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L’Art Magique: Boundaries and Beyond with Beatrice Stankeviciute

In what ways is art ‘magic’ you may ask. Well, let me put a spell on you! Be ready to be enchanted and transported somewhere beyond – unveiling the fascinating realm of dreams, desires, and magic, more ambiguous and complex than the naked eye can see. L’Art Magique: Boundaries and Beyond is a column that traces the esoteric interests of the Surrealists and explores the shift from historical thinking to magical thinking. Looking at the mystical undercurrents present within various artistic practices, both past and current, with a strong interdisciplinary focus, L’Art Magique examines the perception, reception and response to such attitudes while also touching upon deeper concepts that emerge within them – politics, gender, race, identity, cultural conditions and the environment – especially when thinking about the return of the magical in the contemporary. Come celebrate the unexpected, the imaginary, the revolutionary, the irrational, the poetic, the fantastical – the unworldly is the world we’d rather live in after all. Wouldn’t you agree?


A Utopia Where Blossoms Divine Femininity

The relationship between feminism and the occult: From Leonora Carrington to the contemporary 27 January 2023

Tai Shani, Headless/Senseless, 2011, performance, Courtesy of the artist (https://www.taishani.com/headlessenseless) An enchantress? A witch? A goddess? Or all of the above? Who and what is the female that the surrealists were so fascinated and frightened by? Who is she now? Such a complex and, perhaps, unanswerable question but one that, I hope, provokes you to think about a female’s placement in both the discourse of (art) history and her position within society, taking into consideration the many representations or, dare I say, fabrications of her true self. Bound by social constructions and gender paradigms, throughout years neglected and abandoned, left in a dark room to illuminate her own light, or cower before those who deemed her imperfect and not capable to rise as a Venus, as a fiery phoenix ascending from the ashes and the shadows of her father, husband, and son. A female is a creature full of mystery and secrets, both powerful and vulnerable, searching for a place to call home – away from patriarchy and the dominant, intruding gaze of the male, or the environment where she is not seen, or perhaps just barely, as an equal. Even in these modern times, when the idea of a ‘feminine woman’ has evolved and each individual has the freedom of speech and the right to vote irrespective of their gender, the process of fighting for women and their rights is still ongoing. What should, and should not be, considered as strictly ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is still a question, almost as much as it was before, that predominates the discussion. From time to time, I too find myself asking and wondering, whether it be because of a specific situation that happened in my own life or something on a global scale. Therefore, considering the relationship between feminism and the occult, I would like to look at the ways in which the magical sphere became both a physical and conceptual space for the realisation of female identity. One of the significant artists who explored the concepts of magic, witchcraft and the occult is Leonora Carrington (1917-2011); an English-born Mexican painter, writer and one of the most prominent female surrealists. Carrington is an especially interesting case in terms of considering the feminist approach to Surrealism – a movement distinctly male dominant and at times considered deeply misogynistic – which showcases Carrington’s commitment and active pursuit to link psychic freedom with political consciousness. Drawing on the concept of gender and the notion of femininity, Carrington employs a language of symbols and magic, creating an entanglement of allegories and allusions that form a spellbinding narrative – both immersive storytelling and self-exploration within the painterly. In Carrington’s artworks, the fatal magic renders the body open to produce new forms, mapping new and autonomous realities beyond gender regimes and the environment that constructed them. Carrington’s works emerge as planes for finding and imprinting female identity through the fantastical, the paintings, full of imaginary creatures, witches, and other spiritual elements, articulating as the poetic expression of a woman’s experience with the purpose of radically re-imagining gender norms. In The Meal of Lord Candlestick, (1938), for instance, Carrington intentionally inverts the symbolic order of maternity and religion as a statement of her own subversive move towards personal freedom in France. While in her painting of 1975, Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, Carrington transforms a traditional domestic space, most of the times associated with female oppression and labour – the kitchen – into one of female power. It emerges as a place of alchemy and transformations, where women are engaged in mysterious activities within a secret world unknown to men. An occult drama, the predominating dark tones together with the colour of burnt orange reinforcing its sublime theatrical and, assumably, dangerous quality, is unfolding before our eyes: women, these witch-like figures, are concocting magical spells over a Mexican griddle instead of cooking dinner for their family. The painting is filled with various important references. For example, the garlic cloves on the floor have a history in Mexican healing and magical rituals, which interested the artist. It is also worth noting that Carrington was one of the founders of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico in the early 1970s, underlining her concern and strife for equal rights.

