Gurdjieff, folk magic, the Tarot and World War II were intertwined in the late Surrealist artistic and cultural universe. Esotericism maintained a decisive role.
by Massimo Introvigne
This third article concludes the transcript of a “walk” through the exhibition “Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity,” running at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice until September 26, 2022, the subject of a documentary by La Società dello Zolfo, which I recommend viewing.
I have already mentioned the name of Remedios Varo, the Spanish painter and friend of Leonora Carrington, and discussed how the two artists ended up in Mexico. “Star Maker” by Remedios Varo is a very significant painting. It is a late work by the artist, dated 1958. We see a woman grinding food with which she feeds the moon. Remedios Varo was at that time a member of an esoteric group inspired by Gurdjieff. Those who know Gurdjieff are familiar with his expression “food for the moon.”
Gurdjieff believed that immortality, or the immortal soul, is not for everyone, but must be built with great effort, through an initiatory path where few succeed. These few will conquer immortality. All others, when they die, become psychic remnants that serve (inter alia) to nourish the moon and ensure its movement. Thus, at a first level of reading the woman in the painting is a kind of conduit, an intermediate character who is feeding to the moon the dead who have not made it, or who have totally ignored the need for initiation.
However, we can also read this picture on another level, believing that this celestial nourishment has alchemical significance. Esoteric symbols can always be read on multiple levels, and the celestial nourishment can also allude to an internal alchemy where human sexual energy and fluids can become alchemical nourishment and lead to enlightenment.
The exhibition help us rediscovering Enrico Donati (1909–2008), an Italian artist who was fully part of the Surrealists’ milieu, but with his own peculiarities. The first was education, because he had a degree in Sociology from the University of Milan. The second was his and his wife’s interest in perfume as part of the Surrealist experience. The third was that he lived to be 99 and so, since he died in 2008, he carried a living memory of Surrealism into the 21st century.
Donati’s interest in magic first came through reading texts on folklore in Southern Italy. His sculpture “Fist” is a Surrealist representation of the world of the evil eye and witchcraft that are typical of the Southern folklore studied by Ernesto de Martino (1908–1965) and others. Donati has been almost totally forgotten, and this exhibition is a good opportunity to rediscover this Surrealist—both anomalous and Italian.
A work summarizing in its own way the whole exhibition takes us back to the world of Tarot cards, and again to Victor Brauner. It is called “The Lovers,” and is from 1947. We know that in 1938 there was Brauner’s experience of losing his eye that, since it had been announced by strange premonitions, persuaded him that preternatural phenomena existed. In “The Lovers,” there are allusions to Breton. Many have racked their brains over the highly visible number 1713, thinking of the date of an 18th-century Tarot deck, but in fact 1713 is a numerical-cabalistic transposition of André Breton’s name (or initials). So there is an homage and an acknowledgement of Breton as the father of Surrealism. But at the same time Brauner went beyond Breton, for whom magical language was only a metaphor. Brauner entered a world in which magic is really believed.
We see an important symbol on the head of the male character in “The Lovers,” which is not the symbol of infinity but, if you look closely, is a snake biting its own tail. This is the Ouroboros, which is also a symbol of internal alchemy and of practices of sacred eroticism. We also see the scepter that the same character, who has a snake on his chest as well, is holding. It is the scepter of the “coniunctio oppositorum,” of the conjunction of the masculine and the feminine, and it has the symbols of the sun and the moon—the sun on one side and the moon on the other. The sun is on the side of the female character whom the solar principle is going to fertilize. She is a queen, a she-bird—an allusion to Max Ernst’s birds—but it is also a woman about to enter into an alchemical union.
The words on the painting are also important: “Magic” is in the center, allowing at the bottom to control “Destiny” and at the top to arrive at “Freedom.” On the other side are the words “Past,” “Present,” and “Future,” which warn us that we are facing a dynamic representation of the initiatory path. This painting was exhibited at the exhibition organized by Breton and Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) in 1947 in Paris, when the Surrealists returned. In 1947 there were no more Nazis, so Surrealist art could be exhibited again in the French capital. The roots in Breton’s original experience of Surrealism are strong, are acknowledged, are in no way disavowed, but at the same time we understand that we are after Brauner’s turning point of 1938 and the Surrealists, or some of them, have now turned into believers.
By Brauner the exhibition also features “The Surrealist,” which is inspired by a specific Tarot card, the Juggler. We also see the symbols—the coins, swords, cups and batons—of the Neapolitan playing cards, which, as not everyone knows, also have an esoteric significance because they represent the four elements. Behind many old card games there are often deeper symbols than we realize. “The Surrealist,” indeed. This title is meant to tell us that magic, alchemy, Tarot, or Kabbalah are not side or secondary aspects of Surrealism. On the contrary, these elements are at the core of the movement.
Approaching the exit of the exhibition, we encounter a painting by Roberto Sebastián Matta, a Chilean Surrealist and friend and associate of Cuban Wilfredo Lam, which is titled “Years of Fear” and was painted in 1941, at the height of World War II. This “fear” is also somehow filtered through an esoteric dimension. We must never forget that in the esoteric worldview, catastrophes are neither denied nor hidden. There is a “solve” before the “coagula,” and even catastrophes and disasters are somehow part of a sacred logic and history, which is grasped in their own way by these artists in the terrible years of World War II.
We are now in the late Surrealism, that of the 1950s, in which some of the Surrealists were in conversation with other currents that put at the center of their artistic experience the fear of the atomic bomb and at the same time the fascination for the discoveries about atomic energy. However, the Surrealists also experienced the fear of the atomic bomb through a dreamlike and magical gaze. One of the most significant works from this period exhibited in Venice is Salvador Dalí’s (1904–1989) “Uranium and Atomica Melancholica Idyll,” a beautiful but cautionary work painted immediately after the American bombing of Japan.
It is a painting about the risks the atomic bomb poses to humanity. We see the bombers and the disasters, but we also see a young American with his baseball bat reminding us that the United States is the country that dropped the atomic bomb. One could say that we are facing an anti-nuclear protest. But the protest after Hiroshima and Nagasaki here is filtered in a typically Surrealist key and repurposes the symbols typical of Dalí’s work.
The last room of the exhibition, which features Matta’s “Fear” and Dalí’s “Idyll,” should be read as a whole to see how a Surrealism that had reached its last fires questioned the age of the atomic risk. It still did so somewhat in conversation with its roots and history, of which, as this exhibition has shown, esotericism and magic, with different approaches according to different artists and decades, were inescapable components.