“The film of Kennedy's assassination is the Sistine Chapel of our era”


J.G. Ballard, author of The Empire of the Sun, chooses seven images and explains his passion for Surrealism and the importance that Pop Art, Francis Bacon and photography have had for him.

London. The art critic William Feaver and his colleague Judy Digney, in collaboration with The Art Newspaper, are presenting a series of interviews, “The mind's eye”, sponsored by the Tate Gallery. While most critical writing about the visual arts is done by art historians, critics or other individuals can be highly specialised in their responses to and interests in art. The “Mind's Eye” takes an “inter-disciplinary” approach, examining the place art has in the work and experience of individuals whose fame and expertise lies in other fields. Among those taking part in the series are the film and opera director Nicholas Hytner, the novelist Doris Lessing, and Denis Healey, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. To a packed auditorium, the internationally renowned novelist J.G. Ballard talked with William Feaver about the artists and works of art that had had a significant impact on him. J.G. Ballard is perhaps best known for his book, The Empire of the Sun (1984), subsequently made into a film by Stephen Spielberg. His other books include The Crystal World, High Rise and Crash, also made into a controversial film by David Cronenberg in 1997. His most recent book, Cocaine Nights deals with a society offering a life of unlimited leisure.

William Feaver: To talk about visual art makes a break from your routine, does it not?

J.G. Ballard: I have never been challenged to say why I am so enthusiastic for certain painters or sculptors over the years, but it is a pleasure to talk about a very important strand in my imaginative life. People have said that my novels are very visual. I think that reflects the importance that painting and sculpture and photography have had for me.

[WF] Do the pictures you have selected have an autobiographical basis?

[JGB] They are not my top ten: there are no Rembrandts, Vermeers, or Velazquez here. These are, nonetheless, images, paintings, sculpture, photographs that have had some influence on me.

[WF] There's a perspective here, isn't there? Why have you chosen Crivelli's Annunciation?

[JGB] This is the only Old Master here. Anyone who knows my work will be mystified as to why I've chosen Crivelli's Annunciation from the National Gallery. One might wonder how this Renaissance painting, with its explicit religious subject, could have any bearing on my fiction. I first saw it when I was eighteen in 1948, a couple of years after I came to England. I was born in Shanghai and I was completely unaware of the existence of twentieth-century art, or the art of the Renaissance. Shanghai was a complete cultural wilderness then. But within a couple of years, I absolutely tuned into the art of the twentieth century. It gave me a powerful charge, one that has not left me to this day. Surrealism was my instinctive first love. But it was very difficult to see Surrealist paintings in those days. There were very few works on view, and even a major museum like the Tate displayed only a handful. The critical establishment absolutely disdained Surrealists and World War II seemed to confirm their hostility. I completely embraced Modernism. It seemed so enormously exciting, so new, so powerful an engine of novelty-seeking. Picasso was still painting, Matisse, Braque, Leger. But I spent a lot of time in the National Gallery and I went to see these Renaissance paintings, such as Crivelli's Annunciation. I had been brought up by agnostic, even atheist, parents. I was a complete agnostic, yet I used to go to look. I probably went once a week.

[WF] But you are not concerned with the religious subjects or the doctrinal themes, are you?

[JGB] Exactly. I used to look at all the Renaissance paintings in the National Gallery, and I still do to this day. I have done this for many, years and I often wondered what on earth was I doing. About ten years ago I was in Florence, in the Uffizi Gallery, looking at, or rather, trying to look at, an Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci. The problem was that between me and the painting were about 200 Japanese tourists and others, all listening, intently to their tour guide. So, not being able to see the painting, I looked at the Japanese visitors and I thought, “What on earth do they see in these Renaissance paintings? What do they make of them? Most of them know nothing about Christianity. A few Japanese are Christian, but very, very few. What do they make of all these winged men kneeling before these rather sly young women? What do they make of this extraordinary universe, with its bizarre loaves of bread and peacocks? What did they make of it all?” I thought it must seem to them completely surrealist and then it dawned on me that that was why I had initially been and was still so drawn to these paintings. Not being able to see any surrealist paintings in London, half-consciously I had created a sort of virtual Surrealist museum in the National Gallery. If you have no Christian belief and know nothing about the Christian faith, what is going on in this painting is surreal.

