Victor Brauner - Biography and Legacy
French-Romanian Painter, Sculptor, and Illustrator
Piatra Neamt, Romania
Biography of Victor Brauner
Victor Brauner was born in 1903 in Piatra Neamț, in the Romanian region of Moldavia, the third of six children. His father, a Jewish timber merchant, relocated the family to Hamburg, Germany from 1907-1910, and to Vienna in 1912. In 1913 Brauner built his own easel and began to experiment with painting. When the family returned to Romania in 1914, he continued his schooling at the Lutheran school in Brăila, with a focus on zoology.
Brauner was a very prolific writer, corresponding with other artists and recording his process of creation and reflecting on his life in personal notebooks. Despite the extensive nature of his writing, Brauner published very little during his lifetime, but the unpublished works remain nonetheless a rich biographical source. In one such poem written in 1945 (Memories of a One-Eyed Man), Brauner recalled the experiences of his childhood, including poverty in Romania, the May 1907 riots in Moldavia, and the appearance of Halley's Comet on May 18, 1910, which was widely seen at that time as an omen of the end of the world. He also wrote of memories of his father who, interested in spiritualism, organized hypnosis sessions with famous mediums during which they communicated with spirits in other realms. This formative interest in spiritualism and magic influenced Brauner throughout his career. Additionally, the Hasidic Judaism with which he was surrounded in Moldovia instilled in Brauner an interest in the Kabbalah, and its motifs appear in much of his art.
Education and Early training
Brauner attended the National School of Fine Arts in Bucharest from 1916 to 1918, and later studied at the Horia Igiroşanu private school of painting, and the Beaux-arts school in Bucharest where he painted landscapes in the style of Paul Cézanne. He was later expelled from the school for "misbehavior and anti-conformist painting". He subsequently travelled around Romania visiting Fălticeni (where he became fascinated by a sleepwalker, a theme he was to return to) and Balchik. During this time he experimented with Dadaism, Abstractionism, and Expressionism.
In 1924 he held his first solo exhibition, displaying paintings in an Expressionist style and in the same year he co-founded the Dadaist-Constructivist review 75 HP with poet Ilarie Voronca. In 75 HP he published a number of picto-poems, combinations of writing and images, stating that:
PICTOPOETRY . . . is the newest thing of the hour. All dandys must tailor their clothes to the cut of pictopoetry. Pictopoetry revitalizes all the revelatory currents of the new art. PICTOPOETRY finally realizes the true synthesis of futurisms dadaisms constructivisms. . . PICTOPOETRY TRIUMPHS OVER ALL RECORDS ALL REALIZES THE IMPOSSIBLE.
Brauner was also associated with the Dadaist review UNU, which published reproductions of several of his paintings and graphic works. In 1925, he taught at the Constructivist arts workshop 'Integral'. While his work later came to be more closely aligned with Surrealism, he maintained his ties to Dadaism through his involvement with these publications and through his playful juxtaposition of text and image in both his artistic and writing endeavors. Brauner also adopted the Dadaist's use of readymades into some of his works, such as Wolf-Table (1939-1947), as well as the Dadaist techniques of collage and assemblage.
In 1925 Brauner travelled to Paris for the first time, where he stayed on Moulin Vert Street in the same building as Swiss sculptor, painter, and printmaker Alberto Giacometti, and French Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, who introduced Brauner to the Surrealists. It was also in Paris that he befriended Romanian sculptor, painter, and photographer Constantin Brancusi, who taught him the methods of art photography, as well as Romanian poets Gellu Naum and Benjamin Fondane, and other artists including Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Marc Chagall, Jacques Hérold, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. In 1930, Brauner settled in Paris more permanently and married Margit Kosch, whom he divorced nine years later. In 1931 he painted one his most famous images, Self-Portrait with Plucked Eye, a work that was eerily prophetic, as on August 28, 1938 Brauner lost his left eye when a violent argument broke out between Spanish Surrealist painters Oscar Domínguez and Esteban Francés. Brauner, attempting to shield Francés, was hit by a glass thrown by Domínguez.