Leonora Carrington, The Meal of Lord Candlestick, 1938, Oil on Canvas, Private Collection (Artwork Images)

Leonora Carrington, Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen, 1975, Oil on canvas, 79x124.5cm, Charles B. Goddard Center, Ardmore, Oklahoma, USA. © 2011 Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Despite my never-ending interest in Carrington and her fellow female surrealists – a high chance I will come back to them in my future articles – I would like to turn my and, consequently your, attention to more recent times and the revival of the occult within the contemporary. My special focus is on Tai Shani (age 46 years) – a British artist and Turner Prize Winner (2019) – whose practice spans performance, photography, film and sculptural installations, most of the times constructed around experimental texts. Within her interdisciplinary artistic production, Shani brings into play fantastical, almost sci-fi worlds, which were inspired and created by calling on the disparate histories, the forgotten narratives and various characters that emerge among them, placing a significant emphasis on the subjective, multi-dimensional and dreamlike experience, a journey of some sorts. Shani, similarly to Carrington despite the different cultural environments that moulded these females as artists and the distinctly contrasting medium of their work, redirects the feminist vision, employing occultism as a tool for political resistance. Shani invites the viewer to look at historical narratives and gender politics through the lens of fiction and mythical narration as a means to imagining an alternative past and constructing a possible post-patriarchal future. As opposed to the limitations of purely pictorial imagery, Shani’s installations are immersive, positioning the contemporary spectator physically within the said narrative. Acquiring the role of simultaneously a spectator, performer, and fictional character in the story, one enters a utopian land of phantasmagorical forms, surreal images of futuristic, fleshy machines and erotic holograms that disturb gender and sex binaries.

Tai Shani, Dark Continent: Semiramis, 2018, performance-installation, Glasgow, Courtesy of the artist © Keith Hunter

The principal themes of sexuality, gender and identity are explored vividly in Shani’s performance-installation Dark Continent: Semiramis, 2018, a large-scale project that encompasses a series of texts interpreted into a twelve-part performance series, film, and installation, as well as a commissioned soundtrack. The project, brimming with allusions and allegories, is an expanded adaptation, falling back on Christine de Pizan’s 1405 protofeminist text The Book of the City of Ladies, in which dialogues with three celestial females, ‘Reason’, ‘Rectitude’ and ‘Justice’, build a protected, yet metaphorical, city for women by employing examples of various significant contributions female figures have made to Western civilisation and arguments that demonstrate and justify their intellectual and moral equality with men. Curiously, the title Dark Continent alludes to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s description of female sexuality: ‘We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a “dark continent” for psychology’ (The Question of Lay Analysis, 1926). This suggests Shani’s interest in the psychoanalytical ideas that surround Surrealism and the critique that exists in conversation with the imposed female ‘otherness’.

Tai Shani, Dark Continent: Semiramis, 2018, performance-installation, Glasgow, Courtesy of the artist © Keith Hunter

In Dark Continent, Shani constructs an allegorical city of women, a place that is ‘simultaneously internal and geographic, past and future, part ruin, part construction, existing between destruction and becoming’. By constructing a home to out-of-placeness within a non-linear time, Dark Continent: Semiramis investigates and exhorts ideas and experiences of femininity and ‘feminine’ subjectivity. Challenging conceptions of traditional feminist art, which has historically centred on the domestic, craft and the personal body, and stepping beyond the rational realities of race, gender and class, Shani’s performance-installations illuminate how art might respond to present political shifts and contribute in a meaningful way to these conversations that need to be heard – not ignored. Shani’s work is evocative. Something that intrigues, excites, and frightens. When I first encountered her work, I simply could not look away – I was utterly mesmerised. Not to say that I was not disturbed, to some extent, by the provocative fleshy and bodily, almost gut-like, forms, leaving you discombobulated. Because it would be a complete lie. But I think that is where the true power lies. Her approach to life and death is exquisite – without fear or the veil of idealisation. Toying with colour, form and content, Shani creates violent and erotic, sensual and at times unsettling pieces that are raw and explicitly implicit, while also deeply poetic and lyrical. I would even say that there is something uncanny about them, leaving a definite imprint on your mind and body.

Tai Shani, Dark Continent: Semiramis, 2018, performance-installation, Glasgow, Courtesy of the artist (https://www.taishani.com/the-neon-hieroglyph-1-1)

In a way, Shani’s works articulate as a mirror, not one reflecting the exterior (appearance) through realistic representations but one that turns to the inside – the reflection of all parts of our own being, some beautiful, some frightening and ugly, but nonetheless worthy of recognition. There is an underlying idea of a female figure that is comfortable in her own skin and bones, not afraid to embrace all the imperfections and deepest, darkest parts of her true self. According to the artist, Dark Continent is the gates to ‘the city of women’. A female, carved into stone by history and time, has shed her armour, or her shell, entering the utopian land of liberation – subversive, dark and intimate. A physical and conceptual space, transforming her into an eternal figure reminiscent of ancient queens and spiritual goddesses. No more only delicate and sweet, a good and caring mother: she is bold, independent, and unapologetic. Sensual, wild, and free. Not afraid to simply exist. To thrive.

