Hark, shameful wretches!
To mother’s belly banished,
Crave quench the famished
It’s Black Friday. The day when the consumer degenerates into a rabid, atavistic, instinct-driven, consumption-crazed beast as the chuckling corpulent capitalists dangle their chunks of discounted meat over the maws of the masses. For many it is very much a surrealist day; when the unconscious prevails (MUST… BUY… 50 INCH PLASMA TV… MUST… PURCHASE… SCANTILY DISCOUNTED NONESSENTIALS… BUY… OR… DIE) and consciousness floats away until the early hours of saturday morning (shit… do they still do refunds?). It is also a quintessentially Ballardian day of course, when primal urges are united with the unconscious-channeling consumer-capitalist landscape.
So let’s look at a work of advertising which serves a very different function to such mind-numbing corporate acquiescence, and instead seeks to empower the viewer, to stimulate active creative thought and decipherment. Apart from his earlier Project for a New Novel billboards which were a series of ingenious adverts which covertly inundated the consumer landscape with some of the greatest artworks by Salvador Dali, Court Circular (1968) was another lesser-known endeavor of Ballard’s which veered away from traditional advertising forms towards empowering the mass psyche through art (which was of course all the rage in 1968). Court Circular was a double-page advertisement (Ballard himself acknowledged it as such) published in a newspaper-sized, special edition of the groundbreaking SF mag Ambit (#37). The ad doubles as a work of concrete poetry, and depicts a columnal series of repeated words on one page, and a series of small fauvist-like images (8 in total) drawn by Bruce Mclean, as well as a photograph taken from Paolozzi’s ‘Moonstrips – General Dynamic F.U.N.’ (Ambit #33, 1967) on the other.
So what exactly is it? The concrete poem is a fascinating work: it is comprised of less than a dozen different words and yet is able to depict a girl’s journey into adulthood – her first kiss, her first love, first experience of oral sex, losing her virginity, explorative sex, first rift in a relationship, before eventual marriage and pregnancy, and seemingly settling into a mutually affectionate relationship (due to the dedication the girl is presumably based on Claire Churchill, one of Ballard’s partners and a frequent figure within his more experimental works). But then how does this experimental poem coincide with the strangely contorted shapes of the figures below?
It is only when one begins to meticulously attach the topmost text-based work with the Matisse-stylised figures below, that some narrative cohesion begins to emerge. If we begin to ‘flesh out’ these various clusters of successive words – visualise hair where it reads ‘HAIR’, perhaps lips or breasts where it reads ‘SUCK’, a vagina where it reads ‘FUCK’, anus where it reads ‘ANUS’ (that one he made easy for us) and then use the subjective terms (i.e. ‘GIRL’ and ‘WIFE’) as the primary image of the figure, then a larger abstract Fauvist image, just like the smaller ones below, begins to take shape. Ballard is thus expressing how this rigid, columnal series of words, when placed within a codified system, when deciphered, can take on artistic significance, and can in effect be elevated to a work of art!
In some cases the woman’s anatomy in the smaller drawings can be tethered almost exactly to the location of the words in the poem. For example where the successive word ‘kiss’ appears in the upper region of column three you will notice the woman’s head appears roughly around this area within most of the smaller images below. Moreover, the word ‘ANUS’ is located exactly where the woman’s anus is situated in the third drawing along in the topmost column of Mclean’s drawings, whilst the grouping of the word ‘HAIR’ which flows from the bottom of column six to the top of column seven, corresponds to the far middle-right of Mclean’s drawings, in which the woman’s hair appears to sweep around the bottom of the image all the way around to the top much like a frame. Interestingly ‘HAIR’ is the only word or batch of words to flow from one column to the other, suggesting that Ballard was perhaps trying here to use the text to imitate the flowing physicality of hair as opposed to the more rigid aspects of the anatomy.
If only the world were not so dominated by corporations and marketers dead-set on anesthetizing the mind to droning consumption and instead embracing such Ballardian methods of subjective empowerment, why then every shopping trip would be a Sherlockian adventure, and we’d be in a world propelled by the urge to unravel and solve and seek out new means of expression – O’ what a world it would be!!!
