"The Best Art In The World"
…we may hope that the mysteries which really are not will give way to the great Mystery.
- André Breton, The First Surrealist Manifesto, 1924(1)
There was for us too, the necessity to put an end to idealism properly speaking, the creation of the word ‘Surrealism’ would testify to this….
- André Breton, The Second Surrealist Manifesto, 1929(2)
By DONALD KUSPIT, June 2020
With magisterial acumen, the Marxist art historian and sociologist Arnold Hauser noted the resemblance between Mannerism and Surrealism, insightfully arguing that the “combination of real details in an imaginary framework” typical of Mannerist painting was similar to—indeed, set a precedent for—“the description of associations in surrealist painting.” In both “real connections are abolished and things are brought into an abstract relationship to one another” in a “dream world.”(3) The “intellectualistic ‘surrealist’ outlook of mannerism…is the artistic expression of the crisis which convulses the whole of Western Europe in the sixteenth century,” he wrote, noting that it began with the Sack of Rome in 1527, which brought with it the end of the High Renaissance, as many art historians have noted, and with that the beginning of Mannerist art, for a long time regarded as decadent.
It was a political conflict and artistic crisis “which was to dominate European history for over four hundred years,” that is, until and through the 20th century or modern period, which is why, Hauser insists, “mannerism does not cover a particular, strictly confined historical period”: its repudiation of the “objectivism” of the Renaissance and emphasis on the “personal attitude of the artist” continues in the subjectivism of abstract art. Kandinsky’s emphasis on the “abstract” at the expense of the “realistic,” the “spiritual” at the expense of the “physical,” the “internal” at the expense of the “external,” the “subjective” at the expense of the “objective”–and introspection at the expense of observation--is exemplary. From Kandinsky through Rothko, so-called transcendental abstraction--transcendence (not to say repudiation) of objective experience in the name of subjective experience, the elevation of fluid feelings over hard facts (especially the artist’s personal feelings and social facts)--was the exemplary modern art.
As Alfred Barr’s famous 1936 diagram outlining the development of modern art made clear, “abstract art”--whether “non-geometrical“ or “geometrical”--was the climactic mode of modern art. That it is mannerist escaped notice. “Nothing characterizes the disturbance of the classical harmony better than the disintegration of that unity of space which was the most pregnant expression of the Renaissance conception of art,” Hauser writes. Space disintegrates in Kandinsky’s abstract paintings—“the whole system of perspective drawing, all the rules of proportion and tectonics” disappears--and with it the criteria of recognizing and constructing (external) reality. Space is replaced by the expression of feeling—increasingly raw, chaotic feeling, to trace the path from Kandinsky’s abstract expressionism to Pollock’s. Kandinsky once called abstract paintings “mood” paintings, suggesting that the material medium which is the physical foundation of the abstract painting serves the same psychological purpose as a human medium for the painter. For in the course of making the painting—working with and making the paint “work”--the painter projectively identifies with the raw material he uses to make it, and with that inscribes his “spiritual energy,” in the form of a mood, in it, where it can be deciphered by the viewer able to attune to it, like a medium or psychic. It becomes a medium of unconscious communication between painter and viewer.
The Sack of Rome by an army of mercenaries in the employ of the Emperor Charles V was the climactic event in his struggle with Pope Clement VII. The mercenaries “plundered the churches and monasteries, killed the priests and monks, raped and ill-treated the nuns, turned S. Peter’s into a stable and the Vatican into a barracks.” They left Rome in ruins and the Church powerless, no more than a fiefdom of the Empire. Something similar occurred during the French Revolution—there was “a massive shift of power from the Roman Catholic Church to the [secular] state,” “the property of the Church was [put] ‘at the disposal of the nation’,” and “all religious orders were dissolved,” “legislation against the clergy forcing them into exile, deporting them forcibly, or executing them as traitors.”(4) Something different occurred during the Spanish Civil War—the forces of Franco’s National Catholicism defeated the forces of Atheistic Communism. Centuries old religious idealism, run amuck and become authoritarian in Franco’s National Catholicism, and revolutionary secular idealism, run amuck and become authoritarian in Atheistic Communism, continued to be at war with each other in an endless fight to the death. The Nazi dismissal of avant-garde art as “degenerate” and attempt to “regenerate” classical art—exemplified by the work of Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, called “Germany’s Michelangelo” by Maillol, and ironically called a “degenerate artist” by Alfred Rosenberg, the editor of the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter (Peoples Observer)--is a bizarre, not to say perverse example of the conflict between religion and state, for Nazism was a state religion.
These historical conflicts are empirical evidence for Hauser’s remark that the crisis of European civilization—and with it of art—that began with the Sack of Rome and brought with it Mannerist art—and what might be called the mannerist attitude--continued into the 20th century. I would argue that they continue in contemporary art, particularly in the conflict between “low” representational art and “high” conceptual art, the last hurrah of Mannerist art, indeed, the attenuated decadent remains—not to say perverse refinement--of mannerist intellectualism. More broadly, in the conflict between neo-avant-gardism, which regards art as more sacred than life, and neo-traditionalism, so-called New Old Master art, which regards life as more important than art. Both are revivalist, the former looking back nostalgically to the heyday of 20th century avant-garde movements—art that struggled to be shockingly new and unfamiliar, ruthlessly purged art of any traces of the old and familiar--the latter looking back nostalgically to the pre-modern art of what Baudelaire called the Grand Tradition, old art with staying power.
