The Beyond in art. – It is not without profound sorrow that one admits to oneself that in their highest flights the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognise as false: they are the glorifiers of the religious and philosophical errors of mankind, and they could not have been so without believing in the absolute truth of these errors. If belief in such truth declines in general… that species of art can never flourish again which, like the Divina Commedia, the pictures of Raphael, the frescoes of Michelangelo, the gothic cathedrals, presupposes not only a cosmic but also a metaphysical significance in the objects of art. A moving tale will one day be told how there once existed such an art, such an artist’s faith.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
There has been a great many recent developments in the approach to Michelangelo’s iconic work in the Sistine Chapel; this mainly due to the discovery of various hidden messages and images which remained unnoticed for centuries until a small number of meticulous historians and scientists with an aesthetic eye came on the scene. One such theory posits that the renowned artist and sculptor had most likely deliberately used a type of paint which would crack and blanch over a relatively short space of time as a means to undermine Pope Julius II (ArtLark). Historians know that Michelangelo was very much against designing the now iconic frescoes of the Sistine (which he painted over just four years: 1508 – 1512), and rather wanted to focus on sculpture which he then viewed as being far superior. But the Pope was adamant, and insisted that Michelangelo produce a painted image. Esteemed painter and composer Sir Hubert Herkomer once explained that Michelangelo ‘had a distinctly sly side to his nature. I wonder if it is generally known to what tricks he resorted in order to circumvent the command of the Pope… when he had covered some space [i.e. painting progress] he asked for a visit from the Pope, that he could see with his own eyes that he was blundering with the material… [what’s more] nearly half the cracks were painted by Michaelangelo himself’ (excerpt from Herkomer’s ‘My School and My Gospel’ ).
But this is not an isolated accusation against Michelangelo and his troublesome ways. In fact, there is another theory which far surpasses the ‘material blunder’ claim which was likely more of a personal vendetta against the Pope. No, this next theory is far grander in scale, and has been argued by some to be a move which not only undermined Papal power but the lasting influence of the Catholic church itself. Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ is probably the most iconic piece of religious art in human history, but what if it came to light that this image was actually an audaciously extravagant piece of covert anti-Catholic propaganda, hidden in the very nucleus of Catholicism itself? In the early 90s a frankly astounding discovery/proposition was made by Doctor Frank Meshberger, and has gained much traction over the past few years, not just among historians but among anatomists and scientists alike. In the Creation painting, God is depicted in a red shroud with various other cherubic figures, the shapes and positions of which, including their garments, together accurately mimic the structure of the human brain along with all its proportional intricacies. The validity of this claim is further supported by the fact that there were a great many anatomical sketches found in Michelangelo’s study at the time he was designing the images for the Sistine.
In addition to the crowning Creation image, anatomical depictions of the brain have later been found in other portions of the Sistine frescoes. In 2010 two neuroscientists from John Hopkins University found another hidden portion of the brain, this time from a different angle, situated in God’s throat (see above image), the shape of which had perplexed historians for many years who assumed it to be an oddly shapen goiter (a claim probably stemming from one of Michelangelo’s poems written whilst creating the frescoes, in which he describes the terrible conditions and bodily contortion underwent whilst painting the Sistine: ‘I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den!’). So the question then is; why would Michelangelo go through the effort of concealing these anatomical images? As stated by Nick Squires, the images could and have indeed been seen to represent ‘a coded attack on the church’s disdain for science’. But then again, they could also have been merely a very ostentatious form of gloating; of solidifying his superior anatomical knowledge in a time when dissection was a crime punishable by death. True, an anatomical image of the human brain stands as an archetypal symbol for scientific knowledge, but at the same time couldn’t the images be seen to in fact represent the exact opposite? In that God’s situation inside the brain could suggest that the only means of acquiring true knowledge is by accepting and submitting to his almighty wisdom. Or similarly, looking at the more recently discovered throat image, by accepting the word (the throat as universal symbol for speech) of God as absolute knowledge. Considering Michelangelo himself was believed to be deeply religious, particularly later in life, and to have perceived the intellect as a divine gift, this would certainly seem a more viable argument. But alas, we are restricted to mere speculation.
