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A New Myth - The Roots of Surrealism


A New Myth: The Occult Roots of Surrealism "The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image and elaborating and shaping the image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life." Carl Jung On 11 February 1944, the 68-year-old Carl Jung slipped over in his home and broke his leg. Ten days later, while in hospital, he suffered a myocardial infarction caused by embolisms from his immobilised body. He lost consciousness and had his first mystic vision. In his notes following, he wrote of the sensation of floating high above the earth, flying over the open seas and the white sand of the desert. In his journey he came across a giant black temple, and at the entrance of which was a Hindu monk sitting in the lotus asana. On entering the temple he felt that the “whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence” was stripped away. He recalled it as a harrowing experience which penetrated him to the core, leaving only the “essential Jung.” He knew that inside the temple lay the mystery to his existence, and the answer to his purpose on earth. He saw the Abyss, but before he could cross, he saw the image of the doctor who was treating his injured leg in the physical world. He appeared in the archetypal form of the King of Kos, the island site of the temple of Asclepius, Greek god of medicine. He told Jung that it was not his time to leave the earth, and the King, was there to ferry him back. When Jung heard this, he felt the depths of sorrow and disappointment, and the vision abruptly ended. After his return to consciousness, the vision remained with him, but what troubled him most was seeing his doctor in his archetypal form. According to the archetype, the physician had sacrificed his own life to save Jung’s. On 4 April 1944, Jung began to regain his health and composure. On the same day, his doctor came down with septicemia and died a few days later. Jung was adamant that this not a simple hallucination but a vision of another reality outside of time and space. He had previously taken great care to keep his personal views on the occult hidden in favour of being considered a scientist rather than mystic, but following this visionary experience, he devoted the remaining 17 years of his life to an obsessive study of the occult arts earning him the nickname, “Sage of Küsnacht.” Freud dismissed Jung’s interest in religion and myth as being ‘unscientific’ and this difference of opinion is historically cited as responsible for their split in 1913. Interestingly, new research suggests that while Freud held scientific methods of analysis paramount, he was not entirely without an interest or understanding of the spiritual realm as part of an individual’s psychology. Much of the contemporary study of Freud’s psychoanalysis comes through the English translations by Abraham Arden Brill. Born in Austria 1874, Brill spent the majority of his adult life in the United States, and was the first psychoanalyst to practice publicly. His first translation of Freud appeared in 1909 as Some Papers on Hysteria, and his efforts in bringing the Freudian corpus to an english-speaking audience furthered the influence and legacy of its creator into cult-like status amongst medical practitioners of his time. However one of Freud’s closest disciples, Bruno Bettelheim, asserted that Brill’s English translations were “seriously defective in important respects and have led to erroneous conclusions, not only about Freud the man but also about psychoanalysis.” Brill was committed to making psychoanalysis part of medical science, and as part of Brill’s medical reading of psychoanalysis, he selected words to deliberately position Freud’s theories inline with current medical research and language. In his native tongue, Freud won prizes for the quality of his writing and its ability to engage the everyday reader. In reworking Freud’s writing to form a US medical textbook, Brill lost the subtleties and in some cases, the blatant references to the soul, marring the original definitions of dreamwork and the unconscious. French and Spanish translation, unencumbered by the political agenda in the United States, did not suffer the same fate and were largely faithful to the original language, using direct equivalents of Freud's German terms. Further, Freud developed his theories for the use of every capable mind, rather than for the exclusive use of academic scientists. The additional restriction of an exclusive implementation through government departments could only be seen as a subversion of its original purpose. In the occult revival of late nineteenth-century Vienna, Freud's writings were included as one element within a broader context including alternative religion, para-psychology and a general distrust of conventional rationality and religion. One of Freud’s original students, Bruno Bettelheim began retranslating the core texts in the last years of his life, making the point that most of the original members of Freud’s circle were dead and very few German-speaking students remained who could still recall the originally intended meanings behind his work. Of particular note was the reinterpretation