NB: Featured image from John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Also be sure to read Mike Holliday’s fascinating piece on Ballardian.com for even more about Ballard’s forays into advertising.
There is likely no greater example in art of a single work having such a profound and lasting influence on an artist than Dali’s influence by Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus. Dali had been familiar with the work since childhood; a reproduction of the painting hung on a secluded wall of his grammar school. But the obsessional, paranoiac aspect to the image would not come until a striking vision in 1932 at which point ‘it suddenly appeared in my mind without any recent recollection or conscious association… It left with me a profound impression, I was most upset by it… the Angelus of Millet suddenly became for me the most troubling of pictorial works, the most enigmatic, the most dense, the richest in unconscious thoughts that had ever existed’ (Dali, Tragic Myth). From that point on the work brought about frequent delirious episodes in Dali, during which the symbols and figures of the Angelus would appear in his daily life to plague and haunt his consciousness.
It was from such paranoiac visions however that the systematic approach to Dali’s work would emanate, and would come to formulate the paranoiac-critical method, a means by which the artist ‘organizes and objectivizes in an exclusivist manner the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective ‘significance’ in the irrational… it makes the world of delirium pass onto the plane of reality’ (from Dali’s 1935 essay ‘The Conquest of the Irrational’). The Angelus thus served as the genesis of Dali’s latency-driven works which would later represent a crucial component of the surrealist movement at large. The analytical frame to Dali’s technique is expounded in his 1938 work, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, a work which was believed lost for many decades following the outbreak of the second work war.
Dali’s persistent visions, which are reflected in the innumerable allusions and appearances of the Angelus in his artworks, led to an astounding discovery, which was only verified over a century after the work’s creation by modern x-raying technology. Dali had been particularly haunted by the lurking sense of death evoked by the image, in particular the sense of the loss of a child (perhaps a conviction which colluded with the burdensome death of Dali’s brother in childhood), though in the image there is nothing which explicitly suggests such, other than the grim aspect of the standing figures. But Dali had little doubt that there this was a depiction of the death of a child, and he continued to write his entire Tragic Myth, his entire paranoiac activity manifesto based on this unproven belief: ‘The great mythical theme of the death of the son, an essential sentimaent that became apparent in my Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, was confirmed once my thesis had been completed, without my having yet been able, until recently, to verify it’ (from the later commentary added to his Tragic Myth text). Then, after many years of doubt by almost all those other than Dali himself, the painting was analysed, and there, beneath the many layers of soil and oil paint, there lay the unquestionable outline of a small coffin, the size of which would suit only a child. Dali was right all along.
To finish, here’s a sublimely surrealist description of the Angelus written by Dali:
“In the picture this lonely, crepuscular, mortal place plays the role of the dissection table in the poetic text, because, not only is life fading out on the horizon, but also the pitchfork is plunged into the real substantial meat which the ploughed land has been to man throughout all time. It is plunged into the earth, I said, with that greedy intentionality of fecundity appropriate to the delectable incisions of the surgical knife during the dissection of any corpse which, as everyone knows, is, under diverse analytical pretexts, secretly only looking for the synthetic, fertile and nourishing potato of death. Constant dualism stems from this, felt throughout all ages, a sort of ploughed-earth nutrition, a table for eating – the ploughed earth nourishing itself from that manure as sweet as honey which is nothing but that of the authentic, amoniacal, necrophilic desires – a dualism that finally brings us to consider the ploughed earth, especially when worsened by the twilight, like the best-laden dissection table, which among all others offers us the most appetizing and prime cadaver. This corpse is seasoned with that fine and imponderable truffle that is only found in nutritive dreams consisting of the flesh from the rounded shoulders of hitlerian atavistic nurses, and with an incorruptible, exciting salt made by the frenetic, voracious squirming of ants… ”
