L’Amour Fou: Surrealism and Design

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Cadeau Audace by Man Ray (1921).

L’amour fou by Robert Hughes
Fur teacups, wheelbarrow chairs, lip-shaped sofas … the fashion, furniture and jewellery created by the Surrealists were useless, unique, decadent and, above all, very sexy.

The Guardian, Saturday March 24th, 2007

THE VICTORIA AND Albert’s big show for this year, Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design, is—well, maybe we don’t much like the word “definitive”. But it’s certainly the first of its kind.

Everyone knows something about surrealism, the most popular art movement of the 20th century. The word has spread so far that people now say “surreal” when all they mean is “odd”, “totally weird” or “unexpected”. No doubt this would give heartburn to André Breton, the pope of the movement nearly a century ago, who took the title from his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had called his play The Breasts of Tiresias, “a surrealist drama”. But too late now. The term is many years out of its box and, through imprecision, has achieved something akin to eternal life. Surrealist painting and film, that is. In fact, some surrealist images have imprinted themselves so deeply and brightly on our ideas of visual imagery that we can’t imagine modern art (or, in fact, the idea of modernity itself) without them.

Think Salvador Dalí and his soft watches in The Persistence of Memory. Think Dalí again, in cahoots with Luis Buñuel, and the cut-throat razor slicing through the girl’s eye, as a sliver of cloud crosses the moon (actually, the eye belongs to a dead cow, but you never think this when you see their now venerable but forever fresh movie An Andalusian Dog, 1929). Think of photographer Man Ray’s fabulous Cadeau Audace (‘Risky Present’, 1921), the flatiron to whose sole a row of tacks was soldered, guaranteeing the destruction of any dress it would be used on. Think of Rene Magritte’s The Rape, that hauntingly concise pubic face, with nipples for eyes and the hairy triangle where the mouth should be. Think of the shock, the horniness, the rebellion, the unwavering focus on creative freedom, the obsessive efforts to discover the new in the old by disclosure of the hidden…

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Surrealist Revolution
Surrealist Women
Las Pozas and Edward James
Surrealist cartomancy

The Surrealist Revolution

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The riddle of the rocks by Jonathan Jones
It was the art movement that shocked the world. It was sexy, weird and dangerous—and it’s still hugely influential today. Jonathan Jones travels to the coast of Spain to explore the landscape that inspired Salvador Dalí, the greatest surrealist of them all.

The Guardian, Monday March 5, 2007

I AM SCRAMBLING over the rocks that dominate the coastline of Cadaqués in north-east Spain. They look like crumbling chunks of bread floating on a soup of seawater. Surreal is a word we throw about easily today, almost a century after it was coined by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Yet if there is anywhere on earth you can still hope to put a precise and historical meaning on the “surreal” and “surrealism”, it is among these rocks. To scramble over them is to enter a world of distorted scale inhabited by tiny monsters. Armoured invertebrates crawl about on barely submerged formations. I reach into the water for a shell and the orange pincers of a hermit crab flick my fingers away.

The entire history of surrealism—from the collages of Max Ernst to Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone—can be read in these igneous formations, just as surely as they unfold the geological history of Catalonia.

I sit down on a jagged ridge. What if I fell? Would they find a skeleton looking just like the bones of the four dead bishops in L’Age d’Or, the surrealist film Luis Buñuel shot here in 1930?

Buñuel had been shown these rocks by his college friend Dalí years earlier. It was here they had scripted their infamous film Un Chien Andalou. Dalí came from Figueras, on the Ampurdán plain beyond the mountains that enclose Cadaqués, and spent his childhood summers here, exploring the rock pools and being cruel to the sea creatures. In most people’s eyes, this is a beautiful Mediterranean setting. It certainly looked lovely to Dalí’s close friend, the poet Federico García Lorca, when Dalí brought him here in the 1920s: in his Ode to Salvador Dalí, Lorca lyrically praises the moon reflected in the calm, wide bay…

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The persistence of DNA
Salvador Dalí’s apocalyptic happening
The music of Igor Wakhévitch
Dalí Atomicus
Las Pozas and Edward James
Impressions de la Haute Mongolie

The persistence of DNA

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The Persistence of Memory (1931).

Forensic scientist uses DNA to explore Dalí’s bizarre genius
Samples taken from nasal feeding tubes could also help to authenticate works

James Randerson in San Antonio
The Guardian, Saturday, February 24, 2007

IT IS LIKE something from a surrealist still life—a hat, glasses, moustache and toilet seat. This is the collection of belongings that forensic scientist Michael Rieders was offered when he put the word out that he was trying to track down Salvador Dalí’s DNA.

“I have been fascinated by Dalí and his artwork since I was around 11 years old,” he said. “I found it hard to believe that a person could come up with such exotic, bizarre art.”