of the soul, or seele in German, a term which Brill removed entirely from his translation, instead replacing the word with mind. Freud used a more humanist interpretation of "soul" to refer to what he called the “innermost being.” Another glaring variance was the key understanding of Freud’s dreamwork. Freud called dreams "the royal road to the unconscious." The German word "traumdeutung" implies a much deeper process than the English term "interpretation." It suggests a link to spiritual practice rather than modern scientific practice. Freud thought that dreams allow us to act out experiences, impulses, or traumas that we resist being aware of in daily life and the real world. “As everyone knows, the ancients before Aristotle did not consider the dream a product of the dreaming mind, but a divine inspiration, and in ancient times the two antagonistic streams, which one finds throughout in the estimates of dream life, were already noticeable. They distinguished between true and valuable dreams, sent to the dreamer to warn him or to foretell the future, and vain, fraudulent, and empty dreams, the object of which was to misguide or lead him to destruction.” Bettelheim’s translations now leave us with a revised version of a psychoanalysis more easily aligned with the spiritual dynamic. It was the French translation of Freud which most influenced the founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton. His approach to the unconscious seems more inline with Jung, yet there is no evidence to suggest that Breton had any contact with Jung’s writing whatsoever. Similarly Jung only mentioned the term, Surrealism, once throughout his work; in his article Ulysses published in 1932 which discusses the work of James Joyce: “Ordinarily, I would no more be doing this than writing about any other form of Surrealism (what is surrealism?) that passes my understanding.” With Freud’s French translations as a basis, Breton constructed the core of Surrealism as a system of practice to unearth what Freud termed the “innermost being.” In this context even the more challenging aspects of Surrealism can be better understood, most especially, the sexual mysticism, which was not founded not on a materialistic interpretation of desire, but an intuition on the same plane as religious belief and practice. The cultural value and legacy of Surrealism as an artistic movement is to be found entirely in its function as a vehicle to connect the macrocosm with the microcosm, the artist with the godhead. Andre Breton defined Surrealism itself as: “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life." The Surrealist artist believes that Creativity itself exists in part of the brain separate and above that concerned with reason, rationality and order. It’s nature is pure, intuitive and also destructive at times, but never planned or composed. It forms a gate to a pure part of the individual and the seat of the True Self. Surrealism was conceived in Paris at a time when Dada was at the centre of the artistic avant-garde. Despite owing much to Tzara’s movement, Breton could never support the chaos of thought which Dada venerated. It could be argued that the main differentiator between Dada and Surrealism is that the latter subscribes to synchronicity rather than random chance. Surrealism believes that our freedom comes from finding our true creative soul as opposed to the rejection of every part of ourselves. The concept struck a chord within the artistic community of the period and elevated art from a commodity to a true form of spiritual and temporal revolution. André Breton wrote in the Manifeste du Surréalisme of 1924: "We are still living under the reign of logic... Under the pretence of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices. It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer - and, in my opinion by far the most important part - has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud... Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream. It is, in fact, inadmissible that this considerable portion of psychic activity... has still today been so grossly neglected.... I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. It is in quest of this surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession." The early discourse of Surrealism had a clear semi-religious character developed directly from Freud’s original intent, firmly placing its motivations in the spiritual domain rather than that of science. Many artists in the movement such as Masson, Miro and Dali experimented with trance states and meditative practices to connect the microscosmic artist with the macrocosmic universe, a process which became known as “automatism.” In 1919 Breton and Phillippe Soupault published the first automatic book, Les Champs Magnetiques or The Magnetic Fields, and was perhaps Breton’s most significant treatise outlining the technique. First published in the Parisian magazine, Minotaure in 1933, it provided an important outline of the underlying concepts and aesthetic of Surrealism which influenced a range of artists and writers throughout the city. Published by Albert Skira, Minotaure itself was a prominent vehicle for the promulgation of early Surrealist art and the renewed link to spirituality. It included original artworks by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali created using automatic techniques. Published at the same time as Breton’s more politically charged publication, Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution, Skira’s publication was pivotal in raising awareness of the spiritual in art, and paved the way for to La Revolution Surrealiste. