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‘A temporarily tame tiger’: Brigid Marlin on J.G. Ballard, Paul Delvaux and surrealist art

Author: • Jan 3rd, 2012 •

Category: Barcelona, Brigid Marlin, Iain Sinclair, inner space, interviews, John Baxter, Lead Story, Lucien Freud, Paul Delvaux, religion, Salvador Dali, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, surrealism, visual art

J.G. Ballard in front of Paul Delvaux’s ‘The Violation’ (as reproduced by Brigid Marlin). Photographer unknown.

Interview by Andrew Bishop.

Ballardian presents Andrew Bishop’s previously unpublished interview with artist Brigid Marlin, who created for Ballard two of the more enduring symbols of his career: reproductions of lost paintings by Paul Delvaux, which adorned his Shepperton home and formed beguiling conversation pieces for many a visiting interviewer. Ballard was frequently photographed in front of Marlin’s Delvaux recreations, and Delvaux’s art was referenced in Ballard’s novels and short stories, representing for him the blasted environment of his boyhood Shanghai, ‘a bizarre external landscape propelled by large psychic forces’. In this interview, Marlin expounds on her work, on Delvaux and on the surrealist movement, and offers her impressions of Ballard’s life and work, thereby filling in the background behind one of the most persistent elements in Ballardian mythology: those ever-present Delvauxs.

The interview was conducted on 8/6/10 in Berkhamsted, shortly after Marlin had met with both Iain Sinclair, conducting research for his book Ghost Milk, which features an exegesis of Ballardian mythology, and John Baxter, researching his Ballard biography The Inner Man. Here, Marlin initially seems preoccupied with Ballard ‘the myth’, perhaps unsurprisingly after submitting to Sinclair’s method and the somewhat more controversial technique of Baxter. When The Inner Man was published in 2011, it drew widespread condemnation from reviewers and Ballard’s immediate family, principally for its distortion and exaggeration of the word of secondary sources.

Reading this interview after Baxter’s biography, it seems that Marlin’s reminiscences suffered that same fate. Rather than the sniping, gossipy tone generated by Baxter’s selective paraphrasing of her words, in fact her ambivalent feelings about Ballard’s legacy reveals genuine admiration for his writing and a touching fondness for Ballard ‘the man’, nonetheless tinged by her strict condemnation of his worldview, which stems from her deeply held spiritual beliefs.

For Ballard’s written appreciation of Marlin and Delvaux, see here. [SS]

From Andrew Bishop: thanks to David Pringle for help with the preparation of this interview.

The art of Brigid Marlin describes a visionary world of almost unlimited dimensions and self-sufficiency. Fifteen years ago, when I first saw The Rod, one of her most ambitious paintings, reproduced in a magazine, I was so impressed by its imaginative sweep that I sent an enthusiastic letter of appreciation to her, the only fan letter I have ever sent to a painter. The sense of a clearly realised poetic universe, in which every detail, however modest, was accorded equal attention, was what most gripped my imagination.

J.G. Ballard, Brigid Marlin: An Appreciation (2005).

LEFT: Brigid Marlin. Photo via the artist.

ANDREW BISHOP: There has been quite a lot of interest in Ballard in the past week or so.

BRIGID MARLIN: Since he died there’s been a huge amount written in the press and, to my surprise, two professional journalists requested me. John Baxter is a journalist and film critic who is actually writing a biography of J.G. Ballard [since published, controversially, as The Inner Man]. The other one, Iain Sinclair, writes poetry and other books and he is writing a sort of poetic version of Ballard.

Ballard wrote a testimonial piece praising your paintings.

Well, shall I just tell you how we met and do a chronological thing? Because it all evolved. The first thing that happened is I have a dwarf friend who actually just died, poor fellow. About four feet two inches, or something. He was called Richard [Jones] and in fact he was a film actor. He was the Mad Hatter in the Alice in Wonderland film [Dreamchild, 1985], and so on. Anyhow, he was an avid science fiction reader, and I never cared for science fiction. But I did a painting called The Rod, and when Richard saw that he said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to submit that to the Science Fiction Monthly competition. They’re having a huge competition of visions of the future.’ So I sent it off and Richard took a terrific interest.

The Rod (1973) by Brigid Marlin.

I started getting fan mail because I won the competition. I treated Richard to a Japanese dinner with a few other friends to celebrate the fact that I won. I would never have gotten the money if not for Richard. He said, ‘Have you got any fan letters?’ I showed him all these and he said, ‘My god, you’ve got one from J.G. Ballard!’ I said ‘Who?’ and he said, ‘He’s only the best science fiction writer there is. You write him back and thank him for his letter’ – which I hadn’t been doing. So I wrote him back and thanked him for his letter and said, ‘I believe you’re a wonderful science fiction writer.’ He then wrote a very nice thing about my work – a really nice appreciation, and then said, ‘If you ever have a show in London, please invite me. I’d like to see more of your work.’ I put the letter in a safe place and couldn’t find it for about ten years.

