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Victor Brauner (1903-1966): Centennial Celebration

The grand event connected to Victor Brauner’s international centennial celebrations is the collaborative effort of Ubu Gallery from New York and Isidore Ducasse Fine Arts from Paris in creating a rare exhibit of over 40 works, mostly paintings, by this avant-God of Surrealism. 

Victor Brauner, "Folie folle," 1937. Oil on wood. 11 3/8 x 8 1/4 inches (29 x 21 cm). Private Collection, Courtesy of Ubu Gallery, New York & Galerie Berinson, Berlin.

His figurative paintings, well balanced, contain alchemic elements of opposites—feminine and masculine, fear and attraction, pain and pleasure, the beauty and the beast. Although many of the portraits seem to be a likeness of himself, Brauner proved to be an artist who can paint anything. A spiritual messenger through his drawings, he projects a rare combination of exotic spirituality, surreal poetry and divine inspiration.

“You will like my painting: (reason number ten) because it is phantasmal, mysterious, disquieting, (reason number twelve) because its unknown world is peopled with somnambulists, incubi, succubi, lycanthropes, éphilates, phantoms, specters, sorcerers, seers, mediums, and a whole fantastic population,” said Brauner in his essay, “On the Fantastic in Painting.”

Born in 1903, Victor Brauner participated as an active member of the first wave of the Romanian avant-garde, predating European Surrealism by 15 years. Active from 1924, he produced art while also co-editing magazines that launched “picto-poetry. 

Brauner moved to Paris in 1930 when Yves Tanguy introduced him into the Surrealist circle. From then on he was exhibiting with André Breton’s group in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Japan. His magical drawings were influenced by his Romanian roots and its folklore. He introduced into his compositions signs of black magic, talismans, pentacles, objects of exorcism, and geomantique incantations. His lifelong interest in magic and the occult can be found in his bizarre line drawings published in Les Dessin Magiques de Victor Branuer (1965, Denoël) with commentary by the French art historian Sarane Alexandrian. In the drawings at Ubu Gallery an animal swallows a woman’s hair, “Femme et animal” (1941); a woman’s legs turn into an animal’s body, “Femme plante” (1941–42); and, in another work, hollow, bull horns, filled with snakes, shoot out of a man’s face, illustration for “Les chants de Maldoror” (1938).

His creative orbit can be divided, after the fact and for scholastic purposes, into three distinct periods; Cubist/Constructivist (1917–1933), Occult Folkloric Symbolism (1934–1949), and Psychoanalytic/Erotic (1950–1966).

Obsessed by a nightmarish vision, for years he painted self-portraits with his left eye torn out. Then, on August 27, 1938, at one of Brauner’s famous parties, Óscar Domínguez, arguing with Esteban Francés, threw a drink, hitting Brauner by accident with the glass and blinding him permanently. This visual prophecy became legendary in Surrealist lore. This accident caused a change of direction in Brauner’s work and character; both became more assertive. Convinced that he was a seer, he devoted himself to the evocation of female ghosts and a magic conflict with demons. Compensating for lost vision, he developed the functions of the inner eye, and often explained in his drawings Carl Jung’s theories and helped surrealists to connect, to understand, and to fuse wide-ranging world mythologies from the Aztec to Jewish to Hindu to Native American to Oceanic to Egyptian. Victor Brauner was the “one-eyed shaman” that united Surrealist visual elements with literature, anthropology, and philosophy and later with metaphysics and spirituality.

The second contribution was his physical paintings and illustrations that could be considered closer to those of Max Ernst than any other artist in the Surrealist movement in exploring those particular dreams, trances, and prophetic experiences. After the war the exploration of South American folklore and esotericism adds to his primal Romanian spirituality. In many of the drawings and paintings can be found cabalistic symbols, also cat-women are frequent elements as well as dragons and snakes.

In 1947 Brauner met Jean Dubuffet. This encounter and Brauner’s influence on Dubuffet has a role in the birth of Art Brut that is too often overlooked. At that time Brauner focuses on a synthesis of mythological sources including Oceanic, Mayan, and American Indian. In the Centre George Pompidou hang four gouaches by Victor Brauner call “Anatomy of Pleasure” (1935–36) which depict surrealist women with three tails, faucets on high heels, lobster claws and beaks, breasts front and back, and vaginas placed on breast plates. His erotica is nightmarish if not a byproduct of dementia. He said, “I am my own diver…I pass through daily exterior superficial life of appearance to the deep mysterious and unknown inner life.” A prolific inventor, Brauner did not exclude any form of art, and created assemblages, boxes, and sculptures, wax paintings and illustrations for books and posters to name some elements of his visual output. He tried to discover the meaning of the world, but the meaning is defined by myth. So he explained that myth and the meaning of his own world and life through his Surrealist art.

Ubu Gallery also joined together with Isidore Ducasse Fine Arts to publish a 64-page color catalogue designed by Eileen Boxer that contains excellent photographs of over 40 works presented in this rare collection of art, vintage books, and periodicals with Victor Brauner’s illustrations currently on display at Ubu Gallery for a two-month period, through January 17, 2004.

To honor Victor Brauner’s 100th birthday, an eclectic show opened also in Bucharest. After a lengthy postponement, the anniversary exhibition finally was inaugurated at the Royal Palace in the capital of Romania. At the entrance to the King’s throne room, a white, large banner hung across the façade of the palace reading in black and white “Victor Brauner 1903–1966.” The artist’s birth country celebrates of course his early work, such as landscapes and cityscapes of south Romania, and his avant-garde cubist and surrealist beginnings of the ’20s and ’30s in a small but a powerful collection of paintings whose vision shines against all odds in a badly lit hall of the present National Art Museum. The artist’s mystical apparitions, magical folkloric creatures, and archetypes of the collective unconscious leap out of his paintings, and lure our imagination into his deliberately naive symbolic world of dreams. For the new generation of art lovers several video screens deconstruct his work by enlarging specific details from select paintings. This impressive exhibit will travel to England in the near future.


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 03-JAN 04

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