Probably the most popular painting by the German maestro Gerhard Richter (see my previous posts The Reader, Bathers and Sisters) is the enchanting Betty. It is the first painting that I saw of Richter’s and like many people I mistook it for a beautiful photograph. I was confused and then awed to learn that Betty was in fact an oil painting on canvas.
Betty is a portrait of the artist’s daughter and there is an added dimension of pathos in the fact that the original photograph had been taken ten years previously. In complete contravention of every rule of portraiture, the subject is turned away from the viewer, adding an air of mystery to Betty in true Surrealist fashion. If the role of portraiture is to reveal the personality of the subject, what can we fathom when the model turns away from the viewer’s gaze? What can anyone really know about another person, even our own flesh and blood? While other people remain an enigma, the role of art is to capture their transient, unique and ineffable beauty.
Although the relationship between the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico and the Surrealists was an uneasy one to say the least; the Surrealists were highly critical of anything he painted post 1919 and de Chirico doesn’t have a good word to say about his dealings with the group, in his memoirs he describes Breton & Co as cretinous and hostile, it was de Chirico’s paintings of the metaphysical period that were undoubtedly the greatest single influence on visual Surrealism.His eerie vision of deserted piazzas and frozen cityscapes inspired and influenced Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Tanguy and Balthus among many others.
The 1914 painting of the poet and instigator of many a avant-garde movement, Guillaume Appollinaire (who also was the man to coin the term sur-realism, which he used to describe the Cubist ballet Parade, composed by Erik Satie) conveys a sense of enigmatic menace. A classical bust of a man wears the dark glasses of a blind man. His blindness paradoxically means that he can see what others can’t. He is the poet as seer. To his right there fossils of a fish and a sea-shell stamped on a precarious column. In the background there is a shadow of a man, the poet Apollinaire with a white outline marked on his cranium and shoulder, the suggestion is unmistakably of target areas. In WWI Apollinaire enlisted and was wounded in the head by shrapnel that led to a series of operations immediately before his death from influenza.
As I have noted in my previous posts on the leading Czech Surrealist Toyen, she was obsessed with the erotic and all through her life she produced remarkable line drawings of a directly pornographic nature. The drawings usually feature sleeping women dreaming of huge phalluses. Also predominate are labia-like flowers, allusions to vaginal openings and a myriad of tongues and brightly lipstick-painted mouths.
Above is one of her less explicit drawings, however the sitting nude radiates a full and frank sensuality and this charming drawing has an undeniable attraction.