Friday, 18 January 2019


“My aimless feet
”To be in the world
”And not of it
”That's the aim of the pain
”That's the aim”

“In The Heart of the Wood”

Convincing yourself you're about to make your last album, that’s often proven an effective spur for artists to create their best work. By deciding to stop, what you do is start. There's no need to hold anything back. All bets are off. Should you want to try something new or different, it's now or never. Many people, for example, think of 'Hex Enduction Hour' as the Fall's finest moment, for this reason. But I’ve a better example...

Much as the Fall’s Mark E Smith had before him, by 1993 David Tibet had become dissatisfied with his own output as Current 93 and decided to deliver his swan song. And besides, the whole business of ends and beginnings... that was a fairly appropriate mindset to be in when making 'Thunder Perfect Mind'.

The band has originally produced menacing industrial soundscapes, perhaps best dubbed “tape-loops-for-the-end-times”. The name had come from Crowley. Previous albums had already been heading into a more Neofolk direction, and were characterised less by an aggressive nihilism and more by (a very unorthodox) Christianity. 

Keenan’s post-industrial history ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’ vividly illustrates this. It’s peppered with pictures of the band in graveyards and squats, posing moodily amid underlighting and sporting occult symbols. Then you hit a 1988 photo of a colourful, expanded line-up sitting around a tree on Hampstead Heath, looking like an extended family of troubadours, a latter-day Gong.

But 1993 was the point Tibet really got there. The album was even recorded in Topic studios, essentially Muscle Shoals for folkies. It’s a similar history to Swans. You can’t help but respect the deranged commitment the early stuff showed, the unrelenting viscerality of it all, the visions of Noddy crucified in the sky and so on. But it yielded to work not just more accomplished but richer. It's like watching a headstrong adolescent mature into an adult. Once it happens, it changes even your memories of that adolescent.

Though it did bring problems of its own. The slightly bizarre title is taken from a Gnostic poem. And Current 93 are sometimes presented, dauntingly, as something you need to do extensive background reading before you can actually listen to. But you don’t actually need to learn the Coptic alphabet or study the Patripassian heresy or any of the rest of it. Tibet might need to do that stuff to create it, but it doesn’t follow that you have to in order to listen to it.

In fact Tibet himself has said “Everything I love is essentially simple. I read complex theology but what interests me most are the simple phrases at the heart of it… What moves me most are profound simplicities and Current’s music is very simple.” Which, not un-coincidentally, is the best way to take this album. Which contains the lyric “To pull them apart/ We butcher the essence/ And cripple it’s meaning.” Plus the Blake quote on it’s cover, claiming those “who strive to ascend into Heaven by means of learning” will be “repelled by the celestial spheres”.

And a large part of the break made by ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ comes here. Early plans to make an eschatological concept album, what Tibet later self-mockingly referred to as “an apocalyptic ‘Tommy’”, ended up condensed into the first number, ’Long Satan and Babylon’.

Which was a large part of the getting there. But still we can't skip that opening track. It frames the album, sets the mood and creates the imagery. So let’s take a brief detour through esoteric Christian heresies and non-canonical saints. (At least as I see it.) Satan’s machinations have locked Christ out of his own creation (“a Christ spun out of the worlds”) hence itis dominated by Long Satan and Babylon. The tangible Christ, who bled real blood on the cross, is gone. They exist, in the physical sense. While he doesn’t.

And so we inhabit “a world ripped away from its centre.” It admonishes the listener “Though the world makes dark shadows/ You must look in your heart”. Silence is referred to throughout the album, as a state of loss, of Christlessness.(Religion’s association with sound and Babylon with the material is common in Christianity, and has an obvious appeal to a musical artist. It reappears on several other C93 tracks.)

Which ties in with the legend of St. Eustace. About to hunt down a stag, he sees a vision of a crucifix between its antlers and converts on the spot. There’s a painting of this vision on the album sleeve,while it’s referred to a couple of times in the lyrics.Of course the original legendis about seeing beyond the surface of things, like a curtain being pulled back. But Tibet, I think, is as interested in the disjunction – the way the two things, body and spirit, can be associated but not in the here and now combined.

This is mostly referenced'In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There'.As Christ appears in various natural forms (wind, flowers and so on) the song evokes the tumultuous newfound activity of Spring, as songbirds reappear on branches and hares frolic. (The picture of Tibet on the sleeve shows him under May blossom.)There’s an association of Christ with nature, in particular with flowers, so strong it virtually collapses the distinction between Christianity and paganism. (Tibet’s also described “apocalyptic, pagan and Christian” as “all things that interest me”.) 

Romanticism frequently treated the forest as the very source of life. Just as I strongly associate the later album ’The Light Is Leaving Us All’ with Autumn, this very much puts me in mind of Spring.

Yet it's one of those early Spring days which still has a chill to the air – light and fecundity without real warmth and the consequent feeling something vital is missing. Sounds are bright and melodic yet somehow also plaintive and mournful. Check out for example the trillingly haunted backing vocals on ’A Song For Douglas After He’s Dead’.

For Christ is still spun out of this world. Light is of course a standard image of revelation in Christianity. But light is by definition unearthly. Like the crucifix between the stag horns, or possibly the stag itself, these are appearances – pictures made of light. It's like Plato's vision of shadows on the cave wall being the only thing caught in our vision, only made from light. Tibet used the phrase “the sadness of things”, later using it as an album title. By this I think he means “the sadness inherent to physical life”.

And like the cross and the antlers, the instruments often seem a strange combination of opposites. There’s the acoustic guitar and recorder on ’Mary Waits In Silence’, the violin and cello on ’A Silence Song’, the combination of vocals and backing vocals on ’A Sadness Song’ and on ’All The Stars Are Dead Now’… well, we’ll get to that. While the appeal of that album-titling Gnostic poem seems to be its embracing of paradox. (“I am knowledge and ignorance… I am war and peace.”)

Which in another paradox is simultaneously what puts the ‘neo’ in neofolk, the work of someone who came to the folk tradition from outside, and very much part of that tradition. That mournful recorder sound, for example, comes straight from ‘Stairway to Heaven’. After seeing Richard Thompson live some years ago I wrote “[the] Spanish term duende is sometimes translated as ‘soul’ but a better definition might be ‘exquisite sadness’. It seems peculiar indeed that we lack a direct English word for the feeling I associate more with English folk, that everything is bound up with its opposite, that joy must always border sorrow and vice versa.”

“Empires Cannot Last”

But despite this new direction there’s still no shortage of Tibet’s third great love -armageddon. It remains true, indeed to this day, that if you’re tired of Current 93 you’re tired of death. As I said of a more recent gig: “Though almost always trading in apocalypse, they revel in the double meaning of the term as both destruction and revelation.”

In fact as the album progresses it reintroduces more elements from the earlier Current 93. But rather than abandon the folk elements it finds means to combine the seemingly incompatible styles. The epic nine-minute ’All The Stars Are Dead Now’ starts off acoustically, and even as the apocalypse descends the original melody continues. Tibet’s vocal sgrow sonic trails as if the song’s inside some ever-expanding, ever-more-distorting hall of mirrors. Up till now the album has sounded expansive but spacious. With this track that sound starts to thicken.

Which is followed by the still-more-epic, sixteen-minute ’Hitler As Kalki’sounding like the Doors as a Mariachi band booked to perform at the end times. (Typically, Tibet claims on the sleeve notes this was a prophecy passed to him by the spirit of William Blake.) This time we really are at the end of all things, with Hitler presented as an incarnation of the destructive Hindu avatar Kalki.

