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That this book can be written at all owes much to the art critic Mervyn Levy. Were it not for his encouragement and support during the late 1940s, Desmond Morris may well not have persevered along the course which has led him to a significant position in the history of Surrealism in Britain. During the late 1940s, at the time when these two art devotees were brought together by National Service, Surrealism was an extremely unpopular movement.
This public mood invariably meant that Morris's espousal of Surrealist techniques and ideals invariably met with derision or, at best indifference. Against the tide, Levy provided the much-needed impetus. It was his endorsement which provided the crucial catalyst which goaded the teenage Morris towards what was to become a lifelong dedication to Surrealist exploration.
Such was Levy's confidence in the artistic potential of his fellow conscript that in 1948 he made the following BBC radio broadcast:
Man is an animal. The only thing which makes him
greater than other animals is his ability to create a
work of art. But there are degrees of artistry, and
a painter has to decide whether he is merely going
to accept the superficial, purely visual world as it
stands - a tree, a face, a ship - or whether he will
endeavour to record the intangible kernel which is
to be found within, at the heart of every physical
shape and form in existence.
Man is an animal. The only thing which makes him greater than other animals is his ability to create a work of art. But there are degrees of artistry, and a painter has to decide whether he is merely going to accept the superficial, purely visual world as it stands - a tree, a face, a ship - or whether he will endeavour to record the intangible kernel which is to be found within, at the heart of every physical shape and form in existence.
Desmond Morris, like many of his contemporaries, uses the merely visual world as the starting point from which he distils his own universe of shapes and patterns, colours and feelings. Already his work displays a power, vision and personality peculiar only to himself.
His strongest quality in the present stage of his development is his unusual ability purely as a craftsman - a technician - a tremendous attribute in an age of brutish mass-production, when most forms of artisanship are extinct. I feel certain that once he has fully realized and developed his own imaginative potential, he may well produce an important and unique art.
Credit for the persistence of Morris's endeavours as a painter is also due to Edouard (or 'E.L.T.', as he preferred) Mesens, who, with Ren‚ Magritte, Paul Noug‚ and Camille Goemans, had been responsible for the rise of Dada and then Surrealism in 1920s Brussels. As a result of the discernment of this Belgian poet, collagist and art-dealer, Desmond Morris not only enjoyed his first solo exhibition in London at a very early stage in his career, but he did so in distinguished Surrealist company. In February 1950 the London Gallery at 23 Brook Street showed 18 works by the 22-year old Morris alongside a show by Joan Mirø, who, as the catalogue pointed out, was already by that time well-recognized as a 'painter of world-wide reputation' who had 'work in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and in the most important collections in Europe and the USA'. Of Morris, the same catalogue states: 'His recent works show a steady affirmation of personality'. In a review of the exhibition, Wyndham Lewis asserted his confidence in the young artist: 'I feel sure that something will emerge', he wrote. It is due to Mesens that Morris 'stepped right into the middle of the history of English surrealism'.
Whilst Levy and Mesens were instrumental in launching Desmond Morris into the world of Surrealism, it was the
inspiration provided by Conroy Maddox which propelled him along his chosen artistic trajectory. What primarily kindled and fomented the flame of Morris's rebellious art was the example and influence of the work and personality of Maddox. It is in recognition of that pivotal role that this book is dedicated to him.
'It's no good, they won't go away, they are following
me into the studio and grazing all over the canvases.'
'It's no good, they won't go away, they are following me into the studio and grazing all over the canvases.'
Desmond Morris, 1949
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Desmond Morris has an international reputation as author, broadcaster and zoologist. He is best known for his pioneering work on human behaviour, which was first brought to the public's notice with the publication, in 1967, of the enormously popular and, according to some, shocking book The Naked Ape. Over twelve million copies have been sold throughout the world and it has been translated into most languages. More than a quarter of a century later the highly acclaimed BBC television series The Human Animal has been a testimony to the enduring appeal of Morris's original view that human beings can justifiably be regarded and studied as just another of the many animal species.
The reputation of Desmond Morris as a scientist and television presenter has, however, overshadowed another, equally passionate facet of his life's work. What is less known about Desmond Morris is that from the age of sixteen he has been a committed and practising Surrealist painter. Totally unwavered by his academic success as a zoologist and his celebrity status as a writer and television personality, he has, since the 1940s, been making a steadfast and significant contribution to the Surrealist movement in Britain. The aim of this book is to examine the nature and the ramifications of that contribution.
During one of his childhood days Desmond Morris happened to be rummaging around in the attic of the family home in Purton, Wiltshire. By chance he came across a 17th-century anatomy of internal organs, The Comparative Anatomy of Stomachs and Guts Begun by Nehemiah Grew, which contained strangely disembodied illustrations of an array of biological vitals. The strangely contorted, almost abstract forms of intestinal tubes, bladders, gizzards aroused a fascinated wonder in the young boy's mind. These sinewy structures which were identifiably biological but which could not be overtly equated with recognizable living organisms were to haunt Morris's imagination for decades to come. They constantly remained in the back of his mind and indubitably fuelled his vision as a painter.
Another find in the attic was a dusty mahogany box containing an old, brass microscope and a large collection of slides which had belonged to his great-grandfather, an enthusiastic Victorian naturalist. Once set up, the long-abandoned instrument became the source of many revelations. The unexplained images captured on the Victorian slides opened up a whole new world, not simply of the animal kingdom but of incomprehensible abstract patterns, shapes and colours. 'I was shattered by what I saw,' he later recalled, 'I felt I was entering a secret kingdom.' This twofold experience, biological data on the one hand and forms with their own autonomous aesthetic on the other, was to prove significant in the development of Desmond Morris's eventual achievements.
Indeed, as he grew up, his activities led him in two major directions: he was to pursue a successful career in natural history and, at the same time, he was to dedicate himself to art. These ostensibly antithetical trajectories sometimes dovetailed and often conflicted but they, nevertheless, constantly developed side by side over many years. For example, Morris found it quite natural to move from an army teaching post in fine arts to go on to read zoology at Birmingham University. Similarly, the two vocations must have appeared interchangeable when, at the end of his first year as a science student, Morris had a solo exhibition in London of the drawings he had made of shapes seen under the microscope. But this level of intellectual concord was only rarely to be repeated: the two facets of Morris's thinking were, on the whole, destined to remain distinct. For him, the creative impetus, 'the rebel element', as he put it, involved the non-critical, non-reflective mind and was opposed to the thought processes of the analytical and exacting scientist. As soon as thought becomes self-conscious, he has insisted, creativity is diminished and invalidated. He recently explained the phenomenon by relating an anecdote about a millepede who, on being asked how it managed to coordinate its leg movements, became so conscious about what, for all of its life, had been a natural process, that it ceased to be able to walk at all and, as a consequence, died: art, for Desmond Morris is an automatic, instinctive process and, as such, remains alien to the conscious deliberations of the professional mind.