The Muse of Music and Folklore – The Fantastic, The Cosmic and The Spiritual Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: Between Worlds at the Dulwich Picture Gallery 28 October 2022

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Pasaka (Karalių Pasaka) – Fairy Tale (Fairy Tale of Kings), 1909, tempera on canvas (photo source: https://ciurlionis.eu/paveikslas/pasaka-karaliu-pasaka/)

Rather unexpectedly, when seeking shelter from the temperamental autumn weather at one of the tube stations – always leaving you ‘scorched’, but nonetheless a sought-after place for every Londoner – I stumbled upon an exhibition poster for the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Imagine my surprise when I realised that the exhibition promoted was on none other than the national pride I grew up studying and admiring, credited as the most famous Lithuanian painter and composer who ever lived – Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911).

Gallery view: Between Worlds: Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (photo source: https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1785139/exhibition-of-lithuania-sgenius-artist-ciurlionis-opens-in-london) Čiurlionis’s artworks rarely leave the borders of Lithuania due to their fragile nature and conservation concerns. The question of who may have, and may not have, heard of the Lithuanian art scene and its profound cultural history might also be at play here. Between Worlds is the first retrospective exhibition in the UK on Čiurlionis, with over 100 of his works decorating the gallery walls (many shown in the UK for the first time), mere meters, steps even, away from European Old Masters like Poussin, Rubens and Rembrandt. To be part of such a company is quite an honour for Čiurlionis. The serendipitous and in a sense surreal encounter inspired me to write this first column on the artistic practice of Čiurlionis in the hope of introducing his artistic language and cultural heritage to the wider international public while exploring and celebrating the anthropomorphic nuances that emerge within the paintings.

S. Fleury, Portrait of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (photo source: http://ciurlionis.eu/en/mkc-foto-3/)