But the end of all things doesn’t turn out to be the end. The album closes with the serene ’They Return To Their Earth’. The segue becomes a thematic microcosm of Tibet’s career, from the savage wastelands of meaning conjured up in the Industrial era (later self-described as ”the time of building broken Gods”) to a kind of redemption. Yet at the same time, as the title says, the song is all about return. The sadness of things is gone, the music is lush and rich. The bucolic agrarian imagery reminds me of German Romanticism (“blonde hair moves in the blonde corn”) but on a more primal level of my own childhood - that feeling of belonging, of everything being in its place.

“The pestle grinds the mortar
”The mortar turns to dust
”And the metal turns to rust
”Words they fail
”And fall apart
”The corn it dies
”And is reborn”

The album couldn’t finish any other way, it wouldn’t be complete. And yet for a long time, it didn’t. The version I bought was an expanded reissue which (bar some live ephemera) does end on that track. But, though it had been recorded, somewhat inexplicably it was one of the numbers left off the original release. (Which ended with a short spoken word section.)

Finding my mind unable to process that particular piece of information, I decided to dispel it by creating my own consumer’s cut. Which ensures that the four concluding tracks run together - ’Anyway People Die’, ‘All The Stars Are Dead Now’, ‘Hitler As Kalki’ and ’They Return to Their Earth’. Just as they should have been.

”How All My Hearts Felt”

So the album’s an account of all things, the end times and beyond, of death and rebirth. Actually, that’s only the half of it. Here mythological figures such as Lilith co-exist on the album with Tibet’s friends, lovers and collaborators.Tibet had two recurring dreams while making the album, Kalki manifesting as Hitler and his ex-girlfriend Suzanne appearing to him as a spirit. Tibet said of this new direction in his work “all I know about is myself, and I don't even know very much about that.”

None of this is really given any context. If you know a little of Tibet’s biography, you pick up that for example the Irish place names will for him be associated with his frequent collaborator Steven Stapleton, who had moved to the West coast. But as with the Patripassian heresy, that’s not really the point. The point isn’t even the juxtaposition between the two.

’A Lament For My Suzanne’ could be taken primarily as a song of lost love. Yet ’In The Heart of the Wood’ is like two tales Tibet’s telling you simultaneously, seeing visions of Christ in a woodland clearing and wandering Irish clifftops with old friend Mary. Like the cross and the antlers, they have to be taken together.

Just as “the personal is political” became a phrase, in Current 93’s universe the personal is also eschatological. Deranged visions of the end times and diary entries overlap. Yet it never sounds intimate, like much acoustic music, but big and spacious. The couplet “I'll take a knife to your heart/ And London Bridge is falling down” captures the shift between the scales. As I wrote after first seeing the band: “Everything has an epic grandeur and yet is so personalised, with many songs about friends and collaborators, as if there’s no barrier between the ultimate and the everyday.”

“Swastika, I'm Told”

Guitarist Douglas Pierce was a huge influence on Tibet and his change of direction. Some have even claimed the whole turn to neofolk hinged on him. His contribution was musical. In quite a literal sense. As Tibet remembers it: “[None of us] could actually play any instruments and because we were involved in the experimental/underground scene, nobody we knew could play any instruments either. None of us had any need to… but when I met Douglas I just thought – this is a whole new area to explore.” He seized upon chords played on a guitar like it was a brand new, unexplored means to make music.

But there’s a rub. Tibet said later “I definitely had a lot in common with Douglas… but I didn’t share his specific interests, for instance his fascination with the Second World War.” Which was putting it rather delicately. Pierce’s fascination with the Second World War was a very particular one – with the losing side. His own band, Death in June, named to commemorate a fascist faction, are listed by the respected Southern Poverty Law Centre as a purveyor of hate speech and have been met with pickets and protests the world over.

And Tibet then foregrounds this by explicitly dedicating as song to Pierce, ’A Song For Douglas After He’s Dead’ which more-or-less explicitly refers to his “interests” - “crooked crosses”, “blood and soil concepts” and “the honour of violence”.

Let’s be clear. There’s no reason to believe Tibet ever entertained such sympathies himself. In earlier years, unusually for someone on the Industrial scene, he had close links to the anarcho-punk band Crass. Steve Ignorant and Annie Anxiety had even given him guest vocals. And even on Pierce’s tribute song Tibet sings “Empires cannot last/Where blood and soil's concepts/ Have faltered and failed.” He dedicated ’Hitler as Kalki’ to "my father, who fought Hitler,"including a wartime photo of him in the lyric booklet.

Yet all this has an extra significance here. Industrial music, like punk before it, had appropriated Nazi imagery for (often puerile) shock value. (For example Throbbing Gristle’s ’Zyklon B Zombie’.) But actual fascist sympathies didn’t arrive until the post-industrial era, in other words when the music took on a folk influence. Which shouldn’t be a surprise.

Fascist propaganda builds on the mythology of a static ‘eternal past’, some golden age of belonging where everybody knew their place, which was then ruptured by some rather hazily defined onset of modernity. Consequently, it often finds folk music of use. A scene which can conceive of ‘the past’, and thereby ‘the music of the past’, as if it’s some homogenous block. Which often then gets associated with notions of the homeland, songs being “pure England” and so on. Of course the truth is the complete reverse. Time was never still, nor are folk songs a window onto any kind of golden age. Folk music is not a tableau, an un-changing scene, but the opposite - a seismograph of ever-changing times.

Yet this leaves a folk scene which must be ever-alert to incursion. As Woody Guthrie knew long ago, folk instruments must be set to kill fascists. Eliza Carthy, when told far right nut and failed politician Nick Griffin called himself a fan of hers, responded by saying openly “Bollocks to Nick Griffin”. Whereas, in failing to make the right decision, Tibet made the wrong one.

And this all seems worse now than it did then. The petulant adolescent egoism weaponised into political stance, the fascism as personal brand and lifestyle choice, the provocative demands for attention then the whingeing when that attention arrived, all topped with dollops of self-congratulation for being so risqué… in brief this hipsterisation of hatred was a dress rehearsal to today’s alt-right.

So how could this have come about? Perhaps Tibet, with misapplied generosity, presumed Pierce’s fixations were mere eccentricities. But inevitably, there’s more. ’A Song For Douglas’ refers to Pierce’s teeth, later echoed in the repeated refrain “teeth teeth teeth”, which convey’s Kalki’s devouring. Yet Kalki, while a terrifying sword-wielding warrior, ends a dark and chaotic age where people are at their furthest from God, and starts a new cycle of time. So fascism, though evil, becomes part of the grand plan. In short, Tibet incorporates Pierce’s belief system into his own.

In fact the song is best heard not as tribute but displaced self-portrait. Tibet seems to have a mind that turns the concrete into symbols. “The wind carries smoke from a world that is burning” as he’s hunched over a book, perceiving the ashes as “patterns”, as occult symbols to go alongside those he is reading. Even the “mask on the wall” could refer to Tibet’s own dark side, the part the rejoices in the oncoming fire, the devil that lurks in even the most devout Christian. Well, it work for me.

This is not only widely regarded as the best C93 album, it’s also one of the most accessible – so makes for a good jumping-on point. (Though take note the term ‘accessible’ is a relative one here.) For those with more scruples than me, it’s the last album to involve the notorious Pierce. So if you’re tempted to start with the next one, ’Of Ruine, Or Some Blazing Starre’, be assured that though very different it’s almost as good.

All quotes otherwise unsourced come from David Keenan’s much-recommended post-industrial history, ’England’s Hidden Reverse’.

And that consumer’s cut playlist on Spotify. (Yes I did pull the track ’Thunder Perfect Mind’ from the album ’Thunder Perfect Mind’. I am contrary like that.)

Saturday, 12 January 2019

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY GOES TO SPACE SHIFTERS... exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery made up of “sculptures and installations that explore perception and space”. As ever, more snaps over on 500px. (Along with identification of the pieces.)

