Unreal Nature

November 4, 2014

As Children Do

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… Its very horrors are nostalgic and day-dreamy, having associations with a more pleasant-seeming past, which is resuscitated in brighter, iridescent colors, smoother contours, glossier surfaces, and sharper outlines. The artist shows us how he would prefer life to look and how — as children do — he would prefer to be frightened.

This is from ‘Surrealist Painting’ (1944) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… The decisive question is whether the Surrealist image, as illustrated in the works of Ernst, Dali, Tanguy, and the other painters of their kind, provides painting with a really new subject matter. That is, must hitherto untapped possibilities of the medium be explored in order to accommodate the Surrealist image?

… The Surrealist image provides painting with new anecdotes to illustrate, just as current events supply new topics to the political cartoonist, but of itself it does not charge painting with a new subject matter. On the contrary, it has promoted the rehabilitation of academic art under a new literary disguuise.The maxim nulla sine narratione ars is true enough, now as before, but the Surrealists have interpreted it vulgarly to mean that there can be no picture without an anecdote. The tradition of painting which runs from Manet through impressionism, fauvism, and cubism has created the first original art style since the French Revolution, and the only original one our bourgeois society has been capable of. All its other styles are revivals. That style is now threatened for the first time from the inside by Surrealist painters, and by the Neo-Romantics and “Magic Realists” who bring up their train. These painters, though they claim the title of avant-garde artists, are revivers of the literal past and advance agents of a new conformist, and best-selling art.

The Surrealists have, like the Pre-Raphaelites, reinvigorated academicism by their personal gifts — which are undeniable — and by going to either a remoter or a more discredited past for guidance; in distinction from self-confessed academicists, who try to keep abreast of the time by watering down yesterday’s advanced art. Taking their lead and most original impulse from Chirico — that archaizer who made a small but valid contribution — the Surrealist prefers Mantegna, Bosch, Vermeer, and Böcklin to the Impressionists. This does not make their painting any the less academic, but it does make it livelier, disturbing, and more attractive to new talents: adroit talents who read Rimbaud, have a sense of format, finish, and mise en scène — and can at least draw seriously. (The drawings of Ernst, Dali, and especially Tanguy are adventurous and original in a way that their paintings are not. The compelled economy of the line exposes their art to problems which are on the order of the day and which they otherwise evade by taking refuge in the ancient arsenal provided by the traditions of oil painting.)

Prompted by a real dissatisfaction with contemporary life, the art of these Surrealists is essentially one of vicarious wish-fulfilment. Its very horrors are nostalgic and day-dreamy, having associations with a more pleasant-seeming past, which is resuscitated in brighter, iridescent colors, smoother contours, glossier surfaces, and sharper outlines. The artist shows us how he would prefer life to look and how — as children do — he would prefer to be frightened. His wish is painted with such an illusion of super-reality as to make it seem on the brink of realization in life itself. The result is indeed a new and interesting kind of pictorial literature, but it is more literature or document than painting or art.

… or (art) photography.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

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