What all provocatively avant-garde styles have in common—be they Cubist, Futurist, Expressionist, Surrealist, or totally Abstract (and all their variations and combinations)--is that they are “surreal” in their rejection of “idealism”—the idealism of High Renaissance art, the idealism evident in its elevation of classical art as the perfect art, the most consummate art, by reason of its idealization of the body, its conception—vision—of an ideal body, epitomized by Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, 1490. Surrealism “put an end to idealism,” as Breton said, but centuries before he wrote Mannerism announced its end. More pointedly, it announced the collapse—disintegration--of the classically ideal body, its parts no longer seamlessly integrated but eccentrically conjoined, a sum of body parts at odds with each other but tentatively connected, uncomfortably together. The human body lost the perfection that signaled it was made by God, the innate perfection of the beautiful body of Michelangelo’s Adam on the heavenly ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512, and seemed ruined beyond repair—resurrection--like the dead body of Christ in the Pietà Bandini, 1547-1555. Michelangelo, in the person of Nicodemus, holds Christ’s body, suggesting Michelangelo’s identification with him, and despair—the futility of the body.
The violence done to the body politic—the perpetual conflict between Church and State, the sacred and the secular, that Hauser mournfully remarks, between the spiritual and the material, as Kandinsky calls it—is reflected in the violence done to the human body in Mannerist art. It is torn apart into a sum of incommensurate parts precariously related rather than harmoniously united, as they are in classical art. It becomes unbalanced, unstable—distorted, if not beyond recognition in traditional Mannerist art, as Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540 makes clear, but all but unrecognizable as human in modern mannerist art, as in Alberto Giacometti’s Woman With Her Throat Cut (Femme égorgée), 1932. Long before Salvador Dali wrote about “Surrealist Objects Operating Symbolically” in “The Object as Revealed in Surrealist Experiment,” 1931, the Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo used everyday objects—fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish and books—symbolically to compose portrait heads of human beings, in effect dehumanizing them the way the Surrealists de-humanized the human figure, sometimes by turning it into an inanimate object, as in Alberto Giacometti’s Femme cuillère (Spoon Woman), 1926, sometimes by turning it into a monstrous growth, as in Max Ernst’s The Horde, 1927, sometimes by reducing it to a metallic heap of objects, as in Picasso’s Woman in the Garden, 1929-1930.
But however gross and grotesque the Surrealist avant-garde body—and however forced and malicious its distortion of the human body--it can’t compare in ingeniousness with the proto-Surrealist—yet more consummately surreal—heads of Arcimboldo. His Four Seasons in One Head, ca. 1590—an ironical self-portrait, suggesting that he is as creative as nature, indeed, that his creativity has as many seasons as nature—and Vertumnus, ca. 1590-1591, a portrait of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, as the Roman god of the seasons, pre-date Surrealism by three centuries. Arcimboldo’s surreal Mannerist heads are more constructive than destructive, as modern Surrealistic figures are—they are a “sum of destructions,” as Picasso famously called his Cubist works, the first, trend-setting, surreal avant-garde art. And, one might add, anti-nature art; Kandinsky’s purging of nature from his art is a second, more ruthless anti-nature art, as his purging of the haystack from Monet’s painting as beside its aesthetic point indicates. Arcimboldo’s human beings are one with nature rather than alienated from it, indeed, monstrous aliens, not to say morbid abortions, epitomizing its decrepit state, as they are in modern Surrealist representations.
After Kandinsky’s Blue Rider made his last trip, the human figure, along with social reality, in the form of the houses in Murnau, and landscape, sometimes with a factory in its midst, as in Landscape with Factory Chimney, 1910—the chimney rises above the landscape, symbolizing the triumph of technology over nature--disappear from Kandinsky’s art, and his “unnatural” and “unsocial” abstractions make their surreal appearance: his Improvisations and Compositions are surreal conglomerations of discrepant parts. They are de-technologized art—art stripped of perspective and proportion, as Hauser noted, the technology used in the construction of a High Renaissance painting. Some of the Improvisations obliquely--not to say reluctantly--allude to nature. In the Compositions the forms and colors exist in and for themselves—they’re pure, no longer signs of nature—there’s no turning back to impure natural appearances. Both types of work have a disintegrative flair—there’s no center that holds the parts together, to allude to William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” “anarchy is loosed upon the world”—upon art. The “passionate intensity” of Kandinsky’s abstraction—abstract expressionism in general—follows upon the collapse of classical calm—self-possession--epitomized by High Renaissance figures.
Arcimboldo’s The Librarian, ca. 1566 has been called “a triumph of abstract art in the 16th century,” but I would say it is a triumph of Surrealist art—a triumphant example of Surrealist grotesquerie, a work, like all of Arcimboldo’s portraits, with an “extreme degree of immediate absurdity,” to use André Breton’s famous phrase. But his is a forced, artificial, nihilistic surrealism, rather than a spontaneous, natural, celebratory surrealism—an optimistic mannerist surrealism that shows a flourishing, jubilant, rejuvenating nature rather than a pessimistic avant-garde surrealism that shows a sterile, barren, joyless nature. In Arcimboldo’s day nature was alive and well—ripeness is all, his heavenly fruits of nature declare. The avant-garde surrealists seem to anticipate—prophetically proclaim—the death of nature in modernity,(5) as Max Ernst’s Europe After The Rain, 1940-1942 suggests. Dali admired Arcimboldo, but the desiccated landscape in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, 1931 is a far cry from the lush nature in Arcimboldo’s The Gardener, 1590. His gardener is virile, Dali’s landscape is sterile, the difference between them the difference between traditional art, life-affirmative even when it deals with death—death may be in paradise, as Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-1638 painting shows, but paradise is nature lush with life, the tomb an intrusion in it, a disturbing anomaly but not its end. And Death may come for the beautiful Maiden in Hans Baldung-Grien’s painting, 1510, but she is full of life, and so is the forest in which she stands. Life and death co-exist in traditional art, however much they are at odds. In avant-garde art death triumphs—objects disintegrate, nature sickens, plants die--life is undermined in the name of art. When the authoritarian avant-garde supporter Clement Greenberg declared that one could no longer paint the “all too human” figure, because pure abstraction was the be-all and end-all of art, he was implicitly acknowledging that avant-garde art was inherently anti-life and anti-humanist.