Tuesday, 8 January 2019


Inevitably, we have the farce of Brexit reflected back to us in the form of a farce. (Albeit one presented as a “drama”.) Perhaps equally inevitably, in an era where mainstream political choices are confined to a choice between neoliberalism and aggressive right-wing nationalism, the long discredited Great Man theory of history is back. With the provisio that instead of being some speechifying Shakespearian type reducing us all to cheering adulation with his RP tones, he has to be some awkward but visionary outsider.

So here leave campaign director Dominic Cummings is the focus. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Cummings is remarkably close to his Sherlock, the same arrogance if less aristocratic. But more notably still, he’s a virtual duplicate of Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network’ - the virtually sociopathic outsider who creates algorithms to reduce other people to data, the only way he can manage them, and in so doing puts himself in a position of power over the supposedly well-connected and well-adjusted.

While Cummings is scarcely portrayed with anything approaching psychological depths, his tics are what make it onto the screen. While the characters at further and further remove from him are portrayed in broader and broader strokes. Banks and Farage in particular are such bumptious clowns they could have strolled in from the Commedia dell’arte.

Even as his personality disorders are laid out he’s heroised. His scrawling on the walls, endlessly contrasted with the snazzy Powerpoint sideshows of his smooth opposite number Craig Oliver, makes him the exciting underdog railing against a self-serving system. And as his prickly personality continually bursts the bubble of pompous Tory MPs he soon becomes someone to root for. (Because those smug twats really do have it coming.) He takes control of the narrative.

But Brexit isn’t about one man. It didn’t happen because Cummings was clever (if ranting endless spiel about “meritocratic technopolises” counts as clever), or because there’s Facebook nowadays. As he even admits himself at one stage, he was merely riding a wave he sensed but didn’t create. 

Brexit was very much not the sound of things going to plan, whoever’s plan you might pick. Brexit was the sound of things falling apart, of a centre that can no longer hold. The campaign manager cannot hear the focus group.

Hence Britain is currently hurtling precariously towards Article 50 without a clue over how even the transition period is supposed to work. To the point where not having any idea has to be reframed as a good idea, the non-option of ‘No Deal” absurdly being relabelled as an option. (And the extent of this certainly took me by surprise. I’d assumed political consensus around some variation of the Norway model.) Just as with first the Tea Party and then Trump in the States, the political establishment have let loose a tiger they have proven unable to ride.

One of the few moments when you start to sense the people beneath the algorithms was Oliver’s belated realisation that the real campaign had begun twenty years before. For twenty years (if not more) they’d squeezed working people harder and harder, all the while trying to stir up xenophobia in order to divide the poor from the poorer. For twenty years (if not more) they’d abandoned even talk of class to the far right, who inevitably enough always wrapped it up in talk of race.

They made their bed of the driest straw, then casually lobbed lit matches whenever they wanted people to look over to something bright and shiny. As Oliver says of Cummings “anyone can start a fire”. Particularly in those circumstances.

To understand the Leave vote you’d need to spend more time with the old Harwich couple who’ve not had a political canvasser knock on their door since the Eighties, who barely recognise their own MP when he’s sitting in their lounge.

Which doesn’t mean that if we had Cummings’ database, if we somehow gained access to the right people and came out with the right soundbites or correct data neatly displayed in incisive whizzy graphics, they’d immediately switch over to our side. Such notions are just a tweak to the idea it’s all about algorithms, not an antidote to it. Actual people don’t work that way. And besides, hatred can be as hard to kick as any other intoxicant. But it does mean the start of the solution lies there.

Cummings walks out midway through talking to them. As viewers, we follow him. We should have stayed in the room.

Saturday, 5 January 2019


Happy New Year, readers! (I think I’m just about able to get away with the plural form.) This Twenty Nineteen business is being eased into with a double helping of photos of exhibitions from last year. (Which I won’t be writing about in any other way.) 

First up is two simultaneous shows at London’s Royal Academy, the expansive ‘Oceania’ plus a smaller but perfectly formed Bob & Roberta Smith exhibition in the recently opened extension. As ever, samples below plus full set over on 500px. (Well apart from one Greek statue which it labelled NSFW and wouldn't let me add to a gallery!) Second part coming up. Then back to proper blogging…

Friday, 28 December 2018


Royal Academy, London
(The last, at least for a while, of fashionably late posts on Surrealist exhibitions)

“I am creating with an absolute naturalness, without the slightest aesthetic concern. I am making things that inspire me with a profound emotion and I am trying to paint them honestly."
- Dali
”Is it possible to make works which are not works of art?”

The Uneven Couple

Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp first met in 1930 and, as show tells it, “despite their differences maintained a lasting bond of mutual admiration.” This might feel a little like hearing matter and anti-matter met up for coffee and the odd game of chess. It’s not just that one’s the most archetypal Dadaist and the other the most infamous Surrealist. There’s also their contemporary reputations being so far apart.

Duchamp is held in high regard by art critics and much-cited by contemporary artists. Whereas Dali played himself up as the face of Surrealism, often in quite a literal sense. And so he became a popular figure disdained by critics, the name so right to cite it must be wrong. He’s seen as the most important Surrealist in the way ’Sergeant Pepper’ is the best Beatles album.

And this unpopularity may have exacerbating factors. George Orwell was right to call him “a disgusting human being”. He was a fascist sympathiser, and used and abused others remorselessly to further his career.But if the basis there is firm the reason still isn’t good. Orwell himself goes on to say “against this has to be set the fact that Dali is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts... He is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings.”

Fromthe late Twenties and right through the Thirties, his work could beas fantastic as it was fantastical. (Even if none of his best works are on show here.) Orwell’s very pointwasto make Dali an example of a syndrome, where people baulk at holding both those thoughts in their heads and go on to deny one or the other of them.His point was that we need to overcome that syndrome.

Anti-Painting Against Anti-Art

The show starts years before that fateful meeting. The earliest Duchamp, ’Portrait of the Artists’ Father’ (1910) is accomplished but relatively conventional, a decent aping of Cezanne. But his progress from there is remarkably fast. ’The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes’ (above), only two years later, has already taken up Cubo-Futurism. (Though it should be said Cezanne had been an influence on Cubism.) It has themulti-facetedfigures and muted, restricted palette of Cubism, but combined with the animate dynamism of Futurism. (Particularly in that swooshing left-right diagonal.)

Though significantly the title suggests we should see the figures as symbols rather than representationally. Reading the King, for example, back to Duchamp’s Father seems the wrong approach here. This is quite unlike Cubism, which while it might make a puzzle of the object always offereda solution. The root of Duchamp’s metaphysical approach, his uninterest in “retinal art”, is here.

We perhaps shouldn’t read too much into Dali’s ’Cubist Self-Portrait’ (1923, above) dating from later, he was nearly two decades Duchamp’s junior. But while if anything it has more of the trappings of Cubism (such as the collaged elements), it’s clear Dali is pastiching the style. We see his figure clearly beneath 
the prismatic shards, an intact image semi-concealed behind a Cubist curtain, as if about to stride on stage. 

It may simply be that he was too much a narcissistto fracture himself. But then that itselfis telling. Duchamp found in Cubism not a way to rework representation but a hammer to smash it, if a style to pass through then a vital one. For Dali it’s just a style to pass through.

Let’s move on to more mature works. If you could use such a word for Duchamp’s infamously provocative ’LHOOQ’ (1919, above), where he graffiti’d a moustache onto a postcard ofthe iconic ’Mona Lisa’. The significance was enhanced by the original having being stolen, which threw a greater significanceupon reproductions. And indeed he reproduced his own gesture many times. At one point, keen to show a version in New York, rather than send one over he got an associate already over the ocean to just defacea copy himself.