What is perhaps even more astounding is Michelangelo’s own belief that his frescoes for the Sistine were wholly inadequate; shameful even. In one of his poems he expresses in defeat ‘Come then, Giovanni, try – To succour my dead pictures and my fame; Since foul I fare and painting is my shame’. Considering that the hidden images have only come to light in the past few decades, half a century after their creation, and which have only been able to be located and verified by leading scientists and neuroscientists of the 21st century, to consider such paintings shameful is truly a testament to his genius. Indeed, these ever expanding discoveries add a whole new and intriguing dimension to the most iconic religious images in all of human history, but perhaps what’s more important is that it makes us realise how much our fundamental perceptions change over time. Well that, and it also raises the question “what else did we miss?!”
NB: excerpts from Michelangelo’s poems sourced from Buonarotti (trans. Symonds 1878)
In the art world there are a few stand out artists whose works are truly terrifying to behold: Henri Fuseli, Francisco Goya, H. R. Gieger, Hieronymus Bosch, Theodore Gericault, Odilon Redon, are perhaps some of the best known. Of course it must also be acknowledged that fear is highly subjective, and what we find terrifying in art stems from our own subjective interpretations. I for example find the artwork of surrealist Kay Sage deeply disturbing (though a number of friends have disagreed with me on this); her achromatised worlds are inhabited by wandering shrouded figures which are bound by some sinuous musculature evoking an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, and the landscapes in which they are situated are strangely bleached and barren, containing these eerie geometric structures which waver somewhere in the liminality between natural and artificial, skeletal and architectural.
Even so, there is one artist who seems to bring about an almost universal dread in all those who view his work, and that is of course, Francis Bacon. Bacon’s artworks are made up of shrieking figures, ghastly contortions of flayed meat and gristle, they are visceral, oozing and corporeal to the point of revulsion. But what makes Bacon’s art all the more terrifying is the very real truth behind them, and how these works come to so accurately represent aspects of his harrowing past. In his final interview Bacon described his childhood in just a few simple words – ‘it was cold, hard, like a block of ice’ (A Brush with Violence, 2017). Young Francis had a serious case of asthma, he struggled breathing and suffered frequent and violent asthma attacks which were exacerbated by his growing up on a farm with many horses. This unsurprisingly produced an omnipresent, looming terror of being unable to breathe, of drowning almost, and this was coupled with another deep-seated fear; the fear of his father’s reaction to his repressed homosexuality.
At just 10 years old, these fears festered, amplified by his lonesome and shy nature. Even here then we can begin to see some of the real driving influence behind many of his most famous works: these recurrent haunting figures in Bacon’s work, whose mouths are open painfully wide, and trapped inside glass boxes desperately gasping for air, could represent Bacon’s youth – his fears and repressions. His famous pope image thus also begins to show some clarity: the father-pope figure, perhaps represented his repressed homosexuality, seen as sin by the Catholic church. There is seemingly here a sense of religious suffocation; many of those he grew up with were devout and Bacon himself was an athiest, and a keen Nietzschean to boot. And so religion became a very powerful and regulatory force in his life, emblematising the inability to speak truth and express his true sexuality, ever in the fear that he would be seen to be corrupt by his controlling father.
Indeed, Bacon’s fears were realised upon his father learning of his homosexuality, after which his father had him regularly whipped by the stable-boys (whom he also had sexual relations with). This excessive violence at such a young age gave rise to masochistic tendencies (likely a Freudian reaction which acted as a means of psychological fortitude), and this violent, sexually charged pathology provided the framework upon which the majority of his work would rest. One day, after being caught dressing up in his mother’s clothes, Bacon was disowned and sent away by his father, and he subsequently fled to London, surviving on the measly £3 a week of his mother’s trust fund, as well as any money made from petty crime and even prostitution throughout his teen years.
He eventually managed to save enough money to move to Paris, where he stayed for a number of years living with a friend and visiting all of the Parisian galleries which would inspire him onto his artistic path. At twenty he moved back to London and worked as an interior designer, as well as other minor jobs until his break came in his late twenties when 4 of his works which he’d done whilst still working on his interior decorating, were shown in the prestigious 1937 Young British Painters exhibition. Over the next few years he slowly gained notoriety, and by 1944, with the release of his infamous ‘three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion’ (see featured image) he had become one of the best regarded new artists in the country.
