An A to Z of Artists Writing and Writers in Art (NVA, 2009)


A is for…Guillaume Apollinaire

Guillaume Apollinaire was born in 1880 and died in 1918, but in his 38 years of life he packed in a great deal, consolidating the foundations of modernism as we know it in poetry, fiction and art with a stream of works including Zone, Calligrammes, Alcools and the stories and short plays gathered in the collections The Poet Assassinated and The Wandering Jew. Besides his own work as a writer, Apollinaire was also a friend and collaborator with Picasso, Braque and the Dadaists, all the while, as a critic, turning his hand to explaining the works of these artists to a wider audience in the French press of the time: he coined the word ‘sur-realism’ and the premiere of his play The Breasts of Tiresias in 1917 was the occasion for one of many proto-surrealist riots. Andre Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour includes an untitled  five-line poem (“He enters/He sits/He pays no attention to the pyrogenic redhead/The match flares/He leaves”) that reads in hindsight like one of the instructions beloved of Fluxus artists in the 1960s, while in Calligrammes – a collection largely written in the trenches during World War One – Apollinaire often arranges his words into shapes that echo their content, from cannon and horses to rain and abstract landscapes.


B is for…William Blake

William Blake was born in 1757, lived and worked as a printer in London, and although largely unsung during his own lifetime, is now known equally as a visionary painter and printmaker, and one of the most accomplished poets of his age. His writings were marked by an elaborate and very personal symbolism, and his illuminated books – from the Songs of Innocence in 1789 to Jerusalem in 1820 – presented his words on ornately designed and coloured pages, like medieval illuminated manuscripts fed through both political radicalism and an idiosyncratic Christian mysticism. His sole public exhibition in 1809 was dismissed as the work of an ‘unfortunate lunatic’ and a reconstruction of that display, including several poignant spaces where now-lost paintings were once hung, has been shown at Tate Britain. Blake’s paintings draw on the same elaborate iconography as the poetry, which can seem deceptively transparent, as in Songs of Innocence and Experience, or – as in Vala, Or The Four Zoas – become so hermetically personal that entire sections border on the incomprehensible. Despite this, even Blake’s most obscure writings are animated by a startling energy, and his body of work is unique in English for its total fusion of written and visual mediums in pursuit of a singular and very influential vision.

leonora carrington

C is for…Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington was born and raised in England, the daughter of a wealthy Lancashire textile family, educated at convent schools and presented at court in 1936, an experience later transformed into her savage story The Debutante, in which Carrington’s protagonist tears off her own face and takes on animal form at an elegant society ball. Her subsequent life marked a complete break with these early privileges, after a viewing of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London led her to travel to Paris, and at the age of 19, elope with the German painter Max Ernst, a relationship that was ended by Ernst’s arrest as an enemy alien at the start of the Second World War. Her account of her subsequent breakdown and mistreatment in a Madrid asylum are the subject of Notes From Down Below, and following her escape, recovery and move to the United States and Mexico, Carrington went on to develop a distinctive take on surrealism in stories, novels and paintings that fuse personal, alchemical and animal symbolism with meticulous presentation. Her startling, fable-like stories are gathered in The Seventh Horse and The House Of Fear, while her novel, The Hearing Trumpet, an Arthurian Quest set in an old people’s home, is an established classic of surrealist writing. After a long period of relative neglect, Carrington’s reputation grew following a retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 1991. She died in Mexico in May 2011.


D is for…Henry Darger

Henry Darger was born in 1892, and between 1931 and 1973 worked mainly as a janitor while living in a small Chicago apartment. Following his death, Darger’s landlord discovered that his room contained bound books full of highly accomplished, if very strange, paintings and text, amounting to a completely unknown life’s work. First exhibited in 1977, the fragments of this project – centred around a 15,000 page illustrated allegorical novel known as In The Realms Of The Unreal, in which the prepubescent Vivian Sisters lead an often violent struggle against the child torture and slavery of the Glandelinian Empire – have only slowly come together, as the sometimes disturbing content of his epic account of a confrontation between good and evil has been endlessly debated. Do the naked hermaphrodite Vivian Sisters in Darger’s watercolours reflect a naive anatomical innocence, or more disturbing psycho-sexual interests on the artist’s part? His lifelong, rather intense Catholicism, and roots in the later nineteenth century, suggest the former, though it’s indisputable that to contemporary eyes, coloured by intimations of abuse, his imagery can be deeply unsettling, with one commentator suggesting that his depictions of cruelty are sufficiently graphic to suggest a kind of serial-killer mentality, others countering that such images are standard fare in depictions of Catholic martyrdom. However viewers choose to read him, it seems unlikely that much more than is already known will be uncovered concerning Darger’s real motives for creating his extraordinary work.

