French-Romanian Painter, Sculptor, and Illustrator
Piatra Neamt, Romania
Summary of Victor Brauner
A leading member of the Romanian avant-garde, Brauner is best known for his explorations of spiritualism, myth, and prediction in which he combined elements of folk or primitive art with the unusual juxtaposition of objects and forms. Although he initially experimented with a range of approaches including Dada and Expressionism, Brauner is most prominently associated with the Surrealists and he was an active member of the group between 1925 and 1948, working closely with André Breton himself amongst others. During his career, Brauner incorporated many and diverse influences into his work to develop a unique personal style which incorporated the use of flattened perspectives, vivid colors, and a complex iconography.
- Known for his eclectic use of imagery, Brauner developed a very individual visual lexicon, incorporating signs and symbols from a diverse range of sources including religion and mysticism into his work. He used these representations as a vehicle to present his own emotions and interactions, claiming that his work was predominantly autobiographical. The personal nature of these emblems, however, makes it difficult for the viewer to interpret them with any great degree of precision.
- Ideas associated with prophecy become more dominant in Brauner's work after 1938 when he appeared to correctly predict the loss of one of his eyes in a fight (eyes had been a reoccurring theme in much of his early work). In doing so, he gained a reputation amongst the Surrealists as seer, also believing himself to be one. After the incident his work became more introspective and symbols such as a prophetic cyclops eye are common.
- Many of Brauner's works contain fantastical and often grotesque hybrid creatures in which humans, animals and machines are combined to produce bizarre and often unsettling images. In creating these, the artist depersonalized the human form and had the opportunity to write his anxieties onto representations of his own body and the bodies of others, particularly women.
Progression of Art
Self-Portrait with Plucked Eye
Self-Portrait with Plucked Eye shows the artist's face with his eye missing and the eye cavity hanging open. The figure is seen head-on, with the one remaining eye staring directly at the viewer in a penetrating manner. This image is more representational than many of Brauner's works, depicting a self-portrait painted in the mirror, accurate apart from the eye. The muted colors and lack of blood or gore give the piece a dream-like feel and reinforce the uncanny juxtaposition of realism and Surrealism.
Mutilated or transposed eyes were a reoccurring theme for Brauner appearing in many of his works including Mediterranean landscape (1932), The Last Journey (1937), and Painted from Nature (1937). Eyes were also an important symbol in the wider Surrealist canon, famously appearing in the eyeball slicing scene at the start of Dalí's Un Chien Andalou (1929) an in Georges Bataille novella Story of the Eye (1928). Seven years after this image was painted, Brauner lost an eye when he intervened in a fight between two Spanish painters, Oscar Domínguez and Esteban Francés. After the incident Brauner gained a reputation amongst the Surrealists as a clairvoyant and his work became less satirical and more focused on magic and the occult.
Oil on canvas - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
The City I Dream
This cityscape, with its bold colors and illustrative style shows the influence of Italian Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico on Brauner. De Chirico painted eerie town squares using bright colors and severe, elongated shadows and his scenes were often populated by single figures. In this image Brauner takes de Chirico's concept and interrogates it through the replacement of buildings with body parts and items of clothing. This transposition of items within a framework of normality was a hallmark of the Surrealist movement. Brauner experimented widely with different styles and techniques throughout his career and this image demonstrates his ability to appreciate and absorb the work of others whilst still making his own unique images.
The addition of the incongruous military figure in the foreground is particularly interesting, his dress resembles that of a toy soldier or bandmaster but despite his well-dressed figure, he preaches to an empty street. It is possible that this was a political comment on the increasing turmoil in Germany, portraying the Nazi government as an inflated and ridiculous figure. Brauner had tackled political subjects previously painting a Surrealist version of the German dictator in 1934, simply entitled Hitler.
Oil on canvas
Anatomy of Desire
In his Anatomy of Desire series, Brauner sketched diagrams of female figures with the additional of mechanical elements, each image also contains explanatory notes. In this work, the figure has a shrunken head with two 'headlamps' in place of eyes, two 'levers of excitation' through the center of the face, and an elongated 'nutritive tube' which is shown leading into the mouth of a human head to the left side of the sketch. The large rings through the breasts are labelled as 'handholds for life'. Instead of hands, the figure has a claw- or pincer-like appendage on the right ('castrating forceps') and a horn-like limb on the left ('esophageal milking machine'). The sexual organs are labelled as 'the best of the best' and the figure also has two 'sexual pedals' emerging from its inner thighs.
