Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art
537W 20th Street, New York
12 September – 27 October 2018
Nicholas Hall is pleased to present Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art, organized in collaboration with David Zwirner and presented at its gallery location on West 20th street in New York. This exhibition takes as its point of departure Alfred Barr’s legendary 1936 exhibition at MoMA Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, which not only introduced these movements to the American public for the first time, but also placed them in a historical and cultural context by situating them with artists from earlier centuries. Drawn from international museum and private collections, Endless Enigma will include works from the twelfth-century to the present day.
Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art celebrates the fantastic themes explored in art across centuries and traces the rich historical throughline that connects artists’ enduring fascination with the imagination, the subconscious, and dreams. Drawing from the twelfth century to the present day, Endless Enigma provides a unique opportunity to examine affinities in intention and imagery between works created by a wide range of artists over a broad span of time.
In 1936, Alfred H. Barr Jr. introduced Dada and Surrealism to the American public with the now legendary exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. In that exhibition, which brought together 694 works—the earliest of which were represented by late medieval objects—Barr presented the innovations of Dada and Surrealism in the context of what he called “Fantastic Art” by European Old Masters, whose work displayed unexpected thematic and formal relationships with those of the avant-garde.
The Surrealists drew heavily on dreams as a primary source of inspiration, creating works that are characterized by unexpected juxtapositions rendered with photographic realism, as in the case of Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) and René Magritte (1898–1967), among others. While practitioners of this movement were strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud’s transformative investigations into the world of dreams and the subconscious, this subject matter had long preoccupied artists before them—a print of Henry Fuseli’s (1741–1825) The Nightmare (1781) hung on the wall of Freud’s study, one of many works by the artist that explores the sublimated sexual desires which lie at the core of dreams and nightmares. Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) and William Blake (1757–1827) also translated otherwise repressed fears and temptations into their own visions.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the alternate reality of dreams, desire, and anxiety found expression in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as in the densely patterned works of artists like Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) and Odilon Redon (1840–1916), whose portrayals of merciless female archetypes were greatly admired by André Breton, Surrealism’s chief theorist.
Dreams and desire come together most famously in Hieronymus Bosch’s (c.1450–1516) The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1515), but also in his various depictions of the Temptations of Saint Anthony, a subject that was subsequently taken up by Jan Brueghel the Elder (and later by his son, Jan Brueghel the Younger [1601–1678]), Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst (1891–1976).
Within the broader theme of dreams and temptation is an underlying objectification of women who were seen variously as paragons of beauty, muses, and temptresses. As Baudelaire noted in La Révolution Surréaliste, “Woman is the being who casts the greatest shadow or the greatest light into our dreams.” Though several of the leading members of the Surrealist circle were women—Eileen Agar (1899–1991), Leonor Fini (1907–1996), and Kay Sage (1898–1963) are among those included in this exhibition—their role was arguably downplayed. As Dawn Ades writes, “If woman is a mediator for the experiences and experiments of the surrealists … is she able ever to become herself a speaking subject?” Contemporary artists exploring this thematic imagery include Lisa Yuskavage (b. 1962), whose bold depictions of undeniably present female figures answer this question in the affirmative.
As early as the fifteenth century, artists were interested in the interplay of art and nature and the exigencies of chance. They painted on stone, utilizing preexisting patterns in marble that suggested people, cities, or landscapes. Over the course of the nineteenth century, this desire to incorporate random effects into works of art led artists like Jean-Jacques Grandville (1803–1847) and Victor Hugo (1802–1885) to start drawings with random splashes of ink and color, which were later developed into recognizable compositions. In the twentieth century, Max Ernst would incorporate rubbings from wood, what he called frottage, into his compositions.
