Domínguez’s work from this period shares its magical, dreamlike aesthetic with other Surrealist painters. Works by these artists typically feature small, exquisitely rendered motifs against a desolate terrain whose horizon line has been blurred against the receding sky, commonly observed in works by Yves Tanguy (see fig. 2). Les Siphons surréalistes diverges from this compositional structure in its presence of a central focal point, a horse hovering in the center of the canvas seemingly tethered to a siphon. Rather than having the motifs randomly dispersed throughout the canvas, the elements of Les Siphons surréalistes follow an upwards projection: the mountain in the center of the canvas transforms into a bull, whose horns pierce the horse’s abdomen and propel the creature towards the sky, mirroring both the upward flow of water projected from the siphons as well as the meteor-like objects floating past the frame of the canvas.
The violent interaction destabilizes the otherwise organic flow of motion in the picture and underscores the political associations of the Spanish corridas. The horse, blindfolded as in the early moments of a corrida, is both physically and psychologically unprotected—it is blinded to the origin of this forceful violence and psychologically unprepared as well as grotesquely injured, its internal organs now fatally exposed. This cultural reference was employed by many of Domínguez’s contemporaries, such as André Masson, to symbolize the conflict and confusion in the Iberian peninsula during the Spanish Civil War (see fig. 3). This moving combination of vulnerability, violence and tragedy is present in another momentous canvas completed in the same year—Picasso’s Guernica (see fig. 4). Indeed, José Pierre has declared Les Siphons surréalistes “Domínguez’s Guernica” as both works illustrate a metaphoric duel between bull and horse (Óscar Domínguez Antológica 1926-1957 (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 20). The blindfold is also an ominous foreshadowing for a fateful event in Domínguez’s life; in 1938, he accidentally blinded his friend Victor Brauner in one eye during a drunken brawl. The paradigmatic symbolism of the blindfold, blocking out the senses and therefore the exterior world, was favored by the Surrealists as it would allow one to more deeply focus on the inner workings of the psyche. Yet in Domínguez’s canvas it also imbues the composition with an eerie sense of fear and turbulence, exacerbated by the violent blow of the bull’s horns.
The present work’s landscape is yet another element Domínguez uses to evoke memories of home and channel those childhood associations so treasured by the Surrealists. Hailing from Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Domínguez would often spend time in Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, whose volcanic cliffs and expansive ocean are clearly present in the rocky, vast terrain of the present work, an early example of the cosmic landscapes that were to dominate the artist’s oeuvre in the following half-decade (see fig. 5). Domínguez here charts a landscape of insularity and isolation, contributing to the sense of poetic vulnerability set forth by the blindfolded horse. Siphons pierce this landscape like daunting sentinels, projecting both water and meteoric rocks and simultaneously tethering the horse to the center of the canvas. A common motif in Dominguez’s work, as well as in other masterpieces by artists including Fernand Léger, water and siphons figure prominently in canvases similar to the present work as well as in the artist’s object assemblages, such as the one exhibited at l’Exposition internationale du surréalisme in 1938 (see figs. 6 & 7).
While Domínguez had followed Surrealist theories in his early works of the 1930’s, toward the end of the decade he began transitioning towards a more concentrated practice of automatic painting when attempting revelations of the subconscious. In its dark, volcanic landscape and myriad motifs, Les Siphons surréalistes is a precursor to the artist’s période cosmique of the late 1930s, a time alluded to by Breton in his seminal text Des tendances les plus récentes de la peinture surréaliste—Breton described Domínguez as the painter who could, “with a movement of the arm as unstudied and quick as that of a window cleaner transport us into those realms of pure fascination that have remained unvisited since, as children, we contemplated color images of meteors in books” (Breton quoted in La Part du Jeu et du Rêve: Oscar Domínguez et le Surréalisme 1906-1957 (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 199).
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