Morris was to discover what mental monotony really meant in
1946 when he began his two years' national service on the 24th
October as Private no. 19090439. His time as a conscript in
various army camps was an unhappy one and it was only made
bearable by his eventual posting in the Autumn of 1947 as
lecturer in Fine Arts at Chisledon Army College, only a few miles
from his home in Victoria Road, Swindon. Thanks to his
departmental head, the art critic Mervyn Levy, Desmond Morris
began to mix in artistic circles and met, among others, Dylan
Thomas. Art became a solace, an escape from the rigours of
regimented life. As the weeks passed, he painted more and more
and even held his first exhibition of 32 paintings at the Swindon
Public Library from January 10th to the 24th 1948. To Morris's
delight, this created intense reactions: 'I was called a lunatic;
someone wrote to the papers demanding that all my works be burned
in a furnace'. According to one correspondent to the Evening
Advertiser the paintings were 'nightmares masquerading as art'.
A subsequent exhibition held in the Summer of 1948 prompted
further attacks, with one reader commenting:
It would be counted a magnificent gesture of benevolence
on the part of any philanthropist were he to buy up all
these zygomorphic distortions in colour, and destroy them
in a furnace.
It would be counted a magnificent gesture of benevolence on the part of any philanthropist were he to buy up all these zygomorphic distortions in colour, and destroy them in a furnace.
Animals had been relegated to the back of Morris's mind and art was dominating his thinking at this time. And yet the subjects which appeared in his works owed much to the creatures which he had spent his boyhood observing. 'I tried to create a private world in which my own, invented organisms evolved and developed', he later wrote. In his paintings Desmond Morris was beginning to create a personal fauna and flora, which originated from his imagination. These strange creatures looked quite unlike animals in the outside world, but, nevertheless, they still seemed to be subject to biological rules. Their forms implied growth and metamorphosis, just as though they had been real creatures. So engrossed did Morris become in his inventions, that he recalls being captivated by their very nature: 'to me they did become increasingly real, so much so that I could almost study them and their natural history as if I were still an exploring zoologist'. It was this serious application to painting which led to a spate of exhibitions in 1948.
As army life drew to an end on 29th September 1948, Desmond Morris increasingly yearned for the animals which appeared to be haunting his paintings incessantly. He wanted to find out more about them in a formal way and, fresh from being demobilized, he found himself gravitating towards and enroling at the zoology department of Birmingham University in October of that year. Ironically, it was while at university as a science student that he made what was probably the most significant breakthrough of his artistic life: he discovered Surrealism in a concrete form.
It is true that his first knowledge of the movement came about while he was still at Dauntsey's School, where he read The Painter's Object by Myfanwy Evans. 'I discovered,' he later recalled, 'that you could paint without being a slave to the external world'. But it was as a university student that he embraced the Surrealist frame of mind wholeheartedly. From the moment he arrived in Birmingham, far from applying himself single-mindedly to his studies, he set about exploring the local art scene. He would attend seminars on art at the Barber Institute and would often end up engaging in heated arguments with art history students about the merit of 'conventional' art. His taste in art at that time, he recently recalled, was far from 'typical' and at the Barber discussions he was sometimes regarded as a rather disruptive influence on otherwise conservative proceedings. The reason why Desmond Morris had turned his back on the more traditional values in art was that he was looking for what he terms that 'mystery or special quality', which the creative mind could conjure up. Essentially, he regarded the creative process as a challenge to the established and accepted mental protocol. For him it was a means of provocation.
When the university carnival 'rag' event of November 1949 was in process he saw his chance to put his ideas into practice. He designed and constructed a fantastic float, entitled 'Alice Under the Microscope', in which the observer at a giant microscope was a model of a full-size giraffe and the specimen under observation was a real girl strapped on the plate. With this simple, albeit technically ingenious, fabrication, Morris metaphorically overturned our conventional view of the relationship between humans and animals. For once, it was the human being who was the observed specimen and, as such, underwent all the degradation which that entailed: the implication was of a girl snatched from her world to be placed in a vulnerable predicament and subjected to the dehumanizing eye of scientific scrutiny. The animal, conversely, was placed in the superior and dominant position of the observer: the giraffe gave the impression of peering critically and judgmentally at the helpless human victim. The tableau was completed by the addition of two balloons placed under the giraffe to symbolize testicles, but these were censored before the float could begin its parade. It would seem that the concept of a human female being the object of bestial lust had to remain an inadmissible taboo. Nevertheless, Desmond Morris had managed dramatically to challenge the supremacy with which Man endows himself in relation to the animal kingdom, a feat which was repeated in a systematic manner in The Naked Ape many years later. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, to which the piece alludes, he turned common sense and conventional wisdom upside down. In a small but, nevertheless, public way, he had defied the order which reason places on reality. He had, unknowingly, made a Surrealist statement.
It was, clearly, inevitable that Desmond Morris should
sooner or later establish contact with the Surrealist circle
which existed in Birmingham at the time. After some enquiries,
he was eventually directed in November 1948 to the home of a
member of the original 'Surrealist Group in England', Conroy
Maddox, who, in the days before the war, had frequented with such
personalities as André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Georges Hugnet and
Man Ray. In a large, eleven-roomed house at 29 Speedwell Road in
Edgbaston, Desmond Morris found regular meetings of a thriving
Surrealist group and, above all, a mentor. Conroy Maddox had been
promoting Surrealism, formulating its policies, publishing in its
journals, populating its exhibitions with canvases and generally
propounding its spirit since 1935. Desmond Morris 'sat at his
feet', as he later put it, and learnt all that he could. He
regularly attended the 'Surrealist evenings' hosted by Conroy
Maddox and very quickly became spellbound by his fertile and
ingenious mind. Morris recalls, quite clearly, a particular
instance of Maddox's enigmatic thinking:
One winter evening Conroy suddenly announced
to the assorted group of students, painters
and poets who, time and again, were drawn
magnetically to his Birmingham home, that he
would like to buy a piece of land and have
a house built on it. It would be an
ordinary-looking house, made of brick.
Ordinary except for one detail: it would be
completely solid. Solid right through. No
rooms - all bricks. And when it was
finished, he would simply leave it there.
There would be no announcements, no fanfare.
It would quietly make its own statement.
One winter evening Conroy suddenly announced to the assorted group of students, painters and poets who, time and again, were drawn magnetically to his Birmingham home, that he would like to buy a piece of land and have a house built on it. It would be an ordinary-looking house, made of brick. Ordinary except for one detail: it would be completely solid. Solid right through. No rooms - all bricks. And when it was finished, he would simply leave it there. There would be no announcements, no fanfare. It would quietly make its own statement.
Such was the impression made on Desmond Morris by Maddox's obsessive and haunting visions that the young zoology student felt compelled to follow in the footsteps of his newly-found champion and guru. On 2nd September 1949 he went to Paris with fellow Surrealist Oscar Mellor in search of the roots of Surrealism. He met the sculptor Prinner and Frédéric Delenglade, the illustrator of an edition of Alice in Wonderland. Having been overwhelmed by what he discovered in the Minotaur Bookshop and at a Roberto Matta exhibition, he returned home with publications illustrated with Surrealist works and an imagination ready to spark off 'primordial images and the forms born of the constant movement between the internal and external worlds'. Morris recognized Maddox as his 'next major influence' and promptly joined the Birmingham group of Surrealists, with whom he exhibited under the aegis of The Birmingham Artists Invitation Committee Exhibition organized by Oscar Mellor, Bert Barton and Trevor Denning in 1949.