Emblem Book

E is for…Emblem Books

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a format combining images, texts and layers of quotation from Biblical and classical sources gained widespread popularity across Europe, usually drawing together poems by a single author on a particular subject in a series of themes and variations, exploring a single idea from multiple angles. The Mirrour of Majestie by Sir Henry Goodyere deals in heraldic symbols, Philip Ayres’ Emblemata Amorata explores love, and Francis Quarles’ Emblemes Divine and Moral outlines the various temptations and pitfalls faced by men in their attempts to live virtuously. In its strictest form, the Emblem Book is mainly a product of the early seventeenth century, at its height between around 1610 and 1640, though it’s arguable that the form changed rather than disappeared over subsequent centuries, with the Illuminated Books of William Blake and present-day collaborations between poets, artists and photographers all seemingly designed to work in the same layered way as their early modern predecessors. Some have even made a case that these Emblem books were essentially the internet of their day, using the relatively new technology of printing to collate a variety of sources, viewpoints and languages within their pages.

Morison Foundation and Empire inst

F is for…Foundation and Empire

Published by the Birmingham based Article Press in 2004, and styled to resemble a sixties paperback by Isaac Asimov (an author chosen because the artists had used a copy of one of his books to press flowers during an expedition to Mongolia), Foundation and Empire is a gathering of documents by Heather and Ivan Morison. Prefaced with an essay by Nigel Prince, and including a catalogue of projects like Chinese Arboretum,in which the duo documented trees selected by people met by chance in China, and Still Lives,a series of photographs referencing Dutch vanitas paintings of the sixteenth century, it seems at first like a conventional enough catalogue. But the Morisons also created a full length pulp-parody novel entitled Divine Vessel to be the book’s centrepiece, a fanciful account of their own journey from Shanghai to Auckland aboard a cargo ship. Deliberately ludicrous, alternating between purple prose, factual data and knowingly silly humour, it’s a disjointed science-fiction yarn in which the Morisons are disguised as the characters Seth and Ruby and encounter naked Filipino seamen, Captain Nemo and an extraterrestrial rabbit en route from China to New Zealand.

geoff dyer

G is for…Geoff Dyer

Taking his cue from John Berger, the influential author of Ways of Seeing, on whom he wrote an early study, the British writer Geoff Dyer has often used his fiction as a vehicle for critical studies of various art forms, and – conversely – has used critical essays as a vehicle for narrative. In his more conventional guise, Dyer has written quasi-autobiographical fictions such as Paris Trance or travelogues like Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, which concludes at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, and Out Of Sheer Rage, which follows in the international footsteps of D.H. Lawrence while trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid writing a book about him. Elsewhere, Dyer’s back pages include such works as But Beautiful, on the origins and development of Jazz in America, The Missing of the Somme, on the survival of memories from the First World War, and The Ongoing Moment, a thematically organised study of photography’s most commonly recurring images.

a humument

H is for…A Humument

The work of English conceptual artist Tom Phillips, A Humument is a visual remix of an obscure Victorian novel – A Human Document by William Hurrell Mallock – created by layering visual patterns and images onto the book’s pages, leaving only occasional words exposed, a technique that excavates Mallock’s bluntly realist prose for an oblique and highly abstract poetry of Phillips’ own devising. First published in 1980, A Humument has since undergone several revisions, as Phillips continues to add further plates to the text, which in its published form has the physical feel of a secular medieval psalter, where illuminations, words and oblique explanatory notes combine in a format small enough to be carried in a pocket.


I is for…Ian Breakwell

Ian Breakwell (1943 – 2005) graduated from Derby School of Art in 1964 and in the career that followed worked in media ranging from painting to television, collage, performance and film to a series of diaries. Often infused with a sense of his own spectator status, Breakwell’s diaries rarely tell us much about Breakwell himself, except by inference, but instead focus on watching the world around him, juxtaposing collages of found newspaper articles, drawings, photography and his own texts in a shifting third-person viewpoint that turns the artist into a kind of voracious documentary camera. Breakwell himself described this 40 year project as “an investigation of the relationship between word and image”, a meditation on “the surreality of the mundane. The diaries record the side-events of daily life, by turns curious, bleak, erotic, tender, vicious, cunning, stupid, ambiguous and absurd”. Parts of the diary were published as Ian Breakwell’s Diary 1964 – 85, while his collected illustrated fictions were gathered in The Artist’s Dream and Free Range. He also collaborated with Paul Hammond to create two Mass Observation style studies of cinema-going and reading, Seeing in the Dark and Brought to Book.