The figure could no longer be a vehicle of the ideal, as it paradoxically is in Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and the early Michelangelo. The Surreal figure certainly does not have the dignity let alone mind of the figures in Raphael’s School of Athens, 1509-1511—certainly not the intellect of his Aristotle and Plato—nor the beautiful body of Michelangelo’s David, 1501-1504, nor the subtlety of Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda, 1503. They are the products of a clear consciousness, rather than the dregs of the unconscious, as nightmarish Surrealist figures are—supposedly manufactured to spite the bourgeois, more pointedly to mock sanity. They put a decisive end to idealism, to recall Breton’s words—the idealism of the High Renaissance, short-lived but continuing to haunt art in the form of the neo-classicism of Canova, David, Ingres, among others. Breton’s 1929 anti-idealism, implicitly anti-classical, is viciously echoed in Picasso’s 1935 anti-classicism, implicitly anti-idealism: “The beauties of the Parthenon, Venuses, Nymphs, Narcissuses, are so many lies,” he contemptuously declared during his so-called Surrealist period. “The Parthenon is really only a farmyard over which someone put a roof.”(6)
The Parthenon is a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena—a sacred space on the heights overlooking Athens. She sprung from the head of her father Zeus, epitomizing his wisdom. Since the High Renaissance she has become a universal symbol of wisdom. A golden sculpture of the goddess, made by Phidias, stood in the temple, confirming its sacredness, luminous gold being as sacred as the shining sun, the goddess indisputably as sacred and heavenly as the sun. Picasso lacked Phidias’ talent—like Cubism, his sculptures are clever rather than glorious, dehumanize and de-noblize (if I many invent a word) the ideally human noble figures of classical and Renaissance art. Similarly, his grotesque, ignoble Demoiselles d’ Avignon, 1906—surreal figures before Surrealism officially existed--dehumanize and mock the inherent nobility and innate beauty of the ancient classical graces and muses. The muses are symbols of the arts, suggesting that Picasso’s painting is an attack on art—a prescient example of Duchamp’s,(7) his Surrealist Large Glass as much a “sum of destructions” as Picasso’s Cubism.
Picasso ruthlessly de-idealizes woman; Duchamp continued to do so in Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2, 1912. Lacking grace and beauty, Picasso’s ugly whores are nightmarish monsters—hateful rather than lovable, intimidating rather than inviting. Turned into a machine, Duchamp’s woman becomes an abstract monster. Are Picasso’s primitive Demoiselles about to jump their male customer—the male artist? Are they cannibals who want to eat him alive? Duchamp’s Large Glass supposedly “depicts the erotic encounter between a bride and her nine bachelors,” that is, their gang-rape of her. The bachelors are young, the bride is a virgin, like the chaste nude in Guido Reni’s Susanna and the Elders, 1620-1625 but they are as full of desire for the beautiful Susanna—a classical Venus in all but name--as Duchamp’s lascivious bachelors are for the faceless bride. The game of love is a chess game—the male figures are chess pieces—and the victor has the right to despoil the Queen. It is an Oedipal enactment: the Bride is the Magna Mater, as her huge size suggests, the chess pieces are her sons, eager to copulate with her, to play the father, however pathetically. From the early Large Glass to the late Étant Donnés, 1946-1966 Duchamp remained obsessed with sex, and made works that violated woman by perversely de-idealizing her body into a sex object—dare one say a sex toy, for she is a sort of machine—more pointedly, an object of violent desire. If the Large Glass depicts a rape about to occur, Étant Donnés shows the dead victim of a rape, her bloody vagina confirming the gruesome violence done to her. When primitivism replaced idealism, art became emotionally primitive--emotionally regressed to violence—especially violence against woman, in envy of her womb—her nature-given creative power, her innate ability to create that remarkable work of art, an infant, a child. Can one say that avant-garde art began with envy of children, as Baudelaire’s and Kandinsky’s remarks suggest?(8)
More pointedly, art became insane, mad with desire--depraved: Picasso’s imbecilic surreal females, menacing us with their viciousness, their unrestrained aggression—a projection of Picasso’s—epitomizes desire run aggressively amuck. Primitive art is surreal, in that it denies the reality principle—to allude to Freud’s concept--that underlies ancient classical and High Renaissance art. They celebrate the reality principle—evident in what Hauser calls their “objectivism”--by idealizing reality: classical figures have and symbolize what Freud called the ego ideal, “the repository of standards, values, and images of perfection.”(9) God is an image of perfection—God the Father is the symbolic form of the ego ideal, and he created his son Adam in his image, after he created the whole universe. God epitomizes what psychoanalysts call primary creativity, the creativity we are all born with, the innate creativity of nature, the creativity of woman’s womb, in which a baby is created. And the creativity of the Virgin’s womb miraculously fertilized by God the Father without the Virgin Mother losing her virginity. She gave birth to another Son of God—Christ is the ego ideal of Michelangelo, as he was for many other Christian artists, followers of Christ who practiced the so-called Imitatio Christi, as Michelangelo did, perhaps more conspicuously by Dürer, as his Self-Portrait as Christ, 1500, among other works, makes clear.
