June 8, 2012
A Surreal Romanticism: The Art of Charmaine Olivia

A Surreal Romanticism: The Art of Charmaine Olivia

Written by Layla Sola


At the fresh age of twenty-four, Charmaine Olivia has enjoyed remarkable success for an artist.  Her oil paintings have shown in galleries throughout San Francisco, where she resides, and her prints have sold in Urban Outfitters stores nationally.  She has also found success selling prints and silhouettes through her online shop while designing an album cover for the band Evil Eyes, and producing various digital illustrations, mostly through freelance projects. 

Her oils, she says, are dearest to her heart and manifestations of her dreams.  Olivia’s subjects, always women, are generally models or self-portraits. They embrace a whimsical etherealism that is at once provocative and powerful.  Olivia adorns her subjects with the unusual and incongruous.  

"I’m inspired by skulls, glass bottles and messy hair, bones, stars, skulls, antlers, taxidermy, rosaries, pirates, and Billie Holiday," she says.  (Schnabel)

In an Olivia painting, it is common to find objects of anatomy such as skulls, bones and skeletons; animal themes such as antlers, horns, and fur;  nautical themes such as ships, pirates, the sea; and American Indian themes such as warpaint, tribal symbols, tattoos, and headdresses.  All this symbolism, mystery and fun, plays up the seduction of Olivia’s finished work.  The presence is magnetic, and they seem to float out from dark, shadowy abscesses of time and space.  And the fascinating aspect, the part that calls for a closer, are the incongruous elements, such as the skulls, tattoos and occult symbols, the double imagery and openness to the dark side.

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"I find beauty and nostalgia in the occult, and I grew up with a lot of eastern and astrological influences that influence my work.  I’m a Pisces" she says.  (Schnabel)

Prior to graduating high school and moving to San Francisco, to teach yoga, Olivia grew up beside the sea in coastal pacific town San Diego, California.  Olivia was raised in an environment of spiritual consciousness and alignment with nature. 

"I started doing yoga and meditation when I was really young and it was always a big part of my life growing up," Olivia says.  (Schnabel)

Far East spirituality would come to imbue nearly all of Olivia’s work either physically, or metaphysically. 

"The symbolism of the "third eye" is very prevalent in my work," she says.  (Schnabel)

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Indeed, Olivia’s most stellar and popular works of art feature women with third, fourth, even fifth eyes.  Olivia’s subtle blurring of the smaller third eye, is typically below and slightly to the right of the normal eye, as in Avarice (2), a painting in which a single third eye adorns the face of an Andie McDowell type voluptuous, yet skeletally translucent dark nymph. In more complex paintings, Olivia uses the eyes to create a startling hallucinogenic effect on the viewer.  The Twins (3), for instance, features two dark-haired girls, seated back to back against a vast, misty background. One twin has three eyes and one has four.  It’s easy to miss the fourth eye on the second twin because the duplicate eyes in close proximity create an effect of double vision for the viewer. The intense stimulus of the trick of the eye, takes new meaning when combined with the intellectual and spiritual symbolism of the third eye. This hidden treat, imbues the painting with mystery and power. That power is multiplied exponentially when The Twins are adorned with tribal tattoos, and fox coats that scantily cover their underdeveloped breasts.  The heads of the foxes actually rest on their shoulders, and turned into each other in the same way that the twins’ head’s rest against each other, they represent majesty, calm and unity with the girls.  Overall, the paintings, large and impressive, manifest an aura of an earthly power, intrinsic and universal. 

This fusion of biological, natural, and intellectual is the crux of what sets Olivia apart from portrait and pin up artists. Avarice for example: At some point, the viewer must stop staring at the perfectly buoyant breasts and reflect on the connections between a woman, a skeleton, a third eye, and a cobweb. These women are powerful, glowing from their surfaces, inviting, alluring even frightening.  

"I’m attracted to the unusual," Olivia says. "I’m unsatisfied with just another pretty picture."  (Schnabel)

Indeed this idea of provoking viewers with the abnormal is an effective trait of the Surrealism Movement in art. Surrealism is a cultural movement and artistic style that was founded in 1924 by André Breton when he published le Manifesto de le Philoshpie de Surrealisme. Surrealism began as a literary movement.  (Schaeffner 34)  It places value on dreams and its style uses visual imagery from the subconscious mind to create art without the intention of logical comprehensibility.  (Schaeffner 26)

Olivia says a huge source of inspiration are her dreams. Indeed dreams, are a hugely influential sources of inspiration in Surrealist art. Also the philosophy of Surrealism itself was directly preceded and largely influenced by the psychoanalytical work of Freud and Jung, which tapped dreams as a link to the unconscious mind.  (Schaeffner 28)

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"I dream every night, and that can be exhausting," she says. “[My girls] come from my dreams."  (Schnabel)

Olivia’s figures possess a super naturalness, whether manifesting itself with multiple eyes or joined bodies, she describes it as “mostly normal, with something a little off.” At the heart of Surrealism and asserted at the beginning of Andre Breton’s book, Le Surrealisme et la Peinture, is the phrase: 