This iconic work, we discover, had a big influence on Dali. And surprisingly, it didn’t involve moustaches. He pronounced it “the epitaph of modern painting” and promptly abandoned the brush. However, the show over-estimates the significance of this, even if we ignore the fact he soon returned to it. Like many he instead took up film and photography, more modern (and hence more Modernist) media, quite a different thing to Duchamp’s anti-art.

In Dali’s case let’s look at the fully fledged Surrealist ’The First Days of Spring’ (1929, above). Clearly, he’s influenced by de Chirico, covered here. Both litter figures and objects over stretched floors via elevated perspectives, emphasised by extended shadows. But de Chirico’s contemplative mood was perhaps best summed up by the title ’Melancholy of an Autumn Afternoon’ (1915).

Dali swaps Autumn for Spring, de Chirico’s moonlit classical plazas for plains and deserts, his inscrutable eerie calm for the frenzied and feverish. Dali’s figuresare much closer to apparitions than de Chirico’s.In this work some seem to be sporting apparitions of their own, above their heads, almost like thought balloons.

Also, de Chirico is less concerned withthe objects themselves than the spaces and relationships between them. Imagine looking onNativity dioramas if you hadno knowledge of Christianity. They’rearrangements sodeliberatetheymust surely have somemeaning.While Dali simplyaccumulates discrete elements, often (as here) incorporating frames within frames. There’s no reason to assume those figures are even aware of each others’ existence, any more than they would be in a Hannah Hoch collage. (The man in the chair doesn’t even share the otherwise aligned shadows.) De Chirico paints scenes as though they make sense to him. Dali paints as if in a state of delirium.

Automatic writing, creating without conscious intent, was a central weapon in the Surrealist armoury, described in their first manifesto as “pure psychic automatism… thought transcribed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside any moral or aesthetic preoccupations”.

To this Dali added automatic painting.Those big empty desert planes becomes his sketchpad, a blank canvas with a horizon line added. The artist’s freed from having to consider an overall composition, and can just channel his unconscious onto the canvas, intervening as little as he can. He’d ‘dream up’ each image (in one sense or another), and place it inthe scene.Images could recur from one work to another, sometimes so similar they could have been cut and pasted, just as they might pop back up in the mind.The work’s aligned quite arbitrarily, mostly crowded but with an expanse of blank space to the left. And there are Dalis so cluttered, so without a centre of attention, the eye initially rebounds off them.

‘Peopled plain’ works such as this are numerous, even if they’re sidelined by both art critics and print sellers.Yet Dali was not just the most influential of Surrealists, it’s these works which spread the widest. Check out for example the cover to Van Vogt’s ’Empire of the Atom’ below. (Sorry, don’t know the artist.)

And Dali’s much-criticised style comes in here. It's knocked for its regressively faithful representation, conservative art from a political reactionary. Norbert Lynton comments that ”in purely pictorial terms” Dali is “firmly reactionary. We observe his painted scenes as a theatrical illusion, prepared for us beyond the proscenium arch of the stage.” Buton top of that it’smaligned for it’s advertising-artslickness.Yet, at least at this time, impressing the viewer with skilful flourishes couldn’t be further from his intent. In fact he’s trying to make his style as inconspicuous as he can.

One of the best quotes about Dali comes from Man Ray: “He would have preferred to photograph his ideas and considered his workaform of anti-painting”.Hisown maxim was “paint realistically, according to irrational thought” and his aim “a total discrediting of the world of reality”. So he used a mock deadpan fidelity to realism to creep up on his target in disguise, and thereby undermine it.In short he painted impossible things as though they were possible. (For this reason the nearest Surrealist to Dali is Magritte.)

So,to circle back to the show’s theme,is this surrendering to the unconscious similar to Duchamp’s metaphysics? No. No it’s not. Dali’s anti-painting is not Duchamp’s anti-art, his automatism not Duchamp’s chance processes.Dali sought to tune down his conscious to tune up his unconscious – but both are part of him. Everything he did, he explained, as to “express the total personality of Dali”. Duchamp came more and more to produce art with no signature style, which could not be traced back to the artist, which had an author only in the formal sense, to in his own words “annihilate the ego of the artist”.

The Charged Object

A room is given over to their art objects. Let’s compare ‘Fountain’(1917) Duchamp’s ‘readymade’ urinal, with Dali’s ‘Lobster Telephone’(1938), the exhibition poster (up top) having already done that for us. Dali’s work is juxtapositional, combining a manufacturedobject with a living creature. Whereas all Duchamp has done to the urinal is sign it. Yet, as said over his earlier show at the Tate, there’s still a juxtaposition of sorts – for the work is contrasted against its gallery setting. But difference between thosekinds of juxtaposition is still significant.

’Lobster Telephone’ is an object to muse over, the mind trying to reconcile the components in a kind of meditative exercise. (It’s perhaps a little too easily reduced,the phone representing the surfaceconscious mind and the marine lobster the depths of the unconscious,now in combination.But never mind.)As the show says “these Surrealist objects operate in the no-man’s-land between art and life, playing on our intuitive associations… [they]make the familiar uncanny.”

Whereas the Duchamp is not charged with associations. We stand there like suckers, waiting for an artistic impact which does not come. It remains obstinately aloof to any effect it might have on us. Your responses are disarmed by the simplest of objects.

Another example would be Dali’s’Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically – Gala’s Shoe’ (1930, above). The central red high heel might seem already a fetish object to the modern mind. But he specifies it’s Gala’sshoe, and so for him at least it acts as a synecdoche for his wife.Whereas in a Duchamp readymade a shoe would come straight from a shop. And on the subject of sex…

”Concrete Irrationality”

Another feature noted of the earlier Duchamp show was “the reduction of sex to the mechanical.” This is at it’s clearest with ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’, (1915/23, above, sometimes known as the Large Glass) which depicts the sex drive literally through mechanisms. (Among them pistons, grinders, and sieves.) While the Surrealists endowed the libido with an almost mystical power.

Yet here we shouldn’t be too hasty in dividing things. Dali’s ’Scatological Object’ is also a mechanism, where a crane holds a sugar lump poised above a glass of milk sat in the shoe. And the road runs both ways. Mechanising sex, making it literally into a drive, inevitably also eroticises the machine. Inanimate objects become libidinous. And for all his cool air of detachment, Duchamp frequently returned to the erotic.

Unfortunately if inevitably, with this came the familiar problems. Asked to design a Surrealist exhibition brochure in 1947, Duchamp came up with ’Please Touch’ in the shape of a woman’s breast. His final work, ‘E’tant Donnes’ (1946/66), was essentially a peepshow.

Against ’First Days of Spring’, Dali’s ’The Spectre of Sex Appeal’ (1932) is one of his more composed compositions, with a monumental canvas-filling figure, plasticated and multiform. (Often, as here, with a smaller foreground figure gazing up at it.) As with ’Lobster Telephone’, there’s a clear reading. In fact there’s a readymade label - Freud’s Oedipus complex, the child’s repressed desire for his mother. Which was not an unusual theme for Dali, this show also includes ’Meditation on the Harp’ (1932/4), which arguably only differs by including both parents in a clinch. With a protuberance from the Child’s elbow which could double as an extension of the Father’s dick, as if he’s not just from but of his Father.)

But it’s not reductive to the reading in the same way. The monstrously multiformed figure is too hallucinogenic to be boxed up with a theory. It’s as if the child is unable to mentally process what he looks upon. He can’t even conceive of it as a single object, and so we see a composite of parts, an assemblage of his attempts. Dali described it as ”concrete irrationality.” Placing it on the beach also recalls the carcasses of strange sea creatures.

And indeed, despite his much-cultivated reputation for unabashed outrage, of proclaiming what the rest of us wouldn’t acknowledge in ourselves, Dali was in fact quite sexually repressed. For him desire and repugnance could never be disentangled. Which is perhaps where these works do actually work. Where the schoolboyish sniggeriness at sex is foregrounded, where they’re made into an infantile attempt to comprehend something beyond their current scope.