I will argue that Picasso and Duchamp lacked an ego ideal: their Cubist and Surrealist figures are imperfect—emotionally damaged beyond repair, as one is when one lacks an ego ideal--projections of their psychotic tendencies in nightmarish form. Their anti-idealism expresses itself in their hatred—destructive devaluation--of woman, once idealized as a goddess. It is an envious hatred, for they are envious of the creative power of her womb, want to rip it out of her, abuse her, one of the reasons Surrealist artists—among them Man Ray—admired the Marquis de Sade, hospitalized in an insane asylum and finally imprisoned as a menace to society.
They make a mockery of sexual intercourse, as in Lautréamont’s absurd description—surreal symbolization--of it as “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” Sexual intercourse is no longer a natural event, but a mechanical feat performed by two rather different mechanical instruments trying to murder each other. If the sewing-machine is a symbol of the female, and the umbrella a symbol of the male, the umbrella is likely to be ground to pieces—shredded--when it fits into the sewing machine. For the Surrealists, sexual intercourse is the playing field on which the battle of the sexes is enacted, with the male destined to lose the nasty game. In surreal sexual intercourse, Venus no longer calms Mars, as she does in classical sexual intercourse, but castrates him. Sexual intercourse has been modernized beyond emotional recognition, not only because it has been de-organized but because it has become an instrument of hate rather than an expression of love. Lautréamont’s psychotic vision of sexual intercourse as a violent act—one human being’s violation of another—is quintessentially Surrealist, as Breton acknowledged—and mad.(10) One is mad—and makes mad art, art mocking sanity—when one’s instincts are no longer under the control of one’s ego, no longer answerable to one’s superego, of which the ego ideal is a part. Without an ego ideal all hell—evil, as Lautréamont said--breaks out, as it does in Surrealist art. It not only “puts an end to idealism,” as Breton said, but to realism, for it is grossly unreal, like dreams—anxiety-ridden dreams, nightmares from which it is hard to awake, as Picasso now and then does in his pathetic neo-classicism, and Duchamp never does.
What else is modern art, from Cubism through Expressionism to Surrealism, but an expression of self-destructive anxiety, inevitably following from the loss of rational self-possession, epitomized by the classical figure? Modern art is not so much an advance of art, as has been said, but a retreat of art, suffering from the slow but steady erosion of idealism, lingering in 16th century Mannerism, in whatever perverse, irrational form, completely abandoned in 20th century Surrealism, unequivocally perverse and irrational. It is the final step in the retreat of art from traditional classicism to modern romanticism, from thoughtful reason to irrational feelings. Goya’s print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1797-1798 shows what happens when one loses one’s reason—and when art abandons classicism, and with it idealism: one goes insane, has insane dreams. The sleeping figure is an artist—Goya himself, as he acknowledged—and his dreams are his monstrous works of art. But their monstrousness has been outdone by the monsters in mannerist modern art. Modern art has become a Yard with Lunatics, to refer to Goya’s 1794 painting.
The fleshy females who appear in the erotic series of 347 etchings Picasso made in 1968—they’re all fantasies, daydreams of an impotent old man, made five years before his death--are more realistic, but far from ideal: they’re profane sex objects rather than sacred goddesses. They’re more attractive and desirable than the monstrous whores in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—heavyweight pornography compared to the lightweight pornography of the etchings--but like them they exist to satisfy raw lust rather than symbolize wisdom, as the virginal goddess Athena does. They are all body with no mind, unlike toughminded Athena, as her armored body suggests. Picasso didn’t love wisdom, however much he was a smart aleck, not to say a wisecracker. He once said that “a head is a matter of eyes, nose, mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like.” Picasso’s Cubist Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912 has the letters “JOU” inscribed on a sheet of paper, supposedly an abbreviation for “JOURNAL,” but it has also been said to allude to the French phrase “faire de jouer,” to play a game. Cubism is a farce—a satirical game played with signs of objects, and as such plays a joke on them.
Picasso began and ended his career as a caricaturist—a vicious satirist, mocking the art of the Old Masters, most notoriously Velazquez. In satire, “freshness has gone: bitterness remains,” the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead remarked.(11) Cubism is a bitter, spiteful art, in which the freshness of nature is gone, and perception has been corrupted. Picasso is a great satirist, which doesn’t mean he’s a great artist, certainly not as great as Raphael. In a suite of 25 etchings, produced in 1967, Picasso turned the story of Raphael’s love for “La Fornarina” (The Baker’s Daughter) into a series of pornographic cartoons, mocking it—de-idealizing their relationship into an irreverent farce. And suggesting that Picasso was incapable of love, that is, affection and tenderness. In Ingres’ painting of Raphael and La Fornarina, 1814 she’s modestly clothed rather than displaying her genitals, idealized into a beautiful muse rather than vulgarized into a promiscuous whore, as she is in Picasso’s profane rendering. Ever competitive, Picasso once said that he bested Raphael, but he never did, for his hatred of classical beauty kept him from taking High Renaissance art seriously, let alone understanding its idealism.
