My late summer reviews focused on two centuries of Maine artists. But a pair of museum exhibits look further. “Surrealist Play Gone Astray” at the Portland Museum of Art (until October 23) is a gem of a show about this emphatically eccentric movement, which was concentrated primarily in Europe but has spread around the world, notably to the Mexico.
Although John Walker had been a painter from Maine for some time, living and working in South Bristol, and although the majority of the works in his exhibition at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art depict the particular stretch of coast where he resides, he is originally from Birmingham, England, and draws much inspiration from European art and that of the Aboriginal artists he encountered while living for a decade in Australia. “John Walker, Low Tide to High Tide” (through October 31) is a stunner.
The Surrealists were a turbulent bunch. They coalesced in the aftermath of World War I, with a desire to seek freedom from all art forms that preceded their movement. “I want to assassinate painting,” said Joan Miró. They undermined the unconscious, stating in their manifesto that surrealism “aims to express, either verbally, or in writing, or in any other way, the real functioning of thought. Dictated by thought in the absence of any control exercised by reason, apart from any aesthetic and moral concern.
The goal was to go beyond the rational to express something more wild, dark and uncontrollable about the true unsocialized urges of humanity. These artists reveled in the strange and disturbing, sexual anxiety and violence, and they also used their art as a form of protest. An example of the latter is “Italian Square” (1954) by Giorgio de Chirico. His subject was the city of Turin, a place he considered corrupt, “inhabited by scientists and the king, by politicians and warriors, motionless in their jaded and solemn poses on their stone plinths”.
De Chirico’s austere plaza conveys a sense of sterility and near abandonment, except for two figures overshadowed by the architecture. A distant train suggests that progress and the avant-garde have passed by the city, the railway bypassing a place that is no longer worth visiting.
Across the room is Yves Tanguy’s “Untitled” from 1937. It’s another desolate landscape, but this time seems extraplanetary, evoking the mutated creatures and the arid, windswept terrain we might associate with science fiction. Tanguy’s encounter with de Chirico inspired him to paint, making the two works one piece. They converse across the small gallery.
“La Salutation (La Rencontre)” by Paul Delvaux in 1938 is like the love child of de Chirico and René Magritte. The setting is another public square, this time with a tram in the distance. But here he is dominated by a Delvaux in costume and the half-naked woman he greets, both as grand as architecture. They are almost expressionless. Looking closer, we see naked women looking at them through the curtains of the windows of the buildings, accentuating the eroticism of the scene.
Two artists explore the darker and more painful side of sexuality. “Doll on a Broken Wicker Chair” by German artist Hans Bellmer from 1935 is an image of a dismembered female doll, the sexual organ and breasts apparently rubbed bright red. And Miró’s 1939 “Composition” features, in the words of a wall plaque, “disembodied genitals, dismemberment and displacement”. These delicate works illustrate how far the surrealists were willing to go to destroy all canons of art history.
There are wonderful works in “Surrealist Play”, including two Magrittes. 1936’s “The Heart Revealed, Portrait of Tita Thirifays” is oddly elegant. Thirifays is painted in color, but directly behind her is her ghostly self, suggesting that she exists on this plane, but also in another dimension of reality. The statuesque white face of the ghost also evokes the story of the biblical Lot woman, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed the angels and turned to gaze upon the destruction of Sodom.
Magritte’s 1952 gouache on paper “The False Mirror,” with an eye whose whites reflect a cloudy sky, uncannily resembles the gateway between the inner mind and the outer world. The eyes, large and fixed, were an important subject for the surrealists. I couldn’t help remembering the grimacing scene worthy of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali in “Un Chien Andalou” where a razor cuts an eyeball (actually the eyeball of a dead calf, but knowing that that doesn’t make it any easier to watch).
Miró’s 1966 “The First Spark of the Day III” is simply a lovely painting, a link between the surreal idea of automatic painting and the abstraction that would eventually supplant movement. The show is a gem and shows how revolutionary this movement was. Although it continued into the 1950s and 1960s, surrealism began to fade after World War II. Why? As Magritte wrote to André Breton, “The confusion and panic that Surrealism wanted to create in order to call everything into question was much better achieved by the Nazi idiots than by us”.