Celluloid and Dreams

Both artists were interested in, and associated with, film. Duchamp had appeared in the Dadaist ’Entr’acte’in 1924, and Dali co-created the Surrealist classic ’Un Chien Andalou’ in 1929. The show places two film clips made by them side-by-side. What both have in common, apart from “girls with hardly anything on” (not surprisingly for anyone who read the predecessor to this), is the dream device.

Dali collaborated with Hitchcock for a dream sequence inserted into the thriller ’Spellbound’ (1945). Gregory Peck’s character recounts his dream to two psychiatrists, in a classically Freudian set-up with him facing away from both. Naturally, one has a Germanic accent. The images, many of which are classic Dali motifs familiar from his paintings, become clues to an event the film must unravel.

Which means the dream does not pre-exist its analysis, instead the two take up a kind of symbiotic relationship. This also blurs the line between psychoanalysis and detective story. Which could be argued as cheapening Surrealism, reducing it’s essential mystery to a set of plot tokens. And in fact Hollywood execs ruthlessly cut back the sequence from the one originally intended.

On the other hand, in her book on Dali, co-curator Dawn Ades quotes Aragon on his approach to cinema: ”Children… sometimes fix their attention on an object to the point where the concentration makes it grow larger, grow so much that it completely occupies their visual field, assumes a mysterious aspect and loses all relation to purpose… Likewise on the screen objects that were a few moments ago sticks of furniture or books or cloakroom tickets are transformed to the point where they take on menacing or enigmatic meanings.” There’s an obvious parallel between this and the charged object covered above. Yet there’s also a connection to Hitchcock.

As Francois Truffaut pointed out his films have their own sense of dream logic where, blown up in size to fill the cinema screen, objects are bestowed with numinousness. Despite the majority of his films ostensibly being thrillers he’d cheerfully admit to having only a passing interest in plot mechanics, which could be made up of placeholder MacGuffins for all he cared. In essence, he made films by threading together images.

And this was seen at the time. People today are often surprised to hear that the Surrealists were fascinated by Hollywood, particularly as it moved away from the conventions of the theatre. It was perhaps inevitable the two would met up at some point.

While conversely Duchamp’s sequence from ’Dreams That Money Can Buy’ (1947) offers no analysis. Here the dream motif is just a framing device for a series of short films, each by a different artist, in a barely linear work that’s very far from Hollywood. Duchamp uses spinning discs to mesmerise the viewer, the very opposite of stimulating their critical abilities. (At points seemingly inventing 3D cinema years early.)

Today, it’s perhaps too easy to dismiss this. The association of Surrealism with the dream has become so overdone your hackles tend to rise. Man Ray probably spoke for the movement as a whole when he said “It has never been my object to record my dreams, just the determination to realise them.” Worse, we’ve become so used to dream sequences in films we now picture actual dreams through those cliches, and tend to imagine a dream’s merely a film which projects in your head. Yet montage for example, not just one of the most basic tools of cinematic language but one of the main sources of fascination for the Surrealists, has no dream equivalent.

In fact this association skips over what’s so significant about dreams, their power to imprint a mood upon you. What’s seen in them seems secondary to this, numinous objects mere incidences of a pervasive numinous atmosphere. We can awake from dreams remembering no images but remaining very much in the power of that mood. Sometimes we remember details, but our waking minds can make no association between them and that mood. If there is an artform which can match dreams for this, it’s not any visual art but music. Music is the great short-cut to emotional states.

Opposites At Last

Their later years effectively bifurcate. As said before, Duchamp’s retirement from art should be seen as “his greatest work”. Meanwhile Dali in effect abandoned art in order to make money, which seems like a lesser thing. In 1939 Andre Breton gavehim withthe anagrammatic nickname ‘Avida Dollars’, whichsharply stuck.His degeneration through the Forties was remarkably swift. Pretty soon the slick brush, originally adopted as a disguise to bring on board the irrational, is all that’s left. See for example ’Still Life Fast Moving’ (1956, below). The desert-dwelling shaman has become a stage magician. To misquote Obi Wan Kenobe, he’s more technique than man now.

But what of their legacy? The popular conception of Surrealism has long since warped itself around its arch exponent. The movement’s now seen as a means to access your most suppressed impulses and desires, nailing your id to a canvas. While Dadaism, as something distinct from Surrealism, is less misunderstood and more plain not understood. So the popular mind is less likely to think of Duchamp at all.

And yet, while this overwriting of Dali across Surrealism distorts Surrealism, it captures Dali well enough. While contemporary artists who copy Duchamp usually work from a complete misrepresenting of him (it scarcely matters whether this is wilful or gormless), Dali is closer to his popular perception.

It’s true, as said after the Tate’s Duchamp show, that his cool conceptualism led to a lot that’s risible in contemporary art, the vacuous masquerading at the notorious. But that comes from a degradation of his approach, from looking too much at what he did and bypassing why he did it. Whereas Dali’s inheritance in contemporary art is less overt, but greater. As he turned his personality as a brand to gain celebrity status he passed a promissory note to Damien Hirst and all the other hopers. 

Even the ‘defence’ of Dali’s reactionary politics (if that’s the term for such a thing), that he was merely pranking the po-faced Left with his strident Francoism, doesn’t help much. It just makes him a precursor of todays alt.right, with their “dank memes”.

Their personalities were as distinct as hot and cold. True, both made enigma into provocation. But Duchamp’s detached, elusive, playful yet cerebral. While Dali is heated, grandiose, self-aggrandising. In photos Duchamp can look professorial, almost anonymous. He’ll often appear in disguise, for example in drag as Rose Selavy. Whereas with his patented poised moustache, Dali seems an artwork in himself. Man Ray’s 1936 photo of him made the cover of ’Time.’ In fact that popular perception could be seen as his main work, and perhaps intentionally. He was soon saying things such as “a painting is such a minor thing compared to the magic I radiate.”

So that effervescent persona, possibly more than the works, came to be what Dali was. Like a rock star who doesn’t have to play by the workaday rules, only more so, Dali became the id force unchecked. While Duchamp’s two great contributions was to eliminate his own presence from his works as much as he possibly could, and finally give up art altogether.

After speculating over ‘Dreamers Awake’ if the women-and-Surrealism angle had been a last-minute decision, this time I half-wondered if the loans to fill out the forthcoming dedicated Dali show hadn’t been forthcoming the same time as the Duchamp, so the two were stuck together in a shotgun marriage.

The show concedes “at first glance they would seem to be opposites”. A glance which would seem to include the poster images of them, including the one incorporating this photo of them placing chess (taken by Robert Descharnes in 1966, above). They’re even wearing their rival team colours, suggesting there’s more mileage in contrasting than comparing them. While the show’s other poster (up top) portrays them as mirror images of one another.

Perhaps de Chirico would have been a better compare-and-contract for both of them, a clear influence on Dali who worked up a metaphysical style in quite a different way to Duchamp. But Dali and Duchamp, at both first glance and last look, were opposites. And that goes down to how we must see them know. Dali - at least the young Dali - has a reputation that must be salvaged. While with Duchamp you need to knock away his supposed disciples in order to reach him.

Saturday, 22 December 2018


White Cube Gallery, London

(The second in a series of fashionably late exhibition posts which focus on the wacky world of Surrealism. More moustachioed bicycles and lobster telephones to come.)

”To dress up, it is to change dimension, species, space…. To dress up, to cross dress, is an act of creativity. And in applying this to oneself, one becomes other characters, one’s proper character.”
- Leonor Fini

”I warn you, I refuse to be an object”
- Leonora Carrington

”My Fair Share of the Imagination”

This show opens with these words...