Just as Dali’s mannerism is confirmed by his admiration for Arcimboldo, so Picasso’s mannerism is confirmed by his admiration for El Greco, and, more particularly, the mannerist Spanish poet Luis de Góngora. Góngora was called “the father of modern poetry” by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, just as Picasso was regarded as the father of modern painting by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Picasso illustrated 20 of Góngora’s poems, writing them out in hand. Just as Góngora was “willing to create and incorporate the new, literally in the form of neologisms,” in his poems, as a scholar wrote, so Picasso—and Dali—created and incorporated what might called visual neologisms—the new--in his Cubism, more pointedly in his Surrealism. A verbal neologism can be formed by combining existing nouns, such as “foot” and “path” in “footpath,” or different parts of speech, such as the adjective “black” and the noun “bird” in “blackbird.” Seemingly irreconcilable terms are absurdly reconciled in a compound noun. A good example of a verbal neologism is Max Ernst’s surreal “phallustrade,” a “verbal collage,” he said, more particularly, “an alchemical product, composed of the following elements: autostrade, balustrade, and a certain amount of phallus.”(12) Similarly, Picasso’s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910 combines different geometrical forms, some two dimensional, some three-dimensional, some rectilinear, some triangular to absurd perceptual—and neologistic--effect. Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, materially a compound of oil paint, oil cloth, and rope, formally a compound of letters, a grid composed of small black circles in brownish squares, eccentricized geometrical forms, and brushstrokes, is another absurd neologistic work. Collage is explicitly neologistic, that is, an absurd combination of different materials and forms, as Picasso’s Guitar, Sheet Music, and Wine Glass, 1912 makes clear. However different their medium, Arcimboldo, El Greco, and Góngora were 16th century mannerist artists—post High Renaissance artists—and all three were appreciated by 20th century Surrealists, who regarded them as prescient ancestors, both for their inventiveness and mindset—for their anti-classical mannerism, provocatively against the grain of classical idealism. More pointedly, their irrationality, in defiance of humanistic rationality.
Thus, in acknowledgement of the desecration of Rome in 1527, the body lost its ideality and sacredness. Raphael died in 1520, sparing his bodies the suffering and de-idealization and de-sanctification inflicted on Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s bodies. Michelangelo’s bodies lost their heroic muscularity and became nondescript shells of drab flesh, as the Rondini Pietà, 1552-1564, with its mortified Christ, shows. It is a depressing far cry from the classicized, idealized Pietà, 1499. The body was no longer perfect, but a ruin of what it had once been—it lost its dignity and pride, stature and nobility. It no longer symbolized self-possession but self-loss. It was seated, suffering passively, rather than standing upright, ready for action. Leonardo’s seated St. Jerome, 1483 prepares us for the worst. Suffering passively, his body ascetically emaciated, his diseased flesh festering with sores, presciently suggests the ruin the body will become in Surrealism.
But in the immediate aftermath of the Sack of Rome in 1527, there was a short-lived, defensive, compensatory attempt to spiritualize the body—to idealize the body in Christian terms, classical terms having been discredited by the humiliation of Rome--as the bizarrely elongated female saints in Jacopo da Pontormo’s Visitation, 1528-1529 show. Just as the elongation of sacred figures in medieval Christian art spiritualizes them, so the elongation of the sacred figures in early Mannerist Christian painting spiritualizes them. It transcendentalizes them, makes them larger than life. They become peculiarly surreal, however nominally real. Their bodies are completely covered by glorious robes, further transcendentalizing them—making them mysterious, otherworldly, however much they appear in the world, miraculously, like Christ. Their invisible elongated bodies are a radical change from the classically proportioned bodies of High Renaissance art. Pontormo’s incorporeal female saints have nothing in common with the half-naked female figures in Raphael’s The Parnassus, 1511 and the completely naked female figures in the Triumph of Galatea, 1512, their bodies gloriously tempting, sexually exciting. They belong to profane classical mythology, Pontormo’s figures belong to sacred Christian mythology. For his Christian females it is a sin to have a body, for Raphael’s pagan females it is a sin not to enjoy the body. To be sexless is to be sacred is the message of Pontormo’s female saints, to be sexy is to have joie de vivre is the message of Raphael’s pagan females. The former are all soul with no body, the latter are all body with no soul (at least no Christian soul). The former are supernatural, the latter are natural. The former are rigid, the latter spontaneous.
But pagan pleasure makes a comeback in later Mannerist art, and with it the naked body, unashamedly existing for pleasure. Elongation becomes eroticization in Primaticcio’s Fontainebleau female nudes, 1530s or 1540s—elongated like a snake, implying that woman is a seductive snake, as Eve became when she seduced Adam with the apple with which the snake seduced her. With the discovery of an ancient sculpture of Laocoon and His Sons in 1506, the snake became a theme in Mannerist art, as El Greco’s Laocoon, 1610-1614 shows. Twining around and strangling the bodies of Laocoon and his sons, it became unconsciously suggestive—surreally expressive--of sexual intercourse, a fusion of libido and aggression (the representative of the death instinct, as Freud thought, reminding us that orgasm has been called the “little death”). The intertwined bodies of Laocoon and the snake became the intertwined bodies of the Mannerist figura serpentinata, all the more so because the Mannerist figura serpentinata is used in sculptural representations of aggression and sex—sexual aggression, as in Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, 1583, and murderous aggression, as in Giambologna’s Samson Slaying a Philistine, 1562. The naked figures in both works are classically ideal and sensually beautiful even as they are manneristically twisted—intertwined in intercourse. Eros and aggression are never far apart in Mannerist art, including modern mannerist art, particularly Surrealist art.