To this day Maddox clearly recalls Morris's impact on the
fortnightly gatherings at Speedwell Road:
I remember my first meeting with Desmond
Morris...Since Desmond was a painter with a
strong commitment to Surrealism, we had much
in common. On one of the evenings he gave a
talk, which, if my memory serves me right,
was called 'Neotenous Man', in which he
argued that human beings are infantile apes,
who retained their juvenile playfulness
throughout life and that this had led us to
direct our energy into writing and painting
and other creative activities.
Since Desmond was a regular visitor we
had many discussions on Surrealism. I always
felt that the imagery in his Surrealist
paintings, which he calls 'biomorphic' was
a natural outcome of his research in
biology. Bringing, as it were, those images
which he saw through the microscope to the
canvas, he was to inspire rather than evoke
relationships that defied the habitual.
I remember my first meeting with Desmond Morris...Since Desmond was a painter with a strong commitment to Surrealism, we had much in common. On one of the evenings he gave a talk, which, if my memory serves me right, was called 'Neotenous Man', in which he argued that human beings are infantile apes, who retained their juvenile playfulness throughout life and that this had led us to direct our energy into writing and painting and other creative activities. Since Desmond was a regular visitor we had many discussions on Surrealism. I always felt that the imagery in his Surrealist paintings, which he calls 'biomorphic' was a natural outcome of his research in biology. Bringing, as it were, those images which he saw through the microscope to the canvas, he was to inspire rather than evoke relationships that defied the habitual.
This view seems particularly pertinent in the case of another memorable early Surrealist statement by Morris, which involved public spectacle on a grand scale. Whilst still a student in November 1949, he caused general consternation when, in the middle of one night and quite anonymously, he and some hefty helpers deposited the skull of a full-grown elephant bull in a shop doorway in Broad Street in Birmingham. Early next morning a crowd gathered and became so agitated that the police had to be called. The mystery could not be fathomed and eventually it was decided that the offending object should be taken away in a police car. The skull was so massive that it jammed in the car doorway and damaged the vehicle. Like Conroy Maddox's solid house, the incident was left without explanation. It was enough that it should have caused consternation and challenged all possible common-sensical attempts at comprehension. In the words of Maddox, it 'inspired'. All that the local paper could conclude in its headline was that there had been 'a dinosaur in Broad Street'.
The animal skeletons discarded by the university zoology department, from which, incidentally, the Broad Street elephant had been salvaged, proved to be a fertile source for Morris's imaginative devilment. Skulls and their transformation preoccupied him and at this time he applied himself to a goat's skull which he had found. He ended up disfiguring it with brightly-coloured paint. The effect was grotesquely farcical. The solemnness and morbidity of the remnants of the dead creature was uncomfortably negated by a type of festive jollification. The shocking aspect of this object, entitled The Visitor (The Uninvited Guest) (1948), lay in its connotations of distasteful defilement. Later, he was to create a similar defiance of conventional taste in a tableau comprising horse's skull with two ripe plums pressed into its eye sockets. As recently as 1995, he has been toying with the idea of filling the skull of a tiger with eggs, a concept which becomes particularly macabre and disturbing when coupled with the fact that Morris had known and tended the animal in question personally when it had been alive.
Back in the late 1940s the young zoology student was eager to capitalize on his ventures into the surreal and decided to continue to explore creativity and the irrational through a medium which he felt suited him best at this time, that of film. He felt that the cinema held enormous possibilities for the development of Surrealist sequences. Again wavering from his academic course of study, he set about writing two Surrealist scenarios. He had seen Dalí and Buñuel's Un Chien andalou at the University Film Society and he was convinced that film held enormous potential for Surrealist exploration.
As in Dalí and Buñuel's film, the scenario for Time Flower, written in the Summer of 1950, conjures up a series of disturbing events and metamorphoses. The sequence in Un Chien andalou in which body parts, such as lips and armpit hair are transposed between a man and a woman are echoed in Morris's film: a man opens his mouth to reveal that he has gained a third eye, whilst another character appears to have lost one of his. The film goes on to evoke the irrational in various ways. For example, the inanimate is endowed with living traits when a clock bleeds on being pierced by a dart. Similarly, natural laws are contradicted when a man who is transfixed with a sword and bleeds profusely also appears quite unaffected by the assault and quickly resuming a mundane task which he had been performing before the attack. Equally inexplicable is a scene in which a man discovers a corpse on a slab, which has his own head, and then proceeds to fall down a hill to his death.
Morris's commitment to devising Surrealist film was beyond question but without the necessary technical and financial means at his disposal he was unable to develop this passion beyond two films. Time Flower (1950) and The Butterfly and the Pin (1951) were filmed by Christopher Simpson, an amateur film-maker and in March 1951 Time Flower was given an award by the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers. What was in no way curtailed at this time was Morris's pictorial impetus. In 1950 he was still painting frantically and, by the end of the year, had completed over 300 works, of which 272 have been traced. In that year he also managed to share his first London exhibition with Joan Mirø at E.L.T. Mesens' London Gallery which was not only the hub of Surrealist activity in England but was also the official headquarters of 'The Surrealist Group in England'.
But 1950 also saw a turning point in Morris's life. This
occurred when he attended a lecture given by the famous Dutch,
Nobel prizewinning ethologist Niko Tinbergen on November 19th.
'That was it,' Morris explained, 'in one hour he converted me.
Crash. It sort of hit me like a ton of bricks.' He became
obsessed with the idea of studying man as an animal and becoming
a naturalist. Fired by his passion, he made the decision to apply
himself single-mindedly to his zoology studies. As a result of
the new trajectory which he had set himself, Desmond Morris was
forced to abandon his wholehearted initiatives in the sphere of
art. He did exhibit at an international arts festival in Belgium
in July 1951 and at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in May of the
following year, but he sensed that the two directions were
competing for his attention. He felt frustrated that he could not
be in his laboratory and his studio at the same time. In an
interview in 1990 he acknowledged this phenomenon:
There are two Desmond Morrises, and they are
quite different people. I can easily pass
from one to the other, but I cannot be both
at the same time. When I'm Desmond Morris
the painter, I am quite different...There is
rarely any clash between the two aspects.
The one helps the other. I obey the two
sides of my brain alternately.
There are two Desmond Morrises, and they are quite different people. I can easily pass from one to the other, but I cannot be both at the same time. When I'm Desmond Morris the painter, I am quite different...There is rarely any clash between the two aspects. The one helps the other. I obey the two sides of my brain alternately.
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Desmond Morris's nightmare in The Black Dream-Room demonstrated the intimidating and unnerving potential of the world of the biomorphs. Underneath their playful and jovial veneer they can conceal a darker side, which had even taken their creator by surprise. In addition to their appealingly frolicsome nature, Morris's creatures display traits which tend towards the grotesque and the invidious.