By depicting the body as a conglomeration of organic, artificial, and mechanical parts which are both dangerous and erotic, Brauner represents his own desires and anxieties. For instance, the juxtaposition of the two arms, one which terminates in a sharp tool intended for 'castration', the other in a 'milking machine' intended to nourish and nurture, demonstrates Brauner's notion of the female body as the source of both creation and destruction. Brauner continued to explore the human (usually female) body as a fragmented form in subsequent works, such as Mitsi (1939), and Homme idéal (1943).
This presentation of the female form in a de-humanized way occurs in much Surrealist work. Often women were not presented as subjects but as projections of the artists own concepts of femininity and the female body became the ultimate Surrealist object causing it to be fetishized and mystified by some of the male artists. This is particularly true of the reoccurring Surrealist trope of the 'devouring female' seen represented here in the presence of the 'castrating tool'. Similar themes can be found in the work of Andre Masson and Felix Labisse and in artistic and literary presentations of women as praying mantis or with vagina dentata.
Pencil on paper
This work comes from a series of spectral, hazy paintings that Brauner created over a two year period. In Mitsi, a nude female figure dominates the right side of the image, whilst on the left a wispy form appears to be emerging from her. She stands in an empty room with a tall window at the far end overlooking a barren landscape. In 1939, Brauner developed this image further, creating The Inner Life (Nude and Spectral Still Life) in which a solid female form on the left is mirrored by a spectral soul on the right. These are linked together within a thin membrane almost like a glass bottle or flask.
In both these works, as well as in The Philosopher's Stone (1940), Brauner experimented with representation of the concept of the 'etheric body'. In Neo-Theosophy, the 'etheric body' was the name given to the lowest level of the human energy field or aura, which sustains and connects the physical body with higher bodies. Brauner was exposed to the ideas of Theosophy by his father and was familiar with the concepts associated with it as a belief system. These works by Brauner influenced later pieces by Mexican Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington and Spanish Surrealist painter Remedios Varo, both of whom painted several pieces in which solidly rendered figures appear next to transparent, ethereal counterparts.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Brauner first rendered the combination of a fox and a table in two paintings completed in 1939 (Fascination and Psychological Space). He later extended the idea into this three-dimension form for the 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, at the request of André Breton who viewed the 1939 imagery as a premonition of the Second World War. Wolf-Table is another example of Brauner's interest in hybridizing living creatures with man-made objects, resulting in an absurd juxtaposition that defies reason or logic. Brauner adds an element of both humor and sexualization to the piece through the inclusion of the fox's stuffed testicles.
The untranslated title of the work, Loup-Table is reminiscent of the French word 'redoutable' (formidable), which seems to make a mockery of the fox, whose apparent anger and frustration stems from the fact that its wooden body serves to immobilize it, trapping it in place to be used as mere furniture. Brauner's ties to Dada are strongly visible in this work, through his use of readymade or 'found' elements.
Taxidermied fox and wood - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
The Surrealists held a strong interest in tarot, and often used tarot imagery in their art. In 1940, Brauner worked with other Surrealists to create their own deck of tarot cards. In this directly autobiographical work Brauner depicts himself as a young man, using the Surrealist tarot card image of the Magician (also known as the Juggler) as a basis. Brauner used the same imagery in his 1947 painting The Lovers. Like the Magician, Brauner's Surrealist wears a large hat and medieval costume as well as mimicking the pose and arrangement of the card. In arranging the self-portrait in this manner, Brauner affiliates himself with the Surrealist group and their previous work, referencing a shared understanding and iconography.
For the Surrealists, the Magician represented creativity, and as art historian Elizabeth C. Childs writes, "the capacity of each individual to create his own personality through intelligence, wit, and initiative", traits with which Brauner was keen to align himself. The work also includes illustrations of the four suits of the tarot deck (wands, cups, swords, and coins) which correspond to the natural elements of fire, water, air, and earth. In portraying these, Brauner indicates that all life falls under the spell of the Magician and in doing so references his supposed ability to see the future.
Oil on canvas
Consciousness of Shock
In this work, Brauner adopts the flattened styles of Egyptian art. Here, two halves of a hybrid boat-shaped figure are shown struggling with one another. Brauner executed this work using encaustic, a technique in which paint is mixed with molten wax, the artist then incises the design with pen and ink into the hardened surface. Brauner began using this technique when he was forced to flee Paris during World War II and was unable to obtain his usual materials. Art historian Camille Morando writes that this change in technique marks "an important shift in Brauner's painting that suggests a transfer of energy from materials (with magical virtues) to representation (incised text and images), resulting in the production of works reminiscent of ex-votos and talismans, thus protecting the painter".