These strategies were further taken up by the Dadaists, notably in the visual arts by Ernst and Jean Arp (1886–1966), who saw in collage the opportunity to let nature—or matter—take its course with random connections informing the production of a final object. André Breton and Philippe Soupault concurrently instigated the practice of automatic writing in Les Champs Magnétiques, published in 1919, which informed the technique of automatic drawing pioneered by Surrealists like Arp, Salvador Dalí, and André Masson (1896–1987), whereby the hand moves freely across the page, creating fluid compositions that reveal elements of the subconscious. These works on paper were paralleled by Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968) cerebral experiments with the readymade and more melodramatically embraced by the lesser-known American artist Wallace Putnam (1899–1989) in his monumental Mask of the Traveler (1936), which Barr included in his 1936 exhibition at MoMA.
Dalí also explored the unconscious gesture, developing a theory that he called “paranoiac criticism,” in which a painted object appears to take on another form altogether, bringing multiple images together in a play of optical illusion. Similarly, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1527–1593) wittily turned bowls of fruit into human faces, while Sigmar Polke (1941–2010), in his 1984 work Arcimi Boldi, whose title is a nonsensical play on the Renaissance artist’s name, experimented with different abstract techniques and unconventional, often chemically based materials, creating paintings whose compositions shift depending on the viewer’s position.
Throughout history, artists have portrayed the human body in deliberately exaggerated forms, sometimes for reasons ceremonial or mystical, and in other cases, purely for dramatic effect. Hieronymus Bosch, likely working from medieval prototypes, introduced an entirely new vision of the body in his various works, which are seemingly playful and admonishing, in which humans became chimerical beasts.
Pre-Renaissance artists were not interested in the idea of realistic representations of the environment for its own sake. Town and country were little more than background scenery until the sixteenth century when artists first made landscape an independent genre. Almost immediately after, the artist’s imagination began to take over, expressing fantastical and dramatic landscapes from whose dynamic forms humans or animals sometimes emerged.
At the same time, artists were producing imaginary townscapes, the most extreme of which were executed by Monsù Desiderio, whose nightscapes suggest those found in dreams. And perhaps Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s (1720–1778) claustrophobic, nightmarish treatment of prison interiors best exemplify the meeting of architecture and the mind. Romanticism’s celebration of nature’s untamed force had its origins in a mythic sense of the precarious balance between order and chaos.
Monsters, imaginary beings, and demons are essential imagery in myths and stories that detail the struggle between good and evil. In early depictions of the Last Judgment, none more graphic than those by Hieronymus Bosch, the hellish scenes are alive with scaly, fantastical monsters, based on the Book of Revelations and other later literary sources.
Greek and Middle Eastern mythology abound with beasts who alternately terrorized people or guarded their temples and homes. In Renaissance and Baroque Europe, zoomorphic images were transformed into the grotesque, becoming the subject matter for paintings, sculpture, architectural ornamentation, and even everyday objects including inkstands.
The world of monsters, like that of dreams, brought to the surface a fascination with the seductive powers of diabolical forces, giving birth to undead and morbid imagery, as with Edvard Munch’s (1863–1944) various depictions of vampires or James Ensor’s (1860–1949) treatment of skeletons in his seminal 1889 painting Skeletons Warming Themselves.
Pablo Picasso and the Surrealists were profoundly affected by the rise of fascism in the 1930s, and both Max Ernst and André Masson, for example, painted major works during this period in response; among them Ernst’s iconic Triumph of Surrealism of 1937, which features a rampant, flying monster at its center.
Magic and superstition inspired the creation of the earliest artifacts in the world. The Christian church, however, traditionally identified magic and the supernatural with demonic forces. Alchemists were consigned to the deepest depth of hell in a fourteenth-century fresco in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, and as late as the seventeenth century, the Catholic Inquisition was merciless in its persecution of witchcraft. Nevertheless, the ruling elite in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took an intense interest in alchemy and witchcraft (Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered the law of gravity, identified himself foremost as an alchemist). This interest was reflected in the witch paintings (or Stregoneria) of Salvator Rosa in the seventeenth century and in the drawings, prints, and black paintings of Francisco de Goya in the eighteenth century.