All posts in “surrealism”

Object of the Week: Royal Incubator

Widely regarded as one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century, David Smith once described his early sculptures of the 1940s and 50s, like Royal Incubator, as “drawings in space.” Smith, a welder, often used wrought and soldered metals such as steel, bronze, and silver, arranged in a highly visual and pictorial arrangement. As explained by art historian Richard J. Williams, “[these sculptures] were really only legible as three-dimensional pictures, albeit abstract ones.”[1]

Smith’s early work prioritized the act of viewing from a fixed perspective, and while experiencing his pieces in space—and in the round—is important, Royal Incubator’s legibility as a single plane, much like the Cubist paintings of Picasso, is tantamount. In addition to finding influence in Cubism, the dream-like imagery in such early works evidences the heavy influence Surrealism had on Smith. However, thanks to its location installed in Big Picture: Art after 1945, now on view in SAM’s Modern and Contemporary Galleries, Royal Incubator’s association with Abstract Expressionism is also made clear. In many ways, it can be seen as a three-dimensional equivalent to the active, monumental, and gestural paintings by Pollock, Krasner, and Gorky nearby.

Born and raised in Indiana, Smith first worked as a welder and riveter at the Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend. Later, during World War II, Smith worked for the American Locomotive Company, working to fabricate trains and M7 destroyer tanks. These experiences proved formative, advancing his welding skills and relationship with metalwork. Smith’s early works bring together the real, often in the form of found metal scraps, with the imagined, resulting in a unique and at times deeply autobiographical visual style. For example, in Royal Incubator, metal spigots become birds of flight in a dream-like composition that defies clear interpretation.

Delta Air Lines, the Official Airline of the Seattle Art Museum, is a generous sponsor of Big Picture. Their support makes it possible to share this incredible post-war collection with our community.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Richard J. Williams, After Modern Sculpture: Art in the United States and Europe, 1965-70 (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000), 23.
Image: Royal Incubator, 1949, David Smith, steel, bronze and silver, 37 x 38 3/8 x 9 7/8 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2016.17.5 © Estate of David Smith
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Object of the Week: Ideas for Zanzibar with Dancer from Parade Triple Bill

A pioneering Pop artist, David Hockney has throughout his career pivoted effortlessly from medium to medium, continuously exploring his visual style. Though perhaps best known for his iconic paintings of Southern California swimming pools, Hockney has produced a much larger body of work, ranging from abstract paintings to photo collages to iPhone drawings. However, arguably lesser known is his work in stage and costume design: he has been involved in productions of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress and Mozart’s Magic Flute, both at the Glyndebourne Opera in England, and Parade at the New York Metropolitan Opera, for which this drawing was created.

Grouped under the title Parade, the Met Opera’s 1981 triple bill brought together three pieces: Parade, a ballet written by Jean Cocteau with music by Erik Satie; Les Mamelles de Tiresias, an opera with libretto by Guillaume Apollinaire and music by Francis Poulenc; and L’Enfant et Les Sortileges, an opera with libretto by Colette and music by Maurice Ravel. Hockney designed the sets and costumes for all three performances.

Satie’s Parade, first presented at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 18, 1917—during the height of World War I—takes place in a world of circus acts and street fairs. Though written in 1903, Les Mamelles de Tiresias similarly premiered during the war, in June 1917. The surrealist play was described by one critic as “high-spirited topsy-turveydom” whose deeper themes are about the need to repopulate a France ravaged by war.¹ Lastly, L’Enfant et Les Sortileges, commissioned in 1915, is a “fairy ballet” exploring the inner emotional world of a child, where toys and animals come to life.

There is a long history of artists collaborating on theater and dance productions. Merce Cunningham frequently collaborated with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, for example, and both the scenery and costumes for Satie’s original Parade were designed by none other than Pablo Picasso. For New York Times theater critic John Russell, Hockney’s designs for the 1981 presentation Parade are “not [Picasso’s] Parade redone from scratch. It is the Parade of 1917 revisited as if in a dream, with Picasso very much in mind, both as the original designer and as the poet of Les Saltimbanques—the tumblers and harlequins who turn up over and over again in the work of Picasso’s Rose period.”²

Largescale painted environment with separate elements based on Hockney’s design for Les Mamelles de Tiresias

Hockney produced many drawings for Parade, but the one in SAM’s collection is for the second opera in particular: Les Mamelles de Tiresias, set in Zanzibar, an imaginary town in France. Taking into account the circumstances surrounding the opera’s 1917 premiere, when the war was at its worst, Hockney incorporated details such as gas masks, helmets, searchlights, and barbed wire, the latter of which is included in this drawing.³ Though the unfinished blue sky suggests a certain incompleteness, it is important to keep in mind that this is, after all, a preparatory drawing. And despite the war-time setting, Hockney still manages to bring his bold, graphic, and colorful style to the mise en scène. In the image above, which more fully depicts Hockney’s playful cubist-inspired world, we get a sense of how such drawings were crucial for his development of these operatic worlds.

–Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Images: Largescale painted environment with separate elements based on Hockney’s design for Les Mamelles de Tiresias, from the 1983-84 Walker Art Center exhibition Hockney Paints the Stage. Ideas for Zanzibar with Dancer from Parade Triple Bill, 1980, David Hockney, Crayon on paper, Framed: 28 x 33″, Paper size: 19 x 24″, Gift of Robert and Honey Dootson Collection, 2010.37.26, © David Hockney.
¹Jeremy Sams, “Poulenc, Francis,” in The Penguin Opera Guide, ed. Amanda Holden (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 282.
²John Russell, “David Hockney’s Designs for Met Opera’s ‘Parade’,” in The New York Times, February 20, 1981, 1.
³ Russell, 1.
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