The magical universe of the surrealist painter Victor Brauner, honored by the Museum of Modern Art in Paris

Victor Brauner. SELF PORTRAIT [cu ochiul scos] / Self-portrait [à l’oeil énucléé], 1931, oil on canvas, 22 x 16.2 cm © Paris, Center Pompidou, MNAM-CCI. MRI press photo. / Victor Brauner
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Paris Museum of Modern Art celebrated this month the mysterious and magical universe of one of the great Romanian surrealist painters, Victor Brauner, whose life was full of strange experiences. The exhibition dedicated to him took place between 7 and 10 January 2021. Member of the large community of Romanian artists and intellectuals in Paris, together with Constantin Brâncuși, Mircea Eliade, Eugène Ionesco, Isidore Isou and Tristan Tzara, Victor Brauner initially joined the Dadaists, only to later become surreal.

Painting is life, real life, my life ‘Victor Brauner’s epitaph, written on his grave in Montmartre Cemetery

On the night of August 27-28, 1938, during a party that brought together several members of the surrealist group in his studio. Oscar Dominguez, on the Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris, a fight broke out between the latter and his compatriot, Esteban French. The first throws a glass into the head of the second, who avoids him. The glass hits a wall, and the shards reach the left eye of Victor Brauner, who will remain blind after this incident. Seven years earlier, Brauner had painted a Self-portrait with the eye out, who had a wound in all its aspects, similar to his real wound, from now on. This dramatic episode had a capital importance in the life and work of the painter of Romanian origin, the moment becoming a black legend in the world of surrealists.

The clairvoyant painter and supernatural phenomena

Art preceded reality, and the painter Brauner was thus attributed premonitory abilities, being considered clairvoyant at times. It must be said that a series of signs, one more out of the ordinary than the other – not to mention the recurrence of the ocular theme in Brauner’s work – converted to the moment of loss of the left eye. All this exceptionally illustrates the theory of objective chance, dear to him André Breton, a great lover of the occult, who defends Brauner. The latter is very familiar and aware of supernatural phenomena, because he participated, as a child, in spiritualism sessions organized by his father.

Victor Brauner, Întâlnirea din strada Perrel 2 bis / The meeting of 2 bis rue Perrel, Subtitle: La charmeuse Conglomeros, 1946, oil on canvas (85 x 105 cm) Photo: Paris Musées / Musée d ‘Art Moderne de Paris © Adagp, Paris, 2020

From Dada, suprarealism

Victor Brauner was born in Moldova in 1903 and trained at the School of Fine Arts in Bucharest, from where he would soon be expelled due to his nonconformism. Together with the poet Ilarie Voronca and with the painter Marcel Janco, among others, founded the avant-garde magazine 75 HP and published the maifest of “picto-poetry”, pleading for the interweaving of words with plastic representations. His creations are located under the wing of cubo-futurism, constructivism and spirit chest. A first trip to Paris, in 1925, would reveal Chirico’s metaphysical painting.

Magazine 75 HP

Five years later, Victor Brauner moved to the French capital. His cousins, Alberto Giacometti and Yves Tanguy, present him to surrealist artists, who are immediately seduced by the painting of the Romanian who combines disparate elements in the manner of emblematic ornaments or conundrum. The 1938 accident, in which he lost one of his eyes, gave Brauner a special and definitive aura in André Breton’s eyes. Brauner will consider him the most important event of his life. Undoubtedly, this moment will mark the beginning of an extraordinary evolution of his creation. The left eye, which can no longer perceive physical reality, is replaced by the inner eye, that of the German romantics and the great mystics, his gaze now being dedicated to the contemplation of hidden truths. Vision is followed by vision…

His art, which until then captured space from the perspective of the three dimensions, as we find it in Chirico, Tanguy, or Magritte, as well as the vast majority of surrealists, quickly detaches itself to make way for a plane representation, in which bodies and the shapes, stylized, become much more abstract.

Victor Brauner, Mister K’s strength of concentration, 1934. Foto: Center Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais © Adagp, Paris, 2020

The taste for the sacred and for the occult

This evolution begins during the war, which Victor Brauner would spend in the south of France, especially in Marseilles, in the hope that he would be able to flee to the United States, as had the other surrealists. But because he is Jewish and therefore particularly targeted, he cannot obtain a visa and takes refuge with his partner. Jacqueline Abraham, in a village in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, near the Gap. He will live “in miserable conditions”, the artist would write, “having false documents, under the constant threat of the police and the militia”.

The period is rich in technical experiments, Brauner exploring wax painting and candle drawing: “wax – he says – played an important role in all my hermetic, magical, talisman-pentacular research, it was chain what united the most different topics … ”

He leans on the occult sciences, alchemy, Kabbalah, numerology, tarot and primitive and archaic arts, from Africa and Oceania, from ancient Egypt, or from the aborigines of Australia. It is inspired by Mayan codices and Aztec glyphs. A whole symbolism that brings a mythical and sacred resonance, crossed by characters that hide an autobiographical dimension (Conglomeros, Victor Victorel…). Brauner will define himself, in fact, as “emperor of the kingdom of his own myth.”

Victor Brauner, The Death of the Moon, 1932

The post-war period will be the time of its recognition. Breton dedicated an important text to him, Between dog and wolf, in the review Art notebooks since 1946 (which did not prevent him from being excluded from the group, two years later …). Victor Brauner will exhibit with Pierre loeb, in Paris and by Alexander Iolas, la New York.

His notoriety will increase to the point where he will represent France at Venice Biennale, in 1966, the year of his death. On his grave, in the Montmartre cemetery, we can read, in the form of an epitaph: “Painting is life, real life, my life.”

Victor Brauner: I am the dream. I am the inspiration / Eu sunt visul. Had sunt inspirația

The prestigious art magazine Connaissance Des Arts dedicated to Victor Brauner a special edition that accompanied the exhibition dedicated to the great Romanian painter of Paris Museum of Modern Art.

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