Surrealism & Magic: Enchanted Modernity

The inspiration for this illuminating new exhibition on Surrealism at the Guggenheim in Venice was Kurt Seligmann. A Swiss artist and writer who joined the Surrealist group in Paris in the late 1920s, he was also an expert in magic and the occult.  Having emigrated to New York together with Breton, in 1948 he published ‘The Mirror of Magic’, a history of the occult in the Western world which would prove influential to many Surrealists. The focus on magic, alchemy and the occult serves to spotlight certain artists who have otherwise been overlooked – not least some incredibly talented women.

Surrealism officially began in 1924 with the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto by Andre Breton; yet the opening room of this exhibition immediately gives the lie to this idea that surrealism burst into life on an instant. One of Breton’s most cherished paintings, Giorgio de Chirico’s unusually Freudian ‘The Child’s Brain’ (1914, above left) is exhibited next to work by Max Ernst who founded the Cologne Dada group in 1919. Dada experimented with collage, a technique that thrives on the bizarre juxtapositions which underlie Surrealism – demonstrating that the essential elements of surrealist art had been percolating for over a decade.

The show really kicks off with the vibrant pairing of Leonora Carrington’s ‘Portrait of Max Ernst’ (1939, right) and Ernst’s ‘The Attirement of the Bride’ (1940, below) – exhibited together for the first time in 80 years. Brought out as a debutante in 1935, Carrington met Max Ernst in London in 1937 and though their relationship lasted only three years, and ended in dramatic circumstances with the Nazi occupation of France, it was intensely creative and productive for both artists. Ernst had already developed his alter ego – Loplop, Superior of the Birds – while Carrington had since girlhood identified with horses; here those characteristics are given magical significance.

Leonora’s portrait depicts Ernst walking through an icy landscape wearing a dark red fur/feathered coat which terminates in a fish tail, one stripy-stockinged leg protruding. Behind him is a white horse, Leonora’s alter-ego, frozen and unmoving, while another horse can is trapped within the glass lantern Ernst carries.  Initially one might suppose that Leonora felt (subconsciously) trapped in her relationship; but it has been suggested that she in fact reverses the traditional roles of artist and muse in this work, with the bird-fish hybrid Ernst ‘a mystical figure of transformation and rescue’ (Fiona Bradley).  This reading rests on a knowledge of their shared interest in alchemy, and the egg shape of the lantern; in his 1944 study ‘Psychology and Alchemy’ Jung writes: 

‘In alchemy the egg stands for the chaos apprehended by the artifex, the prima materia containing the captive world-soul. Out of the egg — symbolized by the round cooking vessel — will rise the eagle or phoenix, the liberated soul…’

We might therefore see the horse in the lantern as a Leonora liberated by the figure of Max Ernst.  Leonora rarely gave a clear interpretation of her paintings, leaving their meaning deliberately vague.  But her interest in alchemy, which became increasingly mixed up symbolically with her childhood Catholicism and the Celtic mythology of her Irish heritage, is vital to understanding the imagery she used in her work.

In ‘The Attirement of the Bride’ – in some senses a companion piece – a naked body (understood to be Leonora, Ernst’s ‘bride of the wind’) appears from an enormous red cloak, the head of which has the appearance of an owl, accompanied by a green bird-like figure, both perhaps the artist’s alter ego.  The ‘picture-within-a-picture’ behind the main figures uses the technique of decalcomania in which diluted paint is pressed between surfaces (such as canvas and glass) to create a particular effect; this was one of many techniques Ernst used which allowed images to appear by chance, or as Breton put it, by ‘pure psychic automatism’.

There is an example of grattage – scraping away layers of paint on canvas pressed against a textured surface – in the following gallery. ‘Europe After The Rain II’ (1940-42), was a response to the bewildering and traumatic events of these years which saw Ernst arrested and imprisoned twice before managing to flee to America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim.  The paint effects describe a desecrated landscape, primordial and threatening, with two figures cast adrift within it.  The scouring of the paint surface seems an appropriate method to embody the violent transformation of the world and, by association, the artist himself.  The female figure suggests that Leonora was often in his mind; if the couple had not been split apart by war, would it have lasted? They met again in Lisbon on the eve of their escape to America, and again in New York, but did not reunite.  