I am arguing that the surrealist Weltanschauung began in the 16th century with the spiritualization of the body in early Mannerism and ended with its brutalizing sexualization in 20th Surrealism, perversely following the lead of its refinement and libidinization into an object of exquisite pleasure in later Mannerism. It lost humanistic meaning and re-gained the religious meaning it had in medieval art with the Christian saints in Pontormo’s Visitations. Perhaps more pointedly, it lost power with Christ’s pathetically decaying body in Pontormo’s Deposition From the Cross, 1525--1528—a far cry from the powerful muscular Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, 1534, the last hurrah of the heroic, virile classical body. I am suggesting that Mannerism climaxed and dead-ended in the 20th century with the sadistic, murderous treatment of the body in the Surrealist dream picture.
In sum, the dream picture begins with 16th century Mannerism, initially in response to a catastrophe—the Sack of Rome in 1527—more particularly, a defensive retreat and withdrawal from external reality to internal reality, bringing with it heightened attention to feelings and the use of objects to represent and communicate them—and climaxes in 20th century Surrealism, with Cubism a prescient step along the way. Mannerism is ostensibly a regression in the service of the ego of art, to allude to the art historian and psychoanalyst Ernst Kris’s famous idea, but it ended up being a regression to paranoid aggression, all but artless from a classical point of view. It epitomized fear of women—gynophobia with a vengeance—as the Surrealist transformation of her into a terrifying nightmare suggests. Barely recognizable as human, she becomes a succubus, another one of the monsters produced by the sleep of reason.
Mystery, in the form of a dream—the dream being the gateway to the unconscious, as Freud famously said, and with that to mysterious feelings, uncannily attached to the hallucinatory objects that appear in a dream—becomes the slippery surreal foundation of modern art. Works of art become mysteries to be deciphered or interpreted by the cognoscenti—Mannerism was an intellectual art, as scholars have noted. The figure becomes mysterious and absurd, an absurd mystery initially confirmed by the Christian mystery—“I believe because it is absurd” (surreal?), Tertullian supposedly said--as in the religious works of early Mannerism, later the sexual mystery that it becomes in absurd modern art, climactically in Surrealism, with its worship of the absurd dream and the mysterious unconscious that created it. It was particularly obsessed with the phallic woman, with the voluptuously elongated Fontainebleau female, and Parmigianino’s elongated Madonna With The Long Neck, 1534-1540, accompanied by a phallic column to make the point decisively. The Madonna’s elongated neck re-appears in the elongated neck of Jacqueline Roque in Picasso’s numerous portraits of her, confirming his indebtedness to mannerism. The absurdly elongated male bodies in El Greco’s Laocoon, 1610-1614 are also phallic; the female snake is in effect castrating them. Similarly, the figura serpentinana, is implicitly a phallic woman, a dialectic of opposites, like sexual intercourse, where the extremes of libido and aggression converge in sexual intercourse, as they more subtly do in human intercourse in general. Certainly Eve with her phallic snake, was a phallic woman, more particularly the phallic mother.(13)
If Yves Tanguy’s Mama, Papa Is Wounded, 1927 is any clue, the Surrealists were afraid of castration, so they castrated women instead. Has the helpless wounded female toreador in Picasso’s Minotauromachy, 1935 been castrated by the Minotaur, triumphantly holding his sword? Is Max Ernst’s Hundred-Headless Woman, 1929 a castrated phallic women? She seems to have lost more than her head. In Tanguy’s work the father is castrated by mother—she’s won the battle of the sexes—but it’s all psychoanalytic fun and games in some space of the disturbed mind. A psychoanalytic idea—fear of castration—is wittily staged, the humor of the work—a sort of joke—defending against it, against the anxiety the thought of castration arouses in men, for castration will make them less than men--turn them into women and suggesting their fear of women, certainly their ambivalence about their bodies.
In short, sexuality and its problems is the theme of mannerist Surrealism, spirituality and its problems—its conflict with sexuality--is the theme of surreal Mannerism. In surreal Mannerism woman’s body is ambiguously spiritual and sexual—ideal because it is beautiful, desirable because it is seductive. In mannerist Surrealism it is unequivocally sexual, but not exactly desirable, for it is inhuman, more pointedly a symbol of death, as Picasso’s monstrous, nightmarish Demoiselles and Duchamp’s robotic Nude—another kind of monstrous nightmare--are. Both are fantastic mysteries, female Frankensteins made of dead material, primitive materials in Picasso’s case, modern materials in Duchamp’s case. The “great Mystery” that Breton sought is the mystery of the unconscious that dreamed them—artistically created these artificial women.
Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, ca. 1545 is the quintessential Mannerist work of art, an indication of things to come in modern mannerist Surrealist art. It is a perverse family portrait—a powerful Father Time (time replaces eternity in Mannerist art, as it does in Surrealistic art, whereas it is stopped in classical art, with its eternalized figures) presides over Mother Venus, kissing her son Cupid, his hand grasping her right breast, his projecting buttocks invitingly exposed. The folly of their incestuous relationship is suggested by the male figure beside and behind them. Holding his hand to his head in despair, he shadows them, his darkness contrasting with their luminous skin. Mother Venus reaches for the hand of Father Time, but they don’t meet, perhaps suggesting that time stops when you’re having sex, especially perverse sex, sex with a child rather than an adult. Whatever the allegorical meaning of the work, it is a forbidden family romance. Bronzino’s Unholy Pagan Family, arrogantly naked, is the antithesis of the Holy Family of the Child Christ, his Mother Mary, and protective Father Joseph, humbly clothed. Bronzino’s aristocratic, sexy, urbane Venus is the perverse antithesis of the plebian, sexless, ingenuous Mary. Christianity has been left behind and Classicism perversely restored. It is a great work of art, meticulously executed, the phallically elongated body of Venus perversely classical, a scene in which nothing is forbidden, as in Surrealist art.