– Salvador Dali, in ‘Explanation of an illustration from the Chants de Maldoror’ (found in the appendix of Tragic Myth)
NB: Just as a short additional piece of Dalinian trivia, another fascinating story/conspiracy theory involving the Angelus has to do with the legendary Van Gogh and his cutting off his ear. Another of Dali’s recurrent delusions of the Angelus was the association of the woman figure with the praying mantis; seen as evoking Freudian notions of the atavistic, primal instincts of the mother figure, and her aspect, in conjunction with the bowed head of the father figure, which Dali saw as being reminiscent of cannibalistic urges following the death of the child (note that in all the works by Dali containing both figures, the female towers above the male to represent this mantid analogy). Dali goes as far as to say that ‘it is indeed this insect that we are going to see illustrate in a dazzling fashion the tragic myth contained in Millet’s Angelus’ (Tragic Myth, 81), thus situating the mantis at the very centre of his own decipherment! What’s interesting though, and what links Van Gogh here, is that Van Gogh showed a similar obsession with the Angelus image, but only whilst in his most delirious state of madness. Now get this, in the late-80s, whilst Dali was very ill and not wholly in his right mind, a scientific discovery was made involving mantids: the mantid is the only known living creature on earth to have what is known as a ‘cyclopean ear’, that is a ‘single, midline ear’ (discovered by Yager and Hoy). This discovery was found a great many years after Dali’s conception of the mantis being so central in the Angelus, and even further after Van Gogh’s psychotic episode during which he cut of his ear, and yet it gives some clarity to the reasoning behind Van Gogh’s cutting off his ear and not any other part of his body, a mystery which baffled historians for many years. Could this indeed be the answer, lying deep in the unconscious workings of this enigmatic painting?! Could it be that the unconscious presence of the mantis also infected Van Gogh in his delirious state and led him to the act of severing his ear?! We will never know for sure, but it is certainly a theory which champions the authority of the unconscious mind, and which undoubtedly makes Dali all the more endearing.
Curator of cascading cavalcades and causeways of carnality,
Virtuoso of vivisection, mosaics of calamity,
In whose worlds a prosaic insanity festers midst cortex;
Synergies of synapse and syntax, an existential vortex.
Through a geometric rhetoric of plaza and high rise,
Come parables comparable to Freudian mythologies.
Where avian conclaves of Loplopian apostles soar,
As the corpses of collossi are numbly washed ashore.
Marooned tycoons wander in some highway purgatory,
Metro meets Mecca: all hail the gods of multi-storey.
A Triassic redux as concrete jungles plunge neath tide,
From Shanghai to Shepperton he pedalled, forever wide-eyed…
In the art world there are a few stand out artists whose works are truly terrifying to behold: Henri Fuseli, Francisco Goya, H. R. Gieger, Hieronymus Bosch, Theodore Gericault, Odilon Redon, are perhaps some of the best known. Of course it must also be acknowledged that fear is highly subjective, and what we find terrifying in art stems from our own subjective interpretations. I for example find the artwork of surrealist Kay Sage deeply disturbing (though a number of friends have disagreed with me on this); her achromatised worlds are inhabited by wandering shrouded figures which are bound by some sinuous musculature evoking an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, and the landscapes in which they are situated are strangely bleached and barren, containing these eerie geometric structures which waver somewhere in the liminality between natural and artificial, skeletal and architectural.
Even so, there is one artist who seems to bring about an almost universal dread in all those who view his work, and that is of course, Francis Bacon. Bacon’s artworks are made up of shrieking figures, ghastly contortions of flayed meat and gristle, they are visceral, oozing and corporeal to the point of revulsion. But what makes Bacon’s art all the more terrifying is the very real truth behind them, and how these works come to so accurately represent aspects of his harrowing past. In his final interview Bacon described his childhood in just a few simple words – ‘it was cold, hard, like a block of ice’ (A Brush with Violence, 2017). Young Francis had a serious case of asthma, he struggled breathing and suffered frequent and violent asthma attacks which were exacerbated by his growing up on a farm with many horses. This unsurprisingly produced an omnipresent, looming terror of being unable to breathe, of drowning almost, and this was coupled with another deep-seated fear; the fear of his father’s reaction to his repressed homosexuality.