This less affable facet of the protagonists in Morris's paintings emerges in The Entomologist (1951). In a direct manner this painting affirms a simple, perhaps brutal, biological fact - animals eat one other. A living winged insect, a dragonfly perhaps, its six tiny legs stretched out in terror, is about to be devoured by a larger, anthropomorphized creature. The scene is one of uncomfortable apprehension: we know that within seconds the small, writhing creature is to be ingested. Yet, the scenario should in no way come as a surprise. It has been a fundamental part of the natural cycle ever since life has existed on the planet.
The painting does, nevertheless, accentuate the ferocious essence of this inevitable truth. Morris does not simply depict an animal which is feeding, but rather seems to want to show the torment and anguish produced by this vital function. In a trenchant manner the living prey is shown to be helpless and impotent in its last moments whilst the relatively massive captor is presented as intimidating. Conroy Maddox has drawn the analogy between this creature and Rhadamanthus, a mythological judge characterized by his inflexibility, severity and brutality. Morris certainly depicts his fiend in a fierce manner: it has red, stalked eyes which stare menacingly from a reptilian, toad-like head. What makes this carnivore hunter distinctly terrorizing is its row of formidable fangs, which the small creature is about to encounter. It is clear that the firm grip of this ogre's hand is only a prelude to the more fatal grip of its teeth. With no hope of survival, the insect is on the verge of being gnashed to its death.
This same fate is even more explicitly conveyed in The Zoologist (1951). Exactly the same type of small, winged creature is being similarly clasped by another, equally grotesque monster. The insect, which, curiously, appears to have seven instead of six legs, is being drawn towards an opening mouth. The beast-like predator sticks out its pointed tongue in anticipation of its imminent meal and is totally engrossed by the creature which is flapping and writhing at a small distance from the waiting jaws. Morris presents a scene of unsparing rapacity at its most barbarous.
Through his graphic accounts of this most common ordeal, an ordeal which nature imposes on its creatures as a matter of course, Morris reveals the brutality of basic animal instincts. The capacity to subject other creatures to horrific distress, he implies, is a natural predisposition. Moreover, by presenting the hunter in the guise of a human-like form, a cloaked figure with two eyes and a flesh-coloured arm and hand, the painting may also be implying that such tendencies are an integral part of our own psyche. Our own nature, Morris suggests, may well be latently predatory. As he has written, 'the ancient human energy to pursue prey...can all too easily be channelled into destructive outlets'. That may suggest why, as Morris concedes in a general sense, 'there is quite a lot of violence in the paintings...there are a lot of challenges'. For him 'true aggression' is an all too common part of human behaviour. In the aptly-entitled painting Aggro (1981) the relationship between the two protagonists is explicitly one of open hostility. One form wields a menacing portion of intestine, whilst its adversary retaliates by threatening to lunge with an oversized defensive limb in the form of a boxing glove. Both aggressors also brandish truncheons with weighted ends. Robin Dutt has gone as far as to suggest that a large proportion of Morris's paintings comprise 'confrontational images on a battlefield background'.
It is not incidental that in The Naked Ape Morris has devoted a whole chapter to the subject of human 'fighting'. He regards the human species as being 'preoccupied with mass-produced and mass-destroying violence'. In The Human Zoo he equates human social behaviour to that of baboons seeking dominance in their groups. In both cases, Morris advances, violent codes of conduct underlie everyday conduct: 'In moments of active rivalry you must threaten your subordinates aggressively...In moments of physical challenge you (or your delegates) must be able forcibly to overpower your subordinates'. Humans are seen as essentially feral and belligerent. As with hostile animals, whenever a position of advantage is contested 'a physical attack must follow'.
The Playground of Power (1957) not only illustrates this aggressive tendency but does so within a human context. The five figures depicted have human legs and feet and are engaged in what appears to be a ritualistic form of savage carnage. Three dominant figures sporting crown-like headgear preside over the humiliation and persecution of two victims. One of these kneels subserviently, perhaps awaiting a decapitation. Another has been placed, head first, into a boiling cauldron. All that is visible are two writhing legs, stained with bloody lacerations. It is not difficult to imagine the agony and terror being experienced inside the black receptacle. This is a scene of cold-blooded torture, of violence at its most barbaric. It could even imply a prelude to one of our deep-seated taboos, cannibalism. The tormented screams of agony and terror can easily be imagined.
Another work from the 1950s' so-called 'Zoo Period', during which Morris painted thirty-six canvases measuring 7 by 14 inches, is City Games (1957). This work, which was prompted by an horrific mugging in the streets of London in the 1950s, is a rare example of a literal pictorial response to a specific occurrence. Very close to Regent's Park, where Morris was then living, a knife attack took place, which ended up as an episode of multiple carnage. When a passer-by attempted to release the struggling victim, the assailants turned upon the would-be rescuer and proceeded to castrate him in the street. The viciousness and horror of the incident could not but have appalled and shocked Morris, particularly since the unfortunate helper was Morris's own grocer.
Whilst insisting that City Games is not a representation of this attack, Morris has remarked that 'the horror seeped through onto the canvas'. Uncharacteristically, Morris has painted a reasonably faithful representation of a street setting and in it he has depicted a figure being attacked by three violent individuals. The victim is surrounded by a menacing trio and is clearly unable to escape from them. His expression is one of terror: his eyes have a blank, terrified stare, his hair stands on end and his mouth is wide open as if he were calling out. His distress signals are not heeded though and the two other figures in the scene stand idly by. The masked character in the foreground looks away and the female at the window, whose face appears to be transforming into the severed genitals, stares impassively. As in The Playground of Power, patches of blood attest to the brutality implicit in the work. Red pools are dotted all over the black road surface, making this a particularly gruesome spectacle.
Human torment also occurs in The Indelible Incident (1957). A young woman lies supine in a street while screaming with pain. Her tortured expression, close to tears, suggests a discomfort resembling that of childbirth. The reason for this agony, which makes her twist her legs and writhe helplessly, is clear from the rest of her body: her torso has been divided into slices. It is as though she had suffered a sadistic attack or rape. With reference to this painting Morris has talked about a process of bodily 'segmentation'. He views his protagonist as undergoing a painful division process. Her plight, in any case, appears to be beyond redemption and she is left to her agonizing fate by a whole audience of passive and impotent onlookers.
In The Titillator (1972) the notion of an assault is far from being a mere suggestion. Morris presents a situation of imminent attack in which two mutually hostile figures confront each other. Each is brandishing its respective weapon. The aggressor on the left menacingly waves a heavy brown truncheon in the air as though awaiting an appropriate moment when a heavy blow can be dealt. The biomorph on the right employs different tactics. It has bared a series of needle-like feline spikes, which are poised to claw and stab at the fleshy parts of the adversary on the left. The moment depicted by Morris is one of tense anticipation. It is uncertain whether the tensed clawed hand will lunge forward or whether the club will swing round to pommel the rival. In an instant the impending aggression will materialize.