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move 'randomly' across the paper, attributed in part to the subconscious and revealing something of the psyche, which would otherwise be repressed. Pioneered by André Masson, others who practised automatic drawing include Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, and Jean Arp. The technique was the foundation of the great Australian surrealist, James Gleeson with even his most important and largest works starting as an automatic drawing on a small scale. Some often found that their use of 'automatic drawing' was not entirely automatic, rather it involved some form of conscious intervention to make the image or painting visually acceptable or comprehensible, "Masson admitted that his 'automatic' imagery involved a two-fold process of unconscious and conscious activity." In the second manifesto of Surrealism published in 1929, Breton called for “the occultation of Surrealism.” While the movement had already adopted Art as a pathway to unconscious truth, it wasn’t until the Second World War that Breton became serious in his efforts to understand the mysteries of the occult, in part due to the strides already made in the circle by the painters. The image-makers were going to edges far beyond the surrealist writers of the day. During the War Breton had been reading works that highlighted the influence of occultism, and esotericism generally, upon French and German Romantic and Symbolist literature. Breton had been reading Richer, Gérard de Nerval et les doctrines ésoteriques; Viatte, Les sources occultes du romantisme; Gengoux, La symbolique de Rimbaud. Also relevant is La literature et l’occultisme: études sur la poésie philosohique moderne by Denis Saurat (1929). Over the following years, the link between Surrealism and spirituality gained ground, and in 1930, Breton published The Immaculate Conception, a work which charts the two lives of Man, the external and internal from conception through to life, death and the afterlife in The Original Judgement. To bring in the Surrealist Renaissance for humanity, he needed to find a new myth upon which to base its culture: "... I have often reflected on the fact that the average man, in France, for example, derived less and less support from secular beliefs and institutions during the last twenty years. No further point can be reached in the process which has separated the symbol from the thing for which it stands. Very well then, making a clean break with all that benefits only from external marks of veneration or respect, I do not fear to say that I have seen engendered - oh! after how many attempts! - the embryo of new signification... The prophets are Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, many others: only yesterday there were more than enough of them to agitate the schools. You cannot deny that some of them handle imperatives powerful enough to deflect the course of a young man's life and to decide the adoption of heroic careers. This much I can assure you of. The obscurity of their language as it reflects their exhortation is not different in kind from that of John or Daniel. Notice, too, that the most active are those who left no portraits: Sade, Lautréamont, or those who have left ambiguous testaments: Sade, Lautréamont, Seurat. You see, I cannot grant you that mythology is only the recital of the acts of the dead..." To promulgate this new occult focus and unveil the “new myth”, Breton staged an exhibition of over 87 works from twenty-four countries. Held at the Galerie Maeght in Paris, Le Surréalisme en 1947, was curated with Marcel Duchamp with the aim of delivering a new aeon of creative thought independent of established ways of seeing, and in direct opposition to the rationalism and materialism that spawned the war. Since the 1930’s, Breton was obsessed with myth and the process of myth-creation as part of collective and individual subjectivity, and this exhibition was to be an initiation into Breton’s ‘New Myth’. To give the public the opportunity to learn the myth, the show was planned and designed as a sequence of initiatory stages, leading the viewer toward a personal revelation of truth. Breton emphasised the ‘spirit’ of the exhibition, namely the community of Surrealism in the ‘new myth’, and the ‘cadre’ or initiation as the central tool of realisation. While largely considered an atheist due to his disdain for organised religion, Breton’s perception of spirituality existed only within the individual psyche and the mystic model of initiation was the perfect conduit to transform society. On entering the exhibition, visitors would walk into the underground basement of the Galerie Maeght. Decorated like a subterranean tomb, it held a series of works entitled ‘Surrealists despite themselves’, featuring painters