Surreal Encounters: Collecting The Marvelous

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Installation shot including various works by Salvador Dali

“Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.”
– André Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism

Recently I visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on what I thought would be a brief afternoon excursion. Almost four hours later I emerged from’Surreal Encounters: Collecting The Marvelous’ enlightened and inspired. Marvelous; there could not be a more apt word to apply to this broad collection of artworks. Immediately upon entry you are greeted by renowned and famous names including Picasso, Man Ray and Duchamp. Seeing a collection of those artists merely in the corridor – before I’d even entered a room – made me realise the sheer stature of this exhibition. This was and is quite the collection of Surrealist works. Never before have I seen so many Dali and Magritte pieces clustered in such close proximity. The result was mesmerizing. I felt like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the rabbit hole into a world of dreams, blue endless skies, obscure depictions and dripping, blurring creatures. For someone who has read countless books on Dada and Surrealism, two art movements that changed and shaped the course of art history, it was like walking into a shrine dedicated to works of the past. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.

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Installation shot hosting the works of René Magritte

The exhibition was beautifully curated and very insightful in terms of how the collections came about. As a viewer you are given an in depth account of how Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch came to acquire the works. This was done through a series of conducted interviews. I thought this was a very effective component of the exhibition as in among all of these monumental and historical works by Miro and Magritte, there were TV screens with the interviews being played out. With the giggles between partners Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch echoing throughout the space as they discussed their plans for their collections, I couldn’t help but feel that their stories brought the collections and the artwork even more to life. As a viewer, not only were you busy plummeting into a whimsical world within the frame and trying to decipher and make sense of something so non-nonsensical, but you also became aware of how it came to be hung on the wall in front of you. The care and thought that went into the collections and the articulate eye required to amount such works, was extraordinary. It was fascinating hearing how Gabrielle Keiller had realised Duchamp’s artistic potential and decided to gather his works. Of course it was equally fascinating seeing the works themselves; Duchamp’s mini replication of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors‘ was rather mesmerising in itself. 

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‘Female Fig Leaf’,  Marcel Duchamp, 1961

Marcel Duchamp is an artists I have studied very closely, so for me seeing his work was kind of like seeing a celebrity on the red carpet. His concept of the Readymade turned the art world upside down when he declared a urinal a work of art. A Readymade is a work that consists of objects that were, believe it or not, ready made. They become an artwork essentially through the declaration of the artist. This of course caused outrage in the artworld at the time and Duchamp’s urinal, or ‘Fountain‘ as he named it, was in fact refused entry to the Parisian Salon des Indépendants. At the time it was revolutionary and outrageous, now this act and the creation of the readymade is just another dictionary term in the art collection alongside Minimalism, Impressionism and all of the other movements which were not accepted at the time as they are presently. I loved’Female Fig Leaf‘ (above), I think it was one of my highlights of the exhibition not only because it was a Duchamp piece, but also because of its cheekiness. It is an imprint of the female genetalia, which Duchamp actually gifted to his wife. 

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‘Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach’, Pablo Picasso, 1932

Picasso, dare I say it, has always been very hit or miss for me. I can appreciate his work, his technique, his skill and his status. However his work has never quite struck the cord with me on a personal level. That is of course with the exception of ‘Guernica’ (1937), one of his most famous works depicting the horrors and brutalities of war. However, in this Surrealist exhibition, I was for once incredibly taken by a Picasso piece in the form of ‘Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach’. It absolutely fascinated me. The title provided the perfect insight into the subject of the work and the colours and composition were incredibly satisfying to my eye. I love the muted and restricted palettes of mint green and baby blue alongside the triangular creations. I was so drawn to this work that I even bought a postcard of it as a momento to the exhibition! 