[WF] But it is full of mysteries, is it not?

[JGB] Yes, but I don't want to be told, as we are now when we walk around the National Gallery or the Tate, that the peacock is a symbol of eternal life. I walked around the Tate this evening and I noticed that the walls are dripping with instructional material for one's intellectual betterment. Everything is explained. The loaves of bread, the peacock, the figure reading a rare manuscript up on the balcony, everything is explained. How much better it would be were it not explained. Magic is very important. The mystery of everyday life, the winged men who may appear at any moment, the strange young woman, the loaves of bread, are all there in their own right, not to illustrate some didactic point.

[WF] It is half real, half magic isn't it? There are perspectival, “real” walls and there is the religious mystery being portrayed.

[JGB] It transcends Surrealism. Or maybe not; it bypasses it alright. But it is extraordinary. I think my ambivalent reading of this and other Renaissance paintings reflected my personal uncertainty at that time in my life. I'd spent two years reading medicine, given it up, wanted to be a writer, but wasn't sure which way to go. This painting and lots of others like it in the National Gallery, the Louvre and all the other galleries that I visited in Europe in the late Forties and Fifties, were saying to me, “Surrealism. This is the way to go.”

[WF] Salvador Dali's “The persistence of memory” is the icon of Surrealism. How do you relate this to the Crivelli?

[JGB] This is a titchy picture isn't it? It's absolutely tiny, about 10 x 8 inches. Not much more than postcard size. It was shown in the big Dali exhibition at the Tate about twenty years ago. It was behind armoured plated glass, like the Mona Lisa, now in a kind of bunker in the Louvre.

[WF] Do you think it has come to be treated as a religious picture?

[JGB] The Mona Lisa has. Yes, this is a religious picture because the real religion of the twentieth century is psychoanalysis.

[WF] Can you explain what you mean?

[JGB] Some people think of the Surrealists as being concerned with lurid fantasy, as diseased Europeans throwing all this weird stuff around. They do not realise that the Surrealists were, in fact, intensely interested in science, in optics, physiology, and, above all, psychoanalysis. This was their key to understanding the human mind and the way the world worked. No one embraced psychoanalysis more fiercely than Salvador Dali. The great thing about Dali, from my point of view and for which I've always admired him, is that he is the only Surrealist to this day who has not been embraced by the critical establishment. I don't think he was interested in money or the specious kind of fame. The fact is that this is a remarkable painting. It encapsulates the twentieth century. You could almost reconstruct the inner landscapes of the twentieth century from this painting. It's almost, I wouldn't say a cliche, but a familiar landscape made from everyday things: soft watches, the string, dead embryo, fused sand extending for ever, the rocky headland that we'll never reach. There's a strange sort of rectilinear section of the sea, as if the brain had decided to slot it off. This is a world beyond clock time, a world where everything has happened. There's nothing more to be done. This is where the human race beaches itself.

[WF] This is one of your themes: the drowned world, the parched world?

[JGB] Well, it could be. I hope this painting has influenced me. There is hardly a Surrealist painter I don't admire. I think Surrealism is the greatest imaginative adventure embarked upon during this century. It eclipses Cubism, which is of no interest except to art historians. The world of the imagination of poetry thrives within the Surrealist space. I think contemporary art has lost sight of the poetic facility that was there in abundance in Magritte and Delvaux and Max Ernst.

[WF] Hamilton's “Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing” is a sort of Renaissance picture, Fifties style, is it not?

