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Posts Tagged ‘Surrealism’

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Painting is neither decorative amusement, nor the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation.

–Max Ernst
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I like this quote from Surrealist painter Max Ernst. It seems that a painting that follows this described route– invention, discovery, revelation— takes on the sense of timelessness that makes it art.
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The invention comes in the actual composition and the initial execution of the painting. Discovery comes in allowing the painting to build in itself, to follow directions that arise during the process. Revelation is recognizing something more in the painting than the subject itself suggests.
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There’s a lot more that could be said on all three of these elements but the shorthand version suits me at the moment. Take that for what it’s worth.
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Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity. I don’t see a different purpose for it now.

Dorothea Tanning
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Doing research for this blog, I run into so many artists that work well into their nineties and beyond that I begin to get hopeful for my own longevity. I try to see if there is some sort of common denominator among them, something that might be a key to their long careers and lives.
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There seems to be among many, at least to my eye, a constant striving for growth and change in their work. There are often new subjects, new styles, new mediums and new processes. But a constant state of wonder.
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Dorothea Tanning is one such example. Born in 1910, she worked until late in her life and died at the age of 102 in 2012. Her work changed throughout her career, having multiple phases, but always remained her own. I am only showing a few of her pieces here, a few that immediately grabbed me this morning, along with a short video with a bit of an overview. Like many artists I show here, I don’t know a lot about her work but hope to use this as an introduction.
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Hopefully, in forty years or so, I will still be following Ms. Tanning’s example. But most likely only if I try continue to attempt to grow. Because as Dorothea Tanning also said: It’s hard to be always the same person.

Tanning, Dorothea

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Victor Brauner- "Signe" 1942- Mounted on his tomb in Montmartre

Victor Brauner- “Signe” 1942- Mounted on his tomb in Montmartre

Painting is life, the real life, my life.

Victor Brauner, epitaph on his grave in Paris

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The sculpted piece above is part, along with the quote above,  of the Montmartre tomb of Victor Brauner, a Romanian Jewish painter/sculptor who lived from 1903 to 1966, spending most of his life in France.  It depicts the heads he often portrayed in his Surrealistic paintings.

I can’t quite remember how I first came across the work of  Brauner.  I think it might have been in an article that had anti-Nazi art from the 1930’s.  He had painted a couple of paintings in 1934 and 1935 during Hitler’s rise, one depicting a fantasy portrait of Hitler with his head being pierced with all sorts of implements.  A knife in the eye , for example.  The other depicted a German military figure standing atop a swastika that is crushing the bodies under it. Both are powerful propaganda images and are shown below.

But I stumbled across his other work apart from these images and they caught my attention on their own.  They are surreal images that often have a Paul Klee-like mysticism in them that I am drawn to.  Maybe I also identify with something Brauner once wrote in his notebooks: Each painting that I make is projected from the deepest sources of my anxiety…

Whatever the case, I find them interesting, something more to delve into.  Take a look.

Victor Brauner- The Surrealist 1947

Victor Brauner- The Surrealist 1947

Victor Brauner- Hitler 1934

Victor Brauner- Hitler 1934

Victor Brauner- Untitled 1935

Victor Brauner- Untitled 1935

Victor Brauner- La Petrification de la Papesse

Victor Brauner- La Petrification de la Papesse

Victor Brauner- Prelude to a Civilization 1954

Victor Brauner- Prelude to a Civilization 1954

Victor Brauner- Consciousness of Shock 1951

Victor Brauner- Consciousness of Shock 1951

Victor Brauner- Antithesis 1937

Victor Brauner- Antithesis 1937

Victor Brauner- The Triumph of Doubt 1946

Victor Brauner- The Triumph of Doubt 1946

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Erik Johansson Cut and FoldErik Johansson is a Swedish photographer working out of Berlin who has made quite a name for himself by taking the ordinary moment and inserting a twist in its perception through a very skilled manipulation of the photos, creating a new and surreal reality.  Johansson can look upon  a very mundane scene and see all sorts of other potentials. In his manipulated reality  there are row boats plowing through fields, a driver is faced with with a giant chrome ball that blocks his way and a biker comes upon a road that is cut like a piece of paper, its ends splayed high in the air above him.  Real life houses appear like those from an MC Escher drawing.  And that is just a small sample.

Erik Johansson ReverberateIt is an incredible combination of imaginative vision, skill and technology.  You can see more of his work at his website by clicking here.  There is also a wonderful blog on his site that gives a real inside look at his process, including a number of videos. Here at the bottom, there is one of these videos that shows in great depth the many layers of editing and manipulation that take place in composing  his photo, Cut and Fold, shown at the top of this page.  If you’ve ever used photo editing software such as Photoshop, you will appreciate his great skill.

If you don’t care how he came to his final product, it may take a way a bit of the mystery.  Or not.  I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s great fun so take a moment and let your mind wander into a different reality.

Erik Johansson The Architect Erik Johansson Rowboat Erik Johansson Set Them Free Erik Johansson Intersecting Planes Erik Johansson Greenfall Erik Johansson Nightmare Perspective

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magritteI conceive of the art of painting as the science of juxtaposing colours in such a way that their actual appearance disappears and lets a poetic image emerge. . . . There are no “subjects”, no “themes” in my painting. It is a matter of imagining images whose poetry restores to what is known that which is absolutely unknown and unknowable.

