TEFAF Online - 2021
8 September 2021
The inter-related art-movements of Dadaism and Surrealism in the 1930’s changed the whole course of artistic inspiration in the ‘modern’ world. Whereas the themes of art had previously been dependent on visual ideas – landscape, the form of the figure, religious imagery for example – Surrealism and Dada turned the focus onto concepts derived from mental and internal emotions and from the imagination.
The conflict of the Second World War from 1939 to 1945 forcefully disrupted the whole development of artistic thought. In the late 1940’s, however, and into the 1950’s and 60’s, many of the most influential and creative artists of the pre-war era pushed aside the trauma of the war and returned to focusing on and further developing their earlier use of ideas and emotions born in the subconscious – the core concepts of Dada and Surrealism.
For this Second TEFAF Online forum I have chosen three works by three great linked but totally individual artists which illustrate the renaissance and development of this key period in the story of 20th century art: Jean Arp 1886 – 1966, Marcel Duchamp 1887 – 1968, and Man Ray 1890 – 1976. Each of these three used the unconscious stimulations of the imagination as the source of their inspiration but each expressed these ideas in a differing visual language and format.
Jean Arp sought to express the idea that a pictorial image, in painting or in sculpture, should not be ‘controlled’ by the artist, that is to say each line, curve of a shape or touch of colour should not be the result of conscious effort but should come from a free link between the inner mind and the hand.
‘Figures Resemble People Flying’ combines totally free brush painting and random effects of colour with single tones on the emotionally expressive curves of the sensual central woodblock forms.
Marcel Duchamp is one of the most important and influential artists of the whole Surrealist period but at the same time one of the most complex to define or categorise. In 1910-12 his art was essentially linked to Cubism but the next year he changed his focus to expressing conceptual ideas. Through his friendship with the Italian painter Francis Picabia - who was a central figure in the Dadaist movement – Duchamp adopted their focus on what they called ‘anti-art’ that is to say an imagery and expression of concepts totally removed from the classic themes of the 19th century or earlier. From this point onwards his work was essentially intellectual rather than visual and expressed largely through objects which he called his ‘readymades’.
One of the recurring themes of Surrealist art is the distortion of a normal vision of the world when seen through glasses or masks. In this group of works for TEFAF ‘The Clock in Profile’ is a very scarce example of Duchamp’s art in the 1960’s. It is a surreal self portrait by Duchamp using this theme. The cut-paper form of the distorting spectacles reveals letters spelling out ‘Le Pendule de Profil’, his description of himself,
Man Ray. One of the foremost collectors and patrons of avant-garde art in New York at the beginning of the 20th century was Walter Arensberg. In 1915 he invited Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp to a ‘salon’ at his apartment and it was there that the two artists were introduced.
Their friendship and collaboration was to become one of the most powerful influences on the development of surrealist art – in the widest sense of art from the subconscious – both in the US and in Europe.
In his famous ‘Rayograph’ images Man Ray was exploring the way in which an actual object or form was given a completely changed existence or personality through the photographic reaction between object, light and sensitised paper. This transmogrification between one ‘visual existence’ and another echoed Duchamp’s approach to ‘readymades’ – everyday objects transformed so that they are viewed in a totally different way.
Man Ray, like Duchamp, was also fascinated by the way that spectacles or a mask could change a viewer’s understanding of the real world. Perceptions of space and distance and light become totally disarranged if sight is only through a series of holes. ‘Optic Topic’, is a development of a paper mask conceived in the 1930’s. It combines the stimulation of an other-worldly surrealism with the elegance of carnival jewellery.