The concept of imminent threat is equally implicit in The Survivors (1950). The three foreground figures display all the characteristics of frightened creatures: they are standing rigid and motionless, they are staring intensely in the same direction and generally appear apprehensive. It is as though they are fixated by a peril to the right, which we cannot see, but which is apparent to them. One of the trio even appears so startled that its hair is literally standing on end. The figures are waiting, in silence perhaps, and evaluating their predicament. They may well be trying to determine whether the menace is about to approach and attack them and whether, therefore, they ought to take flight. The tone of the painting is one of tension and anxiety. Hunted creatures are about to confront their ultimate fear.
The predatory menace which had been implied in The Survivors becomes the explicit subject of another work, The Intruder (1949). In this subaquatic scene various marine forms, resembling tadpoles or jellyfish, appear to be swimming aimlessly and sedately around the clear blue water. On second sight, however, it becomes clear that they are all steering themselves a single direction, upwards and towards the left. Their black tentacles are fully stretched out and are being used to perform optimal swimming strokes. From the progressive stages of this swimming action, shown in the respective postures of the sea creatures - one has tentacles pointing slightly forwards as though beginning a stroke, another's limbs are outstretched but beginning to turn backwards, a third is at an intermediary stage and a fourth is pushing right back, in the final stages of a breast stroke movement and gliding forwards - the impression is given of a group swimming in unison and at speed.
A glance towards the lower right of the painting would reveal that this quartet is not simply exercising as a group but, rather, that it is attempting to escape. The swimmers are, in fact, all racing away from an intimidatingly gruesome predator. Morris depicts a formidable hunting creature, armed with two articulated limbs which terminate in sharp pincers. These offensive appendages seem to wave around menacingly in front of this lobster-like being, with the intention of ensnaring a likely prey. More deadly still is a third pincer claw which stretches out in front of the animal. This more substantial clasping and crushing apparatus would certainly be fatal to the frightened creatures above. So aggressive is this claw that its uppermost articulation is covered in sharp, nail-like spikes. Even the marine plant-like creature, which is embedded in the sandy sea floor, appears to be exhibiting signs of trepidation: it is visibly straining away from the sea monster by bending to the left.
However convincing, the snapping jaws in The Intruder are, to an extent, suggested by the forms which Morris delineates rather than being represented in a direct manner. In Celebration (1948), though, we are left in no doubt about the nature of the creatures depicted. The work shows fangs, sharp points and incisors in graphic detail. An evil-eyed reptile sits on the ground and opens a huge pair of jaws, equal in size to the remainder of its body. Inside the mouth there are two rows of white, nail-like teeth. With its tongue visible, this creature appears to be lying in wait for its next meal. It is not difficult to visualize these fangs crunching bones and tearing flesh. An equally forbidding animal floats aloft and displays bright-red knife-like members. These point forward, like the horn of a rhinoceros or the tusks of an elephant, and look capable of piercing anything in their way with their fine, sharp points. Morris presents the ultimate hunting tool: in addition to the rapier-like points and razor-sharp blades, this limb comprises serrated edges. The small creatures in the centre of the painting being stalked by this hunter have an horrific fate in store. They are about to be transfixed, slashed and sawn up.
Despite the inequitable match in size and pugnacity between the predators and their potential prey, the hunted creatures in Celebration do, at least, have the possibility, however minimal it may seem, of escaping the danger in which they find themselves. When the jaws start snapping it may just be possible for the small biomorphs to dart away out of reach. In The Revolt of the Pets (1959) even this remote prospect of deliverance is absent. Three different types of creature, one two-legged, one four-legged and one ten-legged, have been herded together and ensnared in an enclosure. The three are trapped by a fencing of ropes, from which they are, clearly, incapable of escaping. The predicament alarms the trio, who are rushing towards their captor on the left in quasi panic. It is as though they are pleading for their release or, perhaps, relief from the effects of the blazing sun. The biped victim has rushed right up to the ropes and is stretching out its forked tongue through the fencing in an effort to test the air for possible signs of aggression. Desmond Morris has explained that this is normal behaviour for reptiles, who are able to 'detect the smell of aggression' through sensors in the tongue. The gesture in the painting is one of apprehension and fear. It could even be seen as a supplication.
The display of nervousness and the appeal for clemency falls on deaf ears, though. The gaoler is, clearly, only intent on repulsing the surge towards him and repressing the turmoil. Moreover, the captor is presented as a daunting creature. It towers intimidatingly over its penned-in prisoners and displays an array of monstrous features: its thin green legs support a deformed, blubbery torso from which three crab-like legs sprout and a long thin neck supporting a square head protrudes. The grotesqueness of this dominant creature arises from an aberrant proliferation of bodily attributes: it sports four staring eyes and a daunting array of proboscis-like lobes. But, its malevolence is demonstrated, above all, by its blatantly belligerent gesture of aiming an arrow-headed spear at its harmless captives, who are apparently oblivious about the imminent peril. Once again, the larger creature overwhelms the smaller with naked aggression.
This painting, Morris has explained, is an allusion to the 'pathetically ineffectual nature of rebellion'. It indicates the formidable difficulties encountered in any revolt against authority. All ordinary people, he feels, are trapped by a dominating authority, as are the 'pets' which he depicts. He regards most instances of rebellion as feeble and ineffectual since, as he puts it, 'authority absorbs rebellion, authority can dampen any rebellion'. Whilst pointing out that The Revolt of the Pets was not executed as a conscious statement about oppression, he nevertheless concedes that 'the painting is about the fact that rebellion against a controlling influence is generally pathetic'.
Equally impotent are the victims in The Egg-thieves (1960). A nesting avian creature has just been startled into exposing the pair of eggs which she had been incubating. The powerless female flies up in panic and flaps erratically over the heads of the intruders. She lashes out with her claws, but the efforts to defend her young are to no avail. Four predatory bipeds ignore her and advance intimidatingly towards the vulnerable pink shells which are only protected by an enveloping downy nest. With an undeterred confidence, the 'thieves' carefully crouch down to examine the prize they have stalked and are soon to steal. There is a sense of gloating over an inescapable triumph and domination. To the mother about to be deprived of her treasured and defenceless unhatched offspring, the bipeds are overwhelming, callous fiends.
With hindsight, Desmond Morris has described the penile nest-raiders as 'walking phalluses'. For him their protruding intrusiveness is an allusion to the clash between sexuality and maternity. 'The harassment of the female while she is rearing her young', he explains, 'is symptomatic of the jealousy of the father'. Eggs, as with any newly-arrived offspring, represent a new love-bond which excludes the father. In this painting the male presence is portrayed as a terrorizing brutishness.
The theme of the overbearing and terrifying monster is
fundamental and frequently recurs in the pictorial work of
Desmond Morris. In The Agitator (1973) a demon-like figure is the
exclusive subject of the painting. A hideous head, and nothing
but, occupies the whole canvas. Four gawky, stalked eyes stare
out from a face which can only be described as a mass of
deformities. The sequence of lobes, protuberances and intestinal
tubes have more affinity with internal organs, which had once
mesmerized Morris in his childhood, than with a head. During his
macabre and illicit visit to a wartime mortuary he had become
captivated by 'the shiny organs inside the human body'. The
'strange, voluptuous beauty' which Morris sensed in these
gruesome revelations is echoed in the painting. The intensely red
background of this painting may well be an allusion to the blood-stained lacerations displayed on the corpses. It certainly
intensifies the overtly gory connotations of this work.