David Jones

J is for…David Jones

David Jones (1895 – 1974) was a Welsh poet, painter and calligrapher who, like William Blake, devised a body of work in which image, typeface and writing were all unified within a single mode of expression. He is best known for his book-length poems In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, published by T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber between the wars. In Parenthesis draws heavily on Jones’ experience of the trenches during World War One but overlays its autobiographical passages with material drawn from myth, religion and folklore, a concern that comes to the fore in the fractured mythic universe of The Anathemata, a work described by Jones himself as “a heap of all I could find”, where Celtic and Arthurian legends collide head-on with psychoanalysis and modernist fragmentation. His paintings, mainly but not exclusively in watercolour, explore similar themes, portraying figures from the Mabinogion and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in fluid, delicately coloured lines and washes. His books also include titles and epigrams set in his own calligraphy, the letters arranged to resemble Roman and Celtic inscriptions in stone, as though his acknowledgement of modernism were pulling in the opposite direction to his fascination with ancient survivals, stories and influences.


K is for…Joseph Kosuth

The American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth has been at the forefront of a tendency in post-war art – much intensified after the close of the 1960s – towards art as a self-sufficient species of philosophy and inquiry. Works such as One and Three Chairs explore the various states of a single object, the chair being present as a physical object, a photographic image and a dictionary definition of the word ‘chair’, while Art as Idea as Idea consists of a definition of the word ‘meaning’ in white text against a black background. Kosuth’s approach is grounded in an idea that art is a continuation of philosophy and that his works should allow ideas to become artworks without any need to be embodied in materials and specific forms, these being ‘aesthetic’ distractions from the real intentions of any proposition made. Although Kosuth is on record as being opposed to any acknowledgement of the formal and physical properties of his pieces, one of his strengths is – perhaps paradoxically – the discovery of elegant forms through which his ideas can be expressed, making for a productive tension at the heart of his ongoing project.


L is for…Life, or Theatre?

Born in 1917 and killed in Auschwitz as a young woman (probably in 1943, but the exact date is unknown) Charlotte Salomon’s autobiography Life, or Theatre? was created during two years of intense work between 1939 and 1942. The completed series consists of 769 gouache paintings and a slightly smaller number of painted texts in German, and together these tell the story of Salomon’s upbringing in Berlin’s interwar Jewish intellectual circles, her relationship with an artist, and her own experience of the changes within German society during the years covered by her narrative. The work survives only because its 1,325 pages were passed for safekeeping to a village doctor in 1942 and kept by him until the material was finally brought to wider public attention in 1971. Published with English translations a decade later, Life or Theatre? (the title comes from Salomon’s conviction that her art elevates her life into a kind of dramatic performance) is now acknowledged as a unique and largely unclassifiable enterprise, standing somewhere between a prototype graphic novel, a compelling work of historical witness and a hand-made film storyboard.


M is for…Henri Michaux

Henri Michaux (1899 – 1984) was a French artist and writer whose works frequently blur the distinction between written and visual creation, as the writings eschew conventional narrative and poetic form in favour of statements, abstraction and visual imagery, and the paintings – sometimes executed under the influence of mescalin – take the form of illegible calligraphic texts. One of the key figures bridging pre-war Surrealist automatism, the materialist l’art informel of postwar Europe, and the gestural Abstract Expressionism of the New York school during the 1950s, Michaux remains as distinctive and singular a figure in painting as his contemporary Jean Dubuffet. His many writings have been championed and translated by such notable poets as Ron Padgett and John Ashbery.


N is for…Nadja

Andre Breton’s best known book appeared in 1928, and presents a reflective account of his encounter with a woman now formally (if only partially – her surname remains elusive) identified as Leona Camille Ghislaine D, who adopted the name Nadja as “it is the beginning of the Russian word for hope”. Following her initial meeting with Breton in 1926, she made drawings, some featured in the book, wrote around 20 letters, and participated in surrealist activities, but she was finally incarcerated in a mental institution by her family the year before Breton published his account of the challenge that her unconventional spirit posed, and his own failure, in the end, to adequately meet it. The account of Nadja’s electrifying effect on himself and other early surrealists (he describes himself as “like a man struck by lightning lying at the feet of a sphinx”) suggests that she, like Breton’s earlier mentor Jacques Vache, was one of the earliest exemplars of surrealist liberty, though Nadja herself remained confined in an asylum until her death in 1940. The book combines anecdote, philosophy, photography and a mapping of psychic experience onto the Paris landscape that collectively ensure Nadja reads (in the footsteps of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant) like an early precursor of psychogeography. It concludes with one of the best known of all surrealist statements: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE, or will not be at all”.