“Woman had a powerful presence in Surrealism. She is the object of masculine desire and fantasy; a harpy, goddess or sphinx; a mystery or threat. Often she appears decapitated, distorted, trussed up. Fearsome or fetishised, she is always the ‘other’… Repossessed by its owner, the fragmented, headless body of Surrealism becomes a vehicle for irony, resistance, humour and self-expression.”

As I am wont to catalogue on this blog, from Impressionism through to Pop Art, Modernism did not always have the greatest of records for recognising women artists. Dadaism, Surrealism’s closest cousin, effectively sidelined the humungous talent of Hannah Hoch. And Futurism even made misogyny into a policy, writing its “contempt for women” into its manifesto. Yet for all this the Surrealists may be the most egregious case. Which was probably inevitable...

Reviewing this exhibition, Olivia Laing has pointed out: “Early surrealists sought to plunder unconscious forces; inevitably, sex was the main energy supplier. What this meant in practice was a prevalence of women’s bodies, appropriated and dismembered. Voiceless, limbless, headless, the surrealist woman reaches her apogee in Magritte’s ‘The Rape’, in which a face is formed from a torso, with breasts for eyes and a pubic grin.”

And to Magritte we might add Giacometti’s ‘Woman With Her Throat Cut’, seen only last time. But the temptation to simply pile on examples should be resisted. It’s not to do with extremes but extent. Finding examples is like looking for water damage on something that’s already under the sea. As said over the Giacometti, the point is that it fits so easily among his other Surrealist works.

And the misogynist violence and the insistence on women being a subject for artists rather than artists themselves overlap, if not reinforce one another. Women are like the mannequins they were so often portrayed as, empty vessels waiting to be fertilised into life by the male imagination. This riffs offthequasi-Freudian association between women, absence and mystery. Women’s very presence becomes a kind of constructed absence, like they’re just a collection of holes and gaps. See for example Colin Middleton’s ‘Spain Dream Revisited’.

Not being able to speak might not be your most pressing concern if your throat’s currently being cut, but the point is the symbolic connection between the two. Roland Penrose’s ’Winged Domino’ (1937), not only stuffs shut a woman’s eyes and mouth, the model was his wife Lee Miller at the time of their separation.

Most people bothering to read this will be familiar with Angela Carter’s verdict on the movement, but it’s worth repeating anyway:

“…I had to give them up in the end. They were, with a few patronized exceptions, all men and they told me that I was the source of all mystery, beauty, and otherness, because I was a woman – and I knew that was not true. I knew I wanted my fair share of the imagination, too. Not an excessive amount, mind; I wasn’t greedy. Just an equal share in the right to vision.”

Which pinpoints what’s worst about all this. Surrealism was not, at the end of the day, overly concerned with art – its usefulness was as a tool for liberation, and it was one tool among others. Walt Whitman had said “I am large, I contain multitudes”. Surrealism presupposed that was true of all of us. We inhabited our minds like someone living in a mansion who had somehow come to believe the hallway was their bedsit. What we needed was a movement to illuminate those other rooms for us, but we each needed to do our own exploring.

Surrealism may therefore mark the biggest credibility gap between the promise of unbridled liberty and the failure to deliver on that promise for fully half of the population. They were forever insisting there was no essential self, that each one of us contained a multiplicity. Which could scarcely be any more at odds with their gender essentialism.

Why should this be? We could trace it back to Freud, who articulated exactly the same contradiction.Certainly the Surrealists were fixated by him, to the point that he supplies even this show’s title. (“The madman is a dreamer awake.”) But ultimately the problem was more deep-rooted, with Freud himself merely another symptom. Like the primitive, women were at a fundamental level associated with the irrational. So like the primitive it followed they must be colonised, plundered and appropriated. My liberty was presupposed to come at your expense.

Perhaps their treatment of women is the loose thread which, when tugged at, dissolves the striking imagery and exposes the underlying deficiency of their programme. Listen to your dreams, but dream the right ones. Reject bourgeois politics, provided you embrace Stalinism. Pursue liberty in all things, but only as our Pope commands you.

Such sureties can be tempting, but they lose us too much. Carter’s own writing is considered to be highly Surrealist influenced, you’d struggle to find the break point she claims. And was it ever thus. I’ve written the epitaph for Surrealism myself a thousand times. It often looks like something from which we’ve extracted everything we could want, and now we go to throw the used wrapper away. And yet we find the obstinate thing still sticking to our fingers.

The less-than-exemplary way they were treated didn’t stop the list of women Surrealists being long. However this show’s features a few names from that list, but its focus is on post-Surrealists looking back at all this. Which is quite frankly a bit of a disappointment. (Though shows devoted to Dorothea Tanning and Dora Maar are coming up next year – hurrah!) Many you’d more expect to find in the White Cube than in a show to do with Surrealism. The show complains that “today… the unconscious mind is familiar territory, and the word ‘surreal’ itself debased to the point of meaningless.” Then devotes much yardage of gallery space to proving that very point.

But that quote only starts tograsp the real problem with Surrealism today - that it seems known. Far from a beguilingmystery everyone imaginesthey already get it.Socontemporary artists are forever claimingthey’re its inheritors, often on the basis of a hazy notion that once it was ‘edgy’ and now so are they. Does for example Sarah Lucas belong here? (Inasmuch as her tedious efforts belong anywhere.) Nor is there any attempt to arrange the work in any chronological or thematic order. With nigh-on one hundred and seventy exhibits, it often looks more like the slush pile for a show than a show itself.

But let’s work with what we’ve got. And let’s cut through the chaff, making our focus women artists who refused to be objects, who whodidtry to repossess the Surrealist body for i’s owner, who despite everything did take the Surrealist path towards liberation.

Genital Warfare

Perhaps the most obvious route for women artists to counter Surrealism’s phallocentrism, which is really just a fancy word for willy-waving,isan equal but opposite celebration of the vagina. Yet reversing an opposition leaves you with an opposition. It effectively says “very well, now I’ll show you mine”, which answers rather than overcomes Giacometti’s notion that we’re reducible to our genitals. However, some artists do take this broad approach but find ways to make it work.

For example, ‘Wall Cabinet II’(2017, above) by Mona Hatoum (last blogged of here) is a collection of sculptures which are somewhat vaginal. They’rerendered in glass then placed in a glass cabinet, playinginto the Surrealist notion of femininity asa form of display. Yet each is in it’s own waymisshapen, looking like miscasts from some error-proneashtray factory somewhere. And it’s that misshaping which makes every piece individual, which makes the work interesting to the eye. Life lies in deviation from the norm.

Lee Miller’s ’Severed Breast From Radical Surgery’ (c. 1929, above)isn’tall that far from Surrealist painting. You can picture it painted byMagritte.But it’s effectiveness comes from being a photograph. Particularly when rendered with the slick brush strokes of a Dali, Surrealism make idealised symbols out of sex organs. Miller counts with a slice, quite literally, of real life. 

That bloody, squidgy stuff is a real severed breast on a dinner plate, the result of a mastectomy.To quote Olivia Laing again: “Miller has been subject to all the customary visual dismemberments of the surreal gaze; now she shows what slicing into flesh actually looks like.” It might be best summed up byMia Farrow from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’:“This is no dream, this is really happening!”

The Antidote is Ambiguity

As an artistic approach, Surrealism’s more suited to irreconcilable strangeness than pedagogery. It’s misogyny was never a conscious strategy, it justpopped the cork on thethe repressed male mind and this is whatcame pouring out. Just getting rid of the social repression, without challenging the social structures which lead to that repression - normally thatdoesn’t end well. Yet tosimply point this outthis would be to abandon Surrealism rather than reclaim it. (A group like the Guerrilla Girls, however great they might be, aren’t surreal in any way.)