Then we were having a show in London and there was a bag of old correspondence. I sifted through it, and there was J.G. Ballard’s letter. I thought ‘What a fool I’ve been, I should have contacted him ages ago.’ So I wrote him and I said we’re having this show. He phoned me and asked when I’d be there. We liked each other right away. He wrote me afterwards asking if he could commission me to recreate a painting by Paul Delvaux that had been destroyed in the war [‘The Violation’, aka ‘The Rape’]. I’ve never liked Delvaux because he mixes black with other colours and makes a grey mess. His colours are terrible. He puts skeletons in his work. His women look like cows, they look like sex blow-up dollies. They look dreadful. But I didn’t like to say ‘no’.

‘The Conversation’ (1944) by Paul Delvaux.

His tastes leaned particularly towards the experimental and bizarre, and Kerans often wondered how far his personality and its strange internal perspectives had been carried forward into his granddaughter. Over the mantelpiece was a huge painting by the early 20th-century Surrealist, Delvaux, in which ashen-faced women danced naked to the waist with dandified skeletons in tuxedos against a spectral bonelike landscape.

Kerans threw her a mock salute and strolled over to look at the painting by Ernst at the far end of the lounge, while Bodkin gazed down at the jungle through the window. More and more the two scenes were coming to resemble each other, and in turn the third nightscape each of them carried within his mind. They never discussed their dreams, the common zone of twilight where they moved at night like the phantoms in the Delvaux painting.

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962).

I changed the colours because he only had a tiny little black and white thing, and he wanted it full size, so I had to enlarge from this to that. I did it all, because that was the one picture of Delvaux’s that I liked. It was just the nudes and the sky and fields. It was easy to guess the colours of those, and I left out the black. So it looked actually very nice. It’s a much nicer picture than Delvaux’s would have been. Then he wanted another done [‘The Mirror’], and this was a particularly difficult one to do and boring with quite ugly wallpaper. The women weren’t well drawn. The clothes – the folds looked ridiculous, like corrugated paper. I suddenly had a brainwave. I said, ‘I’ll do this picture for you for the usual money, but you have to sit for me.’ He said, ‘What!’ ‘You have to agree to me doing your portrait.’ ‘No, I don’t sit for portraits.’ ‘Fine, I don’t do the picture.’ ‘You can have a lot more money!’ ‘No, you’ve got to sit.’ He finally rang me up and said, ‘Alright, when do I have to sit?’ I said ‘You sound like you have to go to the dentist,’ and he said, ‘Seems to me like it is going to the dentist. You don’t know what a recluse I am. I never go out, I never leave.’ I was very unsympathetic. He came over and sat down, and then got up and moved around.

Portrait of J.G. Ballard (1987) by Brigid Marlin.

It was like trying to paint a caged animal. All the time I was trying to paint him he was supposed to be sitting still. He wouldn’t stay in his chair, and his mind wouldn’t stay still. All the time he was sitting there and I was trying to paint, his mind was going all the time. ‘When did you start painting? How did you learn? Where did you start? Show me some work you’ve done!’ I was flattered, so I got the work from art school. He said, ‘That’s when you were older, show me some early work.’ I got these tiny little books I did when I was about six and showed them to him. They were not bad, you see. He looked at them and he gave up. He said, ‘You were born with it.’

In many ways, my novels and short stories are a series of described paintings. Had I had the technical ability, I would have become a painter. I had just enough skill, draughtsmanship, as a boy to lead me to think that I could become a painter. I never had the flair. I did have a certain flair for writing, so I became a writer. I very much see my novels and short stories as I write.

J.G. Ballard, as interviewed by Lynne Fox, from J.G. Ballard: Conversations (ed. V. Vale, RE/Search Publications, 2005).

Behind it all was this perfect wish. He really wanted to be a painter. It was very strong in him. I said I would give him lessons, I’m a good teacher. We sat together at the table with an apple and a glass of water. ‘Come on, here’s a pencil. Just draw it and I’ll help you. I’ll correct it, but you have to draw it.’ He was very funny, he did a ‘C’. That’s the only mark he made on that page. He did it like he was trying to steal something, or as if he was electrocuted by the page. He was so frightened. Then he said, ‘Listen, I have an idea. Why don’t you teach me by telephone?’ [Laughs] It was grotesque, the idea of teaching anyone by telephone.