Bacon’s romantic life was turbulent to say the least, and he had relationships with many men throughout his life, but none had as much influence on his work as Peter Lacy, a retired pilot who he met in 1952. Lacy is said to have bordered on the psychopathic, and at one point is said to have thrown Bacon through a window with such force that his eye had to be sewn back into its socket. Yet despite the intensely violent nature of their relationship Bacon described Lacy as the love of his life, and their explosive relationship served as a primary influence for much of his later work including his seminal ‘three studies for a Crucifixion’ (1962) which enacts a brutal scene in the bedroom.
Expressionist or Surrealist?
Bacon is most frequently associated with the expressionists, although he was often approached to display work in surrealist exhibitions and his work is described by many critics as ‘biomorphic surrealism’. As we have already seen, there are undoubtedly surrealist tendencies to Bacon’s art, and these recurrent images hold the same psychological tethers to the past, the subjective iconographies which are so common to the symbolic works of surrealists like Dali or Ernst. Bacon was adamant that the haunting aspect to his work was ‘accidental’, and his description of his process seems undoubtedly surrealist: ‘[my work is contrived] not out of any conscious will… it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap… [my process] unlocks the valves of feeling and therefore returns the onlooker to life more violently’ (Sylvester interview).
We might view the paintings of Bacon as being something akin to an exorcism, a form of purification, an externalisation of the very deepest and darkest repressions which weighed so heavily on his tormented psyche. What makes the work of Francis Bacon at once so harrowing and so profoundly important is that they express great truth, uninhibited truth, in all its grotesque hideousness, something only the greatest artists are able to accomplish.
I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by both his passions and his despairs… – Francis Bacon
NB: Featured image is Bacon’s ‘three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion’ (1944). Also be sure to watch the fantastic recent documentary on Francis Bacon, A Brush with Violence (2017) which can be viewed here on youtube.
Latent gospel plucked from slumber
Writhing as seething logic tears asunder
These retinal confessionals which drawn
From the tattered slacks of droning hacks whose dawn
Is borne from fleeting mania amongst ceaseless cognitive curfews
Where spontaneous poetic passions percolate like zeppelins doing corkscrews
Where cubist contortions reign and the blighted blatherings of historians
Wither into stony columns of drivel and whitespace – trivial emporiums
Which shy away from the kaleidoscopic sensorium of surreality
An exclusive realm of poets and purveyors of psyche, far beyond mere animality
NB: featured image is Max Ernst’s ‘triumph of surrealism’ (1937)
This alternative history/fantasy novella is set in Paris in the year 1950, in which WW2 is still ongoing, and in which Surrealist artworks or ‘manifs’ (short for ‘manifestations’) have come to life and are reaping havoc across the capital. As if that wasn’t enough the Nazis have also managed to summon a demonic horde using Aleister Crowley’s occult magic. So as demons and artworks stalk the city streets it is down to Thibaut – a member of the intellectual resistance, the ‘main a plume’, and one of only a few veterans learned in the ways of Surrealist doctrine – to find a way to stop them. Whilst the premise is daring, original and wicked fun, this novella is let down by an underdeveloped plot and characters, but perhaps most glaringly, by the bustling pit of empty Surrealist allusions. Whilst it is somewhat enjoyable for the first dozen or so pages to try and identify the various artworks from Mieville’s descriptions without using the notes/art appendix/answers at the back of the book, this enthusiasm quickly ebbs as you become conscious of the fact that you are missing countless references which are coming at you rapidly and from all directions. As a student who specialises in Surrealism and other art movements in post-war literature I can tell you, the references in here are not in any way accessible to the everyday reader, and unless you have a significantly above average knowledge of Surrealist art you will find yourself frequently flitting to the appendix for help (or you could do what I did and open up the handy ‘graphic annotations’ guide by Nicky Martin of medium.com which includes all the referenced Surrealist images).