THE GLORY OF MUD
I first encountered John Walker’s paintings in the 1980s, when I was a bartender at the sadly defunct Café Loup restaurant in Greenwich Village, which hosted artists and intellectuals. The owners were art collectors and had purchased a painting by Walker. What struck me then – and remains true for Walker’s work – was the viscous, tarry corporeality of his painting. Muddy, thick and lush, it seems, like a bog, teeming with organic life.
Walker’s paintings of the mudflats seen from his windows are entirely consistent with this gooey, clotted application. Indeed, in some cases, it mixes dirt with pigments, giving them a more visceral body. He called the painting “only colored mud”, indicating both his respect for the earthiness of a material used to create so-called “high art” – his rarefied intentions seemingly elevated above the basis of the medium – and its working-class education. in the industrial city of Birmingham, where soot and gravel were part of life. This would have been particularly the case for Walker, whose early years were during the Birmingham Blitz, as Nazi forces bombarded the city and surrounding towns because of their strategic importance as industrial centers. Mud was probably everywhere.
But mud is also tied to his father’s experiences in World War I, which left him a damaged man. This might explain Walker’s interest in English wartime poets, such as Wilfred Owen and the Welsh poet and painter David Jones, who wrote about war and, invariably, the mud of the trenches. And that surely played a role in his fascination with Aboriginal artists, who worked with red clay from Australia.
Perhaps it’s not strange, then, that the beauty of the Maine coast was too much for Walker – too beautiful, too scenic, too masterful. It wasn’t until he really noticed the mudflats that he finally found something in this landscape to relate to.
Mud, in a way, is a sort of redemptive material, a common substance that unites everyone and connects the many disparate episodes of Walker’s life. Through it, he can remember his birthplace, express something vital about his father’s war experience that the older man could not express himself, and touch the deep spirituality at the heart of Aboriginal art.
The mud created the path that allowed Walker, finally, to include more traditionally beautiful elements of the Maine landscape – the blue canals that run through “Seal Point Series #V VIII”, the blue skies and watery streams of ” Untitled Panel Painting #3, “the rocky outcrops and liquid blue pools of “Beano #9 Seal Point Series #K36”, or the clouds resembling John Constable in 2005’s “Untitled Bingo Card” (Constable is one of the many artists – with Rembrandt, Goya Velazquez and Malevich – whose work had an impact on Walker’s style).
Shapes are meaningful to Walker, whether it’s the 1970s diamond shapes, an 80s shape often described as resembling the silhouette of Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba, or two particular shapes in contemporary paintings. Many, like “Sea Cake II (Winter 04)” derive shapes from the tidal pools left behind when the ocean recedes. But certain forms return, notably a globular form which tapers almost to a point like a teardrop. He appears in “Untitled Bingo Card [KM 127]“, oil “Untitled” on bingo card from 2010 and “Untitled” from 2007.
A sort of hourglass shape appears in 2001’s “Dawn-July 01” and 2013’s “Untitled Panel Painting #4”. These shapes were probably also inspired by tidal pools, but Walker found something there that apparently deserves to be repeated. Their significance may not have been apparent to Walker himself, who recalled that he only realized the Goya source of his Alba form after cutting paper in that form in his pursuit of figuration. and abstraction. These forms then represent a kind of figuration that connects abstract works to a source in the landscape he paints.
“Dawn-July 01” also seems to harken back to Walker’s days in Australia, where enigmatic marks mark the split oil on linen artwork. This episode in his life may also have played a role in how he depicts the moon’s reflection on “Pemaquid #21”, which essentially uses zigzag lines to indicate the movement of waves on the surface plane.
Bursting with gestural energy, and with strokes and daubs that barely suggest trees, birds, or sailboats, Walker’s works feel as alive and resplendent as nature, while simultaneously telegraphing raw emotion that is impossible to deny. .
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]