The Psychic Roots of the Surreal (Time article- 1974)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009 3:32:52 AM

The Psychic Roots of the Surreal
Time by ROBERT HUGHES Monday, Mar. 04, 1974

The surrealists, the most determinedly shocking of the early modern artists, wanted to abolish tradition. They prided themselves on being revolution aries with no past, no precedents beyond the immortal, irrational desires of the human psyche. But one of the rules-of-thumb of art experience is that very little is wholly new. Witness, for example, the current exhibition at the New York Cultural Center entitled "Painters of the Mind's Eye: Belgian Symbolists and Surrealists." It offers, as well as 51 major works by Paul Delvaux and the late Rene Magritte, a tour of such virtually forgotten talents as Fernand Khnopff, William Degouve de Nuncques, Jean Delville and Xavier Mellery. Delvaux and Magritte are of course 20th century surrealists. The less-known artists were involved in the poetic and artistic movement known as symbolism, which flourished in France and flickered briefly in Belgium at the end of the 19th century. It had enough in common with surrealism, which it predated by 30 years, to be regarded as its precursor. For though the surrealists took Freud for their patron saint, whereas the symbolists resorted to the cabala and the mystical gobbledygook of the Rosicrucians, both wanted to make painting abandon what Magritte called "that dreary part people would have the real world play." Both were fascinated by dream and ambiguity, the duality of sex and death, perversity and contradiction and mystery. This show makes one realize that surrealism was no revolution but a final knotting-up of the 19th century romantic tradition, whose decadent or fin-de-siècle form was symbolism.

Fictive Avatars. The phrase fin-de-siècle has long stood for a filleted sort of consciousness: the epicine, misty, dandified transcendentalism and café demonolatry whose sturdier ancestors were men like Baudelaire and Poe. There is a certain truth to this, as evidenced by a work like Jean Delville's Orpheus. A member of the symbolist circle, Delville (1867-1953) was a devoted admirer of Joséphin Péladan, leader of the Rosicrucians in France. Yet it probably does not help us much now to know that the sickly greenish-blue radiance in which Orpheus swims was intended to represent the astral light. This illustration of the androgyne as supreme human type may not be the most sentimental piece of faggotry painted in the '90s, but it is a likely contender for the honor: a buttery and phosphorescent boy's head, all ringlets and swooning lips, served up on its jeweled lyre like a parody of John the Baptist's head on a plate. Nevertheless, the fact that the head is seen turning into, or materializing out of the lyre seems to predict the metamorphoses that Magritte would impose on the homelier physical world half a century later.
The romantic fascination with the image of woman as sphinx, Medusa, castrator or remote, implacable goddess —the belle dame sans merci in her numerous fictive avatars—also figures in symbolist painting, especially in the world of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), another member of Péladan's circle. Art or The Caresses conjoins a mysteriously smiling sphinx (looking not unlike a satisfied Rossetti redhead in a leopard coat that has grown onto her skin) with a puzzled-looking boy who has presumably come to answer her riddle. It is painted with a high, pale elegance that altogether removes it from the common run of romantic-symbolist cliche.

The main debt Belgian surrealism owed to the 19th century was, however, one of mood. Whether the artist was Degouve de Nuncques painting a strange, silent forest and a Magritte-like nocturnal house, or Khnopff giving a foretaste of the deserted townscapes of surrealism with his drawing of a city abandoned to the sea, or Leon Spilliaert producing a haunted self-portrait, the images constantly predict the sense of solitude and disquiet in which surrealism reveled.

There was also generally in the surrealists a theatrical state of mind, which in the case of Paul Delvaux became virtually a stock in trade. Originally an expressionist, Delvaux was a latecomer to surrealism, converted by an exhibition of works by Chirico, Magritte and Dali that he saw in Brussels in 1934 when he was 37. And though he is one of the more durable surrealist artists, his imagery—as the selection of his work here indicates—constantly hovers on the edge of cliche. The Delvaux "look" is unmistakable: an empty street of neoclassical façades, a 19th century railway station or a grove of columns, all lit by gas lamps or the moon. The inhabitants are nudes (generally blonde Walloon girls with an air of mild bovine derangement) who wander about, sleep, vaguely study themselves in hand mirrors, and are met by bourgeois gentlemen in dark suits and bowlers. Sometimes, as in The Encounter, the businessman has Delvaux's own face. Though Delvaux has turned out countless variations of somnambulists in empty piazzas, only a few of his works —like the enormous Spitzner Museum, 1943—echo in the mind for long.

Not so with René Magritte. The 34 Magrittes on display here (some of which, like The Human Condition, 1935, with its painted landscape on an easel in front of a window and continuous with the "real" painted landscape seen beyond, have virtually become surrealist icons) remain unpredictable despite their familiarity. That is because Magritte was such a virtuoso of the insoluble, the contradictory, the locked. Unlike Delvaux (or for that matter Dali, Masson or Ernst), Magritte had absolutely no interest in what seemed romantic, chancy, theatrically mysterious or exotic. He called his paintings "material tokens of the freedom of thought," and materiality is of their essence.

Equal Reality. Thus every detail of the moldings, mullions and floorboards in The Invisible World, 1954, is rendered with scrupulous, not to say stolid exactitude: it is a real room looking on a real sea in (one imagines) some provincial resort on the Belgian coast. But what is that boulder doing there with every pore and crack of its surface emulated in Magritte's slow, gray pigment to remind us of its equal reality? It is intolerable: no metaphor provides an exit, no rational explanation will do, while the very technique of Magritte's drawing and painting keeps denying the presence of fantasy.

A dealer visiting Magritte at his unremarkable suburban house in Brussels was met by the surrealist in his normal business-suit attire. At tea in the parlor, the visitor dropped something, bent down to pick it up, and experienced an agonizing kick in the backside. When he spun round, he saw Magritte imperturbably stirring his cup as though nothing whatever had happened. As in life, so in art.
 

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