During lockdown, I started taking photos of ordinary objects around the flat and using multiples of them – sometimes three, sometimes more – to create artworks. Some photos were of utensils like spoons or forks, others were close ups of glass vases or even soap bottles, chosen for their colour. From the latter I created kind of abstract triptych works. #photography #art
Category Archives: Surrealism
Perhaps because of events in my personal life, I find myself drawn to the Welsh artist Evelyn Williams (1929-2012). She pioneered a singular art of visionary and poetic power, albeit one that did not fit neatly into any art-historical box. She was largely neglected in her lifetime by the Art Establishment, although her paintings were admired by other artists and writers, including Angela Carter and Fay Weldon.
In the 1950s, when Evelyn Williams began her career, the art-world was a preserve of men and of male representations of women, many of them erotic. Female figures abound her art, with pale, oval faces, simply dressed or naked, their hair like the twisted skeins of embroidery silks. Even where naked (not nude), though, the figures suggest vulnerability rather than eroticism. Her subject, the most universal one of all, is human experience and human relationships – en masse, in groups, couples, or alone. This focus on human relationships isn’t domestic or cosy; indeed, the atmosphere in her paintings seems to oscillate between calm and disquiet.
Williams’ art is centred round deeply felt narratives, which reveal the hidden, interior world of their subjects. The narrative can be suggested by something like the cup of a hand to a face, or by something more substantial – a woman sleeping in a woodland clearing, an almost fairy-tale image. The pictures are often stark, with strong contrasts of light and darkness. Themes of loneliness and alienation recur.
Williams wrote that her paintings attempt to make visible an inner anguish and experience: “My work comes from my life…it will always be introspective. This is me and all I know about. I would like to show how people feel about each other, and describe how they deal with their own personal predicament, but this is groping in the dark.” She also said: “Is there a disease that manifests a person taking upon themselves the suffering of the world? What is its name? I believe I have the disease. In my case it is at the very centre of my work”.
As well as paintings, she produced sculpture. In fact, in 1961 she won the John Moore prize for sculpture despite having entered the competition for painting – her masked heads, built out of layers oil paint, resembled clay reliefs.
Williams’ work combines the vision of a poet and the empathy of someone listening with her heart. The pictures are revelations of inner experience – Keats ‘unheard melodies’ perhaps. Despite the disquiet, the artworks offer consolation and understanding.
“There is another world, but it is inside this one” (Paul Eluard)
February Oodlings and doodlings: or some things I did and pondered in February (which may or may not be true…)
‘All Tied Up’
I saw a cloud in the form of a giant sky-turtle. I wondered about a dystopian world in which clouds are used as advertising billboards. I tweeted about imaginary essays by Jorge Luis Borges and about graveyards of red telephone boxes. I watched two mesmerising foreign documentaries, Nostalgia for the Light, and Le Quattro Volte, and wrote a song inspired by the former. I ate far too much chocolate, albeit dark, 85% organic. I sat by the river one night and spoke to a huge, gold-glowing magic fish in the water.
I celebrated writer Russell Hoban’s birthday on February 4th by putting quotes by him up around the village green and by the river. I listened to blue-tit and collared dove song each morning and wondered if birds sing in their dreams. I took photographs of knots and chains by the river’s edge and of silhouettes on a jetty; and I took a video of feet walking along a jetty. I had some funny conversations with a punning cat. I wrote most of a short story. I decided, in a pretentious moment, that reflections in windows at night intimate the real, slippery, multi-dimensional nature of reality far more than the clear light of day does. I rediscovered the beauty and eccentricity of singer-songwriter Regina Spektor.
I had an email correspondence with a friend about Keats’s art of negative capability, the ability to live with doubt, uncertainty and mystery – I concluded that I was aspirant but wanting in this respect. I spent quite a bit of the month in a bad relapse of the chronic illness I have, in significant amounts of pain, but congratulated myself on handling it with a degree of stoicism. I read an impressive surreal novel, Liquidambar, by the New Zealand writer Chris Bell. I had fish and chips at the end of a glistening road with my mother. I got angry yet again with the government for their treatment of the poor and sick, for their policies of austerity that are plunging the poor into greater poverty even as the rich stock up their coffers. I fell in love with life whilst watching the charming, gentle video of the Kings of Convenience’s I’d Rather Dance Than Talk with You.
(Note I got this summary-of-month idea from another blog I sometimes visit, tho that blog only does real events)
Cloud in the Form of a Giant Sky-Turtle?
“What most people take to be reality is a load of old nonsense invented by not very inventive minds.”
Every 4th February – the birth date of Russell Hoban (1925-2011) – fans of this brilliant author write their favourite quotations from his books on sheets of yellow A4 paper and leave them in public places, and/or share them online (this is the Slickman A4 Quotation Event or SA4QE, which began in 2002.)
I first became aware of the SA4QE in about 2005 from an article in The Guardian, and have done the event ever since, often leaving quotes on A4 paper around the local village green next to the river. Doing this feels playful and subversive, a fitting tribute to a quixotic writer. I like the quotes to express what I love about Hoban – his mix of poetry, profundity and humour, his ability to veer effortlessly from the sublime to the hilarious.
I also leave smaller versions of the quotes tucked under baked-bean tins and packets of biscuits in the local village shop. I like the idea, and like to think Hoban would have liked the idea, of someone picking up a can of baked beans and finding underneath a small piece of paper that reads, “What most people take to be reality is a load of old nonsense invented by not very inventive minds.”