considered “natural surrealists” and precursors such as Bosch, Blake, and Rousseau. It was here that Breton displayed the heritage of Surrealism and those great thinkers who unknowingly contributed to the New Myth. Breton sought provenance by placing his movement in the footsteps of the Romantics and Symbolists. This room was followed by another containing a small group of works entitled ‘Momentary Surrealists’, which saw works by Chirico and Masson alongside Dali. From this room, the visitor would ascend a staircase of twenty-one steps constructed out of the spines of books, each assigned a card of the Tarot’s Major Arcana, in order. The book spines were taken from the esoteric classics including James Frazer’s Le Rameau d’Or, of Justice and Sermons by Meister Eckhart, the Hermit and Les Noces chimiques de Christian Rosenkreuz by Valentin Andreae; and Swedenborg’s Mémorables. The stairs were lit from above by a small revolving lighthouse, symbolising the illumination provided by Surrealism. Breton was creating a symbol of Surrealist influence and a pathway of learning toward enlightenement. As the writer Lennep suggests in ‘L’art alchimique’: ‘With one staircase Breton managed to make it very clear that by now esotericism had become an integral part of Surrealism’s mythopoeia, besides Romanticism, Frazerian anthropology, psychical research and creative mediums.’ At the top of the staircase was a circular room, the ‘Hall of Superstitions’. Designed to represent a dark well or womb, the room was damp and dimly lit in blue and yellow with black drapes covering the windows. Max Ernst’s “Black Lake” was painted across the floor and a range of artworks hung or were placed in what seemed a random arrangement. Critic Mahon writes in Surrealism and the Politics, that the aim of this room was “to stress man’s psychic need for ritual and superstition, which needed to be overcome.” The focus of this area was the challenging of cultural taboo and societal limitations to pave the way for the creative rebirth, referencing Freud's, Totem and Taboo, in which he had provided a notorious analysis of the ritual actions at the origins of religion. Works by David Hare and Joan Miro focused on man’s superstitions, while Donati’s ‘evil eye” silently watched over the room of religious sculpture and Max ernst’s eerie portrait of Euclid, referenced Surrealism’s scientific roots. From this room, the visitor entered Duchamp’s “Rain Room” which assimilated the ordeals of rebirth and purification. Colourful banners of artificial rain hung down, grass covered the floor, and in the centre stood a billiard table. The original idea for the room was that visitors would play billiards to activate the space, and other visitors would push their way through the room surrounded by the sound of colliding balls. Given the majority of the billiard balls were stolen as souvenirs, the idea never quite came to fruition. Finally, the visitor arrives at the Labyrinth of Initiation and Herold’s Le Grand Transparent or Great Transparent One, the sculptural work based on the central philosophy of the entire exhibition. At six feet tall, the statue presents a figure veiled with alchemical symbols, its face shattered and displaced, holding symbols the egg and flame. It stood guarding the entrance to the final room, the Labyrinth of Initiation. As Breton suggests in Prolegomena, the philosophy rests on the belief that “man is perhaps not the center, the cynosure of the universe.” The physical appearance of Herold’s sculpture suggests a space between existing and not existing, being solid and transient, and between waking and dream reality. According the Breton, the Great Transparent Ones “mysteriously reveal themselves to us when we are afraid and when we are conscious of the workings of chance.” He goes on to suggest that encounters with the beings are therefore limited to the initiated and those open to magical interactions. The installation as part of the exhibition offered the Great Transparent Ones “a chance to show themselves.” Originally published in issue one of the journal,VVV Breton’s theory of the “Great Transparent Ones” became a curious dynamic in the Surrealist myth. Over the years, scholars have offered various literary sources for the idea ranging from Hugo’s Les Travailleures de la Mer, the sources for H.G Wells early science fiction, the writings of Matta, and Maupassant’s short story, La Horla, yet none have drawn the link between the Great Transparent Ones and the concept of The Secret Chiefs which enjoyed widespread appeal in occult circles. A transcendent spiritual hierarchy, The Secret Chiefs are responsible for the moral operation of the cosmos. On a wordly level, it oversees the operations of an esoteric organization that manifests outwardly in the form of a magical order or lodge system. Their names and descriptions have varied through time and cultures, but are believed to exist on higher planes of being or to be incarnate; if incarnate, they may be described as being gathered at some special location, such as Shambhala, or scattered through the world working anonymously. Even at their most basic definition, they are identical to Breton’s Great Transparent Ones, and it seems natural that in calling