Ballard in front of Delvaux’s ‘The Mirror’ (as reproduced by Brigid Marlin). Photo by David Levinson.

Ballard was a very strange man. He lived in this small house. He started writing downstairs first. And then in only one room. And finally in one half of the room. And then only in the corner of one half of the room. It was getting worse. And the didn’t clean his house, ever. He said, ‘After the first three years it doesn’t get any dirtier.’ It was really funny. He criticised the portrait all the time. He didn’t give much of himself, so it was extremely difficult to extract him. The fact was all the time I was trying to paint Ballard he was trying to write me. In other words, we were each trying to suck the other one into our own fantasy worlds. I was trying to do a surrealist one of him and he wouldn’t be sucked in. At the same time he was trying to write me in one of his bloody books, and I wouldn’t be sucked in. The two of us were at an impasse. It was very funny. The thing that really burned me up was he then published an article about the Delvaux pictures saying that he felt he’d done them [see quote at the end of the interview]. I thought, ‘Grr. You did not do it. I did it, and it was hard work!’

Ballard visited your studio as you painted the Delvaux reproductions.

There was quite a funny moment. The first one I didn’t mind doing because it was quite easy. It was just a landscape with these doll-like women in it. I enjoyed cheating Delvaux of his black, making beautiful colour instead.

What did he think of that?

He stood there. My heart was beating, because the £500 was important to me at the time. I wasn’t very rich. He started swearing. He said something like, ‘Jesus Christ!’ I thought, ‘Oh my god, he hates them.’ I looked at him in consternation, and he said, ‘How did you do it? It’s amazing!’

Ballard and Delvaux/Marlin’s ‘The Mirror’. Photographer unknown.

Did you ever visit his house?

No. People were never invited. Even people who really knew him well, like Iain Sinclair. He would always be at the door waiting if he couldn’t drive. They were never invited in. I never even attempted to be invited in. From his own admission, it was going to be quite dirty and unattractive.

He said that a house can be cleaned in ten minutes if you don’t make a fetish out of it.

From what he was saying to me he didn’t clean his house for ten minutes. He didn’t clean anything. But I’ve been told that’s a myth he liked to create. I remember something he wrote somewhere about how he and his little family would go and visit people with their beautiful houses and then they would flee back to their little dirty nest in wherever they were.

Ballard and Delvaux/Marlin’s ‘The Violation’. Photographer unknown.

Did he ever try to paint at home?

Yes, I heard this. Iain Sinclair said that it was very funny because he did some bad sculpture. He wanted to paint like Salvador Dali. He wanted the detail. This is why he was so enraged. He couldn’t get the detail. He used to lean over me when I was trying to paint and he’d say, ‘You’ve got this wrong’, and I’d say, ‘I’ve just started.’ He said, ‘I know I’m a Mr Buttinsky, my children are always complaining.’

One thing I noticed about his face as I was painting him: it was very feminine, because he had to be a mother. He was actually writing his next novel. He brought it for me so I could do a painting of the manuscript. He always wrote longhand, because he wasn’t inspired by machinery. A very funny man.

I asked him if he would help the society [Society for Art of Imagination], but he was a recluse. He said that if I produced a book of my work he’d write a foreword. That’s pretty nice.

Do you think he would have been a good painter?

That reminds me of Pride and Prejudice: ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.’ Ballard would not have been a good painter because he couldn’t even make himself draw an apple. As far as I’m concerned, he is not a painter. His skill was with words. Everything about him showed that. He had an enormous head full of thoughts. He wrote things almost before he could read. He was brilliant, and could express himself perfectly well in words. He didn’t need to paint, and he couldn’t do it. That maddened him.

I think Ballard had a sense of power. He was a sort of Napoleon. I used to dig at him a little. He would say that he was unaffected by his fame. And I’d say, ‘Oh yes, you’re completely humble, aren’t you!’

Ballard and Delvaux/Marlin’s ‘The Mirror’. Photographer unknown.

‘The Echo’ (1943) by Paul Delvaux.

In the students’ gallery hung the fading reproductions of a dozen schools of painting, for the most part images of worlds without meaning. However, grouped together in a small alcove Halliday found the surrealists Delvaux, Chirico and Ernst. These strange landscapes, inspired by dreams that his own could no longer echo, filled Halliday with a profound sense of nostalgia. One above all, Delvaux’s ‘The Echo’, which depicted a naked Junoesque woman walking among immaculate ruins under a midnight sky, reminded him of his own recurrent fantasy. The infinite longing contained in the picture, the synthetic time created by the receding images of the woman, belonged to the landscape of his unseen night.

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Day of Forever’ (1967).