But several works paradoxically use the supposed mystery of femininity as a cloak for theiractions, the supposedabsence of womanhood as a base of operations. Forall that this was an unstated certainty, it was stilla certainty to be taken down. Arguably gender essentialism is the ultimate unstatedcertainty of our society. So it follows thatits antidote is ambiguity. Banishing womento the phantom zone can allow them to act like phantoms.

In Shannon Bools’ Michaelerplatz 3’ (2016, above) the mannequin, the so-often-seen headless Surrealist woman, is depicted as regarding herself in a succession of mirrors. The irony of a headless figure looking in the mirror iscompounded by her body itself being reflective, the view we see already being in a mirror and the apparent photo being a tapestry – a woman’s medium. But crucially itsmore elusivethan assertively feminist about it. Its like a snapshot of what the Surrealist sculpture found herself doing after all those male gazers had gone home for the day.

Similarly, Jo Anne Callas’s print ’Woman With Black Line) (c. 1976, above) deliberately conflates a woman’s body with her dress. It’s a Surrealist device often seen in, for example, Magritte. But here it suggests that femininity is a construction, and so somethingwhich can be discarded. It’s an upping the ante on expressions such as “put my face on”.

Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture ’Breasts and Blade’ (1991, above) at first glance looks like a female torso, the sort of thing Henry Moore might create. But it’s more a collection of symbols of femininity, an array of undulations – an essence not a body.You then discover the sculpture houses a giant sliding blade, like the world’s largest and most surreal pen knife. The elements Giacometti was forever posing in opposition, here they’re combined. 

And, like many Surrealist objects, it hasa basis in reality. With pen knives the holder normally is curved, to sit more easily in the hand. (In general Bourgeois seems a good example of an artist able to build on Surrealism, rather than just imitate some of its surface features.)

Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II’ (1966) is a conventional bust of a woman’s … well, bust, complete with low-cut dress. But turned round (as seen below) it becomes a face with bird wings, under the china human foot where you might expect bird claws. Though the Surrealists had a fascination for alter egos (often taking bird forms, such as Max Ernst’s Loplop), this work suggests the two sides need to be in combination.

Similarly Eva Kotankova’s ’Untitled’ (2013) stringscut-out figuresinside a glasscabinet. Seen from one side they’re human, from the other birds. As the indicia puts it “one tries to resemble and copy the other”, leading to “failure and accidents”.

Less overtly ambiguous (if that’s a thing) is this untitled 1963 drawing by Leonora Carrington (above). Our eyes are trained to frame the image as an encounter, the coloured figures on the boat representing us, the conscious mind journeying to reach the unconscious, represented by the strange flying and aquatic creatures. Hands reach out to touch one another.

Yet they seem so intermingled already. The picture initially looks neatly split into halves, but there’s elements which disrupt this – the fish by the stern of the boat, the winged fish climbing behind it. Only one figure has a human face, and he combines it with a merman tail swishing in the water. While the curved ladder motif, which arises from near the rudder of the boat, frames and thereby finds an equivalence between the figures. Surrealism sought to reconcile the conscious and unconscious mind. Yet here the separation seems only an appearance in the first place.

This show does often feel like it originally planned as a grab-bag of contemporary women artists, then at the last moment it was thought to need more of a through-line - and so the Surrealist angle was hit on. But I’ve tried to focus on the few who do in some way answer the question which has been raised, and who at comes come up with inventive and ingenious responses. Nevertheless, I don’t think, could they be called “answers”, which is part - perhaps the root - of their effectiveness.

The first part of this, the critique of Surrealism as a movement, virtually rattled off the keyboard. The second part proved much more elusive, like catching a bird in flight which may or may not be a bird. But, beyond the obvious point about a male head trying to work it’s way around feminism, perhaps that’s the thing working the way that it should. These are artworks made to defy certainty, to create and then revel in ambiguity. Several works need to be physically seen from different angles or in different settings before they can be fully appreciated. Which may well say it all.

This video’s really just a slideshow of exhibits, but gives you some notion of what was afoot…

Saturday, 15 December 2018


Tate Modern, London
(The first in a mini-series of exhibition catch-up posts which focus on the wacky world of Surrealism)

“I executed only sculptures that were complete in my mind’s eye. I limited myself to constructing them in space without stopping to ask myself what that might mean.”
- Giacometti

”Mystical and Violent”

The Italian Swiss sculptor Giacometti is most associated with Surrealism.Indeed his ’The Couple’ (1927, above) has much in common with its brethren, for example Max Ernst’s ‘Capricorn’ (1947). It’s not just the heraldic and rather regal views of male and female figures. The visual shorthand is similar, the wedge-shape of the male figure versus the curves of the female.Of course there’s also differences. Giacometti pulls a gag where they’re simultaneously heads and bodies. The mouths in particular clearly double asgenitals.

But let’s focus on the similarities, as they reveal something interesting. Surrealism prided itself on its inexplicability, an all-out assault on a society which pretended things made sense. Giacometti himself often claimed to have no interest in analysing his work. Yet there’s not just a system at work, it’s quite a simple one. ’Man And Woman’ (1928/9, above) initially looks more abstract but even without the similar title we’d spot the same reduction of genders to codes. Reduction in fact to the same codes, lines and spikes versus curves and squiggles. It’s not far off being ’The Couple’ with the two figures turned to face one another, and the phallically elongated mouth of the male revealed to be a still longer spike.

And the use of ‘versus’ does seem deserved, these gendered essences are set in quite an aggressive antagonism. The show describes this era as “mystical and violent”, the sculptures both a snapshot of a moment of sexual violence and a description of an eternal state. This violence is at it’s most overt with ‘Woman With Her Throat Cut’ 
(1932, above) - a twisted, splayed form, a reduction from human that (particularly with those bent legs) is perhaps nearer insect. The arm lying across it could suggest suicide. While Disagreeable Object’ (1931)… well, you can probably guess.

Surrealism and Freud makes for a remarkably similar story to Hollywood and Freud. One claimed to venerate him, the other just stole whatever caught its eye. But they both acted in the same way. And just like you wouldn’t gain a complete picture of a man’s life from his burglar’s swag bag, both built up a debased and reductive Freud. And so Surrealism became convinced, more than any other art movement, that we are reducible to our genitalia. And Giacometti, in his Surrealist phase, is a prime exponent.

However, let’s not be as reductive to Giacometti as he was to Freud. He didn’t just go in for gender essentialism, even if he mostly did. More interesting is ‘Caught Hand’ (1932, above). The hand looks trapped inside a mechanism, hopelessly stretching for an out-of-reach handle. Yet like the hand the base and parts of the pulley are made from wood, suggesting a more permanent relationship. The work’s perhaps more Dada than Surreal. Surrealism was usually unquestioning of art’s ability to capture, even when dealing with the intangible. Here the artist’s hand inevitably becomes trapped within his own work. And this questioning focus on art itself is more typical of Giacometti’s later years.

Also he’d often make assemblage sculptures or, in works such as ‘Hour of the Traces’ (1932, below), combine discrete elements held in combination by wire, like nodes in a network. These works can look remarkably akin to his sketchbook doodles of ideas, like mental maps which didn’t need realising so much as scaling up.

”Stretched On a Rack of Anxiety”

Andre Breton gained his nickname the Pope of Surrealism partly from his fondness for excommunications. However, when in 1934 he excluded Giacometti for returning to work from models, he was more exercising his artistic judgement than his power of banishment. In truth Giacometti’s Surrealist era was confined to one brief and well-defined period. After which he simply picks up from where he was before. You could cut the rooms from this show devoted to Surrealism, and the neophyte attendee would not notice the gap.

Though there’s two twists. He’s known for being a Surrealist when it’s the non-Surrealist figurative work everyone recognises. And some of the gender essentialism remains. His male figures tend to be in motion, while his females stand still. Comparefor example ’Man Pointing’ (1947) with ’Women of Venice’ (1956, both below.)