[JGB] It's very small. It's a collage. I remember in 1956 I went to what I think is the most important exhibition of contemporary art held in this country since World War II, an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery called “This Is Tomorrow”. At this exhibition Pop Art was born. The first sustained attempt to annex the materials of everyday life into fine arts was made by British artists like Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. I went to the exhibition and it was a revelation because England in the late Forties and Fifties was an exhausted country. It was shattered by the war. America had just hijacked the future and run off with it and Britain was left shattered and grey and tired and uneasy. The middle class had lost its confidence. The consumer atmosphere was slowly seeping in under the door, but we were rather reluctant to let it in. We were afraid to admit that there was anything interesting about supermarkets. We preferred the little corner shop with the stale lump of cheese and everybody breathing over the bit of bacon near the slicer and the three jars of pickles. Rationing! It was a state of mind as well as a reality. I went along to this show in 1956 and it was the first serious attempt to use advertising and commercial imagery in a sustained approach to visual arts. This Hamilton picture, when you bear in mind that it was done over forty years ago, predicts so much of the world we inhabit now: the home as a kind of TV studio; the body-building male; the ceiling referring to a lunar surface; the woman who is lying back like something out of a soft porn mag; the record-player which stands in for the domestic electronic world we all now live in. If you look at it closely it is incredibly prophetic. There is the revolutionary idea that a domestic appliance could be part of aesthetic design of the ideal home. Our appliances actually constitute a sophisticated and imaginative mirror of what is important in our lives.

Now this is Paolozzi's “His Majesty the Wheel”, done in 1958-59. I was absolutely knocked out by the early Paolozzis. I got to know him extremely well a few years later and have been friends with him ever since. He used to wander around car wreckyards and yards full of old shipping machinery in Scotland and the like, finding old gear wheels and bits of machine detritus and he'd assemble them into these extraordinary figures. These are powerful, twentieth-century archetypes. When you see them actually standing as they stood in the outdoors about ten years ago -- there was an exhibition at the Serpentine -- standing on the grass, you feel you are arriving at some place where these ancient figures, these Easter Island totems made of machine parts, are waiting for you. I think we screen out large areas of possible subject matter for the visual arts when we will not consider the rubble and refuse in a car breaker's yard or a machine or derelict machinery as the raw material for creating a poetically charged sculpture.

This idea had not occurred to anyone before Paolozzi. You can see in the machine elements a sort of mental dimension. When I was a medical student, I soon got bored with physiology and embryology and anatomy, and I homed in on the psychology department. I remember Richard Gregory was doing his early experiments in visual perception and it struck me that a lot of the ordinary photographs of after-images, retinal after-images, and the like were very close to the images produced by abstract artists, such as Mondrian. This struck me as being somewhere in the central nervous system. Paolozzi's work is somewhere between circuitry and organics, a hybrid. This, too, was in 1958, forty years ago, and it is incredibly prescient.

[WF] How much can it be said that you write from memories of specific artists' works?

[JGB] Finding influences is very difficult. The switch from the visual arts to the novel is like crossing a Grand Canyon. If I felt that I could achieve in my writing remotely what Francis Bacon's images achieve, I'd be proud indeed. But it's very, very difficult to translate the special atmosphere of those paintings into prose fiction, into a novel, because there is a underlying structure that is totally different. Bacon doesn't have to bother about telling a story. These are clips from some interior nightmare. It is as if they are clips from a film.

Bacon's triptych, “Three studies of the human head” dates from 1953, very early in his career. These are executives and what I love about Bacon is he is almost the only painter who's painted the office world. He likes men in blue suits. Edward Hopper, the American painter, painted people in offices in the 1930s, the Depression era of small American cities and grey skies, but he saw them from the outside. He was always looking at his shirt-sleeved office workers through half-open doors, just as he saw naked women or lonely women through half-open hotel room doors.

[WF] What is the story being told in this triptych?

[JGB] Bacon gets under their skin. I don't know about the story, but most professional people work in offices. We've spent years of our lives in these very strange structures. It's an extraordinary world that we all take for granted. We all assume that everybody who works in an office switches off the mind when they walk in through the front door. All those competitive instincts and animal obsessions and drives are thought to have been left behind. It is not true. Look at this picture. You could say, on the left, that's Robinson. He's just heard that Murgatroyd in Accounts has been promoted. The guy nearer, that's Davidson, and he's just heard his car's been clamped. These people are emoting. I think Bacon caught how appalling office life can be. Working in an office for a great many years can be one of the most crucifying experiences. You are forced to repress your biological need to kill everyone around you. Bacon caught that repression in these men.

[WF] Does he show them as victims or as in charge of their destinies?

[JGB] I don't think they're either really. I think they are like all of us when we walk into the toilets in a public building and look in those unkind, revealing mirrors and see ourselves, “God, help!” -- it is this that these early Bacons capture. I admire him enormously.

[WF] I think he can always do those heads right through, single heads, triple heads.