The act of penetration of one body by
another is an act of intrusion, of invasion.
There is no way in which a male and female
can copulate without an act of intrusion.
Even in its most gentle form, it is still
one body entering the interior of another
body. There is an inherent violence in this.
It is a violation of another person's space,
even if they are not violated in the strict
sense of the word. It is impossible to go
any further unless one is a surgeon or a
murderer. When sex reaches its climax, it
becomes vigorous to the point of violence.
The extreme moments of passion at its most
intense become almost brutal. When that
happens the man is almost stabbing his
The act of penetration of one body by another is an act of intrusion, of invasion. There is no way in which a male and female can copulate without an act of intrusion. Even in its most gentle form, it is still one body entering the interior of another body. There is an inherent violence in this. It is a violation of another person's space, even if they are not violated in the strict sense of the word. It is impossible to go any further unless one is a surgeon or a murderer. When sex reaches its climax, it becomes vigorous to the point of violence. The extreme moments of passion at its most intense become almost brutal. When that happens the man is almost stabbing his loved-one.
It would seem, then, that a consideration of aggression in
Morris's work would not be complete without an examination of its
complementary psychological urge, the sexual forces which emerge
from the libido.
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If in Entry to a Landscape Desmond Morris had announced his
overall artistic trajectory towards a new, separate, liberated
vision, in Over the Wall, painted a year earlier in May 1946 in
the studio of the Swindon artist Walter Poole, he had already
highlighted one of the key constituents of that vision. An
essential feature of many biomorphs, indeed, their sole function
in some cases, is their insistent gravitation towards sexuality.
Over the Wall not only foregrounds such libidinous concerns but
it also establishes sexuality as a persistent and pivotal
preoccupation. The very tenor of the painting signals what was,
in effect, to become a life-long engrossment in and fascination
with sexual concupiscence. Morris had, after all, written that
what most fascinated him about the art of his avowed preceptor
and model, Joan Mirø, was the latter's practice of 'often imbuing
his paintings with a wild, sexual violence'.
Suddenly, with almost explosive force,
fertilizations began to take place. Eggs and
cells and globules began to swell and
divide. In some strange way, and in immense
close-up, growth and development were
Suddenly, with almost explosive force, fertilizations began to take place. Eggs and cells and globules began to swell and divide. In some strange way, and in immense close-up, growth and development were beginning.
Even more indicative of female sexuality in The Budding Force is a long vertical fissure which Morris places between two soft, elongated swellings. This orifice can only be regarded as an allusion to a vulva. Obviously, what had appeared to be fibrous roots can, in this light, be reinterpreted as a mass of pubic hair or, perhaps, as fimbriae, the hair-like tentacles which usher eggs along the fallopian ducts. Indeed, egg-like nodules do appear on stalks within the bushy mass.
The Budding Force conveys sexuality, although not sex. As in The Three Members, we find ourselves in front of an informative display. But, in this case the explication alludes more to the scientist's laboratory than to the museum show-case. The specimen is cut in half to reveal the internal working of the female reproductive system by means of a cross-section illustration. It is almost as if Morris is at pains to prove that his creatures have a sophisticated sexuality. It is not surprising that he should choose to do this in the manner which is most familiar to him, that of the investigative scientist. As would a scientist, he produces a carefully dissected specimen, displayed in such a way that all the vital elements are revealed. The smell of formaldehyde is almost perceptible.
Even more suggestive of the scientist at work is a series
of works executed in the early 1960s which echo microscope views
of cells and organisms engaged in the process of procreation.
Morris has described these paintings as centering on 'explosively
reproductive themes of fertilization and ovulation'. As though
he were adopting a highly magnified view of his biomorphs, Morris
appears to look inside their very workings. In Ovulation (1961)
he suggests a focus on the minutiae of egg production. Six small
circular, dark, gamete-like forms appear to float in uterine
fluid as if awaiting fertilization. Fertilization II (1961) takes
this process one stage further. A single egg, in even greater
close-up, hovers in space while an ejaculation of spermatic blobs
steer round a phallic shaft and veer towards the centre of the
ovoid sphere. In a further work of this sequence of
'procreational' paintings, the representation of the 'egg'
changes from that of a blank, black sphere to that of a circular
globule containing a nucleus. As the title Force of Fusion (1961)
denotes, the cycle suggested by Ovulation and Fertilization II
has reached its conclusion. The ovum and the spermatozoa have
fused to produce a single zygote. This description is equally
applicable to the various floating forms in The Loved One (1950).
The tentacled, cellular form on the right also contains a vibrant
core, which gives it an autonomous, 'living' presence. It even
appears to be swimming amongst the various elemental entities
with which it shares its microscopic, aqueous world. Of this
phase in his painting Desmond Morris has written
Suddenly, with almost explosive force,
fertilizations began to take place. Eggs and
cells and globules began to swell and
Suddenly, with almost explosive force, fertilizations began to take place. Eggs and cells and globules began to swell and divide.
Clearly, in these works Morris would seem to be underlining the emphatically sexual substance which underpins biomorphic interactions. A work suitably entitled Growing Signals (1966) makes a similar statement. It depicts a blatantly ovular shape nestled within a uterine sphere and has prompted a critic to remark that 'here we have the hermaphroditic vision of uterine organs laid bare and supported by two enormous testicles, between which a blood red area is speckled with black cells, either ovules or spermatozoids'. Morris would seem to be focusing on the fundamental forces of generation and vital fusion. Other paintings with titles such as The Day of the Zygote (1966), Coupling Strategies (1966), Fertility Figure (1969), Great Mother (1969) and two other 'Fertilizations' (1961 & 1962) attest to an obsessive focus on the scientific and gynaecological facets of sexual interaction.
Niko Tinbergen would, however, almost certainly have impressed on his doctoral student that the investigative potential of the laboratory is limited and animals should, in his opinion, be observed in a social situation. Accordingly, the 'clinical' depiction of biomorphs does not preoccupy Morris for long and is, by far, outweighed by paintings which concentrate on their behavioural characteristics and idiosyncrasies. The sexual qualities with which Morris's creatures are emphatically endowed are more often manifested in paintings which depict a social interaction than in detached, diagrammatic tableaux. Morris tends to refer to sexuality in terms of sensual or, at least, impassioned encounters between his male and female biomorphs. Sexual intercourse is pictured not from an intrauterine perspective but from outside the body.
A powerful sexual, as opposed to 'gynaecological' image appears in Table for Two (1972). On a platform or 'table', two shapes appear, one of which has plunged into the other. The two shapes, male on the left, female on the right are reduced to an absolute minimum in terms of anatomical detail. The focus is placed solely on sexuality. As opposed to the scenario in The Budding Force, sexuality is seen in terms of intercourse between the sexes and not simply as unexpended fertility. 'The one on the left is thrusting into the one on the right', Morris explains, 'in a way that is obviously sexual; I have eliminated anything that is not relevant. The Courtship I (1948), as the title suggests, demonstrates just this. The painting centres on a ritualistic encounter between a coupling pair. On the right, a form with an elegant neck and two breast-like protuberances bows to one side towards a larger, more flamboyant being. The allusion is to a female creature, which is beginning to show interest in a male figure. This second biomorph clearly displays an avid attraction to his prospective mate. So drawn is he that his grotesque frog-like face nudges close to the other figure and his beaming, long-lashed eyes stare at her with blind admiration. He is mesmerized and his half-opened mouth could well be uttering deep-sounding utterances of enticement. All the signs are that this is a determined suitor: two uppermost antennae, erect with excitement, display multi-coloured tentacles and, at the opposite end of this male body, a pointed member emerges from a scrotum-like area, complete with spherical pustules. This sexual gesture is, moreover, directed at the underside of the adjacent female. She makes no effort to evade the advance and her splayed tentacles appear ready to accommodate the impending ingression.
Whilst in The Courtship I the suggestion of copulation is made in a cryptic and, even, practically imperceptible manner, in The Lovers (1948) it is the immediately recognizable subject. This painting contains no peripheral figures and so centres the viewer's attention on the activities of the sole two biomorphs depicted. The title leaves no doubt about possible interpretations and it is difficult not to infer an imminent act of coitus from the various twisted shapes. In the very centre of the painting Morris places a penis-like shaft which is poised above a vulva-like cavity. So explicit is the connotation, that it is only after it has been apprehended that it becomes possible to perceive the remaining body-parts of the biomorphs. The upper, red shape has antennae like those of a snail and lower in its body it possesses an enclosure containing shapes which resemble testes. The 'female' has what can be regarded as a head, which has a pair of eyes and, at the other end of her body, two spherical swellings give the impression of breasts with red nipples.
Yet, these identifiable further parts of the body appear incidental and, certainly, secondary to the prominence given to the sexual organs. Not only are the vulva and phallus depicted as huge in comparison with the respective bodies, but the other forms which are given recognizable functions are mostly connected with reproduction and procreation: the testes, breasts and sensory feelers all have a direct bearing on sexuality. The Lovers focuses on the carnal appetite of biomorphs and ignores all other behavioural or physical attributes. Moreover, Morris makes the point in an unusually direct and candid manner. For him, this work, which was executed during the intensely passionate years of his own courtship, denotes 'a metaphorical distillation of sexuality'. It is, he insists, 'pure sexuality with everything else removed'.
Many works executed at this time reveal this insistence on the raw elements of sexuality. In The Assault (1949), for instance, one form is lunging at another with a lance-like phallus. The male member is represented as a long, pointed shaft which is about to enter the 'female' aperture of an adjacent form. It has already been shown that when, in Inrock, Jason encounters just such a spike-like bodily protuberance this takes on the role of an offensive weapon. The bodily spike is conceived by Morris as a means of expressing violence. In the aptly-entitled The Assault the aggression implicit in the sexual act is emphasised by the indication of an intact hymen across the orifice which is about to be penetrated. The sexual act is represented here in the cold light of biological pragmatism.
No less of a sexual 'assailant' appears in The Courtship II (1948) in which a male figure thrusts a huge phallus towards his female partner. Such is the momentum of this movement that its initiator is almost thrown off balance and waves his arms in the air as though to steady himself. As in The Assault, moreover, the phallus is presented as a quasi missile. Its pointed tip needs to be protected by a spherical button, as though it were a fencing foil. For her part, the female is by no means quiescent. She brandishes her own weapons in the form of formidable breasts. The 'courting' pair are engaged in a joist-like encounter. The amorous convergence is presented here in an explicit and confrontational manner.
A similarly contentious treatment of the sexual encounter is presented in Acrobatic Dispute (1949) in which a female form appears to be seated on an enormous pointed phallic point. The 'dispute' in question could be concerned with possession of this solitary source of fertilization. Natural selection is shown here as a combative process. Indeed, one of the figures even wields a hammer-like weapon. In Two Friends (1948) the two females have not resorted to mutual aggression, but there is an indication that there is strife over, or, at least, competition for the solitary male genitals floating aimlessly in the painting.
By the early 1950s such concerns were so prominent in Morris's thinking that they developed into a whole series of risqu‚ works. This 'obscene phase', as he puts it, later struck him as being shocking enough to merit total destruction. Today none have survived the artist's self-censorship.
Morris refuses to be drawn on the content of these 'scandalous' 1950s paintings but their tenor can, to an extent, be inferred from later works on this same theme. The insistence on salacious concerns is inescapable in, for instance, a painting such as The Guardian of the Cycle (1972). The allusion to sexuality here is overt to say the least. Even a cursory glance at this work could not fail to perceive the lower visceral protuberance of the tree-form in phallic terms. Not only does its shape and position correspond to this interpretation, but its base is surrounded by a mass of dark filaments which strongly suggest pubic hair. Furthermore, the obvious eroticism underlying this painting is accentuated by the perfect horizontality of the swelling. If this form is indeed intended to convey the soft tissue of a phallus, then it is depicted in its erectile state. Morris depicts a pulsating, throbbing sensuality and homes in on the human male's perennial phallic obsession, an obsession, moreover, which may well owe much to the fact that, of Nature's 193 species of monkey and apes, Man sports the largest penis. Even the gorilla cannot compete in this respect.
This focus persists in Inrock in which not only is there an
extremely thinly-veiled allusion to an erect phallus but the
narrative picturesquely evokes the state of sexual arousal and
then the act of ejaculation in a spectacular, albeit
the great bird flew wearily back to the
mountain with only a small fish clasped in
his talon...the puny fish was all he could
catch. He had failed in his task and now he
must tell the Princess, losing her
forever... As he looked at her, his love
welled up inside him and he felt he was
going to split in two...he felt a strange
sensation moving through his body. Looking
down he let out a startled gasp for there,
between his legs, as if my magic, the small
fish was growing into a great, glistening
whale. It grew and grew, writhing to escape
from him, until it was bigger than any of
the whales he had seen in the sea. At this
moment the Princess awoke...she caressed the
whale. She was surprised to find that there
was a hole in the top of its head. A fish
does not have a hole here, she thought...the
Sea-eagle said: "No hunter has made this
hole, it is natural to the whale and through
it he spouts a great jet of water." So
saying, the Sea-eagle squeezed his legs
together against the body of the glistening
whale, which spouted a great spout. The
water shot into the air like a fountain and
drenched the Sea-eagle and the Princess. (p.
the great bird flew wearily back to the mountain with only a small fish clasped in his talon...the puny fish was all he could catch. He had failed in his task and now he must tell the Princess, losing her forever... As he looked at her, his love welled up inside him and he felt he was going to split in two...he felt a strange sensation moving through his body. Looking down he let out a startled gasp for there, between his legs, as if my magic, the small fish was growing into a great, glistening whale. It grew and grew, writhing to escape from him, until it was bigger than any of the whales he had seen in the sea. At this moment the Princess awoke...she caressed the whale. She was surprised to find that there was a hole in the top of its head. A fish does not have a hole here, she thought...the Sea-eagle said: "No hunter has made this hole, it is natural to the whale and through it he spouts a great jet of water." So saying, the Sea-eagle squeezed his legs together against the body of the glistening whale, which spouted a great spout. The water shot into the air like a fountain and drenched the Sea-eagle and the Princess. (p. 64-5)
Morris's paintings repeatedly make such allusions. An extremely blatant phallus, for instance, also appears in The Observers (1973), where it dangles and swings from the base of two elephantine legs and sports a mass of dark pubic hair. There is nothing covert or ambiguous about this portrayal and Morris even colours the member in eye-catching bright orange. As opposed to The Guardian of the Cycle, however, The Observers does not simply show male genitalia in a detached manner. Next to the obviously male lower body on the right Morris places another pair of quasi-legs which support a form containing the suggestion of female genitalia. Within the contours of an indeterminate, curvaceous mass there is an indication of an aperture.
This 'female' orifice is encircled with a ridge resembling the mouth of a balloon. In the manner of a balloon, moreover, this opening appears to have stretched open in order to accommodate a second phallic-like swelling emanating from the male figure. In a thinly-veiled allusion to coitus, Morris demonstrates the compulsion of the sexual impetus possessed by his biomorphs. Their libidinous urges are so compelling, it would seem, that their need for fulfilment overrides any possible concerns for modesty or restraint. In a totally conspicuous and uninhibited manner the pair are coupling under the attentive gaze of no less than a gathering of other creatures. Various beady-eyed worm-like biomorphs have assembled in order to 'observe' this concupiscent performance.
In the world of the biomorphs the conception of copulation as spectacle extends, even, to the normally private domain of the conjugal bed. The two 'lovers' in Lovers' White Dreamtime (1973) lie side by side in apparent intimacy and yet they are surrounded by a throng of spectators. It has been remarked that 'upon the bed, they are specimens upon a laboratory table, open and scrutinized in harsh light'. At the bedhead a row of stalked creatures or fungi have lined up in anticipation of the imminent spectacle. They even appear to be swaying from side to side, as they jostle for a better viewing position. Similarly captivated onlookers stand at either side and at the foot of the bed. On the left, one bystander is so inquisitive that it has gone as far as to encroach onto the lovers' mattress.
The predicament of the coupling pair in The Sentinel (see page 00) is no more private. Their somewhat sentimental petting gestures, reminiscent of kissing, seem to have captivated the attention of the very landscape which surrounds them. The brown rocks around the bed appear to be heaving up towards the recumbent figures in a type of geological voyeurism. Indeed, the 'bed' itself is strikingly similar to a rock-like slab which Morris had seen in the book by Nehemiah Grew, which he had discovered as a boy. On the right, the fluid rock-formations have even extended upwards to achieve, it would seem, a vantage point from which to view the spectacle of mating.
Genitalia and sexual organs or attributes appear almost everywhere in Morris's biomorphic domain. For instance, most of the creatures in Disturbance in the Colony (1973) flaunt large udder-like swellings. As though to leave us in no doubt about the function of these organs, Morris adds the detail of a series of protuberances which resemble teats. With these rudimentary reproductive attributes the biomorphs depicted are transformed into mammiferous creatures. They are even accompanied by a dozen or so globular objects in the guise of eggs scattered on the ground. The downcast heads of some of the creatures could well be taken as the protective gaze of a mother towards her young.
Another example of sexual allusion appears in Brown Figure II (1985). The painting is dominated by a scrotum-like form which envelops two egg-shaped globules. The obvious reference to male genitalia is further corroborated not only by some dark hair-like stands, which, in other paintings, have represented pubic hair, but also by an erectile stalk issuing from between the ovid forms. As though ejaculating, the tip of this phallic protuberance emits an upward jet of yellow fluid.
The display of female sexuality is the somewhat comical subject of The Cabaret Message (1949). Three figures pose on a stage podium in what appears to be the finale of a cabaret act. The flanking two figures appear to have various forms of grotesque disabilities: the left hand figure leans on a strut to maintain its balance and the form on the right sports artificial legs. The central figure, however, is suggestive of a prima ballerina and daintily balances on a rounded object on tiptoes. She holds out her arms and raises one leg into the air in an acrobatic gesture. The style of representation is far from literal but there is a strong suggestion of exposed bodies and a parade of sexuality. The central figure certainly appears to flaunt breasts and buttocks. Whatever the precise interpretation placed on the shapes depicted, the subject of this painting is undoubtedly that of staged erotic arousal.
Another 'staged' erotic display is the subject of the aptly-entitled The Performers (1957) in which five figures, with obviously female attributes, enact energetic movements. The figures are arranged in a row, as though they were a chorus-line of dancing girls on a stage. Each is engaged in a different 'routine'. One has its legs crossed, indicating a model-like meander on a catwalk, whilst others dance and skip. One 'chorus-girl' is performing a particularly strenuous splits-like movement. But what they all have in common is that they are all acting in a sexually provocative manner. Their slender, long legs evoke an intense sensuality and the poses adopted have implications which range from seduction to eroticism. In one case, the slightly-parted labia of a vulva are strongly suggested.
Perhaps the most blatant display of female nudity appears in Gymnastic Surprise (1959). In the centre of what appears to be a room full of gymnastic apparatus, a female figure stands immodestly upright on a platform. Her pose is calculated to reveal her nakedness and sexuality to the full. Her right leg is raised to expose her genitals and her arm is arched in the air in order to bear her breasts. The eroticism of this 'model' is powerful. Her long, slender legs, her bulging buttocks and her plump breasts evoke an extreme sensuality. Not surprisingly, the entourage of 'male' voyeuristic onlookers are depicted as very attentive. But what makes this tableau vivant particularly titillating is a long tapering horn which protrudes from the model's vulva. The eroticism of this appendage is twofold: it can either be seen as an allusion to a penetrating phallus or it can be taken to suggest an exaggerated vagina. In both instances the implication is that of an outrageous, mesmerising sexuality.
In general, it can be said that Morris's allusions to the
human body are almost invariably accompanied by an accentuation
of sexual potential. In cases where the erogenous areas are
obviously being implied, the works do not just depict creatures
with sexual organs but, rather, create animated genitalia. In
most cases, the various suckers, glands, coagulated droplets,
fleshy membranes and viscera take on the appearance of organs of
procreation but, in addition, they behave in the manner of sexual
beings. Throughout Morris's work, not only are his slug-like
entities, the biomorphs, likely to have progenitive functions but
they are frequently seen to be engaged in some kind of copulative
or erotic activity. Clearly, if this degree of explicit and
abundant eroticism can pass the test of the artist's self-imposed
censorship one can only begin to guess at what had so shocked him
in the paintings which he destroyed in the 1950s.
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