Ballard said that he mistook you for a new generation surrealist.

What he didn’t know was The Rod wasn’t just a random painting. It’s about a spiritual journey, and Ballard wouldn’t know a spiritual journey if he fell over it in the dark.

You say on your website that The Rod can be interpreted as a prediction of the first Gulf war.

That’s true, it can. But that didn’t interest me so much. I’d come to a crossroads in life. I’d come to the end of ordinary living. My son had been diagnosed as schizophrenic and I couldn’t go on living at an ordinary level. There are times when you either have to go down or up. You can’t go on your ordinary way, because your son is dreadfully ill. In fact he died. I realised the only way out was upward.

I tried to find help. In the Catholic church everyone seemed to be reading out from the Catechism instead of offering me some real help. So I went around the world. That’s what my book [From East to West: Awakening to a Spiritual Search, 1989] is about, trying to find an answer to these questions. Why should my son be born to a life of suffering? That’s what The Rod is about.

There’s a person in a great stress, and there’s a desert of unknowing behind her. Beyond that, on a higher level, is a landscape with an ocean. Water means truth, but you won’t find it on an ordinary level. You have to make the journey and we can’t raise ourselves up; something higher than ourselves calls us. If we’re lucky we’re drawn up. It’s not our right, we have to earn it. You have to set out on the journey, and it’s the only worthwhile thing to do in your life.

I learned to cope, and I got through those seven dreadful years. Benny first attempted suicide when he was fourteen. He tried many times to kill himself, and at 21 he died. It was hard. When I met Ballard, Benny had just died. Ballard was full of unsorted-out complexes. He’d seen too much as a little boy, his parents gave him no direction, no feeling of anything. He escaped from this strange world we live in. He was a good father to his children, but I think he took refuge in having as many women as he could. Let’s say he grabbed at life’s pleasures greedily rather than trying to lift himself. It was one of the things we argued over. I was divorced but I wasn’t going to be promiscuous. He was a naughty man. We had a few ding-dong battles, but we were friends. I liked him, after all.

Paul Delvaux. Photographer unknown.

The aircraft had vanished, disappearing across the desert. Franklin drove along the Strip, turning in and out of the hotel forecourts. In an empty car park he saw one of the ghosts of the twilight, a middle-aged man in a shabby tuxedo, some retired croupier or cardiologist returning to these dreaming hulks. Caught in mid-thought, he stared sightlessly at a dead neon sign. Not far away, a strong-hipped young woman stood among the dusty pool-furniture, her statuesque figure transformed by the fugue into that of a Delvaux muse.

J.G. Ballard, ‘News from the Sun’ (1981).

‘The Sleeping City’ (1938) by Paul Delvaux.

During that week, Anne Godwin did her best to help Sheppard construct his ‘machine’. All day she submitted to the Polaroid camera, to the films of her body which Sheppard projected on to the wall above the bed, to the endless pornographic positions in which she arranged her thighs and pubis. Sheppard gazed for hours through his stop-frame focus, as if he would find among these images an anatomical door, one of the keys in a combination whose other tumblers were the Marey chronograms, the surrealist paintings and the drained swimming pool in the ever-brighter sunlight outside. In the evenings Sheppard would take her out into the dusk and pose her beside the empty pool, naked from the waist, a dream-woman in a Delvaux landscape.

J.G. Ballard, ‘Myths of the Near Future’ (1982).

Do you see any link between your work and surrealism, as Ballard did?

What I became interested in above all is meaning. The whole point about surrealism is that they tried to abolish meaning. At the very root we differ. I’m not a surrealist. I’m hoping I developed something that hadn’t been developed before. Each bit of my life is expressed by a painting. Maybe it could be called ‘visionary’.

What are your influences?

Oh, that’s easy. I began with being taught at fifteen by the last druid in Ireland. Have you seen the Book of Kells? All the letters swirl, and all my deserts do this swirling. Secondly, Ernst Fuchs. He taught me this special technique, that was my next big influence. And when I was a very small girl the Victorian illustrations of Arthur Rackham. Brilliant guy. Those are my three painting gods.

The Tarot‘ by Brigid Marlin.

While we were searching for that misplaced painting in your studio I saw a big round painting, The Tarot.

Yes, that’s my son Desmond asking his fortune, and those are the tarot cards.

It reminded me of Central and South American mural art.

Yeah. There’s a certain thread there. I can see that.

Your paintings seem to focus on figures. Usually young people, young women.

Well, actually, I’m doing an old guy playing the harp right now. One of the reasons is you love your children and you want to paint them. Secondly, they tend to represent a stage which you already know. The painter in one is always a child. In that sense you never grow up as an artist, because your child is still alive.

