“Nothing happened but the wallpaper”

The digital image above with its surrealistic elements typifies the work of Kinga Britschgi, a Hungarian artist who moved to the USA in 1995 and now lives in Boise, Idaho. It’s 881 miles by road from there to Sedona, Arizona, where Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst, a primary pioneer of the Dada movement and of Surrealism, began to build a house and a marriage (they had a double wedding in Hollywood in 1946 with Man Ray and Juliet Browner). Tanning was an American painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer and poet. To make the journey by Greyhound Bus requires changing at Salt Lake City and Las Vegas and, Google Maps informs me, “your destination is in a different time zone”.

Ernst enrolled in the University of Bonn in 1909 to read philosophy, art history, literature, psychology and psychiatry. He visited asylums and became fascinated with the art work of those in poor mental health, himself beginning to paint in that year.

The title of this post is taken from Tanning’s autobiography and describes her adolescence in Galesburg, Illinois. Her escape to other worlds lay through Gothic novels and poetry. The title of her 1944 oil painting, “A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today” is a reference to Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), an English author of Gothic fiction.

In the mid 1960s, Tanning began to create soft fabric sculptures. I’m at London’s Bankside to see Tate Modern’s major retrospective of Tanning’s work, and am able to gaze into the sculptural installation of 1970-3, “Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202”. (Pavot is French for poppy, and Tanning was making reference to a song from her childhood, “In Room 202”.) The caption describes the work as a “claustrophobic, uncanny diorama ….Tanning said she wanted the work to appear as if “the wallpaper will further tear with screams”, yet for the scene to maintain “an odd banality”.”.

Another soft sculpture, “Emma 1970”, was named after the eponymous character of Flaubert’s 1856 novel “Madame Bovary”, who, bored and constrained by the roles of wife and mother, escapes through literature and affairs.

Lara Feigel comments:

“The Tate show’s curator Alyce Mahon makes a compelling case for late surrealism in the catalogue, reminding us that it was a movement that continued to flourish and to mutate after the Second World War.”

Surrealism, building on the anti-rational tradition of Dada, was founded by the poet André Breton in Paris in 1924. Breton had studied medicine and psychiatry and was well versed in the writings of Freud. He was particularly interested in the idea that the unconscious mind was the source not merely of dreams but of artistic creativity. Automatism, a practice akin to free association and stream of consciousness, gave the Surrealists the means to produce unconscious artwork.

Jon Mann writes:

“By 1937, however, most of the major figures in Surrealism had been forced to leave Europe to escape Nazi persecution. Max Ernst’s “Europe After the Rain II” (1940-42) reflects this fraught moment with a post-apocalyptic vision created at the height of World War II. A partially abstract work formed by “decalcomania” – a technique that entailed painting on glass, then pressing that painted glass to the canvas to allow chance elements to remain – “Europe After the Rain” suggests bombed-out buildings, the corpses of humans and animals, and eroded geological formations in the aftermath of a great cataclysm.”

Its theme of the attitudes towards women’s mental and physical health in the 19th Century earned “The Yellow Wall-paper. A Story” a place amongst important early works of American feminist literature. Its author was Charlotte Perkins Gilman and it first appeared in the January 1892 issue of The New England Magazine.

An A level student of 2014 writing as bookeros for the Guardian said of the story:

“Through this short story Perkins intents to explore the way female psycho synthesis is being affected by the constrictions which the patriarchal society sets on women. It is a first person narration by the female patient herself with the structure being very loose and thus making it look more like a stream of consciousness which becomes more complex as the text develops and the woman is being driven to absolute madness.

*hint: Edgar Allan Poe’s fans, this book is for you!

I am afraid that I cannot tell you what the yellow wallpaper stands for, you will have to find this out on your own!!!”

Lara Feigel goes on:

“That late Surrealism still needs rescuing by curators and critics is perhaps not a sign of its defeat but of the breadth and pervasiveness of its triumph. Could we have Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock without Surrealism? What about David Lynch, JG Ballard or Angela Carter?”.

As Frida Kahlo said: “I never knew I was a surrealist till André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.”.

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