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The Cage of the “Surreal” – Post 1 of 2

“The Locust,” “Tauromachia,” and “Mantis” by Germaine Richier

In my last post, I made some remarks about the falsity of calling certain artworks “surrealistic.”  I want to pursue that further here.  Am I saying that we should never use the words “surreal” or “surrealistic”?  No, but. . . .

An art critic for The New York Times wrote one of the most aggravating pieces of art criticism that I’ve read in the last decade:  it was a review of an exhibition by the half-forgotten sculptor, Germaine Richier, whose work was clearly shaped in part by her experience of the horrors of World War II.  I was initially heartened that her work was being exhibited in America and receiving attention in the mainstream press.  That was before I read the piece.

The dismissive premise of the commentary was that Richier’s sculptures, which are often half-human, half-animal (or half-something-else) figures (and which I’ve found moving and powerful since I first bought a book of them in college), are no good because they are, according to the critic, just retreads of an old “Surrealist technique” — namely, the combining of the human figure with the figure of a non-human animal, as in a modern work like Picasso’s “Minotauromachy.”

“Minotauromachy” by Pablo Picasso

Surrealist technique?  Such half-human, half-non-human figures appeared in the prehistoric caves of Europe, and many think that they represented shamans. And the reason that they think so is, in part, that we see similar figures in the persons and practices of shamans in numerous cultures throughout the world, even to this day, many of them believing that they absorb special powers from their bonds with certain animals. And so they often wear hides or feathers or bones in order to enhance those connections and capacities.  In this country, members of Native American tribes have held to their relations to their “power animals,” associated with an individual’s date of birth and individual spirit, sources of strength and sight.

And then, of course, throughout the ages, there have been the very much darker species of identifications with predators of various kinds, which partly informs Richier’s sculptures and her vision of the evil manifested in the Fascists. (And here we go again, because we continue to think of such evil as lying outside of the bounds of what we regard as basic life and reality and human nature.)

These are not just “surrealist techniques,” embodiments of things beyond any particular person or culture, beyond history, not unusual fleeting phenomena, but endemic to human history and character.

Let’s say that Germaine Richier’s sculptures are not “surrealist,” and that even Picasso’s “Minotauromachy” is not “surrealist”  — if only to humor or follow me here.  What if their reality is not the reality only of dreams?  (As I wrote in my last post, my “Dream of the Playground Melting into Night” wasn’t something that came to me in sleep, nor did it remain unchanged as I worked on it while I was awake.)  So often the things that we call “surreal” are likewise not the products of sleeping dreams, or of the French Surrealists’ games designed to draw the “unconscious” into daylight.

There’s a grave problem with people thinking that what they call the surreal is different from or above or below the real.  If they knew what the real is, many people who consider themselves “liberals” would not have so blindly underestimated the 2016 candidacy of Trump and its appeal to hundreds of thousands of voters. Nor would we have seen the idiotic and almost-universal optimism about the prospects for the democratized Web and social media.

“The Bat” by Germaine Richier

The characteristic problem with self-styled liberals lies just there. So many think that what the world needs for its salvation is better ideas, better programs.  So many liberals believe in education and innovative ideas as the holy grail of social progress. But while those things can (if lovingly motivated and shaped) be good as far as they go, they are hopelessly inadequate to cure mankind’s deepest, most eternal problems. And that includes the underground sewage of liberals’ own hidden vices.

Countless urbanites and subarbanites have normalized a prosperous capitalism that has generated as much evil and destruction as any skinhead could ever hope to cause. Their view of reality excludes so much that they and others consider “surreal,” so much of the demonic and so much of the divine as well. It’s so much easier to be tolerant of your rotten, conventional vices if you don’t truly believe in higher possibilities for your soul

(To provide “equal time,” let me say that the characteristic failing of many people who call themselves “conservatives,” on the other hand, is essentially a belief in the propriety and power of sin:  of mainstream pride and ambition, territorial selfishness, institutionalized fear – all too often called “religion” by conservatives, who have, at various places and times in history, programmatically separated children from their parents, or incinerated children thought to be heretics or to be the offspring of heretics. And they generally do such things (and obviously still do) in the name of whatever they hold sacred (God help them!), as William Blake described in his poems more than 200 years ago.

The truth is that all of us, to one degree or another, have the prideful, varying vices of liberals and of conservatives, myself included, although I don’t acknowledge myself to fall within the one category or the other , but rather to be a radical, an aspiring Christian (not a communist or anarchist), however far I fall short of that aspiration – and that is essentially not a matter of politics, philosophy, or theology.

If we are not to be blind-sided by the evils inside and within, if we’re to hold ourselves to higher ways, we must see, for instance, that Richier’s figures and the like don’t represent outliers of human drives and suffering, but eternal parts of so-called “humanity,” including our own sweet selves. The “non-naturalistic,” “surreal” dimensions of the Bible, to take a central example, are a grand “clue” to the true nature of man and reality, including the fact that demons and miracles and redemption are not outside or above reality, but always with us, if beyond our dangerously blindered sight.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

— Hamlet to Horatio, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 187-188)

Lawrence Russ View All

Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .

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