Celeste Olalquiaga

O is for…Celeste Olalquiaga

The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience by Celeste Olalquiaga was published in the UK in 1999, and comprises a series of essays on various aspects of kitsch aesthetics and their history. Olalquiaga suggests that the appeal of corals, crystal palaces, fossils, seashells and taxidermy animals arrayed in human clothing and situations during the nineteenth century fed into a strain of ‘artificial melancholy’, often coloured by the sense that living things were reduced to the status of precious objects, anticipating certain undercurrents within contemporary consumerism. The text and selection of plates draw heavily on Walter Benjamin’s unfinished study The Arcades Project, in which the historian collated a vast archive of texts relating to the emergence of consumption as a cultural force after the industrial revolution, an emergence that he saw most potently expressed in the enclosed, self-contained shopping arcades that took root in many European cities during the 1850s, but seemed especially emblematic of Parisian modernity. The qualities of melancholic nostalgia that these arcades evoked by the 1920s – when their juxtapositions of random objects such as glass eyes, porcelain dolls and walking sticks began to appeal to the Surrealists and their associates – are given concrete form in Olalquiaga’s book with a series of eccentric passages exploring her feelings about a paperweight on her desk, which holds a long-dead hermit crab in a state of apparent but permanently stalled life.

paul klee

P is for…Paul Klee

Best known as the supremely inventive painter behind such works as The Twittering Machine, Flower Myth and Death and Fire, the Swiss-born Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) was also one of the most influential teachers at the Bauhaus between the wars. His teaching methods are preserved for posterity in Pedagogical Sketchbook and the notebooks gathered in The Thinking Eye. Klee’s full range only became clear with the many documents published by his son during the 1950s and 60s, when extensive diaries, accounts of his musical interests, puppet-making and other activities came to light, and within the Klee diaries a small but significant gathering of poems were found. Published in the UK alongside works by Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters in the anthology Three Painter Poets in 1974, Klee’s poems revealed themselves to be verbal equivalents of his paintings, combining their aphoristic and proverbial qualities (“The happy man, a half idiot/for whom everything flourishes”) with the same superficially naïve surfaces, underwritten by precisely balanced ironies and immediacies: “water/topped by waves/topped by a boat/topped by a woman/topped by a man”.

buckminster fuller

Q is for…Questions

The architect, philosopher and creator of the geodesic dome R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) proposed a series of forty ‘strategic questions’ in his book Utopia Or Oblivion: The Prospects For Humanity, ranging from “what do we mean by universe?” and “what is thinking?” to “what are the senses?” and “what is integrity?”, noting at the outset of his list, “it is my working assumption that the following 40 questions must be definitely answered before we may realistically discuss our respective philosophies and grand strategies”. These ‘strategic questions’ were adopted by the curator Gavin Wade in 2002 as the framework for an ongoing series of 40 projects, to be documented in 40 publications, each setting out to consider, though certainly not definitively answer, one of Fuller’s questions through the work of a range of artists and other collaborators. What is Harmonic? was explored by Bill Drummond, Duncan McLaren and Simon Wood in 2003, What is the brain? by Henrik Schrat in 2005 while Has man a function in the universe? was addressed in a  2009 publication with contributions from Neil Chapman, Shezad Dawood, Per Hüttner, Juneau Projects, Mark Titchner and Carey Young.

