Surrealism, Jazz and Cats

Gertrude Abercrombie-1957
Gertrude Abercrombie-Untitled 1957

Dubbed ‘Queen of Chicago’  by her intimates, Gertrude Abercombie was a mid 20th Century bohemian, saloniste, jazz devotee and Surrealist painter. The weekly salons she held with her second husband, the music critic Frank Sandford, in a large house in Hyde Park neighbourhood of Chicago, was frequented by such jazz luminaries as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzie Gillespie, who was a particularly close friend.

The improvisational techniques of be-bop certainly seemed to have influenced her paintings, which feature a small number of elements and motifs repeated throughout her career in an unusual and innovative manner. Cats, snail shells, owls, doors, leafless trees and a solitary female figure, always a hypercritical self portrait, frequently recur against a somber night sky barely lit by the distant moon. The mood is usually mysterious and elusive with occasionally a  hint of Southern Gothic, however Design for Death, which apparently was Charlie Parker’s favourite painting is quietly chilling in its representation of a staging for a lynching.

When asked why she painted in the Surrealist manner, Abercrombie stated, “Surrealism is meant for me because I am a pretty realistic person but don’t like all I see.”

Below are a selection of artworks from throughout Abercrombie’s career, hopefully some people will like her re-arrangements of reality as much as I do.

Design for Death-Gertrude Abercrombie 1946
Design for Death-Gertrude Abercrombie 1946
Reverie-Gertrude Abercrombie 1947
Reverie-Gertrude Abercrombie 1947
The Door and the Rock-Gertrude Abercrombie 1971
the Door and the Rock-Gertrude Abercrombie 1971
Compote and Grape-Gertrude Abercrombie 1941
Compote and Grape-Gertrude Abercrombie 1941
Wall and Giraffe-Gertrude Abercrombie 1951
Wall and Giraffe-Gertrude Abercrombie 1951
Levitation-Gerturde Abercrombie-1953
Levitation-Gerturde Abercrombie-1953
The Ivory Tower-Gertrude Abercrombie-1945
The Ivory Tower-Gertrude Abercrombie-1945
The Owl in the Bathroom-Gertrude Abercrombie 1964
The Owl in the Bathroom-Gertrude Abercrombie 1964
For Once In My Life-Gertrude Abercrombie 1969
For Once In My Life-Gertrude Abercrombie 1969
Shadows-Gertrude Abercrombie
Shadows-Gertrude Abercrombie
Three Cats-Gertrude Abercrombie 1956
Three Cats-Gertrude Abercrombie 1956

Dadamax

The Punching Ball or The Immortality of Buonarroti-also known as dadafex maximus. Self Portrait of Max Ernst-Max Ernst 1920
The Punching Ball or The Immortality of Buonarroti-also known as Dadafex Maximus. Self Portrait of Max Ernst-Max Ernst 1920

The German artist Max Ernst who has been the subject of a number of posts here, was one of the key figures linking Dada to Surrealism. A founding member of Cologne Dada in 1919 Ernst titled himself Dadafex Maximus; Dadamax for short. Ernst experimented with photomontage during this period, the favoured medium of the Dadaists, before switching to collage and painting. Moving to Paris in 1922 he was a prime mover of the transitional period between the dissolution of Paris Dada and the start of Surrealism proper in 1924 with the publication of the First Surrealist Manifesto, known as the mouvement flou.

Above and below are works created in the Dada period, including The Elephant Celebes of 1921, a painting that combines the dreamlike composition of De Chirico with Dada collage techniques and thus anticipating the style so favoured by later Surrealists.

The Elephant Celebes-Max Ernst 1921
The Elephant Celebes-Max Ernst 1921
Little Machine Constructed by Minimax Dadamax in Person,  Max Ernst 1919-1920
Little Machine Constructed by Minimax Dadamax in Person, Max Ernst 1919-1920
The Word or Woman-Bird-Max Ernst 1921
The Word or Woman-Bird-Max Ernst 1921
The Hat Makes the Man-Max Ernst 1920
The Hat Makes the Man-Max Ernst 1920
Physiomythological Diluvian Picture, 1920-Max Ernst & Hans Arp
Physiomythological Diluvian Picture, 1920-Max Ernst & Hans Arp
Oedipus Rex-Max Ernst-1922
Oedipus Rex-Max Ernst-1922
At the First Clear Word-Max Ernst 1923
At the First Clear Word-Max Ernst 1923

Dreams of Desire 52 (Raoul Ubac)

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Raoul Ubac-Sleeping Nude 1939
The German born photographer and artist Raoul Ubac settled in Paris in the early 1930’s and under the influence of Man Ray promptly embraced Surrealism and its techniques, particularly solarisation and collage. During the course of the 1930’s Ubac explored the boundaries of experimental photography with his bold and radical innovations. In The Battle of the Amazons  and The Triumph of Sterility (featured below) Ubac took a solitary female nude figure and created a photo-montage before subjecting the print to the technique of virage  (toning: where different chemicals are substituted for the silver salts during the development) to achieve  startlingly different results from a single source image, some verging on the edge of abstraction and in the process subverting the notion of photography’s unquestioned realism.