for the “Occultation of Surrealism” that Breton would install occultism’s central myth of the Secret Chiefs as a central part of Surrealism. While the idea can be traced as far back to Karl von Eckartshausen’s The Cloud Upon The Sanctuary (1795), the idea was widespread during Breton’s era, and most notably promulgated by H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, and Aleister Crowley. A further link to the Secret Chiefs comes through one of the most well known English Surrealists, Ithel Colquhoun, who was a friend of Breton and with links to Crowley, the Typhonian Ordo Templi Orientis and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, all organisations which venerate the connection to the Secret Chiefs. Beyond Herold’s sentinel lay the ‘Labyrinth of Initiation’, a room divided into twelve octagonal recesses, and in each stood an altar created by a major artist of the movement "dedicated to be a category of beings or objects that might be endowed with mythical life." The original notebook of Breton held in the library of the Centre Pompidou provides an insight into the collaboration of the artists and poets of the group. The altar Leonie Aube Ashby, under the sign of Rimbaud, was created by Breton with the help of Francis Bouvet, Michel and Claude Tarnaud Hertz, with offerings of Claude Tarnaud (an object array), Jacques Herold (a tie), Victor Brauner (a root) and put together by Benjamin Peret and Francis Bouvet. Each altar contained a figuration of its subject and suitable relics, with the matching sign of the zodiac, symbolised by its specific colour and semi-precious stone ascribed to each altar. In order, the twelve altars were as follows: 1) The Mundane Tiger (John Ferry) 2) The hair Falmer (Lautréamont) 3) Heloderme suspect on the barrel cactus 4) Jeanne Sabrenas (Alfred Jarry) 5) Leonie Aube Ashby (Arthur Rimbaud) 6) The Secretary Bird - Trainer of gravity 8) nosed mole (Fracture, quoted by Buffon) 9) Louptable 10) Raymond Roussel 11) The large transparent (André Breton) 12) Window magna sed apta (George du Maurier) The altar of the 13th Baskine announced in the catalog is not listed in the notebook, and little is know as this item and whether it was included as part of the exhibition. Breton dictated the prototype for his altars to derive from “pagan cults, Indian or voodoo.” Following the Labyrinth of Initiation, the visitor would then finish in a surrealist kitchen, where a surrealist meal was to be served. This last room was omitted from the final exhibition plan, with no explanation, and may have been due to the restrictions of space at the Galerie Maeght. The exhibition met with a mixed critical response and a generally confused public. Although superior in concept and execution to Breton’s groundbreaking exhibition of 1938, this installment failed to live up to its promise to reinvigorate the Surrealist movement in France. According to Breton's biographer, Volker Zotz, the exhibition of 1947 was criticised for being too exclusive, highlighting the fact that post-war Surrealism had become an inner "esoteric circle.” Duchamp's biographer, Calvin Tomkins, described the exhibition as "the movement's last hurrah,” for a movement which had paved the way for more current intellectual ideas such as Existentialism and Abstract Expressionism. Art Critics were less kind labelling the exhibition a “deviant synthesis of the Musée Grevin, the Musée Dupuytren, the ‘Grand Guignol’ and a Luna Park.” Albert Palle wrote, "We are no longer moved by it... the enormous destruction of the world which we lived through during the dark years has emptied Surrealism of its explosive force." The Paris critic for Time Magazine agreed: "After the gas chambers, those heaps of bones and teeth and shoes and eyeglasses, what is there left for the poor Surrealists to shock us with?" The exhibition suffered a further political onslaught due to its promulgation of the New Myth to an audience freshly scarred by the Nazi regime and their very public “myth-making” practices. By focusing the first Surrealist exhibition after the Second World War toward myth creation, Breton unknowingly entangled it with fascism and Nazism. Rather than understand Breton’s intended aim of rebirth and regeneration after atrocity, intellectuals of the period saw the New Myth as another form of imposed colonisation, limiting, nostalgic, conservative and regressive. Over the following years, occultism in general was regarded with suspicion as an obstacle to rebuilding a free and rational society. The intellectuals and critics, the majority of whom leaned toward communism, considered Surrealism and esotericism to be an unimportant relic of a past age. The exhibition which should have been a rebirth for Surrealism, was instead the intellectual downfall of the movement and its founder. André Breton's obituary in The New York Times described his final years: "When Mr. Breton returned to France in 1946, the world had changed. If such painters as Matta or Wilfredo Lam had given Surrealist art a new lease on life, existentialism was dominating the literary scene... Nevertheless he continued to write, publishing two magazines, a work on Rimbaud, poems and essays... The last years of his life were spent