Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 Francis Bacon 

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.

The Dog

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Francisco Goya-The Dog 1819-1823

The Dog is one of the fourteen Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings, see Painting It Black) that Goya painted in his house outside Madrid towards the end of his life. The Dog conveys a sense of sublimity, terror and an unbearable pathos with an enviable simplicity.

The painting is divided in two unequal parts: a dirty ochre above and a dark brown below. There has been much debate regarding the origin of the shadow to the right of the painting, and whether it is intentional, however it probably was the previous design on the wall which Goya painted over. Staring upward into the vastness of the sky is the dog, alone and apparently sinking into the quicksand of the earth. All the heart-break and despair involved in terrestrial existence is concentrated in the expression of mute appeal of the dog  as he searches the heavens for a sign of a return of his varnished master.

The Dog has been called the first Symbolist painting  and was held in particular high regard by Picasso and Joan Miro.

The Birth of Art

Horses and Rhinoceros- Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave circa 30,000-32,000BP
Horses and Rhinoceros- Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave circa 30,000-32,000BP

We do not know exactly when the first work of art was created by human hands and we will probably never for certain, as the very question is vexatiously hedged with other questions (such as, what constitutes art?), and that is before we factor in our uncertain knowledge of unconscionably remote periods, new discoveries that shatter accepted wisdom and most pertinently, all that will remain undiscovered as it has vanished from the face of the earth forever.

Georges Bataille who wrote extensively on the subject of prehistoric art for over three decades published  Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art in 1955, a monograph on the famous Lascaux Caves, known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art, with paintings dating from around 17,000 BP.  Bataille’s theory that Lascaux represented the birth of art  would have been uncontroversial at the time, but new paintings have since come to light in Indonesia and France, especially the magnificent Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave that pushes back the birth of figurative art another 15,000 years.

One of the most remarkable features of prehistoric art (and there are many) is that it upends our idea of the constant evolutionary progress of humanity. Automatically we think that art created by sophisticated civilisations is going to be superior to art from pre-literate cultures and the further back you go the cruder the paintings. We presume that the art in Chauvet would only hint at the glories of Lascaux and Altamira, bearing the same relation to a child’s daubs to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet the excellence of composition and technical expertise, which includes prior etchings of the stone that is then painting over shows that these were artists were no mere initiators, they already possessed a full command of the medium.

There are many more mysteries surrounding cave art. Why were they painted in the recesses of the caves which would have created many difficulties in execution and viewing? Some of the paintings in Lascaux would by necessity have involved the construction of scaffolding. Why is the human figure so rarely represented and in such a crude and always masked fashion in comparison to the numerous and lovingly rendered animal figures? And most pointedly, why did our ancestors feel compelled to create images in the first place and did this compulsion somehow change our relationship to nature?

Below are images from Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira and others caves from the Franco-Cantabrian region. Obviously a two-dimensional image can never do justice to art which was meant to been seen in situ, but as a majority of caves are either closed or severely restrict access for imperative preservation reasons this is simply not feasible. But even from a cursory glance we can see why Picasso exclaimed to his fellow modern artists, ‘We’ve invented nothing’ after a trip to Lascaux.

Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave circa 30,000 to 32,000BP
Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave circa 30,000 to 32,000BP
Rhinoceros & Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave 30,000BP to 32,000BP
Rhinoceros & Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave 30,000BP to 32,000BP
Venus and the sorcerer-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave 30,000 to 32,000BP
Venus and the sorcerer-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave 30,000 to 32,000BP
Dun Horse-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Dun Horse-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Horses, Bison and Reindeer-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Horses, Auroch and Reindeer-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Bison-Horses-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Auroch-Horses-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Wounded Bison-Bird Headed Man-Lascaux Shaft-circa 17,000BP
Wounded Bison-Bird Headed Man-Lascaux Shaft-circa 17,000BP
Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP ?
Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP ?
Hall of Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP?
Hall of Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP?
Dappled Horse-Pech Merle  circa 25,000BP
Dappled Horse-Pech Merle circa 25,000BP

 

 

The Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace

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Le Facteur Cheval-Max Ernst 1932
Max Ernst’s 1932 collage Le Facteur Cheval is a homage to the extraordinary creator of the Ideal Palace, that marvellous folly that the Surrealists so loved: Ferdinand Cheval.