There was always an element of Surrealism which despite encouraging women artists tended to relegate them to the role of ‘femme-enfant’ or muse, both erotic and childlike. One of the most exciting parts of this exhibition is devoted to the women artists who eschewed this role – indeed actively turned this power balance on its head.

Leonor Fini, born in Argentina and brought up in Trieste, kept her distance from the Surrealists in Paris as she was unwilling to submit to Breton’s authority.  She had been a lover of Ernst and remained a friend, staying at their French farmhouse, Les Alliberts, prior to the war and becoming close to Leonora too.  Whitney Chadwick, in her study of the ‘two Leonors’, writes that her painting 

‘suggests ritualised and erotic dream-worlds in which women wield power over ancient ceremonies and mysterious cults of the feminine … The work resonates with intimations of domesticity, femininity and community’

‘The Shepherdess of the Sphinxes’ (1941) shows an almost comic-book superwoman figure with bouffant hair and a shepherd’s crook, keeping a herd of potentially savage woman-beasts at bay.  Sphinxes have an ambiguous symbolism, both matriarchal and destructive; by associating herself with the sphinx (for there is an acknowledged element of self-portraiture) Fini, Chadwick asserts, ‘exercises all the lost female powers to return them to the contemporary woman’. This feminist principle would become increasingly important in Leonora’s work too.

Dorothea Tanning met Max Ernst in New York in 1942, where many artistic refugees from Nazi-occupied France had settled, and they remained together until his death in 1976 (though he was married to Peggy Guggenheim from 1942 to 1946). She would say in retrospect: 

I never felt the need to cultivate my unconscious.  Then or now.  It is there.  Alchemically fused with my conscious self, assuring my indivuation.  They mesh and work together to make of me whatever it is that I am.’ 

Here she is represented by ‘The Magic Flower Game’ (1941, left), a powerful yet disturbing image of a waif-like girl – in direct contrast to Fini’s adjacent erotic shepherdess – which Ernst might well have seen in her studio when he went to look for paintings to exhibit at Peggy’s New York gallery. The girl, part-clothed in flowers, holds a ball of wool that she seems to be spinning from a sunflower at her feet; is she being consumed by nature or is she in fact weaving her own destiny? Tanning spoke of the sunflower as ‘a symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with’, a more menacing interpretation that is sustained by the hovering presence of the shadow and the high encircling walls.

Meanwhile, Leonora Carrington emigrated from New York to Mexico where she met many emigre artists and writers, including Remedios Varo, Kati Horna and ‘Chiki’ Weisz, a photojournalist from Hungary whom she married (right, on their wedding day).  Domesticity and motherhood, rather than proving an obstacle to creativity, seemed to liberate the potential of the three friends as they used their domestic lives as raw material.  Food, in particular, takes a central role; Remedios and Leonora loved cooking surrealist inspired meals and buying unusual ingredients from the Mexican markets where herbs for witchcraft were sold.  Janet Kaplan notes that ‘using cooking as a metaphor for hermetic pursuits they established an association between women’s traditional roles and magical acts of transformation’. The association can be extended from cooking and magic to art production, a relationship that Whitney Chadwick see as central to Leonora’s work:

‘The prominent place given to the cauldron in Celtic myth and grail legend had long fascinated Carrington as had alchemical descriptions of the gentle cooking of substances placed in egg-shaped vessels.  She has related alchemical processes to those of both painting and cooking, carefully selecting a metaphor that unites the traditional woman’s occupation as nourisher of the species with that of the magical transformation of form and colour that takes place in the artist’s creative process, nourishing the spirit.’