You seem to have painted lots of distorted churches.

I wouldn’t call it ‘distorted’. They are distorted, of course, but the word sounds cruel. I painted transformed churches.

That’s better.

Watch your language, young man. I’ll give you a book [Visions of Venice, 1999] that explains exactly what The Flight of the Churches means, and how I did it. The Flight of the Churches was caused by me feeling a grief that the old order is changing, the old certainties are gone. Even though I myself experienced that I had to find my own spiritual path and that the Catholic church was not an answer. Nevertheless it was a grief to me to see the falling away of the old traditional beliefs. They gave a meaning, a kind of ceremony. ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’, as Yeats would say.

Now we live in a world with few graces. People are burned and put into little teapots. Weddings are in Las Vegas with god knows what. There’s no reverence. I’m not saying I ever revered the queen, but it was a rather lovely thing to see old men take off their hats and stand. Kind of beautiful. At schools the children reverenced and thanked the teachers. That’s gone, and instead everyone’s defiant.

The Flight of the Churches‘ by Brigid Marlin.

I think that television and so on has a lot to answer for. It comes like this: a young reporter or programmer wants to make his name. ‘How do I make my name? I shock people, then I’m in the headlines. Let’s shock people, it doesn’t matter how it affects children. The important thing is I get famous.’ So he shocks. The next one comes along: ‘He got famous, let me shock!’ They’re going on and on and they don’t see the damage. This sort of oily viscous pseudo-civilisation is seeping in, and the ceremony of innocence is drowned again. Then they say, ‘How can this be? Little children of ten are raping little girls. How on earth did they get the idea?’ They don’t even look at their own television set. What is it? Sex, sex, sex. And not loving sex. All the people who wanted to shock, they’ve all gone on television. I think it’s very sad. They don’t know what they’ve thrown out. Mary Whitehouse was very funny and we all made fun of her, but what’s the result? There’s absolutely no purpose or meaning in anything, because the people who believe in God and believe in meaning are all squashed down by these loud sophisticated non-believing people. So I actually don’t approve of Ballard. No, I don’t.

He said we should watch three or four hours of TV a day.

Well, look at the effect it had on him. I rest my case.

Your painting The Drowned Cathedral seems to be thematically close to one of Ballard’s novels.

Yes — The Drowned World. It’s quite funny, because it came from another source. There’s a symphony called The Drowned Cathedral by Debussy. Because of the wickedness of some people the cathedral was drowned, but every hundred years it comes up. You can hear the music coming up. That’s much more like it, because what I do always has a meaning. I’m not at all influenced by Ballard.

The Drowned Cathedral‘ by Brigid Marlin.

The Drowned World (1962) by J.G. Ballard. Dragon’s Dream edition (1981).

Have you read many of his books?

I happened on Crash, of all things. Ballard was so upset that I read that. For goodness sake, why did he write it if he didn’t want me to read it? He said, ‘Don’t read that, read The Unlimited Dream Company.’ I thought that was just as bad. A man eats a little girl for breakfast. I didn’t think that was wonderful, either. He seemed to think it was his great spiritual book. He had no judgement. I really loved his one great book, Empire of the Sun. That was magnificent, a classic. It’s an extraordinary book. It had poetry, realism. It was marvellous.

What did you think of Crash?

He told me that he wrote Crash because he wasn’t earning enough money with his ordinary science fiction and he had to feed the children. He deliberately wrote a pornographic novel. That’s a true story!

I haven’t heard it told like that before!

Well, that’s what he said. Whether he was lying or not I don’t know.

Was that side of him obvious to you?

One of the reporters [presumably – and revealingly! – John Baxter. SS] was a bit envious for his attraction for women. He said, ‘Was he attractive to women?’ Yes, curiously enough. He had the most marvellous voice. He could have been a great singer if he hadn’t been completely unmusical and tone deaf. This voice was like a barrel organ. It was mellifluous. He would be interested in you and this voice would wrap you round. It had a kind of caressing quality. I think women fell like ninepins. He had a curious animal magnetism. He wasn’t handsome – you wouldn’t rush towards him because he was so beautiful or alluring. But there was a profound animal magnetism. It was like being in the presence of a temporarily tame tiger.

He wrote a book called The Kindness of Women.

Yes he did. Another thing that was annoying was that he would take friend’s names and pop them in in the most nasty places. I know other people who were really annoyed to find their names used.

He did that to you!

He used my spelling of my name in The Kindness of Women. I thought, ‘the cruelty of men!’ Sod the kindness of women. I thought that was dreadful. People would assume all kinds of things. The nerve!