The Sack of Rome in 1527—the desecration and profanation of a sacred site--was a blessing in disguise, for it showed that there was nothing sacred in the world, that there was no God to believe in, that God was dead, and with him the ego ideal, no need for a conscience, no need for standards of behavior, no idea of perfection. A similar disillusionment occurred in the aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, all the more disillusioning because it occurred on the morning of November 1st, All Saints Day—they didn’t come to the rescue, did nothing to stop the destruction, the desecration of the city, similar to the desecration of Rome in 1527. The 20th century Holocaust was similarly disillusioning—why should anyone believe in God when he let his chosen people perish? With the Sack of Rome there was no more need to follow the Ten Commandments given by God to man, nor more need to honor one’s father and mother, as Dali’s autobiography makes clear. One was no longer in the image of God, so one was free to play the devil, as the Surrealists do. One could profane everything—nothing was sacred.
Duchamp’s wish to put shit in the navel—the place where the umbilical cord attached one to one’s mother—epitomized this attitude.(14) It was a surreal intercourse that outclassed Lautréamont’s sick version of sexual intercourse. Art became a dream of vengeance against life—of unchecked instincts, instincts in rebellion against ideals, nihilistically out of control. A new kind of formlessness overtook art—the formlessness of Abstract Expressionism, strangely barren for all its Sturm und Drang. Apocalyptic violence—disruption--masked the misery that came with the loss of ideals, the loss of the human dignity epitomized by classical figures. But one could dream, and to do so was to be creative, the dream being a creative product that everyone spontaneously produced, a dream not as good as the baby that a mother dreamed in her womb, but a dream that had the same charismatic appeal of a baby, even if it was uglier than one for it was perverse, and even if it announced that one was more helpless than a baby, for it had no loving mother to nourish it, only a hate-filled father, a human failure.
Dreamlike--speciously real—Mannerist pictures set the precedent for Surrealist dream pictures—wholly unrealistic. Is Surrealism a specious visionary art, unlike Mannerism, an authentic visionary art? Is Surrealism a kind of religious art manque, for its tortured—self-tormented--figures exist in visual hell, in contrast to the elevated—elongated—figures of Mannerism, who exist in perverse visual heaven, especially when they are erotically elongated? The body became problematic in Mannerist art, even as it continued to be glorified as in High Renaissance art, but in Surrealism it became a horror, as in Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonitions of Civil War, 1936, or like Humpty Dumpty has a fall and can’t be put back together, as in Hans Bellmer’s Doll, 1935, or becomes a plant rather than a person, not to say an unworkable machine, as in Julio Gonzalez’s Monsieur Cactus I, 1939. The perversion of the body in Surrealist art outclasses the perverse body of Mannerist art, and with that loses all semblance of humanness, and any claim to idealism. The surreally upside-down figures and perversely mutilated bodies in Georg Baselitz’s dream pictures—his so-called “pandemonium” paintings (better called panic paintings)--epitomize the absurd downside up “perspective” of insane Surrealist art. Noteworthily, Baselitz acknowledged his debt to Mannerist art, which he collected.
No wonder the Surrealists looked to the art of the insane for inspiration. Not that they needed it, for the barbaric Sack of Europe in the 20th century made them all insane. The first wave of Surrealism came in the aftermath of the first world war, the second wave of Surrealism came in the aftermath of the second world war. Ernst is the emblematic figure of the first wave, Baselitz of the second wave. It is no accident that both were Germans—Germany lost the war, and Surrealism is a loser’s art, indeed, a spoiler’s art, and with that a spoiled art. The Surrealists were victims of the war, and they victimized women in response—displaced their consciousness of being victims onto women, took out their wish for revenge on them, easy to do because women are close to men, their dialectical intimates, and traditionally regarded as inferior to them, especially because they were castrated—had no penis, and with that are a threat to men. Women could be defeated, violated, devalued, humiliated—raped, as Germany was, the treaty of Versailles its final ransacking, its quartering into four zones and splitting into two opposing halves after the second world war the final castration. The French and German Surrealists were victims of war, but they identified with the aggressor, allowing them to victimize women by massacring their image.
The Sack of Europe in the 20th century had an even more destabilizing and debilitating effect on art than the Sack of Rome in the 16th century. For after the slaughter—suicide--of Europe in the second world war, which brought with it the wholesale extermination of the Jews--the Holocaust is implicitly a crime against all humanity--it was no longer possible to hold on to the classical sense of the beautiful body. It was impossible to believe that the body could be made beautiful by art, let alone resurrected by art. For more bodies were destroyed—reduced to ugly shells of themselves, and finally indecent dust--in the wars of the 20th century than in those of any other century, as the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm emphasized. The promise of immortality and salvation in religion, and implicit in mimetic art—for to preserve the image of someone in a picture was to immortalize him or her, miraculously save him or her from death (for the artist was miraculously creative, like God)--was discredited by the two world wars. They made it transparently clear that every human being could and would die, which is why the representation of human beings died with the first world war, leaving abstract art—the ashes of representational art—in its wake.
