Conroy Maddox 1912–2005
Passage de l’Opéra
Oil paint on canvas
1372 x 942 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Conroy Maddox 40’ in black oil paint bottom right, and on back of canvas ‘PASSAGE DE L’OPERA | OIL 1940 | CONROY MADDOX’ and ‘CONROY MADDOX | 11 HIGHFIELD ROAD | EDGEBASTON | BIRMINGHAM’ in black oil paint.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Acquired from the artist by James Kirkman 1972, by whom sold to Hamet Gallery, London circa 1973; sold to Mayor Gallery, London, by 1979, from whom purchased in 1980
Though inscribed with an earlier date, Passage de l’Opéra is now thought to be one of the first in a series of paintings from the early 1970s in which Maddox uses the structure of an arcade in the creation of a central interior space. The painting is named after a (now destroyed) passage in Paris which was a favourite meeting place for the surrealist group during the 1920s. Passage de l’Opéra shows a glass-covered arcade which opens onto several darkened doorways and windows. At the far end is a doorway that, although partially darkened, appears to lead into another building, the exterior part of which can be seen to the right of the arcade. Beyond the iron structure of the right side is a neatly divided green lawn or possibly a walled-garden. This is traversed by a path along which walk two men wearing suits and bowler hats, one of whom carries an overcoat. Two other men, both wearing overcoats and bowler hats, stand at different ends of the arcade, and at the very forefront of the painting stands a white statue of a lion clutching a heavy blue robe, reminiscent of a theatre curtain. It is ambiguous as to whether the lion is meant to be animate or inanimate. Echoing the lion’s ambiguous stillness, the two men within the corridor stand fixed to the spot, staring out at an unknown point, while the other two human figures appear to be walking away briskly. The painting has a glacial quality, created by the stark whiteness of the lion against the cool colours of the background scene. This effect is enhanced by the strict perspective and angularity of the composition, which is softened only by the rounded forms of the lion.
The illusionistic aspect of the painting can be seen as part of a tradition within surrealist painting, pioneered in the 1920s by Belgian surrealist, René Magritte. This tradition can be characterised by the unusual juxtaposition of objects, and the paradoxical rendering of an apparently dream-like or illusionary scene in a flat, realistic manner. The strong linear perspective enhances the illusionary character of the painting, and the sharp foreshortening of the corridor effectively places the viewer on its threshold. As a result, the lion appears indeterminately as either a welcoming or prohibiting figure.
When first exhibited in the Hamet Gallery, Passage de l’Opéra was believed to have been painted in 1940, in line with the date inscribed on the bottom right. However, conservators at Tate discovered in July 2003 that it could not have been painted at that time. Microscopic examination of a sample revealed that the canvas was originally primed with a white acrylic emulsion developed in the mid 1950s, and which was only commercially available after 1962. Reasons for the discrepancy between the inscription and the plausible date of the work remain unexplained. What is clear is that the inscription on the reverse, which gives the address of Maddox’s home in the early 1940s as Edgebaston, Birmingham, is misleading. Maddox moved from Birmingham to London in 1954, and it is likely that the work was completed in Maddox’s home in Belsize Park between 1970 and 1971. A Tate catalogue entry, published in 1980, assumed the earlier dating and drew upon information supplied by the artist. Although the date was not questioned directly at the time, the resulting catalogue entry was sanctioned by the artist.1 When presented with the technical evidence in 2003, Maddox preferred not to comment.
