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Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art

Organized by Nicholas Hall in association with David Zwirner, the exhibition explores the ways artists throughout the history of Western art have sought to explain their world in terms of an alternate reality, drawn from imagination, the subconscious, poetry, nature, myth and religion.
Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art
David Zwirner
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.

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Nicholas Hall


“The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.”
– André Breton [1]

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.

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Installation views, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1936–1937. Photos by Soichi Sunami. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Ground floor installation view of exhibition ‘Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art’ in 2018 at David Zwirner, organized in association with Nicholas Hall © Nicholas Hall and David Zwirner
Chapter 01

Dreams and Temptations

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.

Leonor Fini La Peinture et l’Architecture (Painting and Architecture), 1938–1939 Oil on panel in two parts Each: 66 × 27 1/4 inches (167.6 × 69.2 cm) © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

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.”[3] 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?”[4] 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.

Installation view of exhibition ‘Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art’ in 2018 at David Zwirner, organized in association with Nicholas Hall © Nicholas Hall and David Zwirner
Automaton Clock in the Form of the Chariot of the Bacchus, Augsburg (?), ca. 1590-1600, private collection
Chapter 02

Unconscious Gesture

“It is true of Surrealist images as it is of opium-induced ones, that man does not evoke them; rather they ‘come to him spontaneously, despotically.’”
—André Breton [5]

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.

Wallace Putnam Mask of the Traveler, 1936 Mixed media assemblage on plywood 72 1/4 × 48 × 6 1/4 inches (183.5 × 121.9 × 15.9 cm) David Bowie Archive

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.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, A Reversible Anthropomorphic Portrait of a Man Composed of Fruit, oil on panel, private collection
Sigmar Polke Arcimi Boldi, 1984 Acrylic, artificial resin, lacquer, and dispersion on canvas 59 1/8 × 71 inches (150.2 × 180.3 cm) Private collection © 2018 The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Detail from Fantastiques, ca. 1830-40, Attributed to Jean-Jacques Grandville, Watercolor on paper, 25 sheets from a set of 41, private collection
Installation view of exhibition ‘Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art’ in 2018 at David Zwirner, organized in association with Nicholas Hall © Nicholas Hall and David Zwirner
Chapter 03

Fragmented Body

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. 

Gargoyle Pulling a Face, Anonymous (English), 15th century, private collection

Modernism also revolutionized the representation of the human form, most vividly witnessed through Cubism’s radical new way of working. André Breton described Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1973) Man with a Clarinet (1911) as having a “‘parallel’ existence [which] must remain a subject for endless meditation.”6 This was echoed by the hybrid, mannequin-like metaphysical figures of Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), which at times unexpectedly fuse with the painting’s architectural elements, and in Louise Bourgeois’s (1911–2010) combinatory sculptures that fuse male and female forms. 

This departure from the classical, idealized representation of the human form allowed artists to express an alternate, more complex view of humanity, often with a particular emphasis on sexuality. As Dawn Ades writes about Salvador Dalí’s Venus de Milo with Drawers (1936), “Many of the surrealists … constructed objects of intricate design whose primary ‘symbolic function’ was geared to erotic fantasy and the emergence of unconscious desires.”[7]

Odilon Redon, L’Ange du Destin (The Angel of Destiny), ca. 1900, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Installation view of exhibition ‘Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art’ in 2018 at David Zwirner, organized in association with Nicholas Hall © Nicholas Hall and David Zwirner
Chapter 04

Sense of Place

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. 

Piero di Cosimo The Finding of Vulcan on the Island of Lemnos, c. 1490 Oil and tempera on canvas 60 × 66 1/2 inches (152.4 × 169 cm) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1932.1 Photo: Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum

Describing Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings of spectral piazzas, André Breton writes, “How often have we found ourselves in that square where everything seems so close to existence and yet bears so little resemblance to what really exists?”9 Around the same time, Max Ernst was developing a more abstracted approach to nature rooted in his own childhood experience, with his series of The Forest paintings, whose brooding force and geometrical compositions are different from the seemingly inhabitable, yet otherworldly spaces conjured up by Salvador Dalí, Kay Sage, and Yves Tanguy (1900–1955). 

Meanwhile, Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) produced works intentionally based on places he had never visited, such as in his boxed collages that refer to specific locations in Paris. In England, conversely, where the tradition of landscape painting was never abandoned, artists like Paul Nash and Eileen Agar worked in the countryside and produced Surrealist paintings and sculpture directly influenced by the environment in which they lived.

Giorgio de Chirico La grande torre (The Big Tower), ca. 1932 Oil on canvas, 31.8 × 31.8 cm, Private collection © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome
Installation view of exhibition ‘Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art’ in 2018 at David Zwirner, organized in association with Nicholas Hall © Nicholas Hall and David Zwirner
Chapter 05

Monsters & Demons

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.

James Ensor Skeletons Warming Themselves, 1889 Oil on canvas 29 3/8 × 23 5/8 inches (74.6 × 60 cm) Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels
“We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster.”
—Jorge Luis Borges [10]
James Ensor, Warmth-Seeking Skeletons 1895, Handcolored etching (probably a Makulatur impression) on wove paper, retouched in a pen and ink and colored with red, yellow, orange, green, and lilac crayon, blue wash, and white heightening, private collection
Martin Schongauer, Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, ca. 1475, engraving on laid paper, private collection
Installation view of exhibition ‘Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art’ in 2018 at David Zwirner, organized in association with Nicholas Hall © Nicholas Hall and David Zwirner
Chapter 06

Super Nature



Marcel Duchamp, when asked about his conception of magic, emphatically replied: “ANTI REALITY!”
– [11]

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.

Installation view of exhibition ‘Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art’ in 2018 at David Zwirner, organized in association with Nicholas Hall © Nicholas Hall and David Zwirner
Alberto Giacometti Femme (Woman), 1928–1929 Plaster 14 3/8 × 7 × 3 1/4 inches (36.5 × 17.8 × 8.3 cm) © 2018 Alberto Giacometti Estate/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Mythological heroes such as Prometheus were credited with the magical creation of man, and the gothic nineteenth-century novel Frankenstein was an apotheosis of such myths (Mary Shelley’s work was subtitled The Modern Prometheus). In the twentieth century, the Surrealists, who rejected organized religion, were fascinated by the world of magic, which extended from an interest in so-called fetish objects produced in New Guinea and ceremonial Inuit masks to later artifacts. André Breton, though an avid collector of Inuit art, rejected Picasso’s interest in African objects as colonialist. However, Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966)—a member of the Surrealist movement from 1929 to 1936—was indeed influenced by African, Oceanic, and Alaskan mythological objects, many of which were sold by Charles Ratton at his gallery in Paris. In a celebrated exhibition in 1936, Ratton exhibited Man Ray’s (1890–1976) blanket-wrapped sewing machine, L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse (1920), alongside masks from Alaska and New Guinea.

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