Skip to main content
Monthly Archives

January 2022

Time to get Surreal

By Elevenses, Surrealism, Talking art

Time to get surreal! Not so long ago I was talking about Arcimboldo and his proto surrealist works. He was called the Father of Surrealism by the actual founder of the movement, Andre Breton. Breton was primarily interested in automatism or automatic writing which he felt unleashed the subconscious. Breton was a writer and a psychiatrist so initially the visual arts were slightly peripheral to the movement; there was a concern that the time it took to draw, paint, sculpt was a barrier to true spontaneity but they got over that, especially with works such as Andre Masson’s free association drawings.

Andre Masson automatic drawing

André Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924, MoMA, New York

Pretty soon a bunch of artists were regularly meeting in Paris. The focus of their conversation wasn’t new pigments or perspective; they had rather more esoteric pursuits in mind and would spend hours experimenting with hypnotism and unconscious creativity. Breton and Masson were part of this group as was Salvador Dalí, perhaps the most famous of all Surrealist artists.

Dalí did produce some free association drawings but was more interested in fantastical and contradictory imagery; things that might appear in a dream or that you’d put together in your subconscious.

Perhaps his most famous work is also one of the earliest paintings he completed in his very recognisable style which juxtaposes sharply defined landscapes and objects with impossible imagery.

Surrealism Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, MoMA, New York

The Persistence of Memory was painted in 1931 a couple of years after Dalí joined the Surrealist movement and also a couple of years after he was thrown not only out of his home by his father but was also excommunicated by the whole town, partly due to his association with the Surrealists but mostly for blasphemy. He exhibited a work that was essentially an outline of a figure recognisable as Jesus and a sketch of the/his sacred heart within it with the title ‘sometimes I spit with pleasure on the portrait of my mother’. Nice.

Dali spit with pleasure

The setting of The Persistence of Memory is Port Lligat, the fishing village that Dalí and his wife lived in in poverty after their excommunication. Maybe it has a whiff of nostalgia about it as the central theme is time; or more accurately the problem of the concept of time. Real time isn’t the same as remembered time, and as for dream time… It’s malleable; just as the clocks are here. Dali said he was inspired by melting camembert but scholars say he may have been referencing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in which he theorises that time is a bit more complex than we thought.

If that’s the case, the clocks are pretty useless. It has to be said, however, that they aren’t actually clocks but pocket watches because they all have a winding mechanism. The Surrealists delighted in mocking the fashionable middle classes and since the pocket watch was the accessory du jour this could be a bit of a poke at not only the arbitrary nature of time, but the pointlessness of having a fancy time piece.

Let’s talk about the squid type thing on the sand that could be a self-portrait of sorts. Is that squiggle below what could be eyelashes part of his famous moustache? Who knows? Is that a tongue lolling out of his nose? Who knows? Might we say that this unformed figure is representative of Dalí’s embryonic career, the new life that’s he’s been forced to start? Who knows?

What many art historians agree on is that the ants are symbolic of decay and destruction. Dalí often included ants in his works after seeing them collectively devour entrails when he was younger.

So basically this is all about “the camembert of time” to coin Dalí’s phrase. Basically everything breaks down and changes over time.

Speaking of things changing over time, when this was exhibited in the US, he had been thrown out of the Surrealist movement for his political opinions (he had fascist tendencies) and was so poor that Picasso had to pay his travel expenses. After the exhibition he became one of the most recognisable people in the world.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Art History Room 101

By Elevenses, Talking art

For the 101st episode of Elevenses with Lynne I asked what you would put into room 101. The results are in!

The Mona Lisa!

I know! I think it might be more about the hype surrounding the Mona Lisa than the image itself but where did the hype come from?

I think it’s a perfect storm that included the fact that da Vinci didn’t paint many portraits of women, its inaccessibility in the collection of Francois I, its theft and subsequent retrieval and not to mention those elusive qualities that art historians love to wax lyrical about. I’ll stop there!

Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, 1503-06 (1517?),  Louvre, Paris

Three Graces Rubens Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, Venus, Mars and Cupid, 1635, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Boobs! Specifically the knobbly kind that Rubens was so fond of and the ice-cream scoops that Michelangelo served up. Access to female models was rare and so when Rubens married Hélène Fourment in 1630 he used her as model, wobbly bits and all (which he absolutely adored judging by the frequency with which he painted her). Michelangelo, suffice to say, probably wasn’t remotely interested in anyone’s boobs, even for the sake of not being placed in ‘art history room 101’ 500 years down the line.

Michelangelo Night

Michelangelo, Night from Medici Tomb, 1524-27, Florence, Italy

And so we move from the bizarre to the pretentious. Abstract Expressionism is firmly in ‘art history room 101’. The movement that was particularly popular in New York in the 1950s amongst artists got the thumbs down from more than one of you. I get it. It’s unusual to say the least that Rothko painted the Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons restaurant with the specific desire to make the wealthy diners unwell because they should be paying more attention to the artworks. Are you one of the people who will sit in contemplation of these works for hours? Likewise will you stand the requisite distance away from Barnett Newman’s works and read them like portraits? I imagine that some of you might not. Adam and Eve is a reflection on beginnings apparently. Got it?


Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958, Tate Galleries, London

Warning! These images may have an effect on you if you contemplate them for hours.

Abstract Expressionism

Barnett Newman, Adam and Eve, 1950, Tate Galleries, London

Which brings me to my ‘art history room 101’ moment. The pseudy artwork descriptions more often than not are connected to movements such as Abstract Expressionism. Along with that goes the kind of art that has to be explained by arty bollocks (see the website artybollocks – brilliant!). It’s not really art at all but an idea that can’t be conveyed in and of itself but has to have some description or clarification attached.