The passage after which this painting takes its name was made famous by the French surrealist writer Louis Aragon in his 1926 novel Le Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant), first published as an English translation in 1971.2 In this text Aragon describes his visits to the arcade that represented for him a mythic and marvellous side of Paris soon to be swept away by the grands boulevards, which were being created as a result of the planning reforms initiated by Baron Haussmann in the nineteenth century. Aragon devoted the opening chapter of his book to a vivid description of the arcade, which contained a variety of small shops, cafés, restaurants, hotels, a public bath, and a brothel masquerading as a massage parlour. Two of the cafés were frequented by the dada and surrealist groups, and the Théâtre Moderne, situated at the end of the passage, was also mentioned by André Breton in his book Nadja.3
In a letter of 1975, Maddox affirmed that the painting was ‘certainly inspired by my reading of Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris and seeing, since I cannot now recollect whether the actual passage existed during my visits between 1937 and 1939, the actual place or an old photograph’.4 Given that the Passage de l’Opéra was demolished shortly after Aragon wrote his text in 1925, it is impossible for Maddox to have seen it. It is therefore likely that the painting was inspired by an old photograph. A photographic source may also account for the greyish tones of the work, though this could also have arisen from Aragon’s description of the unusual light in the arcade as a ‘glaucous gleam, seemingly filtered through deep water’.5 It seems likely that Maddox worked from the vintage black and white photograph, showing a portion of the garden, that was reproduced in Roger Cardinal’s and Robert Stuart Short’s book, Surrealism: Permanent Revelation, published in 1970, shortly before the painting’s first recorded appearance.6
The site where the Passage de l’Opéra once stood now lies at the intersection of the Boulevard Haussmann and the Boulevard des Italiens in the second arrondissement of Paris. The passage was constructed between 1822 and 1825, and was designed by the architect François Debret as part of the opera house, leading from the Boulevard des Italiens to the Académie Royale de Musique. For several decades it was a lively and fashionable centre for shopping and socialising, but was finally demolished in 1925 to accommodate the extension of the Boulevard Haussmann. Aragon’s observations lamented the immanent destruction of an interior space which appealed precisely for its resistance to contemporary modernity. The Passage de l’Opéra consisted of a pair of two-storey arcade spaces, the Galerie Baromètre and the Galerie Thermomètre, which were connected by single-storey corridors at either end. Maddox’s painting does not show the shops and businesses to which Aragon so colourfully refers, but instead a passage opening onto a garden. Although Aragon does not mention this area, nor is it apparent in the most commonly reproduced views,7 the garden is seen in the photograph published in 1970 and is shown running perpendicular to the passages at the northern end of the arcade.8 The architectural historian Friederich Geist has explained: ‘Both arcade spaces are connected by one-storied crossing corridors. They open up into a garden which runs perpendicular to the passages along the side of the opera house.’9
In Aragon’s text the passage is an intimate space in which fantasies could be played out away from the glare of the open streets: ‘The whole fauna of human fantasies, their marine vegetation, drifts and luxuriates in the dimly lit zones of human activity, as though plaiting thick tresses of darkness.’10 The corners of Maddox’s painting may be said to evoke these zones of the passage, and the figures in the painting recall Aragon’s description of its inhabitants:
Why does this narrow and apparently anonymous thoroughfare nearly always harbour a single motionless pedestrian? What an abstracted, unconcerned air they all assume: their whole attitude makes it perfectly clear that they are there by chance, by pure chance … Various gentlemen who look as though they are in a terrible hurry still find time to pass the stationary man for the third or fourth time … Some of them wear moustaches, others are clean-shaven.11
As in Aragon’s description, Maddox’s arcade contains figures at a standstill and in a hurry. Similarly, the men to the right of the scene are clean-shaven, while the solitary figure at the end of the corridor wears a moustache. In Passage de l’Opéra there exists a sense of containment in the rigid, anonymous figures and their strict surroundings. This reflects the atmosphere of Aragon’s text, in which social constraints meet with liberating desire and chance encounter.