The 16th century Mannerists held on to the illusion of beauty, in whatever strange—corrupt—form, but the 20th century Surrealists—from Picasso on--had no illusions about the body, which is why they were able to dismember it with no regret or guilt, consume it like cannibals, leaving its polluted remains in their fiendish dream pictures, all that remains in the Temple of Art after their Sack of it. WM
(1)Quoted in Surrealists on Art, ed. Lucy Lippard (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 13
(3)Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art (New York: Vantage Books, 1951), vol. 2, 103. All subsequent quotations from Hauser are from this book.
(4)Wikipedia entry on French Revolution
(5)It began in the 19th century, as Edmond and Jules de Goncourt make clear in their review of “Painting at the Exposition of 1855”: “It is when nature is condemned to death, when industry dismembers it, when iron roads plough it, when it is violated from one pole to another, when the city invades the field, when industry pens man in, when, at last, man remakes the earth like a bed, that the human spirit hastens towards nature, looks at it as it never has before, sees this eternal mother for the first time, conquers her through study, surprises her, ravishes her, transports her and fixes her living and flagrante delicto on pages and canvases with unequaled veracity. Will landscapes become a resurrection, the Easter of the eyes?” Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, ed., The Art of All Nations 1850-1873: The Emerging Role of Exhibition and Critics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 136
(6)Quoted in Surrealists on Art, 190
(7)”Surrealism…expects nothing save from violence,” Breton famously wrote. “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” Ibid., 29. The violence done to woman’s body in Surrealist paintings, Lautréamont’s vision of sexual intercourse as a violent loveless act, Picasso’s nihilistic dismissal of the Parthenon as a barnyard, are exemplary Surrealist acts. For Breton the Surrealist artist is a mad criminal—commits mad crimes against humanity.
(8)If Cubism was the beginning of ”the disintegration of the concept of art,” to use Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia’s phrase—she described her trip with Picabia, Apollinaire, and Duchamp through the Jura Mountains as one of their “forays of demoralization…also forays of witticism and clownery…the disintegration of the concept of art”—then Duchamp’s The Large Glass, completed when the glass was broken—when the work disintegrated into a sum of fragments--is the exemplary disintegrated work of art. It is the true beginning of the disintegration of art that began with avant-gardism. It was an attack on art that began within art—a corrosion of art from within, a sort of cancerous growth in the body of art. At the least, it was a sort of demoralized art, a “foray of demoralization,” to allude to Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia’s phrase. The trip was made in 1912. The official dates of The Large Glass are 1915-1923, but Duchamp is known to have begun making notes for it in 1912. Expedia.
(9)Elizabeth L. Auchincloss and Eslee Samberg, eds., Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2012), 72
(10)”The child sees everything in a state of newness,” Baudelaire famously wrote in “The Painter of Modern Life.” Thus the so-called “shock of the new.” And like a child, the abstract or pure artist, “absorbs form and color” with “delight.” More broadly, he is “inspired” and “convulsed” by them, implying that expressionist art is the product of a convulsive fit (which seems the case in Van Gogh’s expressionism). “The Painter of Modern Life of Modern Life and Other Essays,” (London and New York: Phaidon, 1995), 8.
“Every object is new“ for a child, Kandinsky wrote, echoing Baudelaire. Children are “the greatest fantasists of all time,” he wrote. “There is an unconscious, enormous power in children that…places the work of children on the same level as (and often much higher than!) the work of adults.” All quotations are from “On The Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular,” Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 157, 148, 251
(11)In psychoanalysis, phallic woman is a concept to describe a woman with the symbolic attributes of the phallus—the penis as a symbol of power, especially when erect. More particularly, “Freud considered that at the phallic stage of early childhood development children of both sexes attribute possession of a penis to the mother—a belief the loss of which helps precipitate the castration complex. Thereafter males may seek fetishistic substitutes in women for the lost penis.” Expedia. Many of the objects in Surrealist paintings are fetishistic in unconscious principle. Parmigianino’s surreal Madonna with the Long Neck is perhaps the first phallic woman in Mannerist art. The erect penis-like column behind her reaffirms and reinforces her phallic character. Being the virginal Mother of Christ, she’s necessarily a phallic mother. The Fontainebleau nudes are also implicitly phallic women, as their elongation—they’re erect like penises—suggests.
(12)Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Mentor Books, 1955), 27
(13)Quoted in Surrealists on Art, 210
(14)”During the course of the Second World War,” Dali wrote, Duchamp developed “a new interest in the preparation of shit, of which the small excretions from the navel are the ‘de luxe’ editions.” Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Viking, 1971), 13-14. “Milk, bread, chocolate, excrement, and fried eggs” are among the “eatables of things that can be ingested” in Dali’s art, he writes in “The Object as Revealed in Surrealist Experiment,” 1932. In that essay he describes an “Article by Salvador Dali.—Inside a woman’s shoe is placed a glass of warm milk in the center of a soft paste colored to look like excrement.” “Excrement, blood and putrefaction” are “the three great images,” he writes in “The Stinking Ass,” 1932. Surrealists on Art, 95, 99. Dali’s remarks epitomize the Surrealist idea that art is shit and shit is art, confirmed by the fact that shit sells, as he writes: “Today  a well-known Pop artist of Verona sells artists’s shit (in very sophisticated packaging) as a luxury item!”
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author