This Species of Sunflower

Cette espèce d’hélianthe, Man Ray, 1934.

This photograph was used by Breton to illustrate his book Le Amour Fou (Mad Love)



“La voyageuse qui traverse les Halles à la tombée de l’été

Marchait sur la pointe des pieds

Le désespoir roulait au ciel ses grands arums si beaux

Et dans le sac à main il y avait mon rêve ce flacon de sels

Que seule a respiré la marraine de Dieu

Les torpeurs se déployaient comme la buée

Au Chien qui fume

Ou venaient d’entrer le pour et le contre

La jeune femme ne pouvait être vue d’eux que mal et de biais

Avais-je affaire à l’ambassadrice du salpêtre

Ou de la courbe blanche sur fond noir que nous appelons pensée

Les lampions prenaient feu lentement dans les marronniers

La dame sans ombre s’agenouilla sur le Pont-au-Change

Rue Git-le-Coeur les timbres n’étaient plus les mêmes

Les promesses de nuits étaient enfin tenues

Les pigeons voyageurs les baisers de secours

Se joignaient aux seins de la belle inconnue

Dardés sous le crêpe des significations parfaites

Une ferme prospérait en plein Paris

Et ses fenêtres donnaient sur la voie lactée

Mais personne ne l’habitait encore à cause des survenants

Des survenants qu’on sait plus dévoués que les revenants

Les uns comme cette femme ont l’air de nager

Et dans l’amour il entre un peu de leur substance

Elle les intériorise

Je ne suis le jouet d’aucune puissance sensorielle

Et pourtant le grillon qui chantait dans les cheveux de cendres

Un soir près de la statue d’Etienne Marcel

M’a jeté un coup d’oeil d’intelligence

André Breton a-t-il dit passe”

André Breton

L’Amour Fou, 1937.





“The traveler who crossed Les Halles at summer’s end

Walked on tiptoe

Despair rolled its great handsome lilies across the sky

And in her handbag was my dream that flask of salts

That only God’s godmother had breathed

Torpors unfurled like mist

At the Chien qui Fume

Where pro and con had just entered

They could hardly see the young woman and then only at an angle

Was I dealing with the ambassadress of saltpeter

Or with the white curve on black background we call thought

The Innocents’ Ball was in full swing

The Chinese lanterns slowly caught fire in chestnut trees

The shadowless lady knelt on the Pont-au-Change

On Rue Gît-le-Coeur the stamps had changed

The night’s promises had been kept at last

The carrier pigeons and emergency kisses

Merged with the beautiful stranger’s breasts

Jutting beneath the crepe of perfect meanings

A farm prospered in the heart of Paris

And its windows looked out on the Milky Way

But no one lived there yet because of the guests

Guests who are known to be more faithful than ghosts

Some like that woman appear to be swimming

And a bit of their substance becomes part of love

She internalizes them

I am the pawn of no sensual power

And yet the cricket singing in the ashen hair

One evening near the statue of Etienne Marcel

Gave me a knowing look

Andre Breton it said go on”


The woman in Sunflower is Jacqueline Lamba, an artist who was Breton’s second wife.

A Renewed Acquaitance

André Breton, Joseph Cornell, 1966


It was through the meditation of Susan Sontag’s review of Maurice Nadeau’s book on surrealism that Joseph Cornell renewed his acquaintance with the writings of André Breton. This renewed contact was as Cornell put it, a risorgimento, bringing again the image of “the midnight sunflower”. It was not only Breton’s face that appealed to Joseph Cornell but certain images associated with him. These had, like his face, a certain talismanic appeal: see, for instance, the diamond, standing for Breton’s dream of the crystal.

Two things associated with Breton had special meaning for Cornell. First, Breton’s image of communicating vessels, with the marvelous interchange of one thing and another, this baroque interpenetration perfectly emblematized in the scientific experiment of the same name. in a sense, this imagined communication of elements compensates for the radical enclosures of his shadow theater boxes, as if between the boxes a link could be perceived. The midnight sunflower refers to Breton’s poem Tournesol (Sunflower), in which he recounts the discovery of marvelous encounter of his love, inspiring Cornell’s box Tournesol, itself an encounter, like all of his boxes. On this particular box, he worked repeatedly in January and February 1966: Cornell’s Breton period.