Maddox placed similar figures seen from behind, wearing a bowler hat and a suit, in several other works, including The Departure 1971 (Robert Devro, London)12 and Custodian of the Street 1973 (Elmscott Lawn School).13 These figures can, along with the lion, be seen to resemble the work of other surrealist artists whom Maddox greatly admired. The man with the bowler hat had been a motif of many paintings by René Magritte, for example. The man facing into the scene strongly resembles that in Magritte’s Song of the Violet 1951 (private collection, Brussels),14 and prefigured many years earlier in the photograph La Mort des fantômes (The Death of Phantoms) 1928.15
The appearance and pose of the lion strongly resembles those in one of the collages in Max Ernst’s collage-novel Une Semaine de bonté 1934, the first volume of which was titled ‘The Lion of Belfort’.16 Maddox wrote in 1975: ‘I was probably aware of a collage by Max Ernst titled The Lion of Belfort which may, subconsciously, have had some influence at that time.’17 In Ernst’s collage the lion-headed figure is situated in an interior space and, in a pose resembling that of the statue in Maddox’s painting, looks to one side, clutching a heavy robe to its chest with its right hand. The still existent statue of the Lion of Belfort, erected outside the fortified French border town of Belfort to commemorate the siege of the city during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1, is a gigantic stone recumbent lion. There is a smaller bronze version, well known to Maddox, at the Cimitière du Sud in Montparnasse, near Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris. However, the recumbent Lion of Belfort bears little resemblance to Maddox’s upright lion, which resembles Donatello’s sculpture of the Florentine lion symbol, the marzocco (Bargello Museo Nazionale, Florence). Although these nationalistic and political statues are otherwise unconnected, Maddox’s figure appears as a possible condensation of the two famous statues.
The artist’s use of the lion may also have been influenced by knowledge of a questionnaire published in the periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution in 1933. It asked whether certain monuments or statues in Paris should be retained, moved, modified, or destroyed. Alongside such national landmarks as the Panthéon and the Statue of Henri IV, the Lion of Belfort is subjected to numerous fantastical alterations. Tristan Tzara, for example, suggested that it be fixed onto an enormous skewer and roasted over bronze flames.18 Although it is uncertain whether the questionnaire had a direct influence upon Maddox’s painting, it is evident that he was working with the same surrealist notions of the transformation of the familiar fixtures of Paris life. Here a public object of political symbolism is made into a seductive, yet menacing, creature lingering in a clandestine space.
The lion appears in the form of a draped statue or guardian figure in the painting La Salpêtrière 1976 (private collection, Cheshire),19 and pacing the open streets in The Departure 1971 (Robert Devro, London),20 in which a stone lion appears to guard the entrance to a long corridor somewhat like that in Passage de l’Opéra. The lion is one of several wild animals that appear in Maddox’s paintings in the 1970s and 1980s, which also include a series of paintings depicting animals in arcades. Among other animals are two tigers on the upper floor of a shopping arcade in Lancaster Arcade 1984 (whereabouts unknown),21 and a polar bear in the corridor of The Silent Arcade 1985 (Jeffrey Sherwin, Leeds).22 The recurrent appearance of wild animals in enclosed spaces has been seen by the art historian Silvano Levy as a symbol of ‘untethered savagery’ which repeatedly threatens the rational order of Maddox’s bourgeois urban worlds, and as a recurring symbol in his painting of surrealist displacement.23
Passage de l’Opéra reflects Maddox’s enthusiasm for the notions of the dream and the marvellous that had been central to Parisian surrealism since the 1920s. It reveals a sense of nostalgia for the early period of the surrealist movement in which the city was a crucial locus of experience. This enthusiasm was expressed by the artist in 1975:
The street and places had a particular fascination to the Surrealists and the passage was no exception. Aragon points out that his wanderings around the Passage de l’Opéra were without purpose, yet he waited for something to happen, something strange or abnormal so as to permit him a glimpse of a ‘new order of things’. Such experiences, however incongruous and enigmatic were conducive to surrealism’s attraction to the marvellous.24
The ‘new order of things’ may be understood as equivalent to the surrealist notion of the marvellous. Evoking the disruption of the everyday, both could be generated by the effect of unexpected juxtapositions, such as those found in the dream-like relations between the figures and their environment in Maddox’s painting.
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.