It has been suggested that Brauner referenced the Egyptian myths of the Solar Barge and the Heavenly Vault in the image. This theory is dismissed, however, by art historian Elizabeth Childs who argues that "While a generalized Egyptian style undoubtedly influenced Brauner's imagery, it seems more likely that the artist derived this fantastic visual vocabulary from his own imagination, rather from specific art-historical sources". It is more probable, therefore, that this image shows an internal battle for control of the depicted being and this form could possibly represent Brauner himself and the different aspects of his personality battling for dominance.
Wax encaustic on hardboard
Prelude to a Civilization
In this work, stylized renderings of about forty animals, figures, masks, and abstract symbols are enclosed in a large cow-like animal. As in Consciousness of Shock (1951), the work is rendered in encaustic. Brauner had a large collection of primitive art and it is likely that he used his collection for inspiration. The overall effect is one of an early cave painting and the figures depicted are reminiscent of the art of the Plains Indians, who represent similar imagery on robes made of animal hides, in order to commemorate the adventures and successes of the warriors who wore them. Given the autobiographical nature of much of Brauner's work it is probable that the piece follows a similar theme, recording events or incidents from the artist's life.
Having moved away from the high Surrealist style of artists like Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, this flattened, simple and bold aesthetic characterized much of Brauner's later works. This can be seen as a purification of form and a return to the basic tenants of art having experimented with a wide range of other styles and movements on they way.
Encaustic and ink on Masonite
Biography of Victor Brauner
Victor Brauner was born in 1903 in Piatra Neamț, in the Romanian region of Moldavia, the third of six children in a Jewish family. His father was a timber merchant and the family moved often; Hamburg (Germany) in 1907, and Vienna in 1912. In 1913 Brauner built his own easel and began to experiment with painting. When the family returned to Romania in 1914, he continued his schooling at the Lutheran school in Brăila, with a focus on zoology.
Brauner was a very prolific writer, corresponding with other artists and recording his process of creation and reflecting on his life in personal notebooks. Despite the extensive nature of his writing, Brauner published very little during his lifetime, but the unpublished works remain nonetheless a rich biographical source. In one such poem written in 1945 (Memories of a One-Eyed Man), Brauner recalled the experiences of his childhood, including poverty in Romania, the May 1907 riots in Moldavia, and the appearance of Halley's Comet on May 18, 1910, which was widely seen at that time as an omen of the end of the world. He also wrote of memories of his father who, interested in spiritualism, organized hypnosis sessions with famous mediums during which they communicated with spirits in other realms. This formative interest in spiritualism and magic influenced Brauner throughout his career. Additionally, the Hasidic Judaism with which he was surrounded in Moldovia instilled in Brauner an interest in the Kabbalah, and its motifs appear in much of his art.
Education and Early Training
Brauner attended the National School of Fine Arts in Bucharest from 1916 to 1918, and later studied at the Horia Igiroşanu private school of painting, and the Beaux-arts school in Bucharest where he painted landscapes in the style of Paul Cézanne. He was later expelled from the school for "misbehavior and anti-conformist painting". He subsequently travelled around Romania visiting Fălticeni (where he became fascinated by a sleepwalker, a theme he was to return to) and Balchik. During this time he experimented with Dadaism, Abstractionism, and Expressionism.
In 1924 he held his first solo exhibition, displaying paintings in an Expressionist style and in the same year he co-founded the Dadaist-Constructivist review 75 HP with poet Ilarie Voronca. In 75 HP he published a number of picto-poems, combinations of writing and images, stating that:
PICTOPOETRY ... is the newest thing of the hour. All dandys must tailor their clothes to the cut of pictopoetry. Pictopoetry revitalizes all the revelatory currents of the new art. PICTOPOETRY finally realizes the true synthesis of futurisms dadaisms constructivisms... PICTOPOETRY TRIUMPHS OVER ALL RECORDS ALL REALIZES THE IMPOSSIBLE.
Brauner was also associated with the Dadaist review UNU, which published reproductions of several of his paintings and graphic works. In 1925, he taught at the Constructivist arts workshop 'Integral'. While his work later came to be more closely aligned with Surrealism, he maintained his ties to Dadaism through his involvement with these publications and through his playful juxtaposition of text and image in both his artistic and writing endeavors. Brauner also adopted the Dadaist's use of readymades into some of his works, such as Wolf-Table (1939-47), as well as the Dadaist techniques of collage and assemblage.
In 1925 Brauner travelled to Paris for the first time, where he stayed on Moulin Vert Street in the same building as Swiss sculptor, painter, and printmaker Alberto Giacometti, and French Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, who introduced Brauner to the Surrealists. It was also in Paris that he befriended Romanian sculptor, painter, and photographer Constantin Brancusi, who taught him the methods of art photography, as well as Romanian poets Gellu Naum and Benjamin Fondane, and other artists including Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Marc Chagall, Jacques Hérold, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. In 1930, Brauner settled in Paris more permanently and married Margit Kosch, whom he divorced nine years later. In 1931 he painted one his most famous images, Self-Portrait with Plucked Eye, a work that was eerily prophetic, as on August 28, 1938 Brauner lost his left eye when a violent argument broke out between Spanish Surrealist painters Oscar Domínguez and Esteban Francés. Brauner, attempting to shield Francés, was hit by a glass thrown by Domínguez.
