Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

“Names Unvoiced but not Unknown”: Cleone Cull’s surrealist art

Judging by the recently opened exhibition of multimedia drawings by Eastern Cape artist Cleone Cull – who spent years teaching fine art, first at the Port Elizabeth Technikon and later at the School of Music, Art and Design of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University – art is thriving in this corner of South Africa. Cleone is a well-known artist whose work has featured in several books and articles on the arts, and with this exhibition she has confirmed that her artistic spirit is as vibrant as ever. Appropriately for a collection of drawn images, the exhibition is titled “Names Unvoiced but not Unknown”.

The drawings – much smaller in scale than her oil paintings usually are, but no less striking – are the fruits of her recent stay in Paris, and I don’t think it is far-fetched to see traces, in their treatment of images, of the fact that her studio was near the Paris Holocaust Museum. Cleone shared with me the experience of being at the receiving end of the names of Holocaust victims being read out aloud, over loudspeakers, with no way of escaping such concrete reminders of the ineffable sufferings endured by Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps a mere seven or eight decades ago. Add to this that Paris is the birthplace of many of the iconic art-movements of the twentieth century, that it houses the famous, if macabre, catacombs and the Montparnasse cemetery where many of the most prominent people in recent (French) history are buried, as well as the many Parisian churches and cathedrals, and one might start getting an idea of the variegated influences on the art of a creative spirit like Cleone.

Visual art, including painting, drawing, graphic art, cinema and sculpture, have one important thing in common: images. And as Jean-Luc Nancy has demonstrated in his phenomenology of the image, images are strangely desirable by virtue of their being images. Perhaps this derives from what Jacques Lacan uncovered in his study of “the mirror stage”, namely the ambivalence of one’s mirror-image, experienced as an infant. On the one hand the infant is attracted to it because of its ostensible wholeness and unity (at a time when the physically awkward infant is not yet in control of their motor movements), but on the other hand the image is “misrecognised”, Lacan points out, as “oneself” – which, of course, it is not. Importantly, however, this “identification” with one’s mirror-image is the foundation for all identifications in the rest of one’s life – for instance with individuals one admires and emulates (today, those populating the celebrity-Pantheon).

Hence, when confronted with images such as Cleone Cull’s drawings (as with all images), this strange dialectic of identification is triggered all over again. The difference is that – unlike the kitsch images surrounding one in this age of capitalist colonisation of the imagination with advertising and brand-images, which are usually tailored to attract one irresistibly – these are surrealistic images which uncover decidedly unattractive aspects of the (sometimes hardly recognisable) human figure. And yet – as Plato noted centuries ago – even these images attract one in a morbidly irresistible manner.

One might wonder what there is to commend images which have such a capacity. The answer is easy: art is not about providing a saccharine coating for reality – it is there to reveal the truth about social and natural reality. This is the difference between kitsch (which is another name for “bad” art) and the kind of art, like Cleone’s, that holds up a “refracting” mirror to the world, or humanity, in which its true nature appears without any flattering illusions. In a word: the 37 drawings comprising this exhibition by Cleone Cull shows humanity in all its variegated depravity, ranging from the Kafkaesque absurd and grotesque to the demonic.

This is not all that humanity is about, of course, and like any artist, Cleone knows this. I found at least one image among these that might be construed as an image of love, although a shadowy image in the background detracts from its persuasiveness. Unlike kitsch, which casts an anaesthetic veil over the world, Cleone’s art suffers no such delusions. It bears repeating, therefore, that these drawings are, formally and generically speaking, surrealist art, and one should remind oneself where that generic name comes from. It originated in the context of the early twentieth-century reception of Freud’s work on the unconscious, which had a profound effect on artists like Hans (Jean) Arp and Max Ernst, prompting André Breton to talk about the “surrealism” of all this artistic attention to the field of “interiority”. To these artists Freud had lifted the veil covering the true reality underpinning human actions, and their work can therefore be understood as a rejection of realism or naturalism in favour of depicting a usually invisible “reality behind or underneath everyday reality” – a “surreality”, precisely.

Although one may approach Cleone’s work from other, equally heuristically revealing perspectives, therefore – on a previous occasion I employed the thought of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari regarding “desiring machines” to offer an interpretation of a series of her paintings – the present exhibition invites one to subject these disturbing, but compelling, images to an interpretation that has its provenance in those aspects of Freud’s work that are integral to the origin and development of surrealism, perhaps best known in the work of Salvador Dalí.

Personally I believe that, in light of the claim by American philosopher of art, Karsten Harries (in his book, The Meaning of Modern Art), that all art embodies an “ideal image” of humanity – which is not the same as an image that valorises humanity; an “ideal” image may also be one that emphasises the monstrous aspects of being human – one might wonder what “ideal image” finds incarnation in Cleone’s surrealist drawings. My answer would be that it is an image of human beings alienated from their (potentially benign) humanity, and of a world displaying all the traits of an absurd realm populated by people who do not understand themselves, but whose “true” nature is graphically foregrounded in these drawings.

Hence, when one notices a face rising to the surface on a (vaguely) human figure’s belly, or pock-marks dotting an exposed torso, or figures caught in an embrace that would be the envy of a contortionist, or with body-parts grotesquely exaggerated, it would be misguided to observe that “this is not what people look like”. Of course not – Cleone knows that, just as Picasso did when he responded to a similar complaint about his cubist distortion of a woman’s facial features, that he had always only painted what he saw. In other words, an artist is an artist precisely insofar as she or he can “see” and depict the world the way it “truly” is, beyond the superficial visual constructions of the everyday.

This is what Freud – and before him Schopenhauer, as well as artists like Francisco Goya and Hieronymus Bosch – taught the world: what you see is not necessarily the truth of the world. One thing bears singling out in Freud: his discovery of the death drive, or Thanatos, “beyond the pleasure principle”. While the latter regulates human behaviour in the sense that it always keeps energy at the lowest possible level, or “homeostasis” (which is what “pleasure” means for Freud) the death drive has two functions, one of which (its “conservative” function) is familiar to all of us, namely to impel one to return, always, to a “previous position” – in other words, our “comfort zone”. Needless to say, the ultimate “previous position/condition to which all of us return, is death: “from dust to dust”.

The other aspect of the death drive is equally familiar, but less often recognised: aggression, which is at the root of all wars and inter-human conflict. And there is plenty of evidence in these drawings of this, although perhaps more often of latent aggression than its overt manifestation. It is particularly in the drawings that resonate with the art of Goya – specifically the later works, which are suffused with ambiguous images of witchcraft and of the demonic – that one detects this elusive face of the death drive. If you live near or in Port Elizabeth, in the Nelson Mandela Metro, take a trip to the Alliance Francaise in Mackay Street, Richmond Hill, to view these drawings – you will not be disappointed.

For a thoroughgoing (Deleuzian) interpretation of Cleone Cull’s paintings, see my paper, “Interconnectedness and process in Cleone Cull’s visual art”, SAJAH Vol. 26 (3), 2011, pp. 104-116; available on SABINET.

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