[JGB] I'm surprised that no one else has followed him in painting the office world, but figurative art has rather faded over the last thirty years. Films of course, Hollywood film in particular, has made the most of the office world.

[WF] Your next choice is from film, the Super 8 footage that shows President Kennedy being shot in Dallas in November 1963.

[JGB] Yes, this is a frame from the now famous Zapuder film, frame 224. I think this shows Kennedy after he was hit by the first bullet. Let's not forget we're looking at a man in the last seconds of his life, about to die beside his wife -- a horrific and appalling event. It's become part of the everyday iconography of the late twentieth century. At the time when we first saw these frames they were mostly blown up in Life magazine which had bought the rights quickly from Zapuda, who, when he was told that the president was visiting and that the motorcade was passing nearby, went to Dealey Plaza and took about ten seconds of film. As it happened, that ten seconds of film passed straight into history. At the time, Kennedy himself was a creation of the mass media. I think the significance of his tragic death was that it was on the cusp of the old print-based newspaper/magazine world and the cunning new world of the electronic media, television in particular. We didn't see Kennedy die live on television, but we saw Oswald killed three days later on television.

[WF] Everybody says they remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been killed. What do you recall?

[JGB] The announcement and the hours that followed it. There was this anatomising of a public death, which absolutely bowled me over as it bowled a lot of people over. Now what happened with this imagery is that it was rapidly translated into the world of popular publishing. This is where the perpetual inquisition mounted by the zoom lens and the lapel microphone of the powerful and famous is transforming our lives. We are brought into this intimate contact with people whom we almost know better than our own wives and husbands. We are certainly closer to their flaws. We see the little grimaces, the little tics, the little strains. In the case of Kennedy we see a man who feels a bullet tearing through his throat while his wife looks at him.

But compassion is leeched away. Compassion is drained out of the whole system. We're living in a kind of affectless world which I wrote about in my book about the Sixties in which this event was central. I saw this event, not as the annihilation of Kennedy, but the as the way the electronic media was born and spawned itself and formed the landscape of our lives. I saw November 1963 as the catalyst for the explosion of energies, good and bad, that created the Sixties: the space programme, the drug scene, the youth explosion, the Vietnam war which was another TV anatomising of violence and pain. I saw Kennedy's assassination as the key event.

[WF] You called it a conceptual event, I think, in one of your books.

[JGB] It is a key event, there is no doubt about it. Now it's almost a visual cliche, which itself is a sad comment. The Zapuda film is almost the Sistine Chapel of our era.

[WF] This is a photograph by Helmut Newton from his 1976 “White women”.

[JGB] I've always been an enormous admirer of Helmut Newton. A German who left Germany in the 1930s with his parents, emigrated to Australia, served in the Australian Army, after the war took up photography and, of course, in the Sixties and Seventies became one of the world's greatest fashion photographers. But he's always been much more than a fashion photographer. What's distinctive about him is the powerfully imagined world that he's created throughout his entire career. His photographs are like stills from very elegant erotic film. They're charged with narrative possibilities.

A single image-which doesn't really do him justice because most of his work appears in the form of fashion spreads in magazines of six, eight, or ten pages-doesn't really sum him up, but even in that you can see something of the very mysterious world that he creates. It's elegant; it's curiously sort of asexual. I think what Newton does -- bearing in mind that he's a fashion photographer and most of the women in his photographs are not naked -- is to desexualise them. And if you look through his photographs of men, they are usually very smartly dressed in dark blue suits, white shirts and ties, their hair beautifully done, but they all look totally baffled. The women are in charge; the men look as if they've got a headache. It is a reversal of conventional roles. I think the men are baffled because Newton desexualises the women and distributes the sexual charge into his mise-en-scene: the interior landscape of these elegant apartments, villas, swimming pools, Supercam and the like. They would not appeal to the male voyeur because they're not that sexy. That is what is so interesting about them. He takes the elements of the nude female body, occasionally male, and charges them up. He pumps up the imagination in an extraordinary way, bearing in mind his rather limited materials. He has created this extremely imaginative world in a way that I don't think any other figurative artist on this planet could match. I think that Newton is the greatest figurative artist working today. I don't think there's anybody anywhere who remotely approaches him in his creative achievement.