–Rene Magritte, 1967

    In a letter two months prior to his death

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I am giving my annual Gallery Talk at the West End Gallery this coming Saturday, August 9.   I don’t usually come in with a prepared speech, instead speaking off the cuff and responding to the audience, but I still prepare myself in a few different ways.  One is to go over possible themes and clarify my thoughts on these subjects to minimize awkward pauses at the actual talk.  Oh, it doesn’t eliminate them but it helps to have some sort of thought formed beforehand.

The quote above from Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte reminds me of an instance where I didn’t fully get across what I was trying to communicate in response to a question.  While speaking to a regional arts group consisting of enthusiastic painters, some amateurs and some professional, a question was brought up about the importance of subject.  Magritte elegantly stated in his words what I was trying to say that evening, that the purpose of what I was doing was not in the actual portrayal of the object of the painting but in the way it was expressed through color and form and contrast.  To me, the subject was not important except as a vehicle for carrying emotion.

Of course, I didn’t state it with any kind of coherence.  Hearing me say that the subject wasn’t important angered the man who  was a lifelong painter of very accomplished landscapes.  He said that the subject was most important in forming your painting.  I fumbled around for a bit and don’t think I ever satisfied his question or got across a bit of what I was attempting to say.

I think he was still mad when he left which still bothers me because he was right, of course.  Subject is important.  It is the relationship that you have with the subject that makes it a vehicle for accurately carrying the emotional feeling  you are trying to pull from the painting.  While I am not interested in depicting landscapes of specific areas, I am moved by the rolls of hills and fields and the stately personae of trees and that comes through in my painting.  Yes, I can capture emotion in things that may not have any emotional attachment to me through the way I am painting them, which was part of what I was saying to that man that evening, but it will never be as fully realized as those pieces which consist of things and places in which I maintain a personal relationship.

It is always easier to find the poetry of the unknown in those things which we know.

Hopefully, I will not be as inelegant Saturday as I was on that evening.  I hope you can come to the West End Gallery around 1 PM and test me a bit.  I think I’m ready.  Plus, you might walk away with a painting from my studio!

See you then…

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Henri Rousseau- Self Portrait -1890

Henri Rousseau- Self Portrait -1890

I wrote a tiny bit on this site about Henri Rousseau over five years back, showing a few of  his paintings that I count among my favorites.  Over the years, that little blogpost is consistently my most popular page, receiving a considerable number of hits each day.  It’s a testament to the  power of his imagery, both in its ability to draw in the viewer and in the timeless quality it possesses in its evocation of mood.  I know those are the two qualities that drew me to Rousseau and the qualities I sought to emulate in my own work.

But going through a large book of his work yesterday, I was stuck by one  of his  greatest attributes, one that I had overlooked: his fearless approach to painting.  His work never tried to be something that it was not and always displayed his hand proudly, always declaring itself as his.  It gave even his lesser works a strength that is undeniable and true.

It was evidence of a supreme belief in the manner in which he was expressing himself.

That’s not a small thing.  I know for myself, there is a constant struggle to maintain my own voice and vision, to not try to conform to the expectations and definitions set down by others in my work.  To remain fearless like Rousseau.

henri_rousseau_-_a_carnival_eveningRousseau was born  in 1844 and worked most of his life as a civil servant, a clerk who collected taxes on goods going into Paris.  He didn’t start painting  until he was in his early 40’s and was not a full-time painter until he was 49.  He was basically self taught  and worked for the next seventeen years as a painter, blissfully maintaining his fearless work even though he was ignored or disparaged by most of the critics and much of the art world in general.

Yet, among the painters of his day he remains one of the most influential, directly inspiring other giants such as Picasso and many of the the Surrealists.  I think they, too, were drawn in and empowered by his fearlessness.

I think he might have been one of the great examples of someone painting the paintings he wanted to see.  And that, too, is not a small thing.  This and his bold approach are constant reminders to painters who want to maintain their unique voice, who don’t want to be lumped in with genres and styles and schools to stay fearless.

I will try.

henri-rousseau-sleeping-gypsy Henri Rousseau the dream 1910

 

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I wrote last week about the work of the Chicago-based artist Roger Brown, who was part of the Chicago Imagists which were a group of artists who were inspired by the pop imagery of comic books as well as surrealism.  Another artist who was in this circle was Jim Nutt, born in 1938 in Massachusetts and educated at a variety of universities including the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met his wife, artist Gladys Nilsson.  He has lived and painted in the Chicago area since the 1960’s.

Nutt’s early work in the 60’s and 70’s was very much in the comic book/pop art style with bold, flat colors that were often harshly contrasting and fantastic imagery bordering on the bizarre, as can be seen here in the image to the left.  It’s strong, exciting  work but for me the more interesting part of Nutt’s career has been his obsessive, repeated painting of a single imaginary female portrait over the past twenty-five years.  He spends nearly a year neticulously painting  each of these portraits of a woman with a hairdo that evokes the 1940’s and a most unusual large nose that is typically colored in direct contrast to the rest of the woman’s face.  He paints these works in thin acrylic paint with tiny brushes which accounts for the long time frame for each piece.  The resulting work, as a result of this technique, is meant to be seen up close where they reveal their refined surfaces and subtle tones, revealing beauty that belies the sometimes grotesque appearance of the image from afar.

I am always drawn to the artist who repeatedly revisits a form, finding something new in each new foray.  This subject of Nutt’s may be the same image he sees in his mind but each piece is decidedly different  in presentation and feel.  And, while I feel his early work is interesting and distinctive, it is this obsession that has held Nutt for the past 25 years that defines Nutt for me.

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