‘Prewar and wartime Shanghai was a huge Surrealist landscape,’ says Ballard, waving a hand at the Delvaux. ‘It was a time of sudden changes; regimes changed all the time. Atlanta was burning in a poster for Gone With the Wind, while just beyond, real fires tore through the city. There was a complete transformation of everything, complete unpredictability, while formal life went on, just as in Bunuel’s films or Delvaux’s paintings – a bizarre external landscape propelled by large psychic forces.’

J.G. Ballard, quoted in Luc Sante, ‘Tales From the Dark Side’. New York Times Review of Books, September 9 1990.

Ballard and Delvaux/Marlin’s ‘The Mirror’. Photographer unknown.

Ballard was often photographed standing in front of one of your Delvaux reproductions.

I was very touched by that, and even more touched when they had a show in Barcelona. They wanted the painting of the woman looking at herself in the mirror naked, the Delvaux I didn’t like. Ballard said it was the most precious possession he had, and he wouldn’t lend it. They asked me to recreate it again. That bloody wallpaper!

I said, ‘Okay, but you’ll have to pay me £2500.’ I didn’t charge Ballard that. I only charged £500, before I found out how rich he was. I thought writers were poor. I didn’t know he’d just sold the rights of his book to Steven Spielberg. If I’d known that I would have charged a hell of a lot more. The Spanish people didn’t want to spend that much, but they really wanted the picture, so they bought it. I had to do the bloody thing again.

You had a woman in clothes looking at herself in the mirror, but the reflection is naked. Beyond that there’s a garden. This woman in the house is surrounded by dingy wallpaper that’s peeling off. The house is so ugly. I was thinking it’s really Ballard himself. You remember, inside every man is a woman. This is inner spirit. He was living in this awful house that he said himself was ugly and dirty. Things peeling off. And he’s looking at himself in the mirror, as it were, and that’s the bit he can’t get at, because he can’t bear to bare himself. He’s always surrounded by his own complex nature. He looks in this mirror and there’s a woman calmly bared.

That’s the picture he liked most, but the other was better. He liked this one because this claustrophobic situation is him looking out at the world. He sees reflected back a hope of the fields beyond, and this woman who is able to bare herself. I feel there was some significance there.

Marlin’s second reproduction of Delvaux’s ‘The Mirror’, commissioned for An Autopsy of the New Millennium, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), 2008. Photo by Rick McGrath.

Did you go to Barcelona for the show?

I hated that picture and I wasn’t proud of doing it. I didn’t want to go and look at it again.

They still have it?

Don’t ask. They bought it. Whatever they do with it is their business.

Do you see your portraits as part of the same body as your visionary works?

This has been a dichotomy though my life. The tussle between realism and imaginative art. I’ll just do one, and then do the other, and not bother my head about whether they’re different or not. It gradually evolved that they come together. My visionary paintings get realistic, and my portraits get surrealistic. They’re joining up as I go on.

Ballard and Delvaux/Marlin’s ‘The Violation’. Photo by Richard Croft.

There was a rumour that Ballard was painted by Lucian Freud.

After I finished painting him he could have done anything and I wouldn’t know. But from the years that I painted him, he said he hated it and would never sit for anyone again. We were very good friends when we were doing the picture, but after that I didn’t see him. He was pretty occupied, and very involved with his own work. He was obsessional about his writing.

He was obsessed with all sorts of things.

He was a very obsessed man, yes. A very curious man. I’m glad I met him. I’ll tell you what, I knew Stanley Kubrick. Ballard and Kubrick had certain things in common. Obsessiveness is one. And also a touch of genius in both. They weren’t unlike. Ballard was fascinated by Kubrick, but I don’t think Kubrick knew of Ballard’s existence.

They never met, then?

I don’t think so.

You said Ballard was very unusual. Are there any other memories you want to share?

He said something very funny. Well, the first bit isn’t funny. He was grieving for his wife and then suddenly he went to a party. It was the sixties and he got laid, so to speak. He said he suddenly realised this rush of relief, and that had been part of the problem. After that he said the sky was the limit…

Ballard and Delvaux/Marlin’s ‘The Violation’. Photo by David Levinson.

J.G. BALLARD: I’ve always been a great admirer of the Belgium surrealist Paul Delvaux, and about six or seven years ago, thanks to Empire of the Sun [the film of Ballard’s novel], I had a little spare cash. My first thought was to buy a Delvaux, but I discovered, sadly, that his prices had moved into the stratosphere. Anything up to a million pounds each.

So it then occurred to me that, rather than try to buy an existing Delvaux, what I would do was to pay an artist to reconstruct two Delvaux paintings which were destroyed during the Second World War, from the black-and-white photographs that exist of them. And that I did.