At just 10 years old, these fears festered, amplified by his lonesome and shy nature. Even here then we can begin to see some of the real driving influence behind many of his most famous works: these recurrent haunting figures in Bacon’s work, whose mouths are open painfully wide, and trapped inside glass boxes desperately gasping for air, could represent Bacon’s youth – his fears and repressions. His famous pope image thus also begins to show some clarity: the father-pope figure, perhaps represented his repressed homosexuality, seen as sin by the Catholic church. There is seemingly here a sense of religious suffocation; many of those he grew up with were devout and Bacon himself was an athiest, and a keen Nietzschean to boot. And so religion became a very powerful and regulatory force in his life, emblematising the inability to speak truth and express his true sexuality, ever in the fear that he would be seen to be corrupt by his controlling father.
Indeed, Bacon’s fears were realised upon his father learning of his homosexuality, after which his father had him regularly whipped by the stable-boys (whom he also had sexual relations with). This excessive violence at such a young age gave rise to masochistic tendencies (likely a Freudian reaction which acted as a means of psychological fortitude), and this violent, sexually charged pathology provided the framework upon which the majority of his work would rest. One day, after being caught dressing up in his mother’s clothes, Bacon was disowned and sent away by his father, and he subsequently fled to London, surviving on the measly £3 a week of his mother’s trust fund, as well as any money made from petty crime and even prostitution throughout his teen years.
He eventually managed to save enough money to move to Paris, where he stayed for a number of years living with a friend and visiting all of the Parisian galleries which would inspire him onto his artistic path. At twenty he moved back to London and worked as an interior designer, as well as other minor jobs until his break came in his late twenties when 4 of his works which he’d done whilst still working on his interior decorating, were shown in the prestigious 1937 Young British Painters exhibition. Over the next few years he slowly gained notoriety, and by 1944, with the release of his infamous ‘three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion’ (see featured image) he had become one of the best regarded new artists in the country.
Bacon’s romantic life was turbulent to say the least, and he had relationships with many men throughout his life, but none had as much influence on his work as Peter Lacy, a retired pilot who he met in 1952. Lacy is said to have bordered on the psychopathic, and at one point is said to have thrown Bacon through a window with such force that his eye had to be sewn back into its socket. Yet despite the intensely violent nature of their relationship Bacon described Lacy as the love of his life, and their explosive relationship served as a primary influence for much of his later work including his seminal ‘three studies for a Crucifixion’ (1962) which enacts a brutal scene in the bedroom.
Expressionist or Surrealist?
Bacon is most frequently associated with the expressionists, although he was often approached to display work in surrealist exhibitions and his work is described by many critics as ‘biomorphic surrealism’. As we have already seen, there are undoubtedly surrealist tendencies to Bacon’s art, and these recurrent images hold the same psychological tethers to the past, the subjective iconographies which are so common to the symbolic works of surrealists like Dali or Ernst. Bacon was adamant that the haunting aspect to his work was ‘accidental’, and his description of his process seems undoubtedly surrealist: ‘[my work is contrived] not out of any conscious will… it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap… [my process] unlocks the valves of feeling and therefore returns the onlooker to life more violently’ (Sylvester interview).
We might view the paintings of Bacon as being something akin to an exorcism, a form of purification, an externalisation of the very deepest and darkest repressions which weighed so heavily on his tormented psyche. What makes the work of Francis Bacon at once so harrowing and so profoundly important is that they express great truth, uninhibited truth, in all its grotesque hideousness, something only the greatest artists are able to accomplish.
I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by both his passions and his despairs… – Francis Bacon
NB: Featured image is Bacon’s ‘three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion’ (1944). Also be sure to watch the fantastic recent documentary on Francis Bacon, A Brush with Violence (2017) which can be viewed here on youtube.
“Maybe the greatest madness of all is to see life as it is rather than what it could be”
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
“There’s a method to my madness, and a madness to my method”
– Salvador Dali
A small selection of Dali’s artworks based on Cervantes’s timeless classic Don Quixote:
NB: images (mostly) sourced from The Salvador Dali Museum.