Brauner's first solo Paris show was at the Galerie Pierre in 1934, for which André Breton wrote an enthusiastic catalogue introduction, lauding Brauner's "violently unleashed imagination". The exhibition, however, was not well-received and, disheartened and short on money, Brauner returned to Bucharest in 1935, where he half-heartedly participated in the Romanian Communist party. During this period he stopped painting and instead produced a a number of caricatures and illustrations including the Anatomy of Desire series (1935-36). In 1938 he moved back to Paris, where he met Jaqueline Abraham, who became his second wife in 1946.
When World War II broke out, Brauner's status as a Romanian, Jew, former Communist, and creator of 'degenerate art' forced him into hiding and he fled to Southern France. He lived Perpignan, Cant-Blame, the Eastern Pyrenees, and finally in Saint Feliu d'Amont. Throughout this period he stayed in contact with other Surrealists in Marseilles and in 1941 he joined them, having been given official permission to settle there. Around this time, he also attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain a visa to travel to the United States.
In the winter of 1940-1941, the Surrealists, who had gathered at the Villa Air-Bel, created a number of collective works, including a pictorial version of the game consequences, 'exquisite corpses', and a deck of Tarot cards which rejected the military and religious references of the preexisting Tarot. In creating the Tarot, each contributor selected the names of two personalities to represent on their cards. Brauner choose the philosopher Hegel and the famous medium Helen Smith, depicting both as hybrid human-animal forms. Brauner enjoyed these sorts of playful collaborative activities in which the Surrealists engaged.
Towards the end of the war, Brauner moved to Switzerland to escape the increasing Nazi persecution of foreign Romanian nationals. His regular relocation led him to reduce the dimensions of the canvases he used, so that he could easily fit the pieces into his luggage when he needed to travel suddenly (he referred to these as 'suitcase paintings'). While in Switzerland, Brauner discovered M-A. Sèchehaye's writings on Schizophrenia, which influenced his subsequent paintings.
In 1945 Brauner returned to Paris where his work was included in the International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Galerie Maeght in 1947. In 1948, however, Brauner was ejected from the Surrealists by Breton after refusing to support the expulsion of prominent member Roberto Matta (the reasons for Matta's expulsion have never been clear). From this point onwards, he shifted away from Surrealism-proper and began working more with drawing on paper, encaustic painting, and thin oil paint on boards, creating flatter, more stylized, and more abstracted pieces.
In 1959, the artist moved into a studio in Montmartre at 72 Rue Lepic. In 1961, he made a trip to Italy, and then settled in Varengeville in Normandy, the same year that New York City's Bodley Gallery mounted a solo exhibition of his work. In 1966, he was selected to represent France at the Venice Biennale, and had an entire hall dedicated to him. After a prolonged illness, Brauner died in Paris on March 12, 1966. He is buried at the Montmartre cemetery, where his tomb is inscribed with a line from his notebooks: "Peindre, c'est la vie, la vraie vie, ma vie" ("Painting is life, the real life, my life").
The Legacy of Victor Brauner
Brauner helped to push forward Surrealist art, by developing its vocabulary and drawing inspiration from new sources including alchemy, mythology, Judaism, Hinduism, and Aztec, and Native American belief systems. This expanded the remit of the group and gave his contemporaries new tools with which to express their ideas. This is particularly relevant in relation to Brauner's presentation of ideas relating to Theosophy, with his pictorial presentations of the etheric body having a direct impact on the work of other Surrealist painters including Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Conversely Brauner's art stood apart from that of the other Surrealists in that he developed a private and very personal iconography which related directly to his own existence. In 1962, he wrote "My painting is autobiographical. In it I recount my life. My life is exemplary because it is universal... [My painting] also recounts primitive daydreams in their form and in their time".
In 1947 Brauner met Jean Dubuffet and the primitive themes of the artist's painting influenced Dubuffet's development of his concept of Art Brut. This was a movement that sought to move away from the cultural art of the establishment to a raw expression of emotion created without reference to the norms of paintings and included the work of prisoners, children and the insane as well as that of primitive artists. Brauner can also be linked to the Abstract Expressionists through fellow Romanian Hedda Sterne, the daughter of one of his friends. Brauner introduced the young Hedda to his Surrealist images and when she later left Romania during the Second World War to settle in New York, she retained some of her early influences.