I heard of an American artist, Brigid Marlin, and I asked her, ‘Would you be prepared to accept a commission to paint these, to reconstruct these lost paintings?’ She agreed, and they’re now my proudest possession.

The originals of the two paintings were destroyed in London during the Blitz in 1940. Both were painted in 1936, and had obviously been brought to London by a British collector. Brigid, with a little interference from myself, had to choose the right colours for the paintings. Fortunately, Delvaux uses a limited palette – for instance, his buxom women tend to wear burgundy dresses – and we picked colours consonant with the colours in existing Delvaux paintings. So I think we’ve got it just about right.

One of the paintings is called The Violation and the other is called The Mirror. The Violation, I think, is my favourite. Its sort of a dream landscape populated by naked, or half-naked, women, who are beckoning towards the viewer, inviting him into their magical domain. Sitting in front of this painting, I feel that I am about to accept their invitation. I think that, in a way, I’ve already entered the painting and gone to live with these magnificent women.

Brigid Marlin was a very religious woman, and I think she thoroughly disapproved of the Surrealists and disapproved of my interest in them. I think she thought it was bad for my soul. So she offered to paint for me an exact copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation, which exists, of course, in the Uffizi art gallery in Florence. And Brigid said to me, ‘You could put it in your bedroom, Jim. You know, the first thing you see in the morning when you wake up.’

I was tempted. Then, a few years ago, I visited Florence and went to see the Annunciation. I found that the painting is about nine feet long by four feet deep. I thought, well, it might be a bit intimidating.

I’ve thought of having one or two more Delvauxs – lost Delvauxs – because I think it’s a nice idea to bring back to life paintings that have been destroyed. I would never sell my two Delvauxs, they’re much too precious. They’re probably more precious to me than a real Delvaux would be. In fact, I’m the sort of secondary creator of them. I mean, I almost feel that I painted them.

Ballard quoted in uncredited interview for the Independent, 29 January 1994.

‘Proposition Diurne (la Femme Au Miroi’; 1937) by Paul Delvaux.

Slideshow: The Art of Paul Delvaux (YouTube upload by shivabel). Music: ‘1/2’ by Brian Eno.

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16 Responses »

  1. What an interesting interview. Her interpretation of JGB’s possible psychological and emotional connections to The Mirror are thought-provoking and utterly fascinating. I think there’s some truth in them, but who knows.

  2. In his biography “The Inner Man”, John Baxter points out that one of the two Delvaux paintings that Brigid Marlin recreated was not actually destroyed in the Blitz, as Ballard believed, having been sold at auction by Christie’s in 1999. Here is the page from the Christie’s web site: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/LotDetailsPrintable.aspx?intObjectID=1643154

    However, it seems that JGB wasn’t the only one to believe that the painting no longer existed. The Guggenheim describes it as “The Mirror (formerly Collection Roland Penrose, London; destroyed during World War II)” (see http://tinyurl.com/898zujs). And this catalogue from Sotheby’s notes that Delvaux himself believed that the painting had been destroyed in the war: http://tinyurl.com/6r6acah

  3. Should have added, thanks to Andrew and Simon for a really interesting interview!

  4. Marvelous

    “Surrealism! What is Surrealism? In my opinion, it is above all a reawakening of the poetic idea in art, the reintroduction of the subject but in a very particular sense, that of the strange and illogical.”

    PAUL DELVAUX, lecture, 1966

  5. Thanks to Andrew and Brigid for a wonderful interview! It taught me a lot about both Ballard and Delvaux. By the way, when I was assembling the images for this interview, I was trying to find the Delvaux painting that Ballard refers to in the quote from The Drowned World: ‘ashen-faced women danced naked to the waist with dandified skeletons in tuxedos against a spectral bonelike landscape.’

    I couldn’t find anything resembling that description. Any ideas, anyone?

  6. Truly a remarkable interview, made even moreso by Andrew’s disarming flow of unobtrusive questions, and Brigid’s charmingly innocent replies. There’s enough here for a fascinating essay, as she waxes on with great confidence about the state of JG’s home, which she says no one has ever been inside, except The Man, and no doubt he’s having her on and exaggerating as usual. Her willingness to believe must have tempted his imagination!

    Her concept of surrealism reveals an odd lack of imagination for a visionary, and I think the idea of the feminine in JG is all hers — a projection that desexualizes him. Check the portrait closely… if JG didn’t reveal much of himself, she envisioned it: he has been feminized and youthenized… bigger eyes, prissy lips, reduced cheeklines, softened dimple. And look at the background… more peeling wallpaper, as in The Mirror. An odd couple, indeed, and apparently one of the few women to escape JG’s charismatically seductive voice… he wasn’t a tamed tiger… she just ran faster.