His interest in the human face or figure became all-consuming, disregarding context or adornment. He’d work and rework, continuing even after the plaster had hardened, scraping away and adding, resulting in rough and abraded surfaces.

Jean-Paul Sartre knew Giacometti and in the essay ‘The Search For the Absolute’ portrays him as the Modernist artist par excellence, seeing tradition and art history not as a set of guidelines but an oppressive weight that must be discarded:

“The fact is that for three thousand years sculptors have been carving only corpses…. The rigid people found in museums, these white-eyed figures are deceiving us. The arms pretend to move but are held up by iron rods...”

“One does not have to look long on the antediluvian face of Giacometti to sense this artist’s pride and will to place himself at the beginning of the world. He does not recognize such a thing as Progress in the fine arts… one must begin again from scratch. After three thousand years, the task of Giacometti and of contemporary sculptors, is not to enrich the galleries with new works, but to prove that sculpture itself is possible… Giacometti himself perpetually starts afresh.”

It’s true Surrealism was fixated with recovering primal instincts and often venerated primitive art. But it was too driven to get itself into a brawl with bourgeois culture to fully embrace the universal. It bloodied its knuckles with the blood of its foes, and so became tainted by them. Like much Modernist art it was enmeshed in its own era, to the point it is challenging for us to recapture how it seemed at the time. And, with few exceptions, Surrealism soon withered outside it’s incubating environment. Dali’s post-war career, for example, was little more than celebrity masquerading as notoriety.

Giacometti’s figures look more universal, nothing tied to a time. Yet there’s a paradox at work. Just as he restricted himself not just to the figure but the same few poses, he restricted himself with his models. Many were family members, including his brother Diego. You see their features recur again and again. Yet at the same time as they’re recognisable personal portraits they take on the impassive, far-seeing expressions often seen in primitive and hieratic art.

Also, compare them to Henry Moore, another post-war sculptor who dealt in universality. Moore’s figures look timeless and monumental, against them Giacometti’s are frail and inchoate. Yet the answer here is to point out there’s more than one kind of universality, and that artworks are always specific to their time.

Sartre considers they’re post-Holocaust images, then rebounds from the notion. While Alistair Sooke writes in the Telegraph of “Skeletal figures seemingly stretched on a rack of anxiety… once considered disturbing avatars of the nuclear age.”

And why do such a thing? There are after all photographs of Holocaust and Hiroshima victims, hard evidence of human depravity. They’re not images which need any embellishment to tell us what they’re saying, and besides to aestheticise them does not exactly smack of good taste.

But if the theory’s way too literal-minded, it’s not entirely inaccurate. The works are existential, informed by the horrors of war or the spectre of nuclear Armageddon if not intending to directly reflect either. The show suggests “a generation traumatised by the war could recognise itself.” The Tate’s more recent exhibition of post-war figurative art, ’All Too Human’ (coming up, honest) includes a Giacometti as a herald of their generation. 

If Dadaism was art’s response to the First World War, this renewed existentialism came from the Second. And the human body often became its canvas. As the dark folk band Cinder Well sang “My body holds the gas chambers/ The train, the killing mound”. History is effectively inscribed upon us, in the fragility of our bodies.

As said over the Tate’s Francis Bacon show, now nearly a decade ago: “Its ambiguous whether we are looking at a frame or a cage... Crucially, these figures are not so much at war with themselves as with their very existence. If you were to distill Bacon down to a simple phrase it would be ‘flesh is a trap’.”

And Giacometti uses frames-within-frames in a similar way. Except his elongated figures areoftennot just within but becomepart of the cage themselves, perhaps emphasising the prison of being still further.See for example the tellingly titled ’The Cage’ (1950, below).

But the comparisons and contrasts are most obvious in Giacometti’s paintings. (Which, to be honest, I’d not seen before this show.) His figures don’t rage or morph like Bacon’s, they’re as stoically impassiveas the sculptures. And if Bacon’s Fifties worksweren’t as lurid as later, Giacometti is more monochrome still. They often look asthough they’vebeenpainted in ash, and areas roughly sketched as his figures are encrusted. Yet almost all have the frame-within-a-frame device, for example ’Diego Seated’ (1946, below) with it’s remarkable accumulation of down strokes. (Bacon isn’t mentioned once in the show. Yet the exit-via-gift-shop has books on him.)

The Figure As a Foreign Language

But there’s an extra dimension to Giacometti. And in the quote above Sartre is still setting us up for his real point...

”So we must start again from scratch. After three thousand years the task of Giacometti and contemporary sculptors is not to add new works to the galleries but to prove that sculpture is possible. To prove it by sculpting the way Diogenes, by walking, proved there was movement...”

“Giacometti himself is forever beginning anew… While the problem remains unsolved, there are no statues at all, but just rough hewings that interest Giacometti only insofar as they bring him closer to his goal. He smashes everything and begins again.”

The particular problem with Classical sculpture is that it feigns to portray the figure as it is, but actually offers an idealisation as a stand-in. To get Giacometti’s commitment to beginnings you need to recognise how we associate three standard notions. First there’s the requirement from the artist for accuracy. The angle by which the shoulder meets the neck must be captured precisely, the way a map maker must capture precisely the angle by which two roads join. Sculpture in particular medium we associate with such precision. We indulge the trope of the sculpture made so perfectly it actually came to life.

Then on top of that comes the notion the artist also captures something of the self of their subject. Through anatomical accuracy they come to convey a sense of a person – a likeness without and within. Third, there’s the notion that all portraits are ultimately self-portraits, that what the artist is telling us about is him or her self.

Each of these steps is assumed, yet tenuous. And adding them together just multiplies the risk of failure. So it’s best just to assume, to not look down when crossing those bridges. Maurice Merlau-Ponty wrote a famous essay on Cezanne’s sense of doubt. Similarly, what sparks Giacometti’s sculpture is not just an open acceptance of the risk of failure but a negotiation with, perhaps even an expression of, that failure.

He claimed he first hired a model in 1935 to reacquaint himself with the figure, a process he thought might take a week or two. Butthe longer he looked at his models the less he felt he knew them, andstarted to feel that a thousand years might not be long enough to capture a single face.Of course artists have been depicting the human facefor thousands of years already. But does it actually work? Could we have just been kidding ourselves?

But cruicially what must be got back to is not the human figure but the look. By contrast to Classicism Giacometti’s elongated figures, with their corrugated surfaces look strangely unfinished. They inhabit an uncanny valley between classical and Modernist sculpture. (Including his own Modernist sculpture.) But a better term for them would be semi-discerned. The ‘problem’ lies all in the eye of the beholder. To go back to Sartre, “these figures are already seen as the foreign language we try to learn is already spoken.”

’Man Pointing’ is not just near human size, as the title suggests it gesturesout at you. Conversely, but in a kind of parallel, he made small sculptures whose size reflected the model’s actual distance from him as he worked.And this seems key. We see Giacometti’s figuresas we would spy another person, perhapsat a distance, perhaps in poorlight, before they come close enough to resolve. Except with Giacometti’s sculpture this distance is not physical, there’s no coming closer. The other person is all there, in every detail. The limitation is in our perception, our ability to know them. The other is always afar.

There’s something monastic about Giacometti’s dedication to this path. Uninterested in his own fame he continued working on the same models in the same ramshackle studio, adhering to a strict working routine. He owned no suits not splattered with plaster. He’s an artist where individual works are only meaningful as examples of his general approach. And, perhaps, inevitably, there’s both an upside and downside to his monomanical nature. There’s great works on show here, but points where things look so identical they could have come from a production line. There’s a dose with Giacometti, where you need just enough to get the point. After which you don’t overdone so much as become inured. After which more becomes less.