"The eye exists in the uncouth state." (Schaeffner  9)

The state of uncouth is what Breton thought of as primitive. Art of the mentality imbalanced, the self-taught- like Olivia, and indigenous art are all highly valued in Surrealism. Breton believed that primitiveness of the eye, was primitiveness of the self, and surreal art showed the possibility of reconciling the imaginary and the real in the individual. (Schaeffner  9)

"They are characters in an ongoing fairy-tale. I’m creating their stories, but that they are all a sort of reflection of myself," says Olivia of her figure paintings.  (Schnabel)

Some of the greatest artists of the 20th century including Giorgio de Chirico, Man Ray, René Magritte became involved in the Surrealist movement. The greatest known Surrealist in the world is the infamous Spanish artist, Salvador Dali, who sought to access to the unconscious mind in order to make art inspired by this realm. Dali was a master of Surrealism.  Paintings such as the Persistence of Memory (4) use symbols such as stopwatches to represent amorphous concepts like time with liquid distortion of parallel realms.   

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Works like Departure of a Winged Ship (5) are imbued with majesty, animals and vast, fantasy landscapes. The lone self always present as if a disparate entity, too mentally isolated to bond with nearby elements.  Dali also coined a technique called Paranoiac Critical Method, which used double imagery to push the subconscious to react.  (Schaeffner 56)              (5)                                                                                            

The Paranoiac Critical Method is employed in Dali’s painting Reflections of Elephants (6).  In the painting’s foreground are bright, white swans floating on a pond. Yet, below the swirling bellies of the swans, in their mirror reflection, are three massive elephants.  This painting first presents an image of comfort and accepted beauty in the form of gliding, white swans.  It is only after the viewer is comfortable with the first image that he becomes aware of the second image. This startling realization, coupled with the aggression of the elephants can elicit an involuntary negative reaction in subconscious of the viewer. Yet, the more we realize there are two images, the more we are attracted to it for examination.  The swans and the elephants are parallel to each other, and act as hidden reflections mirroring the juxtaposed surface of the water.  

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These mirroring images are present in various forms throughout Dali’s Paranoiac Critical works of Art.  Metamorphosis of Narcissus (7), for example, juxtaposes the figure of Narcissus at the bank of the river, to a hand, holding a cracked egg with a flower sprouting from it. Physically, this painting requires the viewer to examine the dichotomous planes of existence on the canvas. Intellectually, it demands that viewers connect what we know about Narcissus from a philosophical standpoint with Dali’s hand/egg/crack/flower mirror image.  This art thus arrives to viewers in three stages: Initially, the physical observation stage, where the viewer takes in what Dali called the conventionally aesthetic elements. Second, is the paranoia stage, in which the viewer makes a startling discovery, and essentially “double takes,” examining the painting voraciously.  And lastly, the reflection stage, in which the relationship of these two paintings in one is cerebrated. 

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Although she is self-taught (Schnabel) and previously unfamiliar with the Paranoiac Critical method, to an extent, Olivia’s technique captures a similar stage assimilation.  Viewers are initially struck by composition and aesthetic beauty of the girls, then they become aware of visually deceptive elements like the third eye, after which they more closely examine and intellectualize all the symbolism. 

In addition to viewers reactions, Olivia’s women and style in general plays with many Daliesque symbols and objects.  For example, in Dali’s Woman with Head of Roses (8), a woman stands, her head a bouquet of pastels flowers, and a skeletal leg and foot.  In Olivia’s Cora (9), the skeletal bones of a woman’s arm and throat are visible and in her hair are several large pastel flowers.  Other similarities include the use of heads and skulls, skeletons, animals, decay, in addition to paranoiac double imagery.   

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However, symbols and double imagery are virtually all that Olivia shares with Dali or the other surrealists.  What is strikingly different is the background. Dali in particular used space like a bubble, in which the eye could wander across landscapes littered with paranoiac objects invoking a plethora of questions. 

In contrast, Cora, unifies the elements in the painting.  The strokes making up the ribs visible beneath Cora’s translucent skin, match the thick strokes of the hair. Both resemble ribbons and also weave each other together visually and symbolically through biological organic nature.  The roses petals turn and drip in harmony with the brush strokes of the hair so that they feel organic to one another.  The red hair and pink roses, neighboring colors of the warm family, are harmonious combinations, creating a sense of belonging.  The subtle reflection of the roses in the hue of Cora’s skin, reinforces unifying harmony across her body.  The viewer’s eye is swept between the large flowers and white face, to the elbows and curved back. Like most Olivia paintings, Cora lingers, stark and mute, against a black background.  The harmonious colors and triangular composition thus, envelope the subject, making both she and the canvas, totally self-contained. 