    The Baxter connection is also cool… and that last “funny” story… whoa… I wonder, can Dave Pringle zero in on the date JG got his mojo back? Great work, guys!

  7. Fascinating, and beautifully illustrated. Ballard through the looking glass, a wonderful perspective, and one of the most interesting pieces about him I’ve read in quite some time.

  8. Simon, I think it’s fictional Delvaux that Ballard describes to suit his purposes, and perhaps his way of becoming the artist.

  9. […] This interview with painter Birgid Marlin told me as much about reclusive author JG Ballard  as a dozen of his books (via/ @rpeckham). […]

  10. […] the French edition of Fantastic Visions, that during my research, I came across a very interesting interview with Brigid where she recounts the story of how she was brought together with J.G Ballard and Paul Delvaux. Now […]

  11. Fascinating interview – I new that Ballard was keen on Surrealist painting, but not that he had wanted to be a painter himself. Confirms my view of him as a scopophile. He is the most visual writer I know – a translator of image to word to unforgetable image, from the Hungjao aerodrome in Empire of the Sun to the crystallized forest in the Illuminated Man.

    I feel sure that he would have loved the drawings of Paul Noble, whom I saw talking at the RCA recently about Welcome to Nobson, a 7x5m drawing (it took him two years to complete) – the attention to detail, the need to see everything is very Ballardian. As an artist, I seem to take for granted my willingness, or need, to expend a great deal of time and energy on a work. It’s when I write that the patience and focus needed to create something powerful seems strange, or fugitive (writing this, I should be writing something else).

    The Brigid Marlin portrait of Ballard set off a chain of associations – Dali’s 1925 portrait of his father; Picasso’s ‘return to order’ portrait drawings of 1917; the Italian ‘Novecento’ artists of the 1920s, such as Achille Funi; Christian Schad’s Weimar period portraits, but softer. There is something South American about it, but I can’t make the connection – a dimmly remembered portrait of Borges? I agree with Rick McGrath that she has feminised him, but (and) it looks like a strong piece of work. I’m much more attracted to it than the slightly gruesome ‘visionary’ paintings. Having said all that, Delvaux was always my least favourite Surrealist – sorry Jim.

    And if no one visited his dusty home, where were all those portrait photographs taken? A decent count for a recluse – you certainly couldn’t put him in the Salinger category.

    I’m doing some work on the domestic interior. I have Beatrice Dahl’s apartment, but if anyone knows of other passages in Ballard or views he expressed outside his writing, I’d be grateful for pointers.

  12. An interesting interview. It’s untrue that the surrealists were trying to “abolish meaning” but rather that they were trying to free the meaning and find different associations for art other than the classical.
    If you find anything in the Delavaux’s, Dali or De chirico you will understand that it has more more to do with the chaos and inscrutability of the world rather than an ascribed meaning more related to romantic and classical painting’s narrative ideals. I’m not surprised that a religious painter should find it’s amorality unappealing.

    Interestingly by current art history standards Ballard could be considered the author of the Delvaux paintings. He selected the paintings from a secondary source, chose an artist who he paid for their re-creation. If Richard Prince can show scanned images of Marlboro ads and claim to be the author why not Ballard?

    Like Brigid I find The Mirror awkward and give her credit for doing a very good job on the Delvaux’s. It’s too bad she doesn’t care for Delvaux as it may be the best chance those other lost paintings have of getting a place in art history.

  13. I remember reading The crystal world by Ballard, I had to put it down frequently as my head filled up with my “reading”of the writer’s word based images. Here was literally a crystal world being formed in my mind by a painter with words. This was more than lyric expression this was single minded (obsessive-is not an adequate or accurate term)development of a restructuring of conventional reality. The result is a paradox of familiarity and alienation(surrealism maybe) a shake up of the over familiar. Ballard’s importance is his appeal to our minds and perhaps souls to open to mystery, beauty and death. Science fiction is often prophetic but mystery , beauty and death are “spiritual” conundrums which we need to recognize if our existence has the slightest elements of meaning. So Marlin and Ballard work in the same forest maybe one at dawn the other a twilight – you pick a time…

  14. […] Paul Delvaux是JGB十分崇愛的超現實畫家(與René Magritte算是同輩),不過有趣的是,JGB曾經花錢請人複製一些Delvaux宣稱已經毀壞(好像是燒毀)的畫作。有興趣的人可以來查詢這篇訪談。 […]

  15. Should have added, thanks to Andrew and Simon for a really interesting interview!

  16. I think it’s fictional Delvaux that Ballard describes to suit his purposes.

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