in a country house in southwestern France and in an apartment at the bottom of Montmartre littered with manuscripts, books and African art. He was suffering from Marcel Proust's disease, asthma, and recently told a friend that the one writer he envied was Victor Hugo 'because at his funeral were all the people of Paris.” The true legacy of the exhibition lies in its final statement of the true aim of Surrealism: individual initiation, and the New Myth which has remained with the movement until this day. Despite the various sojourns of its individual members, and the emergence of disaffected copyists of the tradition, there are those who continued the philosophy expounded by the 1947 landmark showing. A LIGHT IN THE SOUTHERN LAND Surrealism was adopted by young Australian artists in 1939 largely due to the widespread anxiety surrounding Australia’s entrance to the Second World War. Richard Haese wrote: “To advocate Surrealism (good or bad Surrealism, nobody knew the difference) was to lay claim to being on the side of a radical and anarchic future”. For the majority of artists, Surrealism stood as the main argument against authority. In 1939 the highly influential Herald exhibition of French and British contemporary art came to Australia, with over 200 modernist paintings and sculpture including paintings by Ernst, de Chirico and Dali. Amid the strong public interest, the editor of Art in Australia asked the young critic, James Gleeson to write an article on Surrealism. Entitled ‘What is Surrealism?’ the piece was published in 1940 and was the first discussion of Australian Surrealist artists. He wrote: “Surrealism is an attempt not to abandon reason but to make reason reasonable; to rejuvenate the concept of reason. It is the fantastic used as a method of elucidation. It aims at a re-orientation of values through a broadening of the concept of reality…” The next year Andre Breton contributed an article to the journal in response, firmly placing Surrealism as one of the most visible of the modern Australian movements. Describing himself as a "natural surrealist", Gleeson was taught by an aunt to paint in oils, and displayed an early talent. In 1934, the young artist enrolled at East Sydney Technical College. Gleeson then travelled to Europe in the same year of Le Surréalisme en 1947, sharing a studio in London with Robert Klippel, who became a lifelong friend. Gleeson said of their friendship: “I do not remember any sustained and serious discussions about art until I met Robert Klippel.” For two years, the artist lived in London at The Abbey, a large ex-monastery run by collector and owner of London’s Berkley Gallery, William Ohly. From there he moved to Italy, where he discovered humanism and classicism, turning his work toward the figurative. Having developed under the influences of Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and André Breton, Gleeson was now exposed to the traditions of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the influences of which would inform his later work. After his return to Australia in 1949, Gleeson worked as an art critic in Sydney for The Sun until 1976, and for the Sun Herald from 1962 until 1976. He had his first solo exhibition at Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries in 1950 and exhibited regularly but for many years was better known as a critic, author and curator than as an artist. As a writer, he compiled monographs on William Dobell and Klippel, now considered to be the definitive works on those artists. As a curator, he put together a travelling exhibition for the Melbourne Olympic Games and served as Australian Commissioner for the 1973 Sao Paolo Biennale. In the same year, Gleeson was appointed a member of the Commonwealth Advisory Board, a predecessor of the Visual Arts and Crafts Board, and he served as the chair of the acquisitions committee for the fledgling Australian National Gallery. In 1990, Gleeson was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. Gleeson cited his writing as an important part in the development of his painting: “Writing was very important indeed. Between 1939 and 1942, I worked as much with words as with paint. I felt that words could be arranged in such a way as to explore the hidden realities of existence more clearly and with greater subtlety than I, at that stage, could manage with the painted image… I was fascinated by what can only be described as verbal collage in the early T.S. Eliot and in Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools. The dissonances, free associations, the stream of consciousness with its continuities and disjunctions, all these were weapons to be used in raids upon the unconscious.” During the early 1940’s when Gleeson was writing a considerable amount on Surrealism, the cultural environment of Australia was in a form of rebirth itself, and in many respects provided a more fertile soil for Breton’s philosophies than his native France. Gleeson recalled in an interview with Lou Klepac in 1987: “For a while, especially during the war years, I did think of Surrealism as a revolutionary weapon. I accepted Breton’s contention that by utilising the subconscious one could arrive at a condition that held the rational mind in