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Dali contrarily, uses multiple objects to in combination with one another to create his panorama.  These objects feel disjointed and incongruent.  For example, in Woman with a Head of Roses, the subject is surrounded by a man, a woman, a lion head, an egg, a chair, as well as vast dimensions of space.  This absurd complexity is typical of Dali, and quite polar opposite to Olivia, whose subjects waft out from hallow backgrounds. 

“I don’t like putting them in a scene-prison,” she says.  (Schnabel)

Yet, symbols continue to be shared by Dali and Olivia.  In Dali’s painting, the subject is adorned with armless hands that encircle her wrist and waist like accessories.  Cora, holds her own translucent hands around her hollow throat.  Dali’s woman is bent and animated, despite her facelessness, indicating she is an object that can be manipulated. Protective hands form an egg-cradle over her belly, indicating her womb is protected by someone other than herself.  In the distance, a man waits straight and unwavering, in the meditative calm of power.  This painting speaks to marriage, reproduction, women’s rights and bodies, male domination, etc…  In contrast, Cora, with hair and bones of ribbons, seeks to asphyxiate her dependence on ribbons that also symbolize feminine gender roles.  This endows Cora with power; she at least has an awareness and unlike Dali’s faceless woman, an identity. Cora, at minimum, has the desire to suffocate elements of herself.  This is a power and independence absent in Dali’s woman completely.  Although she appears to be giving orders, Woman with a Head of Roses is an enslaved reproductive object; a part of the food chain. Cora, at least, has one hand one her own destiny.  

Sensual. That’s an accurate way to describe Cora, or Avarice, the Twins, or nearly any of Olivia’s oils ladies.  From the act of asphyxiation to the harmony of the colors to the organic nature of the elements, these are sensual beings illuminating their space. In this way, Olivia’s art more closely resembles art of the Romantic period.

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The Romantic Movement, which peaked between 1800 and 1840, was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe. (Figures 10, 11 and 12)  Partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, it was also a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and an emotional reaction against Darwinism and the scientific rationalization of nature. Sensuality is a defining characteristic of romanticism, as is emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror, intimacy to nature and the natural- such as animals or the sea. Romanticism recognized strong emotions as an authentic source of aesthetic experience. Thus, spontaneity became a desirable characteristic for first time, and folk art and ancient customs elevated into something noble. (Blayney Brown 34-39)

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"The Romantics were inveterate makers and consumers of myths and histories that dramatized themselves and their art." (Blayney Brown 19)

"I rarely have a shortage of ideas or inspiration,” Olivia revals. (Schnabel)  This was the kind of attitude born in Romanticism. 

"Romantic authors and composers probed the nature of the creative gift which, they believed made them special." (Blayney Brown 19)

Like the Romantics, Olivia brings herself into the canvas, as both subject, and personality. Much of her success has come through marketing her art and herself as one on the internet. 

"[Prior to Romanticism] artists had been less important than what they produced - servants, not masters, in most aspects of their lives." (Blayney Brown 19) 

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Charmaine Olivia’s paintings share many characteristic traits with the Romantics.  Her pieces are very dark in color, with rich, emotional portraits, that seek to arouse much like Romanticism, rather than shock, like surrealism.  Her work embraces folk and ancient pagan symbols are treasured and elevated in her work, similar to Romanticism.  Also, there is a very strong connection to nature, whether the sea, animals, or organic matter and biology. Olivia’s subjects are placed in positions of authority and control around nature.  Their posture and position toward nature is both unifying and dominant.  As in Romanticism, the sensuality of nature acts as a reflection arousing the sensuality of the subject.

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While an esoteric mysticism can occasionally been seen in surrealists like Leonora Carrington (13), Olivia’s pieces are definitely of the Romantic realm with Surreal touches as opposed to the polar disposition.  For these reasons, Olivia’s oils could be called Surreal Romanticism.  It will be interesting to see how the fusion of these two realms of expression plays out in Olivia’s artwork as she matures. 

Copyright 2012 by Layla Sola


Works Cited


Aberth, Susan. Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004.

Blayney Brown, David.  Romanticism. New York: Phaidon, 2010.

Schaeffner, Claude. History of Art: Surrealism. Paris: Spadem, 1970.

Schnabel  , Jill. “An Interview with Charmaine Olivia.”  Hi-Fructose Magazine 29 April 2011. http://hifructose.com/the-blog/1744-an-interview-with-charmaine-olivia.html

Figure 1, Aveline by Charmaine Olivia

Figure 2, Avarice by Charmaine Olivia

Figure 3, The Twins by Charmaine Olivia

Figure 4, Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Figure 5, Departure of a Winged Ship by Salvador Dali

Figure 6, Reflections of Elephants by Salvador Dali

Figure 7, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dali

Figure 8, Woman with a Head of Roses by Salvador Dali

Figure 9, Cora by Charmaine Olivia

Figure 10, Portrait of Daughters by Thomas Gainsbourgh

Figure 11, Portrait of a Negress by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

Figure 12, Portrait of Baron Joseph Vialetes de Mortarieu by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Figure 13, Adieu Amenhotep by Leonora Carrington

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