This metaphor is perfectly captured in ‘Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen’ (1975). Thew title acknowledges the influence of Leonora’s Irish heritage; yet the culinary vessels and foodstuffs are clearly Mexican, mixing in her adopted nationality.  A goose appears as if conjured by the three hooded figures within a magic circle, a ‘manifestation of the Celtic mother-goddess’ but also like the Mother Goose of fairy tales, while behind it a goat-like creature with a  broom symbolises the hearth and witchcraft. It is the culmination of decades of exploration of this combination of the domestic and the magical, as Susan Aberth writes, 

In her life-long battle against traditional female roles she adroitly transformed the trappings of domesticity, and thus the bondage they symbolised to her, into a multifaceted portrayal of feminine occultism. At the centre of this heretical attack was the symbol of the table – as altar, as alchemical lab, as the locus of the witch’s Sabbath, and as a doorway into the alternate worlds lying dangerously in wait beneath patriarchy’.

It is interesting to note that Leonora was using egg tempera during this period, which gave her work a very physical link to the Renaissance painters she admired (also seen in the multi-narrative composition ‘The Pleasures of Dagobert’) as well as to an alchemical sense of transforming foodstuff into a magical creation on the canvas. 

Irish Celtic mythology infuses Leonora’s ‘The Chair (Daghda Tuatha de Danaan)’ (1955); the subtitle references the father-god (Daghda), descended from the universal mother goddess (Tuatha de Danaan) and skilled in Druid magic. The sun was particularly venerated as a bringer of life and fertility and here sits atop a throne-like chair covered in symbolic imagery; on an adjacent table a white egg has been conjured upon which grows a white rose, contrasting with the blood red walls of the room. The picture is full of alchemical references: the opposing white and red of male and female together with the egg, the cooking vessel, out of which will rise the liberated soul.  Leonora described Robert Graves’s ‘The White Goddess’ (1948), a study of the archaic ‘goddess’ religions as ‘the greatest revelation of my life’ – perhaps here the white egg might represent the future of lost matriarchal cultures.

Remedios Varo was born in Catalonia to a hydraulic engineer whose technical drawings she would copy out, and a linear precision continued to define her work.  Like Leonora, her art is imbued with feminine strength of will – one that took her from Republican Catalonia to Surrealist Paris, arrest and subsequent flight to Mexico with her partner, the poet Benjamin Peret, when France was occupied by the Nazis. Varo’s figures, like Leonora’s, are often androgynous, often in the process of transformation, challenging gender and the expectations that adhere to it. Yet Varo’s figures are more often isolated – for instance the solitary alchemist feeding the moon in ‘Celestial Pablum’ (1958, above). The woman is depicted at the centre of the universe, nourishing it, keeping it going – but this supernatural undertaking is shown as a mechanical task: an elaborate grinder contraption is clamped to the table, processing the stars which are spoon-fed to the moon in a bird-cage as if to a baby.

I’ve so far failed to mention most of the men in this exhibition.  At the start of the exhibition are some designs for tarot cards, produced in Marseilles in 1940, where a group of Surrealist artists including Breton, Ernst, Lam, Oscar Dominguez, Victor Brauner, Andre Masson and others were waiting to escape Nazi-occupied France.  This undertaking not only exemplifies the widespread interest in the occult but also the group spirit of the Surrealist movement. 

Victor Brauner’s ‘The Surrealist’ (1947) uses tarot imagery in a self-portrait modelled on the image of the ‘Juggler’ with large hat and medieval costume, standing before a table laid with goblet, coins and knife; the symbolism is appropriate, for the Juggler controls his own future just as the Surrealist dictates his own creativity.

There are also some interesting paintings by men that reject the ‘femme-enfant’ objectification of the female body. Magritte’s ‘Black Magic’ (1945) is modelled by the artist’s wife, Georgette Berger, whose head and upper torso are blue as the sky and sea blending into the horizon beyond, while her lower half remains earthly and flesh-coloured, tethered to the solidity of the rock by her right hand. She has the beauty and proportion of a classical sculpture – an object for the spectator’s gaze – yet with her head literally ‘in the clouds’ Magritte seems to comment on the unknowability of a woman’s thoughts; of the terrestrial part he wrote that ‘the hard existence of the stone, well-defined…and the mental and physical system of a human being are not unconnected.’

For me, the women – both painted and depicted – really stole the show.

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