Christie's is pleased to present the following essay on the Surrealist painter Victor Brauner. It is authored by Brauner expert M. Didier Semin, formerly of the Centre Georges Pompidou and now a professor at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris.
Victor Brauner only tried his hand at photography a few times. Among the rare photographs he did make is an outstanding picture taken in 1930 with a camera that had been lent to him for a few days by his fellow countryman Constantin Brancusi. It shows a blindfolded fortune-teller sitting on a folding stool on the sidewalk, with her back to 83 boulevard Montparnasse in Paris, the exact spot where, eight years after having taken this shot, Victor Brauner was to lose his left eye in a terrible accident. We know that this mutilation appears in an amazing series of premonitory works in Brauner's oeuvre; other than the famous Autoportrait à l'oeil énuclé of 1931, which describes the injury with disturbing precision, there are both drawings and paintings that explicitly evoke the loss of the eye. The photograph of the boulevard Montparnasse obviously belongs to this group. It is astonishing to think that the only other series of photos known, some small self-portraits done in 1936, made by himself or with a friend's help, share in the same atmosphere: we find Brauner playing with the sort of glass eyes that are usually sewn on stuffed animals, and which the title of the series called "owl eyes."
Rire de fleuve et mon mystère is doubly interesting, not only because of the rarity of Brauner photographs, but above all because it is yet one more piece of evidence in the file on Braunerien premonitions. It is a "portrait à la silhouette," a sort of Chinese lantern where one has no trouble recognising the outlines of a Signe, a sculpture from 1945 which is usually considered a stylised self-portrait. The pattern of a wine glass seems carved into the black of the silhouette, around the eye. On August 27, 1938, at 83 boulevard Montparnasse, during a brawl a glass was thrown and hit Brauner in the face, the shard lodging in his eye, "so geometrically that it would have taken a specialist to have placed it that way on purpose" 1. Here the glass is associated with the threatening image of a revolver which is already present in a series of premonitory drawings from 1934. As fond as one may be of rational thinking, one can not help but be disturbed by these repeated examples of what the Surrealists called "objective chance."
Formally, Rire de Fleuve et mon mystère is related to a group of magnificent, very spare, gouaches, of which one has the title of 13 ému et mon mystère. Dated from 1936, these gouaches were done in Roumania to which Brauner was forced to return, Paris having proved too expensive a place to live. He would only come back to the French capital in 1938. The physical limits inherent in the technique of cutting a stencil or a photo-montage explain the simplification of his work in the mid-1930's. Technical constraints were always, for Brauner, a source of great creative resourcefulness, and one is reminded that it was the shortage of traditional colours that led him, during the Second World War, to explore the potential of wax and parafin, which he used so brilliantly in his painting.
1 Alain Jouffroy, Brauner, Editions Georges Fall, Paris 1969, p. 31.
Ed. note: It is unclear exactly what process Brauner used to create the image offered here. Under magnification, it appears that the print has no grain in the image, suggesting it to be a photogram or a combination with cliché verre technique. It could quite possibly be a unique process based on the imagery of the goache works referred to by M. Semin but unlikely a copy work of any of them. This is the first time a photographic work by Brauner has appeared at auction.