One redeeming aspect of this novella however is that it does induce you to track down these incredible artworks, to find the source material for the manifs, many of which were new to me (I’ve included some of my favourite allusions intermittently throughout this review). It’s interesting to consider that we as readers are being given the choice to either go out and view these works in their original form or instead rely on the literary descriptions – which could be seen as a Surrealist move in that we are being given the choice, and are subjectively empowered in this respect. The main problem however is that these artworks are utterly leeched of any of their original intent. This is a text about Surrealist art, and as the Surrealists were concerned with psychical redemption in the wake of the upsurgence of the omnipotent spectacle, it seems antithetical to the movement to have these artworks stripped of their significance – not to mention the subjective narratives unique to their creator – and instead have them warped and twisted into the story of another’s making.
However, if we consider the Afterword as a crucial constituent part of the whole narrative, then perhaps this ideological sterilisation can be, at least in some part, forgiven.
In fact, I’d argue that it is only upon reading the Afterword as (meta)narrative that we are truly moved into Surrealist spheres. In the Afterword Mieville presents us with a choice. He does this by revealing that the entire narrative was originally told to him by a mysterious friend of a friend, an elderly war veteran who claimed to be the real-life Thibaut (the central character). This real-life Thibaut is said to have told the entire story to Mieville, who acted as nothing more than what we might call his literary vessel. So now we must consider the crucial question as to whether this mysterious unseen narrator is indeed fictitious or not? If we choose to view this ‘final scene’ as a part of the internalised story then we must therefore view Mieville as character. But if we choose to view the text as having been told to Mieville by a real-life Thibaut then we are being asked to view the story as metaphor or perhaps more intriguingly as a coping mechanism for Thibaut’s traumatic experiences during the war.
In such a reading the demons become emblematic of his religious beliefs, whilst the Surrealist artworks becomes manifestations of the torments of war on his unconscious mind; phantasms brought about through the horrors of Nazi Germany. Now we’re in true Surrealist territory. Viewed in this respect, it is hard not to be reminded of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and the similar revelation that Pi’s zoological story could in fact be a fantasy (or more aptly ‘phantasy’) rendering of a truly harrowing tragedy which he has formulated as a means to cope with the horrors of reality (though again, this is left ambiguous). On the whole, whilst there were sparks of satisfaction in reading this story, I expected much more, and whilst still a fan of Mieville (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Embassytown are hugely entertaining and original reads), I feel he has much more to offer than this wobbly and hollow testament to one of the greatest art movements of the twentieth century.
Below are a few more of my favourite allusions and their coinciding artworks:
What sets Dali apart from the majority of the surrealists was his willing suffusion into the consumer landscape, a move which infuriated many of his fellow surrealists including the founder of the movement, Andre Breton. Breton dubbed Dali ‘Avida Dollars’, an anagram of Dali’s name which translates as ‘eager for dollars’. Dali took centre stage in many advertising campaigns of the 60s and 70s including Brainiff airlines in 1968, Lanvin chocolate in 1969, Nissan and Iberia airlines in 1972, Alka Seltzer pharmaceuticals in 1974.
He also designed the cover for various issues of Vogue in the 40s.
He even updated the now iconic design logo for Chupa Chups logo in 1969 which remains relatively unaltered to this day.
Dali’s art continues to influence advertisers in and around the twenty-first century, in the form of global brands like Lipton Ice Tea, who produced a Russian ad in 1998 inspired by his soft self-portraits:
Volkswagen also released a Dali inspired ad in 2008 to promote their new Polo Bluemotion:
Although one of the main aims of the surrealists was to contest the post-war consumer-capitalist spectacle by reinvigorating the imagination, Dali was attuned to the overwhelming power of the capitalist machine. Ideologically, he perhaps preempted the later Pop artists whose popularity peaked in the 60s, who understood that the only way to tackle the spectacle was to become a part of it – thus the very form of art became the means by which people were able to perceive the truth of modernity and their total subsumption by the spectacle.
Dali’s involvement in advertising was thus far more than a mere capital-led endeavour, rather, it was demonstrative of an artist wholly in tune to the subconscious forces at play within Western society.