balance and perhaps prevent such disasters as war, indifference or fanaticism.” In time, Gleeson revised his views on the revolutionary underpinnings of Breton’s vision. By the time he began writing on Surrealism it was already 16 years after the original manifesto of 1924, and the tumultuous post-World War intellectual environment was long forgotten. The original Surrealist school had now fractured, and the focus of Surrealism moved from transforming society to transforming the individual: “We know, of course that art doesn’t shape history, it follows history … This was not always clear to me, and on reflection it appears that the two currents that have shaped my life as an artist were founded on the belief that they could shape the future by changing our conceptions of the nature of reality.” Gleeson’s personal reading of Surrealism focused on the liberty of the individual. In turn this repositioned art as a tool which could unlock the unconscious, emancipate the mind and allow the artist to freely explore the truth behind reality. He would write later in Along the Faultline (2005): “Appearances are but intimations of hidden realities, And as Bacon observed, ‘all colours will agree in the dark.” This lofty purpose is identical to Breton’s famous call for the “occultation of Surrealism” locating the artist and surrealism in the heavens. In a phrase which could easily be mistaken for Breton himself, Gleeson writes: “When Blake officiated at the nuptials Of Heaven and Hell He foresaw the birth of Dada and Surrealism.” Classifying Gleeson as an esoteric artist, even by Breton’s definition, would be incorrect, but in considering his methods and motivations through the lens of esotericism, we see a side of the artist otherwise misunderstood. Too often critics, and the public alike, struggle with Gleeson’s disturbing content and aesthetic, simply because they remain unaware of his intended mission. Inline with the intellectual trend of the time, his personal approach to spirituality seemed inclined toward atheism, and a contempt for organised religion can be read in his poetry, most notably the short work, Attention! Attention!: “Readers, listeners, watchers be warned, the news is bad. The Resurrection scheduled for this evening has failed. There was no lift-off. Repeat. No lift-off. All options have been cancelled. The Pontiff has put on black and all places of congregation have beemn closed. Do not gather or loiter, but stay in your houses. Go to the fuse box and disconnect the power. There will be no further announcements.” He wrote further on the ridiculous and repressive nature of dogma, religious or otherwise: “Dogma, he said, is the anti-clotting factor which prevents a spiritual occlusion. By shrinking the thinking process it makes life much simpler. It comes in tablet or suppository form and used with diligence and dedication will make you live forever.” On his own thoughts toward the afterlife, Gleeson suggested that “according to the Great Conjurer, Death is but a temporary inconvenience… In spite of all persuasion, I’ve not been able to interpret it as a doorway to another kind of living.” Gleeson’s essential quest was not for the “spiritual” per se, but for Pure Reality. His art was a tool to peek behind the curtain of the perceived reality of the everyday, and glimpse Truth. This is the same path taken by all manner of students and travellers on the esoteric path, who search for the hidden truth behind what they perceive in the physical world. It lies at the heart of Buddhism, Mystic Christianity and the majority of gnostic faith. At its foundation, Gleeson’s artistic practice sought to transcend the exoteric and find a union with the esoteric. While he worked outside esoteric tradition, he employed a great many of their techniques and concepts, mostly notably the practice of automatism which he executed to a level unequalled by any other artist in Australian history. His unconscious explorations have influenced artists like Barry William Hale, members of Collective777 and a generation of new artists intent on discovering the potential of art as a tool for transcendence. One of the underpinnings of esoteric art is its rejection of beauty and form as mandatory elements of art. The vision of an individual artist occurs under its own energy, and what we unearth from the unconscious is not always pretty or even approachable. It is an exploration not an idealisation. To subsequently restrict this vision with the conventions of art school theory and fashionable critique is to destroy Truth at its germination. For many people, Gleeson’s work is “difficult” for this very reason. In response, Gleeson explains: “The line between ugly and beautiful is, like the equator, an imaginary line. In art its position varies with the viewer. For me, I doubt whether it exists at all. I doubt if it has any role to play in the search for the reality that lies beyond the apparent reality.” Reality does not necessarily equal Beauty, and Gleeson’s work was never restricted by the same rules which dominated his contemporaries. He found his literary endeavours as an important part in the formulation of his painting in this direction: “Writing was very important indeed. Between 1939 and 