Brauner's first solo Paris show was at the Galerie Pierre in 1934, for which André Breton wrote an enthusiastic catalogue introduction, lauding Brauner's "violently unleashed imagination". The exhibition, however, was not well-received and, disheartened and short on money, Brauner returned to Bucharest in 1935, where he half-heartedly participated in the Romanian Communist party. During this period he stopped painting and instead produced a a number of caricatures and illustrations including the Anatomy of Desire series (1935-36). In 1938 he moved back to Paris, where he met Jaqueline Abraham, who became his second wife in 1946.
When World War II broke out, Brauner's status as a Romanian, Jew, former Communist, and creator of 'degenerate art' forced him into hiding and he fled to Southern France. He first lived with writer Robert Rius in Perpignan, then moved to Cant-Blame, in the Eastern Pyrenees, and finally relocated to Saint Feliu d'Amont. Throughout this period he stayed in contact with other Surrealists in Marseilles and in 1941 he joined them, having been given official permission to settle there. Around this time, he also attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain a visa to travel to the United States.
In the winter of 1940-1941, the Surrealists, who had gathered at the Villa Air-Bel, created a number of collective works, including a pictorial version of the game consequences, 'exquisite corpses', and a deck of Tarot cards which rejected the military and religious references of the preexisting Tarot. In creating the Tarot, each contributor selected the names of two personalities to represent on their cards. Brauner choose the philosopher Hegel and the famous medium Helen Smith, depicting both as hybrid human-animal forms. Brauner enjoyed these sorts of playful collaborative activities in which the Surrealists engaged.
Towards the end of the war, Brauner moved to Switzerland to escape the increasing Nazi persecution of foreign Romanian nationals. His regular relocation led him to reduce the dimensions of the canvases he used, so that he could easily fit the pieces into his luggage when he needed to travel suddenly (he referred to these as 'suitcase paintings'). While in Switzerland, Brauner discovered M-A. Sèchehaye's writings on Schizophrenia, which influenced his subsequent paintings.
In 1945 Brauner returned to Paris where his work was included in the International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Galerie Maeght in 1947. In 1948, however, Brauner was ejected from the Surrealists by Breton after refusing to support the expulsion of prominent member Roberto Matta (the reasons for Matta's expulsion have never been clear). From this point onwards, he shifted away from Surrealism-proper and began working more with drawing on paper, encaustic painting, and thin oil paint on boards, creating flatter, more stylized, and more abstracted pieces.
In 1959, the artist moved into a studio in Montmartre at 72 Rue Lepic. In 1961, he made a trip to Italy, and then settled in Varengeville in Normandy, the same year that New York City's Bodley Gallery mounted a solo exhibition of his work. In 1966, he was selected to represent France at the Venice Biennale, and had an entire hall dedicated to him. After a prolonged illness, Brauner died in Paris on March 12, 1966. He is buried at the Montmartre cemetery, where the epitaph on his tomb bears a phrase from his notebooks: "Peindre, c'est la vie, la vraie vie, ma vie" ("Painting is life, the real life, my life").
The Legacy of Victor Brauner
Brauner helped to push forward Surrealist art, by developing its vocabulary and drawing inspiration from new sources including alchemy, mythology, Judaism, Hinduism, and Aztec, and Native American belief systems. This expanded the remit of the group and gave his contemporaries new tools with which to express their ideas. This is particularly relevant in relation to Brauner's presentation of ideas relating to Theosophy, with his pictorial presentations of the etheric body having a direct impact on the work of other Surrealist painters including Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Conversely Brauner's art stood apart from that of the other Surrealists in that he developed a private and very personal iconography which related directly to his own existence. In 1962, he wrote "My painting is autobiographical. In it I recount my life. My life is exemplary because it is universal... [My painting] also recounts primitive daydreams in their form and in their time".
In 1947 Brauner met Jean Dubuffet and the primitive themes of the artist's painting influenced Dubuffet's development of his concept of Art Brut. This was a movement that sought to move away from the cultural art of the establishment to a raw expression of emotion created without reference to the norms of paintings and included the work of prisoners, children and the insane as well as that of primitive artists. Brauner can also be linked to the Abstract Expressionists through fellow Romanian Hedda Sterne, the daughter of one of his friends. Brauner introduced the young Hedda to his Surrealist images and when she later left Romania during the Second World War to settle in New York, she retained some of her early influences.