Read Art & Industry (1934)

R is for…Herbert Read

Herbert Read (1893 – 1968) was a British poet, anarchist and art critic who first came to prominence with poems and diaries written in the aftermath of war service between 1915 and 1917, a young man “cast into the frenzy of war with no better personal covering than the philosophy of Nietzsche”. He was particularly instrumental in promoting surrealism in England, and his book, Surrealism, which appeared at the time of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, included essays by Breton, Eluard, Georges Hugnet and Hugh Sykes-Davies that sketched out the connections between the French movement’s concerns and longer traditions of Romanticism and political radicalism in England. Later works by Read, such as Art and Society, The Meaning of Art and Art Now, became standard texts of their time, and made him a preeminent advocate of Modernism in Britain, while his interests in education and design were the subject of books like Education Through Art and Art and Industry. These interests led to Read playing a key role in the conception of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1947 as a cultural laboratory for London. His Collected Poems have been reprinted several times since his death, and his writings on art, education and culture remain illuminating, if currently somewhat unfashionable.

sophie calle

S is for…Sophie Calle

The French artist Sophie Calle has long blurred the distinction between her own life and the construction of elaborate fictions in which she plays her own protagonist, beginning with such works as Suite Venitienne in 1979, in which Calle followed a man she met at a party from Paris to Venice, documenting his movements in photographs, and The Hotel, a piece that saw her hired as a chambermaid, making works that scrutinised the belongings of hotel guests for clues about their lives. This voyeuristic activity has also been reversed, as Calle invites others to turn the spotlight on her, as in The Detective, or makes public displays of her own birthday presents in a series of cabinets, or puts her private fantasies into the public realm, as in her intervention at the Freud Museum, Appointment. In more recent works, the breakdown of personal relationships has become a theme, as in Exquisite Pain and Take Care Of Yourself, both of which deal with strategies for coping with painful experience and heartbreak. Most strikingly, in terms of the blurring of her fictional, private and public lives, Calle was used in 1992 as the partial model for a minor character, a New York artist named Maria, in Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan. Calle took it upon herself to enact and incorporate the fictional works Auster had invented to distinguish his Maria from Calle’s actual projects into her own body of work, then asked Auster to furnish her with further instructions to complete. The resulting collaborations were documented in The Gotham Notebook.


T is for…Georg Trakl

Georg Trakl (1887 – 1914) is generally considered the most important poet to be associated with German Expressionism. He was born in Austria, and qualified as a pharmacist, in which role he served until his premature death during the First World War. His writings possess a powerful clarity and strong visual qualities that echo the paintings of Franz Marc, as in his poem ‘In The Village’, where “the forest’s edge encircles animals of blue”, or ‘By The Moor’, with its “wayfarer in the black wind…against the grey sky/a flight of wild birds follows;/Diagonals above dark waters”. His two main collections, Poems 1913 and the posthumously published Sebastian in a Dream, were brought together by Anvil Press (in Margitt Lehbert’s translations) as a single volume in 2007.


U is for…Ubu

The monstrously comic creation of Alfred Jarry (1873 – 1907), a French poet, playwright, novelist, essayist and eccentric, Père Ubu made his official debut on the French stage at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris in 1896. Ubu’s conception lay further back, in Jarry’s time at a lycée in Rennes, aged 15, when a disliked physics teacher named Monsieur Hebert became ‘le Pere Ebé’, the butt of scabrous adolescent satire. From these origins, Ubu developed into a cartoonish, foul-mouthed fusion of Mister Punch and Macbeth, and from the first line of the first play in Jarry’s trilogy, Ubu Roi – when the grotesque buffoon steps forward to cry ‘Merdre!’ at the audience – Ubu’s influence has been continuous and immeasurable, opening the way for absurdism, surrealism and every first night that would end in near-riots over the next half century. Ubu Cocu and Ubu Enchainé followed, along with a plethora of sketches, almanacs and other Ubu ephemera. Other works by Jarry include several novels, notably Le Surmâle, a prescient blend of sports cycling and sexual Olympics, Messalina, set in ancient Rome, and Day and Night, a semi-autobiographical account of Jarry’s own military service. Yet only the posthumously published Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician – the Swiftian novel in which Jarry creates and elaborates on his own absurdist science of Pataphysics – has had anything like the long-term impact of Ubu himself, a conception generally regarded as the ground zero of twentieth century theatre.


V is for…Vladimir Mayakovsky

The greatest poet of the early Russian Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893 – 1930) was an unapologetic member of the avant-garde, a self-declared genius who joined the Futurist movement in 1912, and aligned himself with the constructivists and Bolsheviks in 1917, often presenting his work alongside his own drawings and graphics, writing stirring poems in homage to such figures as Tatlin and Lenin. Although he became co-opted as an official Party poet during the 1920s, the tightening of expressive freedoms and looming Stalinist purges led Mayakovsky to shoot himself in 1930, though the implicit protest of this act was ignored, and indifference to his work was declared a ‘crime’ by Stalin in 1935. At his best, there is an irresistibly hyperbolic quality to Mayakovsky’s writing, partly informed by Walt Whitman’s work of the American Civil War era, but also original in spirit, entranced by the Futurism of machines and new cities, encompassing the twentieth century’s urban sprawl and rendering ordinary lives as vivid theatre in such details as a woman with “make-up smeared/who stares like an oyster from the shells of things” and “towns/hung…in the nooses of clouds.”


