The heat is unusual for April. Past a lake, briskly, all is flat but the curved backdrop of low mountains. The trees have an early start to their summer cover, leaves oiled by the humidity. The only movements in the landscape — this painted-many-times landscape — are the occasional frenetic cloud of gnats, a salted or sulphured breeze, spiraling turkey vultures. A car passes by, maybe the driver waves. The road goes around several bends, several more, before hitting an intersection with a mechanic’s shop, three stately houses, and a general store. Left. Two miles past houses, a doctor’s office, an unidentifiable business whose sign is confusing to foreigners (even bilingual ones), and a gallery. A steeple at the center of town appears, an enormous white fencing foil atop a sedate, early-Renaissance facade. Not far from the red doors of the church is Café Espresso, owned by Bernard and Mary Lou Paturel. Where the sounds of children and the piano and singing are replaced by periodic bursts of steam from an espresso machine, the classical melodies of a record player. Where Malkine lights the first cigarette of the day after this three-and-a-half-mile walk, a ritual his wife understands better than any of the people who see him, pull alongside, offer him a lift. He declines, always, with the courtesy of a noble. He walked everywhere in Paris, day and night — mostly night. He would walk everywhere here.
Bonjour, Georges, tu vas bien? Bernard brings an off-white cup with flaking red lettering and a clean ashtray. He forgets to take the used one, overflowing with butts, from the table. A quarter-smile — part jawline, part eyebrow — is Malkine’s answer. The unseasonal heat of the day, the steam from the off-white cup, the smoke curling from his lip, the heap of beige cylinders branded with gold type in a pile of ash: sensory reminders of a bonfire ten years ago, in the backyard, the simplest of plans quietly performed. He could have at least saved the wood stretchers, but they made good kindling. Twenty-seven paintings set ablaze while his four-year-old daughter watched in secret. Tomorrow he leaves.*
The catalogue [for the exhibit, Georges Malkine: Perfect Surrealist Behavior, opening 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, October 11 at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, 28 Tinker Street] started with a Post-It note and kept getting longer,” says curator and catalogue author Derin Tanyol, whose day job is as Exhibition and Programs Manager at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. “First it was an essay, then four chapters, then eight chapters. Josephine (Bloodgood, former WAAM executive director) asked me in 2009 to curate a show on Malkine. It was originally to be a show of work only from local collections, but so much important work was done in the 1920s, during his involvement with the Surrealist movement, and much of that work is in collections in Europe. I made a blockbuster list, and [for budgetary reasons] then pared it down.”
The sumptuous catalogue describes an exhibit featuring 25 paintings, six drawings and eight archival works of the enigmatic Surrealist, including photographs and writing as well as Robert Desnos’ book, Night of Loveless Nights. They serve to illuminate the life and work of a restless artist, whose vision included a hiatus from painting from 1933 to 1946, during which he worked mostly as an extra in film, worked for the French resistance, was interned in Nazi labor camps; a ‘career’ in which he shunned any sort of popularity — “at his 1927 solo show, just about everything sold…but instead of reaping the benefits of success, he got on a boat to Tahiti,” says Tanyol — and a life in which he, incredibly, twice torched huge swaths of his own work.
“Yes, he burned his paintings twice, once when he was in his 20s and hadn’t met the surrealists yet,” says Fern Malkine-Falvey, one of the artist’s three daughters (Monelle and Shayan are the others, and Gilles, his son, all still living in the area.) “The other was in the 50s in Shady, and he just realized that his paintings had become more realistic and it wasn’t who he was and what he wanted to paint. It certainly was not what he wanted to be remembered for. Derin said that you don’t often hear about artists doing this. It was sort of like a cleansing thing in his life. He had done it earlier.”
Georges Malkine (1898-1970) came to Surrealism in the early 1920s, when it was a very structured movement. Tanyol points out one of the falsehoods in the literature on Malkine — “that he was the only visual artist to sign the Surrealist Manifesto. This is repeated many times in the literature. There was no signed copy, it was not a signed document. The reality: He’s the only visual artist noted among a group of 18 others, all writers, who in André Breton’s words had committed ‘acts of absolute surrealism.’ I went into the project thinking it was so, and I looked for the document, and found it wasn’t so. History has a way of using repetition to make things into fact. There goes history, doing its thing.
“Surrealism, of all the ‘isms’ out there, has endured longer than most,” she continued. “We now have an adjective, ‘surreal,’ used regularly by people who never studied Surrealism. That suggests the whole movement has had aftershocks and waves in its wake that will endure. Other ‘isms’ — Romanticism, Impressionism — they weren’t movements. What we refer to as the Impressionist movement was in reality eight exhibitions…Romanticism had no Manifesto, no clearly defined rules as to who was a ‘Romantic’ and who wasn’t. But Surrealism was a highly organized movement starting in 1924 and lasting at least until Breton’s death in1966, and included writing, painting, film…”