At the Guggenheim Collection in Venice—and in a video by La Società dello Zolfo—we are offered an itinerary through an enchanted world.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 3.
There is an “enchanted modernity” where modernist art reveals its deep connections with esotericism. At the same time, it gives esotericism its due, against those who would like to dismiss it as reactionary and marginal irrationalism. From a series of conferences, the expression “enchanted modernity” has moved into the subtitle of an exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice (open until September 26) on “Surrealism and Magic.” And into a documentary made, thanks to the Guggenheim that opened its doors to us on a closed day, with the friends of La Società dello Zolfo under Michele Olzi’s invaluable guidance. Without the encumbrance of visitors, I was able to walk followed by the camera through the rooms of the exhibition, and choose a series of paintings to comment on. What follows is a slightly edited version of that walk. But to capture the flavor of the exhibition, and of the walk I proposed, I invite everyone to watch the documentary.
We are in Venice, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, for a beautiful exhibition curated by Gražina Subelytė on “Surrealism and Magic.” The Surrealists have been interested in magic since the beginning of their movement, i.e., since the 1920s, but here we are in 1941, which is a very important date for the relationship between Surrealism and magic. Paris, which is the capital of Surrealism, is under Nazi occupation. Surrealism is an avant-garde art, and in the eyes of the Nazis it is degenerate art par excellence. Surrealists also generally have leftist political views, so they have to flee to the part of France not occupied by the Germans, waiting to leave for North America (some will go to the United States, others will end up in Mexico).
Many of them are housed in a mansion in Marseille, where there are some of the leading names of Surrealism: André Breton (1896–1966), his wife Jacqueline Lamba (1910–1993), Max Ernst (1891–1976), Victor Brauner (1903–1966), André Masson (1896–1987). Marseille was famous for an ancient Tarot series, the “Tarot de Marseille,” and they decided to produce Surrealist Tarot cards.
All the cards are interesting, but we can dwell on one, “The Siren,” by Victor Brauner. The image is of a specific person, Hélène Smith, i.e., Catherine-Elise Müller (1861–1929), a patient of the psychiatrist Théodore Flournoy (1854–1920) in Geneva, who had published in 1900 a book that was very important for the history of esotericism, but also widely read by the Surrealists, “Des Indes à la Planète Mars” (“From India to Planet Mars”). Flournoy, as a psychiatrist, tells us about the Spiritualist revelations of his patient.
But what might a character like Hélène Smith represent for the Surrealists? Here begins, so to speak, the elegance but also the ambiguity of the story, because Breton had been interested in magic since the beginning of his career, and since the founding of Surrealism in the 1920s. But Breton was basically a materialist, who did not believe in the existence of the supernatural or spirits. However, here we are already in 1941, so it has been 20 years now that the Surrealist movement has existed. As the movement developed and progressed, this somewhat dogmatic idea of Breton’s—“yes” to magic as a symbolic and metaphorical language, but “no” to the supernatural—was called into question, and some Surrealists started to really believe in the supernatural.
The second room introduces us to a key figure in the history of Surrealism, Max Ernst, and the three most important women in his life: first, the English painter Leonora Carrington (1917–2011); second (and his third wife), Peggy Guggenheim herself (1898–1979), the founder of this museum; and third, another artist interested in esotericism, his fourth wife Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012).
Many have seen in Ernst’s painting “The Chemical Wedding” an allusion to his very special relationship with Leonora Carrington, although by the time he painted this picture it was long over. The shared passion for alchemy had played an important part in the relationship between the two artists. In this painting, we see an anthology of traditional alchemical and Rosicrucian symbolism, of course filtered through the pictorial language of the avant-garde. Here we can see allusions to Cubism, for example, and also to abstract art, the influence of Giorgio De Chirico (1888–1978), and many other themes.
The avant-gardes of the 20th century are very diverse, yet what a Futurist such as Giacomo Balla (1871–1958), abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) or Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), or Surrealists such as Max Ernst or Leonora Carrington had in common was their interest in esotericism.
The exhibition also displays side by side two paintings that are brought together for the first time in eighty years. They are two paintings that should be read together and have a whole series of allusions to alchemy and the Tarot. The first is a portrait of Max Ernst by Leonora Carrington. It is evidently an idealized and alchemical portrait, taking us into the world of the Tarot. What is interesting in this picture is the fusion of two very different Tarot universes, namely the ancient world of the Tarot de Marseille and the so-called Rider-Waite Tarot, produced within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in the early 20th century. Into this Tarot universe bursts “the magician,” that is, Max Ernst, as his lover Leonora Carrington saw him in those years.
The exhibition places Leonora Carrington’s portrait of Max Ernst in dialogue with Max Ernst’s own “Attirement of the Bride.” Here we see the usual alchemical symbols, but we also note the importance of birds, and of one particular bird, which Max Ernst called “Loplop.” It was his spirit guide or totemic animal. The Surrealists were very interested in totems and spirit guides, and Loplop recurs often in Ernst’s paintings.
Immediately afterwards, the exhibition offers us a sad and, if you will, topical painting. “Europe After the Rain II” is a painting that Max Ernst began in 1940, when he was still in France, and ended in 1942, when he had moved to the United States. He began the work at the end of his relationship with Leonora Carrington and ended it during the period when he was married to Peggy Guggenheim. The spirit of this painting belongs to the genre, inaugurated by Francisco Goya (1746–1828), of the disasters of wars.
Here the disasters are those of World War II. This apocalyptic scenario of what was becoming the most terrible war humanity had ever known occupies almost the entire painting, and at the center—almost as “men among the ruins,” as Julius Evola (1898 –1974) would have put it—are two characters. One is the bird Loplop, i.e., Max Ernst’s totemic animal—who is also Max Ernst himself—and the other is Leonora Carrington. The ruins are theirs as well. Their relationship, so important for the history of Surrealism but also for the history of esotericism, was ending in the midst of a Europe that somehow with World War II was also ending.
We will meet other significant characters in the next article in this series.