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‘Couple aux tȇtes pleines de nuages’, Salvador Dali, 9136

‘Surreal Encounters’ was surreal for me in more ways than one. It was of course surreal in the sense that I was seeing the biggest body of Surrealism I have yet witnessed in my lifetime, but it was also because I was in a dumbfounded haze of surreal disbelief at seeing works such as these. Particularly the large scale Dali pieces. The skill and techniques, the mastery Dali displays with his paint and the colour choices and balances are all compiled together to form compositions so breathtaking that I was grateful to be able to occupy the seats dotted throughout the gallery space! It was one of those exhibitions where you really have to sit down and just breathe in and absorb the work in front of you. Realise how insignificant you are when faced with these grand works, grand scales and even grander artists. There was a room filled only with Dali and Magritte pieces which has to have been my favourite. Mainly because René Magritte is in fact one of my favourite artists. Coming from someone who has a very long list of favourite artists, that is quite the compliment to Magritte. I will never forget the first time I saw his work. It was at The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Again, there was a room filled primarily with Dali and Magritte and I remember feeling as if the air in my body had been physically knocked out of me. I had only ever come across these works in books or on the internet prior to that moment and to be greeted face to face with the brush strokes (or lack of them) of Magritte was truly one of my most memorable moments in my experience of viewing art.

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‘La Représentation’, René Magritte, 1937

Walking into the Dali/Magritte room in the Modern Art Gallery was very much like experiencing my Guggenheim epiphany all over again. Seeing Magritte’s countless sky scapes, his mysterious face reflections and erotic depictions cast a spell of serenity over me. Time seemed to stand still as I immersed myself in the works, trying to read them and imagine what strange things had been blurring through the mind of Magritte as he painted. I tend to avoid reading the information that sits alongside a painting, at least until I return to the exhibition a second time, as I prefer to formulate my own ideas and opinions about a piece before giving in to the direction leaflets and writings provide. Trying to read a Surrealist work however is quite the task and I decided that the best way to do this was to free my mind. To allow my conscious to let go of assumptions and float and drift instead into more sporadic realms.

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‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, Dorothea Tanning, 1943

I think ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik‘ was one of my favourite works within the exhibition (not counting all of the Magritte’s, that goes without saying given how big a fan I am!) However, I have never come across Tanning’s work and this piece really stuck with me. It’s predominantly the bold colours that appeal to me; the blood red carpet against the sunshine yellow of the sunflower. The angles of the staircase alongside the open door at the end of the corridor. The way in which the girl’s hair appears to be sucked and gusted upwards towards the ceiling, yet she remains stood still and straight as if the presence of a giant sunflower on the stairwell was a perfectly natural occurrence. Yet there lies the success of the Surrealists; the ability to take the abnormal, the strange, the absurd and transform it into something so nonchalant that we begin to question our own senses of normality. They take the ordinary and transform it into such an extraordinary that we are left both stunned and speechless yet simultaneously brimming with an overflowing cauldron of ideas in our heads. In heads thatupon witnessing these works of art suddenly feel too small for all of these bizarre and beautiful notions. Consequently, the only thing that we can do is release ourselves to the surreal and the experience it provides. Needless to say, this exhibition succeeded in providing that experience and more. I was left reeling and contemplating it for days and this contemplation will continue, as will our own surreal encounters. 

 

We were not allowed to take photographs in the exhibition,therefore my images are sourced from the following websites:

https://www.nationalgalleries.org

http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk

http://www.arts-press.co.uk

 

 

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Visual Essay on Architecture

Being in Berlin gave me so many revelations that I can’t stop thinking about. It also, much to my delight, reignited my love for architecture. I did a project on architecture as part of my Art coursework at GCSE level, but have never returned to it as a topic since. Partly I think because I was put off by the result of my naive endeavors. At GCSE level I explored Omani architecture with it’s beautiful mosques and arched doorways, as well as more modern twisting architecture in the form of the Armani Hotel. I feel the way in which I approached it at the time was far too broad; I just plunged in with the only focus being ‘architecture’, meaning the results were weak due to the lack of specificity. Now I look at things with more refinement, far more critically and only really pay attention to things that ignite my utmost interest. Which pretty much all of Berlin did! I always remember someone telling me to look upwards as you walk round cities, because that tends to be the place you see the most exciting and unexpected things. Watching ‘The September Issue’ (a fashion documentary) years ago also made me think about how and where I should be looking as what was said has stuck with me. In the documentary, Creative Director at the time, Grace Coddington, talks about how you should never shut your eyes and sleep, but always look out the window of a car and absorb the world as it flashes by. Never miss a minute.