Embracing Sunflowers


Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago in 1925 and died in Paris in 1992 at the age of 67. She came to attention in the early 1950s, exhibiting at the Stable Gallery in New York alongside Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg. In the summer of 1955 she travelled to France, settling there permanently in 1959. There have been numerous gallery and museum exhibitions of Mitchell’s work, including two major shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974 and 2002, which toured across the United States. Her paintings can be seen in museums and important private collections worldwide.


Sunflower III, 1969


Sunflower, 1972


Untitled (Sunflower), 1987


Sunflowers, 1991


Joan Mitchell’s Sunflower works count amongst the most experimental and vibrant of all her pieces. Hung in the upstairs gallery, six canvases, etchings and drawings dating from the 1960s to the year before her death, host an extraordinary diversity of marks with compositions whose ungovernable vitality refuse to comply to the rules of image making. Mitchell considered sunflowers to be ‘like people’ — subjects to empathise with whose life cycles were played out with exuberance but brutal swiftness. ‘If I see a sunflower drooping, I can droop with it,’ she explained, ‘and I draw it, and feel it until its death.’ Like Vincent van Gogh whose precedent she was brave enough to summon, she embraced sunflowers for their hopefulness as much as for their assertive and undeniable splendour. Her images do not much resemble the plants themselves: they are blue and red as well as golden, erratically dancing sweeps of colour that communicate internal as much as external landscape.

Mitchell began the Sunflower works after relocating from Paris to Vétheuil, a town 60 kilometers north of the capital. They grew out of a particularly difficult time in the artist’s life, following her mother’s death in 1967 after a seven year struggle with cancer. The paintings from this earlier period are dark and foreboding, roiling tempests of paint. In Calvi (1964) named after a Corsican fishing port Mitchell visited on a sailing trip, a central area of densely worked impasto sits on top of a haze of translucent layers of pigment which conjures a landscape distance. The impression of solid weight achieved through the tactile physicality at the heart of this canvas recalls Paul Cézanne, yet rather than suggest the volume of actual objects, Mitchell’s build-up of paint makes emotion palpable.

Untitled, 1968-1969, and the drawing Untitled (1967) convey a different, brighter mood, whilst etchings the artist made in the early ’70s establish a whiplash fluency of line. As the critic and poet John Yau has noted, the works of this period grant the viewer ‘an intimate encounter with a sumptuous but harsh lyricism that constantly courts but never succumbs to chaos.’ In these pieces, Mitchell’s marks possess a fresh looseness, their brio asserted in opposing colours and unexpected positionings. Nature is conjured at its most unruly and oppositional: frenzy co-exists with calm, flux results in disruptiveness.

In Untitled (1969) Mitchell pursues this diversity of painted gesture and unevenness of composition to magnificent extreme. Thick areas of red and yellow paint reveal a frenzy of working whilst elsewhere the canvas is marked only by faint washes of green. Drips slide down the picture and snarls of paint grow glistening and creamy where they collide with white. According to the writer Dave Hickey, Mitchell’s ‘manner is at once too varied and specified to ever be “a style”. She could make any mark but she never fell in love with one, just the speed of it.’ Her works make lasting passion, movement and energy, describing not the appearance of the world nor transcendent revelation, but the nature of being in it, its transient, intense pleasures and pains.

In the final years of her life Mitchell returned to the subject of sunflowers with renewed focus. These often multi-part canvases are assured, employing a carefully edited palette and calligraphic energy conveyed through lavish brush marks. In these, a potential self-containment of individual rosettes is countered by the sideways spreading from one into several canvases allowing for a range of inter-related expressions that are vast and open-ended. ‘I want them to hold one image despite all the activity,’ Mitchell has said of her works. ‘It’s kind of a plumb line that dancers have; they have to be perfectly balanced the more frenetic the activity is.’