By tracking down Dalí’s DNA he felt he could get closer to the surrealist artist. But more than that, he hoped that if he could characterise Dalí’s DNA fingerprint, he could use it to help authenticate the handful of paintings and artworks that are not signed but are claimed by some to have been painted by the Spanish master.

Continue reading “The persistence of DNA”

Leonora Carrington

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The Guardian profiles the wonderful Leonora Carrington, one of the last of the original Surrealists. There’s little excuse for the Tate’s neglect as recounted below, Marina Warner has championed her work for years and she was the subject of a TV documentary in the BBC’s Omnibus strand in the 1990s. Maybe the Tate curators should watch more television.

Leonora and me

Leonora Carrington ran off with Max Ernst, hung out with Picasso, fled the Nazis and escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Joanna Moorhead travels to Mexico to track down her long-lost cousin, one of Britain’s finest—and neglected—surrealists.

Joanna Moorhead
Tuesday January 2, 2007
The Guardian

A few months ago, I found myself next to a Mexican woman at a dinner party. I told her that my father’s cousin, whom I’d never met and knew little about, was an artist in Mexico City. “I don’t expect you’ve heard of her, though,” I said. “Her name is Leonora Carrington.”
The woman was taken aback. “Heard of her? My goodness, everyone in Mexico has heard of her. Leonora Carrington! She’s hugely famous. How can she be your cousin, and yet you know nothing about her?”

How indeed? At home, I looked her up, and found myself plunged into a world of mysterious and magical paintings. Dark canvases dominated by a large, sinister-looking house; strange and slightly menacing women, mostly tall and wearing big cloaks; ethereal figures, often captured in the process of changing from one form to another; faces within bodies; long, spindly fingers; horses, dogs and birds.

I remembered from childhood hearing stories about a cousin who had disappeared “to be an artist’s model”. But the truth was infinitely richer and more thrilling. Leonora Carrington, born into a bourgeois family, eloped at the age of 20 to live with the surrealist artist, Max Ernst (married, and some 20 years her senior). The couple fled across war-torn Europe in the late 1930s, and she later settled in Mexico, where she continued to paint, write and sculpt.

Most excitingly, though, Leonora was still alive – aged nearly 90 and living in a suburb of Mexico City with her husband, a Hungarian photographer. I contacted my Carrington cousins and discovered that one of them had visited her a couple of years ago: she was, he reported, on amazing form, and still working. I wrote to ask whether she’d be prepared to meet. Word came back that she would, and a few weeks later I flew to Mexico City.

Leonora Carrington looks eerily like my father – the same piercing eyes, the same trace of an upper-class English accent. We met at her house, and she led me through her dark dining room, crammed with her sculptures, to the kitchen where we were to spend most of the next three days, chatting endlessly over cups of Lipton’s tea (“I hardly touch alcohol,” she told me. “Enough people in our family have died of drink. Anyway I smoke, and it’s too much to drink and smoke.”)

Leonora was born in 1917, the only daughter (she had three brothers) of textile magnate Harold Carrington and his Irish wife, Maurie Moorhead, my grandfather’s older sister. Harold and Maurie were very different characters: where he was entrepreneurial, Protestant and a workaholic, Maurie was easy-going, Catholic and open-minded. The family home was an imposing mansion in Lancashire, Crookhey Hall – the sinister house that features in many of her paintings.

Leonora was expelled from three or four schools, but the one thing she did learn was a love of art. Her father was not keen on her going to art college, but her mother intervened and she was allowed to go and study in Florence. There, she was exposed to the Italian masters, whose love of gold, vermilion and earth colours were to inspire her later work.

She returned to England brimming with enthusiasm for the artist’s life, but her father had other ideas. As far as he was concerned, she had sown her wild oats and now needed to come back to earth. This meant launching her as a debutante: a ball was held in her honour at the Ritz, and she was presented to George V. A few years later, in a surreal short story The Debutante, she poured out her loathing of “the season”, with a witty description of sending a hyena along to take her place at her coming-out ball.

In 1936, the first surrealist exhibition opened in London – for Leonora, something of an epiphany. “I fell in love with Max [Ernst]’s paintings before I fell in love with Max,” she says. She met Ernst at a dinner party. “Our family weren’t cultured or intellectual – we were the good old bourgeoisie, after all,” she says. “From Max I had my education: I learned about art and literature. He taught me everything.”

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The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Las Pozas and Edward James
Surrealist cartomancy

Las Pozas and Edward James

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Edward James by René Magritte, La Reproduction Interdite (1937).

Art collector Edward James (1907–1984) was a characteristically English eccentric, a kind of 20th century equivalent of William Beckford or Horace Walpole, who was captivated by Surrealism in the 1930s and became a lifelong devotee of the movement. Much of his inherited wealth was spent supporting artists such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Lenora Carrington and his homes at Monkton House and Walpole Street in London were transformed into showcases of Surrealist decor; Dalí’s famous sofa modelled on Mae West’s lips was designed with assistance from James.

Continue reading “Las Pozas and Edward James”