Mara Hoberman on Victor Brauner
Curated by Sophie Krebs with Jeanne Brun, Nadia Chalbi, and Camille Morando
IN THE CATALOGUE for the Victor Brauner retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, director Fabrice Hergott describes an institutional mission “to draw the public’s attention to the existence of work by nearly forgotten great artists.” Brauner—whose first and last major retrospective was in 1972 at the Musée National d’Art Moderne—certainly fits this bill, having been all but written off as a minor Surrealist. As reintroduced by curator Sophie Krebs (with assistance from Jeanne Brun, Nadia Chalbi, and Camille Morando), Brauner emerges as a singular, unclassifiable talent influenced as much by his father’s obsession with the occult as by the likes of André Breton, Roberto Matta, and Yves Tanguy. His dizzyingly diverse oeuvre, here represented by 166 drawings, paintings, and sculptures produced between 1922 and 1965, could easily be mistaken for the work of multiple artists. If the exhibition seemed at times incoherent, this correlates with the artist’s self-image. His 1943 text “Proclamation” begins, “Nous Victor Brauner” (We Victor Brauner).
From the get-go, the eye was an important motif for Brauner, as evidenced by early drawings made in Bucharest (he was born in Romania) and Paris. He used it as a symbol, as in Le monde paisible (The Peaceful World), 1927, a delicate ink drawing of a woman’s lower body featuring an eye where the vagina should be. He also represented optical organs mutilated or missing, as in his infamous 1931 Autoportrait, which depicts a red void in place of the artist’s right eyeball and a chunk of flesh missing from his cheek. Though arguably among the least visually interesting works on view in the retrospective, this painting had an enormous impact on its maker’s life and career. In 1938, during a scuffle between the Spanish Surrealists Óscar Domínguez and Esteban Francés, Brauner was hit in the face by a shard of glass. He ended up losing an eye, albeit the left one. Following this event, the 1931 self-portrait suddenly seemed like evidence of clairvoyance. The Paris Surrealists (Brauner officially joined the group in 1933) thereby considered him an embodiment of what Breton called hasard objectif (objective chance), meaning the uncanny way in which events reveal themselves as having been preordained.
It seems as if, ironically, the loss of his eye empowered Brauner to see the future. His political paintings of the 1930s, which include grotesque caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and other public figures, were prophetic in their own way. In the watercolor Untitled (Hindenberg), 1935–36, Brauner shows the titular German officer and politician as an obese, cigar-smoking general standing on a large wooden swastika over bloodied human remains. Hindenberg shares his portly physique and upturned mustache with Brauner’s recurring character Monsieur K., a personification of fascist anti-Semitism. Four works on view show Mr. K. committing various atrocities, including eating babies and raping women. Jewish himself, Brauner would flee Paris at the dawn of World War II.
It seems as if, ironically, the loss of his eye empowered Brauner to see the future.
While many in his circle escaped to the United States during the war, Brauner laid low in the French Alps. His work from 1942 to 1945 is marked by scarcity and isolation but also innovation and mysticism. Using salvaged wax, Brauner created crude Dubuffetesque paintings of figures and faces. He also made small sculptures, including Image du réel incréé (Image of the Uncreated Real), 1943, a figure formed by six gray stones encrusted with wax, decorated with string, and crowned by an ankh. In a filmed interview from 1960 projected at the end of the exhibition, Brauner recounts discovering the rocks already arranged in the semblance of a human form. Recalling this traumatic period, he underscores the spiritual significance of this readymade. Many works Brauner produced while in hiding are suggestive of talismans or golems.
After the war, Brauner returned to Paris, reunited with the Surrealists for a time (Bréton would oust him in 1948 for the sin of travail fractionnel [factional work]), and explored different styles and media until his death in 1966. His work from the mid- to late 1940s ranges from colorful paintings of animal-human hybrids and geometric patterns and symbols to large bone-white plaster humanoid sculptures. The postwar paintings mix folk-art influences with references to the tarot and to Kabbalah. Generally joyful, some are downright silly. Victor Victorel coiffé du con—le couronné, 1949 (its titular phrase is a profane and untranslatable jeu de mots), shows two cartoonish figures wearing hats resembling male and female genitalia. In the 1945 plaster sculpture Congloméros (another untranslatable title, this one a portmanteau of conglomérat and Éros), three bodies converge in one oversize head. More than a dozen drawings on view attest that Brauner sketched this fantastical form, whose stylized, intertwined limbs recall Picasso’s Les baigneuses (Bathers), rather obsessively throughout 1941. The strange creature appears again in La rencontre du 2 bis, rue Perrel (The Meeting at 2 bis, rue Perrel), 1946. This painting, titled with the address of Brauner’s then studio, which once belonged to Douanier Rousseau, is a precise copy of the latter’s La charmeuse de serpents (The Snake Charmer), 1907, with the addition of the “Congloméros,” now relaxing in the lush jungle landscape. This astonishing painting, which absorbs Rousseau into “We Victor Brauner” and brings a second Eve into the Garden of Eden, encapsulates the many valences of Brauner’s plurality.
Mara Hoberman is a critic based in Paris.