Magritte’s The Eye from 1936 presents the image of an eye and the surrounding areas of the face, painted in Magritte’s usual dry, meticulous and unsettling bland style. The painting is contained within a Victorian shadow-box that gives the illusion that the unblinking eye is staring through a peep-hole. The effect is profoundly unnerving; the object we are looking at returns our gaze and exposes us for the voyeurs that we are. Everything we see we objectify, with the exception of ourselves, of course.
If we are who we haunt,
Then I am the ghost of my own life,
Casting shadows across the sun lounger,
The silent spectre at the groaning buffet
Resplendent, sinister and boring,
Bearing witness to all the lost futures,
The decayed promises of a better world,
Those bright and shiny surfaces
Tarnished and rusting in the headache-
Inducing glare of the sodium lights;
Granting me chilling visions
Of the stillborn brittle possibilities
Preserved intact in the frozen tundra:
Involuntarily shivering, (Why can’t they
Ever avoid walking on my tomb?)
I am reminded of the revelation
That I so long to forget but never really do;
That we haunt and are haunted
From conception to the grave.
For the unnaturally preserved corpse
Of the rotted past together with
Obliterated time that will never be
Congeal and solidify into a shape
At the end of the bed, waiting,
(It has patience, time is on its side)
For that moment to arrive
When it will invade and finally
Colonise the endless, unholy now.
William Blake was possessed by a strange genius. A combination of painter, poet and prophet, no other artist manages to convey such visionary intensity as Blake. All his life Blake experienced visions of angels and apparitions, one of which, The Ghost of a Flea (see below), he was persuaded to paint by his friend the painter-astrologer John Hayley. He also claimed that his writing was directly inspired by outside agencies as the following quote illustrates, Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.
Central to Blake’s work is The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, which contains a distillation of his revolutionary philosophy in the Proverbs of Hell. This work has been subject to numerous studies with many theories advanced as to what exactly its meaning is, however like all truly great works it eludes a final, concrete definition, operating as it does on many different levels, that include. but are not limited to: the alchemical, satirical, religious, artistic, mystical and revolutionary. I have included below the incendiary and paradoxical Proverbs of Hell in full to illustrate the importance that Blake placed upon desire and sexuality
As well as The Ghost of a Flea, I have selected the astonishing, hallucinatory The Great Red Dragon series of watercolours that Blake painted from 1805-1810 based on the Book of Revelations and Blake’s death mask that adorned the painter Francis Bacon’s study. For more information please refer to my previous post The Marriage of Heaven & Hell.
Proverbs of Hell
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Dip him in the river who loves water.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
A dead body revenges not injuries.
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloak of knavery.
Shame is Pride’s cloak.
Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself. 53
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish, smiling fool, and the sullen, frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once only imagin’d.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.
The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
One thought fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
The fox provides for himself; but God provides for the lion.
Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
He who has suffer’d you to impose on him, knows you.
As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Listen to the fool’s reproach! it is a kingly title!
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow; nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.
If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
The soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d.
When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!
As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
Damn braces. Bless relaxes.
The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
Prayers plough not! Praises reap not!
Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!
The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl that everything was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.
If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Where man is not, nature is barren.
Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
Enough! or Too much.
A notorious image of the early cinema, the eye-ball slicing scene at the beginning of Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) is a shocking example of Golden Age Surrealist provocation. This short film opens with a man (the master of Surrealist shock tactics himself, Luis Bunuel) lazily sharpening a cut-throat razor, with a cigarette stuck in his mouth. He steps out onto the balcony where he stares at the full moon. In a stunning visual rhyme Bunuel slices a woman’s eye-ball and then we witness clouds dissecting and momentarily obscuring the moon. Then the movie proper starts.
Eyes, as I previously noted in Chance Encounters 2, play an important part in Surrealist symbolism. Sight is undoubtedly the primary of all senses, however for the Surrealists vision is not merely a matter of perceiving external phenomena , the visionary experience that transforms reality springs from the unconscious mind and manifests itself most markedly in dreams and madness. Only by completely abandoning ourselves to the dictates of the unconscious and following our deepest hidden impulses, not matter how perverse, can such a transformation be achieved.