1942, I worked as much with words as with paint. I felt that words could be arranged in such a way as to explore the hidden realities of existence more clearly and with greater subtlety than I, at that stage, could manage with the painted image… I was fascinated by what can only be described as verbal collage in the early T.S. Eliot and in Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools. The dissonances, free associations, the stream of consciousness with its continuities and disjunctions, all these were weapons to be used in raids upon the unconscious.” Between 1982 and 1983, Gleeson achieved a breakthrough. While staying on the secluded Queensland coast at Peregian Beach with his partner Frank O’Keefe, he embarked on a series of collages which were automatic in nature and represented a return to the original source of his inspiration as a surrealist. Inspired by his poetry, these works were the realisation of a new technique which paved the way for his most important and fertile period as a painter. The images were a fresh reading of the unconscious created through free association and trance-like meditation. They were free of convention and overt visual cues of Ernst and Dali, alluding more to the smokey landscapes of Turner in their capture of both the seen and the unseen. Gleeson went even further in his rejection of Jungian archetypes, instead creating new forms, blending the natural and artificial, light and dark, space and earth. The monumental works to follow were elemental in nature, depicting earth, water, air, fire and flesh blending in a new state. The core inspiration for these visions came from the dream state. One of his key poems describes this state intimately: “In the dream I dreamt I was dreaming my barely sounding skin as a shell enclosing nothing. Then, to the mind’s eye of the inner dream the murmuring she; was gone, in an instant, by explosion or implosion vanished, the ancient nothingness infinitely dispersed or compacted to an absolute nullity. And now I dreamt I no longer dreamed but stood in my own reality with an allotted number proving it.” Gleeson illustrates a transition through stages of consciousness, eventually providing a path a true reality, and the discovery of another higher self: “But the shadow is implacable, my doppelganger by the decree of light. in darkness it reluctantly subsides. Or when too occupied to notice on the sunny path or by a stalking wall it slinks ahead or lurks behind, always knowing the movement to be made. A shadow self! For reasons that are yet unclear to me I have obliged to name my shadow Cain. Is there also another shadow? A shadow of a shadow caught for a moment in a peripheral vision? Perhaps it is that of the Solver of all Problems” The major work, The Wheel has Come Full Circle (2005) is a visual illustration of this return to the core of automatism, and the centrality of the dream state in Gleeson’s creativity. Upon its completion, the artist commented to curator and scholar, Lou Klepac that this was the best painting he had ever done, and best summed up his approach to Surrealism. Gleeson was once again mining the unconscious and unearthing a pure reality. The companion work, A Moment in the Process (2005) similarly depicts a point in the creative act, and the opening of the unconscious plane. It can be read as a “Genesis-painting”, the commencement of light, life, love and liberty for the creative soul in an act of alchemical change. Gleeson used a great deal of arcane alchemical and spiritual reference when writing about the act of painting: “like a phoenix risen out of ash, or a thought-lotus Sprung from the compost of forgotten memories Yet still fed from darkness. If the light is right the darkness will remain To hold the form in statis. Something will be that had not been before.” These works have redefined Surrealism in Australia and inspired a new generation of painters and critics. His stature as an artist rose with the 2003 exhibition Drawings for Paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and reached a peak with the major retrospective of 2005, Beyond the Screen of Sight, exhibited in Melbourne and Canberra. In September 2007, the largest private collection of Australian Surrealism was donated to the National Gallery of Australia by Ray Wilson, including an extensive selection of important works by Gleeson. James Gleeson remains the last true expression of pure Surrealism in the modern age. He remained dedicated to the ideals of the unconscious where many had sporadically dabbled. His influence remains under the skin of Australian art and criticism, with an increasing number of contemporary esoteric and spiritual artists looking to his insights for direction and inspiration. The insights gained from decades of mining the unconscious have illustrated art as a conduit to the unseen world. In a 2006 interview with the artist in his studio , Gleeson summed up his fascination with the genre which defined his artistic life: “Surrealism allowed me to see behind the veil of everyday reality.” When asked what he had found after more than 60 years of looking, he took a long pause, and then answered: “I have found myself.”

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