As I was finishing up, a woman with a golden Labrador walked past, stopped, read a couple of the quotes and looked at me. “Oh,” she said. “Oh. Oh.”
“Yes, Oh,” I said.
She smiled and walked off. I felt it was a suitably Hobanesque encounter.
More information about the event and about Russell Hoban can be found at http://www.russellhoban.org/sa4qe
Bill Brandt (1904-1983), a founding father of modernist photography and one of the ‘greats’ of British photography, believed in “the power of seeing the world as fresh and strange” and thought photographs could help people “see the world anew…as something interesting and exciting.” His images are atmospheric – a penchant was for sombre, brooding scenes, with strong tonal contrasts and dramatic formal compositions. His vision and reputation were cemented in the 1930s in London but drew on his time in Man Ray’s studio in Paris, which gave his work a psychological complexity, even latent surrealism. While his style is distinctive, he was known for the diversity of his subjects, from social class, to London in wartime, to Northern industrial towns during the depression, to portraits of British literary and artistic figures, to landscapes, to strange, sensual nudes on the Sussex coast.
Bombed Regency Staircase (1942)
Battersea Bridge (1930s)
Bombed Regency Staircase (1942) was part of his series photographing London during the Second World War. Although the subject is obviously bleak, Brandt brings to the staircase a startling vision and latent beauty, with its arresting contrasts of shadow and light and sweeping lines of the cast-iron banisters, which seem to twist back on themselves improbably. In Battersea Bridge (1930s), taken from a low angle, the curves of the River Thames and its shoreline have a sensual, organic quality, while the sharp distinctions in tone and bold horizontal line of the bridge with the bus add visual drama. Francis Bacon (on Primrose Hill, 1963) combines portrait and landscape, the receding diagonal of the wet path contrasting dynamically with the oddly tilted lamppost and with Bacon himself, who has a dour, introspective expression yet stands solidly against the stormy weather. There is a surreal sensibility here, the work seeming both familiar and strange, and a narrative quality – the image could be a still from a film about Bacon or one captured at a significant point in a story. These three photographs all attest to Brandt’s sophistication as an artist. “[The] viewer will sense himself in the presence of a rare concentration of thought and feeling,” observed Clive James in 1981.
Francis Bacon (1963)
Dark luminosity: that’s what for me the Symbolist artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) does so well. Black and white lithography was an early technique used by Redon to produce what he termed his ‘noirs’; the expressive power of chiaroscuro, of strong contrasts between darkness and light in the lithographs, allowed the kind of illusiveness and mystery he sought in his art. His first 10 lithographs, Dans le Rève (In the Dream), were published in 1879 but garnered little public attention. A series of fantastical images that occupy a lonely region between the real and the imaginary, they are consistent with Redon’s pictorial world more broadly – a world of floating heads, mythic figures, shadowy beings, ghosts, cyclops, fallen angels, composite creatures. In Germination (Plate 2 of Dans le Rève, see image above), a disembodied pale head, eyes downcast in introspection, is set within a large black nimbus. The head floats in an indeterminate, nocturnal space; beneath hover (germinate?) a sequence of ever-smaller heads, the first with wide-staring eyes, the others more skull-like with empty eye-sockets; and around the heads drift smaller white spheres – perhaps seed-heads or star-forms. The mood of the lithograph is melancholy, but it carries a strange luminosity too. The artwork is hard to interpret, although it brings to my mind, among other things, the gestation of thoughts and feelings in a space that is dark and mysterious.
Redon was part of the Symbolist movement which rejected naturalistic art and placed more emphasis on the reality of the imagination. His originality as an artist lay in the way his works suggest meaning without being specific. The use of symbolism had been important in art for several centuries, but Redon’s innovation lay in his ability to create symbolic forms that exist in their own right without any clear or definable associations. His symbols embody a mystery which diffuses through the painting. The works evoke particular subjective states – an intense emotion, a mystical sensibility, a dream fragment – but do so without one being fully aware of what this is. He described his artworks as intending to ‘arouse in the imagination [of the viewer] any number of fantasies whose meaning will be broad or limited according to his sensitivity.’ Redon’s lithographs, such as Germination, attest to his singular vision, which is both equivocal and eloquent, dark and luminous.
Misty mornings in parks, the shape of statues echoing that of nearby trees; long cobbled streets that invite the eye to wander down them; mannequins in shop windows that appear oddly animate. These are some of the 10,000 images that Eugène Atget (1857-1927) took of Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century, which are both visual documents of the city and carriers of a poetic sense of place. Atget’s photography was a quiet, personal obsession – this was long before the advent of the ‘photo-essay’ in contemporary art, in which a subject or world is photographed multiply and explored in depth. Atget didn’t even consider his work as art although his work was lauded by the Parisian avant-garde, by Man Ray who saw in his work a latent surrealist sensibility, an unexpected evocation of the unconscious life of the city; by Andre Breton who published him in Le Revolution Surrealiste and in his own books.
Atget used old photographic equipment with very long exposures so his photographs are often devoid of people. This allows the form of the city to be clearly seen, its architecture and arched bridges, its sweep of streets and stairwells. Yet the empty city still bears a palpable, if mysterious, presence of real lives lived and so invites narratives, stirs the viewer to imagine. Atget’s images also appeal through their nostalgia. They were memory traces of a vanishing world – he worked in the old parts of Paris being bulldozed to make way for wide modern boulevards. John Szarkowski, former director of photography at MOMA in New York, believed that the way Atget blended documentation and a distinct personal vision made him the first real modernist photographer: “The pictures that he made…are seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious, and true” (from Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs).