Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art by Nicholas Hall, Dawn Ades, Olivier Berggruen & J Patrice Marandel (edd) - review by Laura Freeman

Laura Freeman

Satan’s Family Snaps

Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art


David Zwirner Books 238pp £60 order from our bookshop

This book will give you nightmares. Things slither from its pages. Vampires bite, bats descend, a skeleton clatters his own ulna bone like a xylophone mallet along the railings of a London street. Gargoyles pull their lips and leer and gurn. A cyclops gives you the evil eye.

These clamorous beasts fill the pages of Endless Enigma, a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the same name originally held at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York. The chief interest of this book lies less in the essays, which ask the reader to ‘question the integrity of the metaphysical self that constitutes [one’s] everyday presence in the world’, than in the marvellous reproductions and bizarre juxtapositions of paintings, engravings and grimacing sculptures. The title is taken from Salvador Dalí’s oil painting Endless Enigma (1938), which Dawn Ades calls in an essay here ‘his paranoiac-critical masterpiece’. Endless Enigma was one of the paintings that caused the rift between Dalí and his fellow Surrealist André Breton. The double images, rebuses and optical illusions of the painting, thought Breton, operated at the level of crossword puzzles. The second part of this book’s title pays tribute to an exhibition organised by Alfred H Barr Jr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In December 1936, following the success of the ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ in London, at which Dalí almost suffocated inside a diving suit and Dylan Thomas served up cups of boiled string, Barr mounted an exhibition in New York called ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’, which went on to tour the United States.

The broad scope of the word ‘fantastic’ has allowed the editors of Endless Enigma to throw open the doors to a range of imaginative emanations, from the Middle Ages to the present. The earliest work is a grotesque corbel head from the 12th century; among the more recent

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