Important Art by Victor Brauner
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