"Looking at a painted nude should be as big a pleasure as listening to music whilst admiring a real one." These are the words of French-Romanian sculptor and painter Victor Brauner, a man who enjoyed painting very strange nudes and predicting the future.
It's not the bodies themselves that are strange or unique really - it's the way he painted them. Insisting that all of his paintings are autobiographical to varying degrees, Brauner's life can be understood through his art. One of the most telling links between life and art were his 'suitcase paintings' and their importance to the transient life that he had chosen to lead. Another was his bizarre premonitory paintings that shaped his thought.
Life began in Vienna, before moving to his parents' native Romania to study in Bucharest while still a child. It was in his formative years that he'd embrace the stability in his life for the last time. In 1925, in his early 20s, he flocked to the world's artistic capital - Paris, alongside so many of the world's pioneering artists.
Up until his voyage to France, his artwork had lacked any distinct adherence to a particular style. Paris was the hub of artistic development and here he began experimenting with surrealism and Dadaist techniques, a departure from the expressionism that had capture his younger imagination. He eventually returned home in 1927 before opting to settle in the French capital in 1930.
On his return, he met many prominent artists who shaped his output and outlook dramatically. Amongst them were fellow Romanian's Constantin Brâncuși and Benjamin Fondane, a sculptor and poet respectively. Their influences ranged from Modernism to Symbolism and in amongst this medley was Brauner. From this vast array of thoughts and styles came the painting Self-portrait with eye extract in 1931.
His work became increasingly hybrid as the subjects moulded together in hallucinogenic re-imaginings of the human and animal forms. Exploring the subconscious and altered conscious states - he became a mad sage-like psychoanalyst, committing his thoughts onto canvas. Seven years after the painting was completed and splitting up a fight between two friends in a bar - Brauner acted as a human shield and took a glass to the eye. It was the same one as in his painting and similarly - he lost his sight.
During the Nazi invasion of France, again assuming that he'd be moving around, he fled in exile with his small paintings (created as such in anticipation of the eventuality). He was able to pick them up and move them as he pleased. Settling in the idyllic Perpignan he eventually reunited with the surrealists in Marseille. In the years spent here, Brauner began to veer from his earlier styles and instead immersed himself in the primitive and naive styles that were associated with earlier forms of art. It was in this style he would begin to explore mythology more thoroughly and realise the cyclical nature of life and art.
Folkloric themes had always been present in his works, especially in the way he painted nudes, often juxtaposing the rawness of the human form with animals giving symbolic nods to mythology. By the time the bodies had fallen out of his work and the mythological creatures became more prominent, his output became more stripped back. In Prelude to a Civilization he opted to use encaustic style wax to paint, often more associated with classcal iconographic and ecclesiastical artworks, on a Masonite surface.
The depiction of a large four-legged animal contains human and animal figures, formulated in a way similar to hieroglyphics. Brauner's father was a devotee of spiritualism and the totemic figures have a deeply mythic quality that allude to past civilizations. The Spanish influence is hard to ignore in these pieces where the artist evokes the art of archaic generations like the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans.
Acknowledging his father's influence - the piece is filled with snakes and masks and seems to be telling a story - almost as if this is a reimagining of a surrealistic Noah's Ark. The civilization he has in mind may be of the ancient world, or another prediction to the future of our own. His interest in these ancient works gives it the power to transcend any artistic trends. In a larger full-circle, he was essential making cave-paintings, etching down ideas that were, or would become, history.
This style of work continued through his collection Mythologie and Fêtes des mères created in 1965. A more humorous turn in these paintings acted as a goodbye letter of sorts. They depicted the world he wanted to leave behind and gave context to his previous depiction of a civilization over a decade prior. He had harnessed the past to not necessarily predict the future, but rather to imagine it as he'd like it. Full of hope, yet without all of the attachments of the modern world. They are devoid of war, sickness and darkness. He imagined a happy world - one where people lived together.
In his final piece La fin et le debut he depicted one face looking forwards and one looking back. His past was always there - the war, the chaos, the conflict, yet his future was in sight. This too would be a prescient work. One year later, he'd pass away. We're still waiting for his world to come to life.
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