smear in the bar-code design. Was this deliberate or ‘objective chance’. AM) The glitch smear was an experiment in design rather than an accident. It started out as an aesthetic more than anything else. What was interesting about it was hearing people’s interpretations of the work. As the glitches reminded some people of bar-codes, the painting would be about mass consumerism or tuning a TV to the correct channel until one comes upon a random image.
AS) Does the Surrealist theory of objective chance play a part in your paintings? AM) Yes, most of my work is about juxtaposing people with unrelated backgrounds to create an element of surprise so the theory is prevalent in that way. According to the concept of objective chance, it involved the most powerful imagery which caused the greatest surprise. In order to create marvelous images, Surrealist poets juxtaposed two terms that appeared to conflict with each other but were secretly related. The power of the resulting imagery was directly proportional to their apparent dissimilarity.
AS )Your paintings present a retro vision of the future that never came to pass. Do you experience (as I do) a nostalgia for a time before you were alive? AM) I definitely feel nostalgic for a time that precedes my life. The music, the fashion, the culture, the industrial design from the mid-century to me are the ideal aesthetic therefore I am attracted to this era and keep returning to it for inspiration
AS) David Lynch is quoted as saying that the fifties where a time of tremendous optimism and energy, yet frequently his films show the dark underbelly hidden beneath the shiny surface. What is your view on the immediate past (and its vision of the future) that is frequently displayed in your paintings? AM) What he says is true. At the same time the 50’s were a time when women’s roles were diminished and women were being expected more and more to stay home and be housewives. African-Americans in the South, meanwhile, were living under conditions of segregation. There will always be negative and dark aspects whenever human nature is involved. The space age era would have been a tremendously exciting time to live in thinking about the possibilities of how far humans could go thanks to the power of technology. It is also the idea of the unknown that fascinates me.
AS) Your paintings frequently feature inaccessible and inhospitable landscapes: mountains, Polar Regions and the Moon. Is this conscious romantic symbolism? AM) Inhospitable, yes and even claustrophobic. These people all seem to be caught in a moment in time that they cannot escape and are forever trapped in. The paintings make them appear as if they were meant to be there due to their seeming lack of concern . I am trying to tap into dreamlike states of consciousness in using these places one could not survive in.
AS) Finally what is your favourite movie? AM) There are several films that are superlative. My favourite movie growing up was The time machine (the original 60’s one). I was completely blown away by that film with its fantastic possibilities of ideas of fast forwarding time and the vision of the Eloi future. Other films I love are Antonioni’s “Blow up”, Kubrick’s “Space Oddyssey”, Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Rope”, Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr”, and more recently “Under the skin” by Jonathan Glazer.
A superbly disturbing painting by De Chirico that had an immeasurable impact upon the Surrealists, The Disquieting Muses presents us with the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But is there a key? If so, do we really want to open the blue box (a version of which is at the heart of the conundrum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, see Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.), for fear of what it may be contained inside?
Painted during WWI in the Italian town of Ferrara where De Chirico lived, it features a piazza bordered by the imposing medieval fortress of the Castello Estense and industrial brick chimneys. The only figures within the square are faceless mannequins; the muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia with their traditional attributes scattered around, and the God Apollo on a pedestal in the shadow. The perspective and the long shadows add to the air of frozen stillness and uneasiness.
Several Surrealists were directly inspired by exposure to De Chirico’s early metaphysical work including Max Ernst (see the series of posts starting with A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday), Yves Tanguy (Time and Again), and Kay Sage (Surrealist Women: Kay Sage). Sylvia Plath also wrote a poem of the same name that was inspired (in part) by the painting and which is included below.
The Disquieting Muses
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.
In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.