W is for…Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol’s work is not known for its intellectual sophistication, but rather its devotion to celebrity images, as repeated silk-screens of Elvis Presley, Chairman Mao and Liz Taylor are presented on a level field with products such as Brillo boxes, dollar bills and Campbell’s soup cans, news pictures of car accidents and electric chairs, and – following Warhol’s own ascent to celebrity in the 1960s – self-portraits. Yet his aphorisms (including the endlessly repeated quote that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes”) have had widespread influence, and his 1975 publication From A To B And Back Again: The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol extended his affectless techniques from images to words, transcribing endless taped conversations and mundane phone calls into a book that seems intended less to be read than purchased and displayed as a souvenir of Warhol’s celebrity status. Although often considered subversive in intent, Warhol’s methods allow the blank quality of his works to absorb whatever readings viewers wish to project onto them – vacuous for one, replete with subversion for another and glamorous for a third – echoing the role played by ‘iconic’ images in both the mass media and the Roman Catholicism of Warhol’s upbringing, so that images of Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe can be seen as straightforward substitutions for the Madonnas and Saints found in the Catholic churches of his own Midwestern youth.

Xavier Forneret

X is for…Xavier Forneret

A romantic-era dilettante from the town of Beaune, France, known as ‘the dark man with the white face’ for his outlandishly stylised dress of capes and mourning suits, Forneret (1809 – 1884) was the author of four bad plays, a moralising novel, and many lavishly self-published collections of aphorisms, poetry and short stories. Not so much forgotten as never remembered in the first place, Forneret was eventually discovered by the Surrealists and acclaimed for a small handful of works, chief among them his accounts of dreams and other oddities. He was included in Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour, where even this approving editor felt obliged to note that in him “the most authentic invention co-exists with the worst cliché, and the sublime rubs shoulders with the inane.” That his writings, even at their best, balance on this knife edge between originality and absurdity gives the few fragments of his work that remain of interest their uniquely ‘accidental’ flavour, as in the sequence featured in Breton’s anthology, Untitled and Another Year of Untitled, where snippets such as “one can walk perfectly well without a head”, “the pine tree, from which they make coffins, is an evergreen” and “minutes in a hotel are wings without the bird” seem unconsciously to anticipate the deadpan approach to imagery later perfected by Rene Magritte.

Kusama Installation

Y is for…Yayoi Kusama

Although best known for her performances, installations and paintings, always recognisable due to her signature use of dots, phallic protrusions and ‘infinity nets’, Yayoi Kusama is also known as a novelist in her native Japan, having published her first book in 1978, after 15 years of international activity had been interrupted by her return in search of medical treatment for a long-term psychiatric condition. That debut, Manhattan Suicide Addict, is a loosely autobiographical account of her time on the New York scene in the sixties, and while subsequent novels share certain obsessive and repetitive qualities with her artworks, her narratives also locate her work’s obsessions in what one critic has called ‘fictive purgatories’. Kusama’s novels are sometimes felt to share in the Japanese romantic spirit of Yukio Mishima, albeit with a very different political complexion, and books like The Burning Of St Marks’s Church and The Hustlers Grotto of St Christopher Street explore hallucinatory sexual underworlds, psychic traumas and the points where Japanese and American cultures collide. Kusama has also drawn on darkly mythic strains, most notably with the ten-year old girl who sets out to castrate her oppressors in The Foxgloves of Central Park and the serpentine enchantress in flight from the forces of authority in Between Heaven and Earth.


Z is for…Unica Zurn

Unica Zurn was the partner and frequent subject of leading Surrealist painter Hans Bellmer, becoming an active surrealist in her own right between her meeting with Bellmer in 1953 and her death, by suicide, in 1970, during the last of many periods of hospitalisation for a schizophrenic illness whose onset Zurn herself often dated to 1944, when she first became aware of Nazi atrocities after a sheltered life in a prosperous Berlin family. Her writings include a collection of anagrams, Hexentexte, and the major narrative works Dark Spring and Jasmine Man, both considered to be among the most powerfully articulate accounts of madness in existence. Her facility with images that convey states of mind is particularly striking: “The forest is soaking wet like a sponge, and white clouds float in it like fish, silent and belly-up.”


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