When I think of Surrealism, I think of an art movement confined to the period between the Two World Wars, l’entre-deux-guerres, as the French retrospectively and neatly call it. It is in such a mad period that this liberty of expression, this explosion of perspective, colour and form, this unbridled licence of art, can flourish, because indeed the societies that bred the Surrealists were undergoing such oscillations themselves.
When I visited the exhibition on Victor Brauner at the Musée d’Art Moderne, I was intrigued to learn that in 1940, the Surrealist troupe left Paris for the South of France from where they would make for the USA. You can imagine the scene at Nice airport (or more probably the port of Marseilles) of a group of flamboyant, tortured oddballs arriving en masse with their runny clocks and folded bits of paper to flee France. Except Victor Brauner, the Jewish Romanian artist who had met André Breton in 1933 and who would be expelled from the movement in 1948. He remained in hiding for the war years. He would be waiting for the others in Paris when they eventually returned.
The exhibition is titled ‘Je suis l’inspiration, je suis le rêve’ and the Gallery has translated this as ‘I am the inspiration, I am the dream’. But, if you will indulge me, it can also be translated as ‘I follow inspiration, I follow the dream’. The exhibition is keen to point out a singular fact about the artist’s life: in 1938, he lost an eye in a fight with a fellow artist. In 1931, however, he had painted a self-portrait where his right eye is missing. This was to confirm for the Surrealists the almost supernatural power of art to dictate life. Therefore, in losing an eye, Victor Brauner ‘followed’ the inspiration from several years before, by ‘being’ the dream.
His early work is typically early 1920s; his drawings show great skill and also a propensity for the sexually imaginative. It is his arrival in Paris in 1925 that leads to the more concentrated artistic form. In English, the titles for the two periods preceding the war are “The Shock of Surrealism” (1925-1932) and”The Surrealist Adventure” (1933-1939). Across this period, he paints three styles of Surrealism: the first is the universal mysterious, the vast expanses peppered with cabalistic obscurity, as seen in ‘Sur les lieux’ or ‘Paysage méditerranéen’. The second is the pink and green eroticism, seen in a flurry of dangling legs and watching, singular eyes, like in ‘Trio’ or ‘Adrianopole’. The final is the political and the satirical which laughs at dictators, who will always be the mainstay of Surrealist expression: Brauner’s ‘L’Etrange Cas de M K’ is obscene and mocking; his ‘Morphologie de l’homme’, 64 interpretations of a uniformed leader, is reminiscent of Jarry’s Ubu.
As was mentioned, Brauner had to go into hiding during the Second World War and it is here that his creativity, or his inventiveness, is put to the test. For example, in the work ‘L’Image du réel incréé,’ he uses wax, flint, string, ink, paper, wood and glass. In fact, most of his work during this period is made out of materials that he would have had to hand, far removed geographically and temporally from Sennelier, Dubois, Rougier et Plé. Wax, in particular, is something that will stay with him after the war. But his art at the time, from what I could understand, also served a functional, if not superstitious, purpose: in his hiding, such pieces as ‘Minotaure’ or ‘Homme idéal’ were supposed to protect him and his abode during his hiding. The fact that he survived may be another proof that he truly followed inspiration. Or the other way around.
It was also during the war that the ‘Congloméros’ was conceived. A porte-manteau of the words ‘conglomérat’ and ‘éros’, it is a statue of three conjoined human (or other) forms. Imagine the body of a woman. Now imagine two male bodies beside her. Now connect them to the head of the woman somehow. This is one of the statues that is presented in the exhibition. ‘La Palladiste’, a kind of Masonic servant of Lucifer, is a variation on this last model, but in painted form. I don’t know what to make of this kind of work, all the more because my girlfriend said that it shows that male artists don’t understand women’s bodies, and so instead ‘raise’ them to the mythical symbolism of life-giving, fertility-bringing, peace-harbouring goddesses, which is problematic.
This mysticism, and search for ancient signs followed him after the war, when in 1945 he moved into Douanier Rousseau’s old atelier. Of course, on the canvas, mysticism was ‘replaced’ by psychoanalysis which led to interpretations of the relationship with his mother and other internal wanderings, as seen in ‘Rencontre avec moi-même avec quatre chats du monde’ in 1948 and ‘Onomatomanie’ a year later.
Something else that developed after the war was his use of wax in his paintings, and something that greatly aided this was the use of paint in his waxworks, as seen in ‘Ceci fut l’histoire d’un poète de Sargimegetusa’. It continued to be a major technique also and appeared in, among others and beyond, ‘Egotropisme’ in 1954.
But then, what happened in the 1960s? The world had become too neat and orderly, and commercial, for Surrealism to flourish. It was no longer the time to go searching for inspiration or the dream in the inner recesses of one’s mind; the world was far too external and vain, and had seen enough, was bored, and Warhol and the other Popists were to take over. Brauner’s later work, while highly skilled and technically perfect, seemed dull and unoriginal.
This said, if he was still ‘the inspiration and the dream’, maybe he was a reflection of that time. In today’s world, are we to be the dream, or merely follow it?