Čiurlionis was seen as a pioneer for European symbolism, whose works became the precursors of abstract painting. Over his fairly short, but extremely profound, artistic career (he died of pneumonia at 35 years of age), he composed about 400 pieces of music and created about 300 paintings (not counting many literary works and poems), often drawing on symbolism, abstraction, and mysticism. The artistic universe of Čiurlionis has often been considered in similar terms to Turner’s paintings, particularly in relation to the inspiration drawn from the natural world and its connection to the individual. However, the nature that emerges in Čiurlionis’s works is entirely different. Inspired by the beautiful Lithuanian countryside – surrounding hills, forests, lakes, rivers, and sea – Čiurlionis created masterpieces that bridge mythology and reality, environment and its natural elements, acquiring the power to transform and be transformed. To morph and connect – to dissolve into one, emphasising the multiplicity of interpretations, which juxtapose the contemporary spectator at the threshold of intersections (of disciplines, worlds and emotions). The Lithuanian countryside and nature were extremely important to Čiurlionis, and the people of Lithuania. Not only as a place reminiscent of childhood and various memories connected to it, but also the Lithuanian folklore that comes from it. The artistic choice to put the landscape in focus needs to be viewed from the political trajectory and the societal conditions that impacted it. Why? Because it was a time when Lithuanians were trying to find (and fight for) their identity under the Russian empire. The notion of defining Lithuanian art was more than significant – it was crucial to unite the nation and guide the Lithuanian art movement. Therefore, it is no surprise that Čiurlionis’s earliest works from 1903 depict mystical kings and princesses of the past, fantastical creatures and heavenly angels, traces of Lithuanian pagan culture, elements of cosmogony – gods, planets, stars, all accompanying the artist throughout the rest of his creative path and emerging as portrayals of immersive storytelling – the world of fairy tales. Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Ramybė (Serenity), 1904-05, pastel and charcoal on paper (photo source: http://www.ciurlionis.eu) Between the years 1907 and 1909, a period of his mature artistic virtuosity, Čiurlionis created works of a completely new plastic-aural form – pictorial sonatas, preludes, fugues – orchestrating a union between music and art. ‘Visual music’, however contradictory and ambiguous it may sound at first, was, and continues to be, something many artists explore, creating a sensory synthesis that traces an alternative history of abstract art. Baudelaire, one of the poets and critics beloved by the surrealists (André Breton praising Baudelaire in Le Surréalisme et La Peinture, 1928, as a champion ‘of the imagination’), wrote a poem that best summarises the goal of modern art: ‘Les parfums, les couleurs et les son se répondent’ (Correspondences, 1857), translated by Richard Wilbur as ‘all scents and sounds and colours meet as one.’ It is precisely how I would describe Čiurlionis‘s artworks – a veil of mysticism covering the earth in misty hues, warm at times, cold at others, and rhythmic structural tones that echo far and close. Čiurlionis himself wrote: ‘I imagine the whole world as a great symphony: people are the notes and my far Druskininkai – the beautiful melodies.’ Various artists drew upon the phenomenon of music to name their paintings as a metaphor, not fully convinced that they could synthesise colour, music and movement. Among Whistler, Kandinsky, Kupka and other contemporaries, Čiurlionis was one of the artists who gave musical titles to his paintings. Yet, Čiurlionis broke out from the limitations, exploring the potential of music to the fullest. Especially interesting and unconventional is the way in which he adapted musical structures for visual compositions, inscribing musical rhythms (allegro, andante) within the painterly. Repeated in compelling patterns, these compositional arrangements both consciously and unconsciously influenced the vividness and content of imagined journeys through form and colour, connecting music and paint, time and space. Musical rhythms also echo in the artistic choice to paint a series of works – cycles – and a great number of diptychs and triptychs. Now, London has a chance to see the fascinating diptych titled Žvaigždžių Sonata (Sonata of the Stars), one of my favourite works by Čiurlionis. Organic forms become abstracted, simplified, and reformed, moving from figuration to abstraction and entering the realm of metamorphoses. Where are you transported when you look at the painting? What emotions does the different colour palette evoke? Can you feel the warmth of the sun and hear the crashing waves? Or is it the clouds that swim over your head, inviting you to dream? Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Allegro, from cycle SONATA VI Žvaigždžių Sonata Sonata of the Stars), 1908, tempera on paper (photo source: http://ciurlionis.eu/paveikslas/sonatavi-zvaigzdziu-sonata-allegro/) Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Andante, from cycle SONATA VI Žvaigždžių Sonata (Sonata of the Stars), 1908, tempera on paper (photo source: http://ciurlionis.eu/paveikslas/sonatavi-zvaigzdziu-sonata-allegro/) Čiurlionis transformed relatively small and corporeal experiences into colossal and universal ideas, falling back on the metaphysical praxis and, consequently, provoking us to ask about our place in the cosmos, and take a step away from the world we know to one we usually do not dare enter. Moving from micro to macro interchangeably, his work is eternalised. It is not subject to time and space or the limitations of the mind – it is a creation that touches the earthly and the bodily while entering the highest worlds of the spiritual and opening the landscape of the mind and heart. The powerful emotional, sensory, and ethereal tendencies are heightened by the multi-planar painting techniques and complex compositions that construct a distinctly abstract, yet harmonious narrative – a luring visual melody of the world(s). Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, REX, , 1909, tempera on canvas (photo source: http://ciurlionis.eu/paveikslas/rex-5/) Perhaps it is fitting, then, that this temporary exhibition takes place at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – a cultural institution situated away from the buzzing streets, howling sirens and hordes of people, always rushing somewhere – everywhere and anywhere. Even if it is not the Lithuanian countryside, pulsating with mystical energy and history, the nature surrounding the Dulwich Picture Gallery (Dulwich Park) – where earth is clothed in fiery red and golden leaves, where birds are chirping, kindly reminding us of a different, much calmer pace of life – evokes a deep sense of serenity, inspiring one to contemplate, to listen and to transcend – beyond the hills and forests, beyond the fleeting moments. Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Pasaka (I), Fairy Tale (I), from Triptych Cycle, 1907, tempera on paper, (photo source: https://ciurlionis.eu/en/painting/gallery/) Note: For those of you who are interested in discovering the spellbinding world of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, the exhibition is on until March 2023! The Dulwich Picture Gallery is also organising a Gallery Late in February (if you can wait that long) – just show up with your Courtauld student ID for free entry! Links: M.K. Čiurlionis: Between Worlds at the Dulwich Picture Gallery - https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats- on/exhibitions/2022/september/mk-%C4%8Diurlionis-between-worlds/ Between Worlds: Late - https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/afterhours/2023/february/between-worlds-late/ M. K. Čiurlionis - Miške (In the Forest - Symphonic Poem) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7_6TaDRlOs M. K. Čiurlionis - Jūra (Sea - Symphonic Poem) – https://youtu.be/TQeub39T-9c

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