That’s often the case with video art. Yep, that’s in room 101 too.

And finally. Terrible reproductions. Back in the day when only a select few were elevated to the status of biscuit tins and posters, I thought I hated Constable’s Haywain. It’s not surprising when I was looking at the leached colours of a grainy print on tin. Ditto Monet’s Waterlilies or his garden at Giverny. Perhaps it was their association with doctor’s, dentists and the like? Anyway, in they go.

And the door to ‘art history room 101’ is closed.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Acrimboldo’s Tasty Portraits

By Acrimboldo, Elevenses, Talking art

Arcimboldo’s tasty portaits?! Hmmm. Imagine you say to your court painter one day ‘good morning, Giuseppe, I’d like you to produce a new portrait of me please’.

So he does. Only perhaps there was something in that phrase that inspired the artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo to produce (that word again) this portrait of Rudolf II in 1590.

Acrimboldo Rudolf II

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, 1590, Skokloster Castle, Sweden

A produce portrait! Get it?! Was he looking to be sacked? Exiled? Rudolf II was the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor; he was one of the most important men in the world and Arcimboldo was his court painter.

We’ve heard of the apple of your cheek but apple cheeks? A pear nose? Peapod eyelids? Wheatsheaf eyebrows? Was he kidding?

If he was, Rudolf laughed. Rudolf loved it.

Art historians over the years have declared that Arcimboldo was absolutely taking the mickey out of the Habsburg Emperor, they have certified him mad, they have dismissed him as merely fanciful but actually he was completely, if rather eccentrically, in tune with the court in which he worked.

The late 16th century was one of exploration and discovery and there was a real fascination for the wonders of the world in the intellectual, avant-garde, milieu of the Habsburg court which became a centre of scientific study.

Rudolf’s father, Maximillian II, was particularly interested in botany and zoolology and Arcimboldo had access to rare collections of flora and fauna which he included in the works.

Wonders of the world in the 16th century are not the same as wonders of the world now. Corn on the cob, for example, was rare in 16th century Europe and here it is in place of Rudolf’s ear. So this is an unusual way to show off knowledge, visual wit and the bounty of the Habsburg Empire all in one image.

If you missed the point, the portrait is called Vertumnus. Vertumnus was the Roman god of seasons, agriculture and growth. Basically the essential elements of a prosperous 16th century society. Essentially the portrait was an allegory for prosperity, harmony and peace. Perfect for a world leader.

But how could Arcimboldo be sure that Rudolf II would appreciate his efforts? Because this isn’t the first time that he had created works of this kind. The Four Seasons and The Elements are two series of paintings presented to Maximillian II, Rudolf’s father, in 1563 and 1566 respectively. They’re works of genius!

Acrimboldo - Spring or Primavera

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Spring, 1563 Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

Acromboldo Summer The Seasons

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, Louvre, Paris

Acrimbldo Winter

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter, 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Spring is a vision of blossoming flowers; summer is all fruit and vegetables with a lovely visual pun in the form of an ear of corn for the ear; autumn is autumnal in colour and composed of the fruits and nuts enjoyed in this season, and winter is a bit bleak – a gnarled tree trunk to represent older skin and a fabulous mushroom mouth.

Air Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Air, ca. 1566, (copy), private collection

Fire Acrimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Earth, 1566, private collection, Austria

Acrimboldo The Elements Water

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Air we only know from a copy and the original is lost but it seems that it was composed of birds and feathers. I’d challenge anyone to recognise this as a head from close quarters!

Fire is a bit unusual as it’s not a composite of flowers and animals but inanimate objects. This image probably has the most references to the Habsburg dynasty. The nose and the ear are fire strikers, one of the family symbols, that would create a spark if struck against the flint of the cheek. The golden ram is a reference to the Order of the Golden Fleece; the Habsburg’s highest honour. The double headed eagle is a symbol of the Holy Roman Empire and the canons are a reminder of the might of the Habsburg army.

Want to visualise what a neck made from the torso of a cow would look like? I give you Arcimboldo’s Earth. He also creates an eye from the open jaws of a wild dog and a nose from a hare’s bottom. The relationship between the animals might be questionable (the hare is giving the wild dog a hug as the former is about to plunge it’s teeth into the hare’s neck) but the result is stunning. The lion that forms the shoulder is readily visible and a reference to the mythological hero Hercules from whom the Habsburgs claimed their lineage. And they had pet lions.

Water is inevitably made up of various sea creatures including an octopus, a crab, a lobster and a prawn. I’m enjoying the fact that the lobster and prawn must be cooked as they’re pink/red, although apparently you can get red lobsters in the wild. The addition of the pearl necklace and earring add a touch of class.

Maximillian asked Arcimboldo to copy the paintings so the work depicting Spring and Autumn aren’t the originals which are now lost, but copies given as gifts to Philip II of Spain and Augustus of Saxony, and Air is a copy by an unknown artist. Clearly he wanted to share the joy whilst promoting the playful intelligence of his court artist.

It would seem that despite being the most depressing to look at, winter particularly took Maximillian’s fancy. He dressed as Winter in a festival inspired by the paintings. Arcimboldo designed the costumes and the scenery.

So this was a style, a tradition even, that was unique to the Habsburg court but somewhat intellectual, a whole lot of fun and surreal before surrealism was even a thing.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.