Walking around Berlin allowed me to contemplate the city and its structures at my own pace and I am slowly starting to formulate the idea of exploring the bridge between architecture and life within my artwork. I have studied and worked with the human body for so long now, I feel it is time to refine even that as a topic.Possibly merge it with my revised interests in the buildings that surround us on a daily basis. Culture of course comes into architecture, as does history. Not just of the buildings themselves, but of how infrastructure has developed over time. Perhaps a comparison between Egyptian architecture and the historical buildings of Berlin will feature? Perhaps a trip to Barcelona to finally see the work of Antoni Gaudi will happen? I don’t know. All I know is that I want to explore more. I want to try broadening the palette of my focus. So again I have resorted to a John Berger style visual essay on the architecture of Berlin.

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Beautiful Berlin

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It’s been a long time since a city has inspired me as much as Berlin. Amsterdam was absolutely fantastic – there was so much to see. Our art-orientated sightseeing ranged from seeing traditional artwork at the Van Gogh Museum to more contemporary works at the Stedelijk, Amsterdam’s equivalent of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). However with Berlin, it’s different. You’re not just entering buildings and spaces to look at the art; it’s everywhere. It’s in the buildings, not just physically, but inherently. It’s ingrained as part of the architecture, it’s on the street, down alleyways, on subway routes, it’s even encapsulated by people’s eclectic mix of clothing. The city seems to pulsate with this artistic aura, which threatens to overwhelm you it’s so inspiring. You feel as if you’re going to burst with this creative warmth brewing in your stomach as you take it all in!

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The history of the place seems to enhance this sense of creative energy, particularly given the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With the fall of the wall, came the fall in both political systems and social barriers. Berlin realized a new kind of freedom that had never been felt before and consequently aspects such as the music scene flourished as people endlessly celebrated the reunification. Given their history it seems people in Berlin have something to say; it’s as if the years of oppression made them realise that they want to be heard. With transient chalk-based artworks on the pavement, alleyways bursting with colourful graffiti, the life and soul of the city can be found anywhere and everywhere. I think this is why it had such an impact on me. The creative culture of the city was not confined to sketchbooks and galleries, or exclusive artistic spaces. Instead it was living and breathing on the street, trickling into the galleries from outside.

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Walking through this cultural hub that is Berlin really focuses your mind. Because there is so much to absorb, you realise what it is you want to pinpoint and fixate on; what explorations you want to further. I’ve always been fascinated by graffiti, however in the past it was more of a subconscious fascination. It was only as we walked through Berlin and I was catching glimpses of it in places and on the facade of big buildings that I became aware of how interested in it I actually am. Now that I am more aware of this interest I reflect and realise that there have been very poignant moments that fueled my interest in street art. One of those moments was years ago when I was walking behind Edinburgh Waverly station and I came across this wall absolutely crammed with colour and bubble shaped writing, graffiti creatures curling out of the wall. There was someone spray painting and I remember thinking how free they must have felt in that moment. To have no paper or easel, no barrier between their spray can and a permanent site. They were leaving their mark in a space that didn’t belong to them and I thought it was beautiful. Joseph Beuys once said that anyone can be an artist if they realise their potential and find the necessary form in which to communicate their ideas. This sentiment has caused a lot of debate and I am in agreement with him to an extent. However I am more of the belief that art is everywhere. Even though we don’t necessarily see it, or aren’t necessarily looking, it is still present. It’s present in the black polka dots of a lady bug climbing over a green leaf,  it’s present in the synced rhythms of our breathing and living bodies, it’s present in the way we gesture as we speak. Art is everywhere and it is the ability to take the things we see; to capture them and their essence and translate them into an entirely new form, that I believe makes you a true artist.