Born in 1836 in the Drome departement of France, approximately 30 miles south of Lyon, Ferdinand Cheval left school at 13 with an apprenticeship to a baker, however he eventually became a postman. One day in 1879 while doing his 18 mile round in the small village of Hauterives where he lived, Cheval in his haste stumbled over a stone. Stopping to examine the cause of his trip, Cheval was stuck by the strange shape and beauty of the stone and it reminded him of a dream that he had fifteen years previously and which he had almost forgotten. In the dream, which he found hard to express in words, he had built a palace or castle or caves. He had told nobody about this dream for fear of ridicule, it felt ridiculous to himself. However the stone had brought back the dream and he put it into his pocket to examine at leisure.

The next day he returned to where he found the stone and to his delight he found many more stones even stranger and more beautiful than the cause of his near fall. Cheval said that the stones “represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature. I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.”

For the next thirty-three years Cheval built his Ideal Palace, pushing a wheelbarrow on his postal rounds to carry all the stones he collected. He frequently worked late into the night with the aid of a oil lamp, binding the stones together with lime, mortar and cement. The images of exotic locales that he saw on the postcards and illustrated magazines he delivered on his route inspired his imagination and found expression in the eclectic mix of architecture of the Ideal Palace, where Hindu Temple, Arabic Mosque and Swiss Chalet (among others) styles somehow form a unified whole.

Cheval, as he feared, was scorned by the local community, and his visionary Ideal Palace was derided as the work of a madman. This changed however when the project was featured in national newspapers and tourists started visiting. In 1905 a tourist register was opened. Cheval declared the Ideal Palace finished in 1912 and inscribed on the building ,”The work of one man.” He also stated his desire to be buried underneath the Ideal Palace.

Although Cheval comes across as a charming eccentric he was obviously a man of dogged determination, so when he learnt that French law strictly forbade his burial upon the grounds of the Ideal Palace, he set about building his own mausoleum, at the age of eighty. He spent the next seven years building another fantastical and beautiful structure. One year  after its  completion Ferdinand Cheval died and was buried in the mausoleum that he had constructed.

As well as the Surrealists, who would often embark on pilgrimage to a site which they considered to be a monument to naive art and the transformative powers of the imagination, the Ideal Palace was much admired by Picasso and Anais Nin, who published an essay on Cheval. In 1969 the Minister of Culture, the novelist Andre Malraux declared the Ideal Palace a cultural landmark and later in 1986 the Facteur Cheval was featured on his own postage stamp: a touching and luminous irony.

Today the Palais Ideal Du Facteur Cheval Monument Historique receives 120,000 visitors yearly and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Art Brut/outsider art in the world.

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Ideal Palace
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Ideal Palace
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Ideal Palace
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Ideal Palace

Ideal Tomb
Ideal Tomb

Dreams of Desire 67 (Lucien Clergue)

Lucien Clergue-Zebra Nude
Lucien Clergue-Zebra Nude

Despite the fact that Surrealism was involved in literature, illustration, painting, film, architecture, philosophy and politics, the area where it achieved its greatest impact and subsequent influence is undoubtedly the field of photography (see Dreams of Desire 2, 3, 21Angel and many others for examples of Surrealist and Surrealist inspired photography).

This influence can be seen in the nudes of the French photographer Lucian Clergue, who at the age of 21 in 1955 struck up a friendship with Picasso that was to last until the great modern master’s death in 1973. Clergue’s nude photographs often feature the zebra effect which creates a distancing coolness and abstraction to the exposed flesh. The model (or models) are defined by the interplay of light and shadow. In other studies the model is placed in natural surroundings where the body merges into the landscape in the manner of Magritte.