J G Ballard and modern art

Roger Luckhurst describes the influence of modern art, especially Surrealism and Pop Art, on J G Ballard and, in turn, Ballard's influence on visual artists.

Within a year of the death of the science fiction writer J G Ballard (1930–2009), there was a major exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in London called ‘Crash: Homage to J G Ballard’, accompanied by an impressive catalogue. It was a testament both to the influence of visual art on Ballard’s extraordinary body of fiction, but also his influence on a large array of artists. Ballard’s key visual art reference points were all represented at the exhibition.

Ballard and Surrealism

The Gagosian exhibition included Surrealist paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí and Paul Delvaux. Surrealism was a movement formed by André Breton and other artists and agitators based in 1920s Paris. They declared war on the ‘rational’ world that had produced the disaster of the First World War, and valued instead the power of the unconscious as it appeared in dreams, in delirium, in ‘automatic’ behaviours, in sexual ecstasy, in acts of random chance and in madness. This embrace, not of the real but the sur-real, was meant to be a political act, although they often had heated disagreements about politics.

Ballard often conceived stories as if they were taking place in the dream-like geometries of Surrealist paintings – his disaster novel The Drowned World (1962) constantly references Delvaux, Dalí and Max Ernst, whilst The Drought (1964) took place in desert plains that might have been borrowed from the imagery of Dali or the Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy. Ballard wrote knowledgeably on Dalí’s ‘paranoid’ method of composition in the 1960s when Dalí’s reputation was in the doldrums. Dalí positively embraced his own neurotic and anxious behaviours, and his ‘paranoid’ paintings were often dense visual images where the viewer can see and interpret several things at once, creating a multiple, contradictory and delirious experience. Ballard introduced the artist into the pages of New Worlds science fiction magazine, then being overhauled by editor Michael Moorcock as an avant-garde journal awash with striking illustrations and experimental photo-collage work. He also lavishly praised the Surrealists in a 1966 essay called ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, celebrating their subversion of what their leader and key theorist André Breton called the paucity of reality.

With the money Ballard made from Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), he commissioned the artist Brigid Marlin to reconstruct the Delvaux painting The Violation that had been destroyed in the war. In later years, Ballard was often photographed at home sitting under this giant, faked Surrealist painting. The sexual transgressions that fascinated the Surrealists were also important to Ballard, from the perverse doll obsessively photographed and drawn in the 1930s by Hans Bellmer to Helmut Newton’s brash female nudes in jarring contexts from the 1960s and 70s.

Photograph of J G Ballard with a copy of a Paul Delvaux Surrealist painting

Photographs of J G Ballard with copies of Paul Delvaux's Surrealist paintings

J G Ballard owned reproductions of two Paul Delvaux paintings, which were hung at his home in Shepperton.

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Copyright: © Martyn Goddard

Ballard and Pop Art

The Gagosian exhibition also acknowledged Ballard’s connections to the British artists of the Independent Group, the post-war British movement that broke with severe modernism and anticipated Pop Art in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ballard repeatedly wrote about the impact of the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ when he visited it in 1956. This was an exhibition of immersive science fictional environments put together by artists and architects. It was full of images of robots, space craft, images from modern scientific experiment, and contemporary architecture, a deliberate mixing up of sources and references that marked a new generation of artists rejecting the ‘purity’ of abstract modernist art.


Ballard would later get to know several of those involved in ‘This is Tomorrow’: the collagist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, who was obsessed with the lurid colours and imagery of American science fiction magazines, the painter and conceptualist Richard Hamilton, the man who inadvertently named ‘Pop Art’, and the radical architects, Peter and Alison Smithson, associated with ‘Brutalist’ architecture like Robin Hood Gardens in east London, one possible source for Ballard’s novel High-Rise (1975).

The Metallization of a Dream, works by Eduardo Paolozzi

The Metallization of a Dream, works by Eduardo Paolozzi

‘Japanese War God’ by Eduardo Paolozzi, 1958. Typical of Paolozzi’s work from this period, the bronze sculpture combines modern machinery with the human form.

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From his earliest fictions in the 1950s, collected in Vermilion Sands, Ballard featured artists and artworks that he lifted directly from exhibitions and galleries he had seen. The colony of artists in Vermilion Sands produce work that reads like a list of shows at London’s then radical Institute of Contemporary Art, with sculptures and installations in the stories that evoke Reg Butler’s distorted sculptural forms or echo group shows like ‘Growth and Form’ or ‘The Parallel of Art and Life’.

In the late 1960s, Ballard also showed that he was steeped in the American version of Pop Art, particularly the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Conner, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. American Pop Art was loud and brash, intended to upset the rigours of cold abstract art, which rejected all representation and had reduced the canvas to pure colour and line. Instead, Pop Artists like Warhol looked to the vulgar world of advertising, TV, cartoons, packaging, pulp magazines and celebrity glitz. Richard Hamilton famously defined Pop Art as ‘Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business’. This mix of high and low culture is what gave science fiction new possibilities for post-war artists and writers like J G Ballard.

'An exposition of "$he"' by Richard Hamilton, from Architectural Design

'An exposition of "$he"' by Richard Hamilton, from Architectural Design

Pop artist Richard Hamilton combined imagery of domestic appliances and models from popular magazines in the collage painting $he, 1962.

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It is striking how many parallels and echoes there are between the films, screenprints and paintings of Warhol and Conner with Ballard’s most daring, confrontational and experimental fiction, The Atrocity Exhibition. This was published as an open series of short condensed fictions between 1966 and 1970, with sections of it deemed obscene and withdrawn from publication at the time. Ballard and Warhol were obsessed with the growing ‘society of the spectacle’ (as it was named by theorist Guy Debord in 1967) – a world of glamorous celebrity that was also haunted by death and disaster. Just as Warhol repeatedly printed images of Marilyn Monroe, the crashed car of James Dean, or the image of Jacqueline Kennedy in mourning after the assassination of her husband in 1963, so Ballard wrote fictions that circled obsessively around these dead figures. The mad ‘exhibitions’ staged in his challenging and brutal short stories are full of attempts to restage these deaths in order to manage and master the traumas they have produced in their suffering protagonists.

Ballard was interested in using the visual collage techniques derived from the Cubists and Surrealists, but also updated these by exploring contemporary advertising strategies. Just as the French artist Daniel Buren produced abstract ‘poster’ art in the 1960s, taking images into the street and plastering them up as if ephemeral advertisements, so Ballard constructed several ‘chapters’ of The Atrocity Exhibition as pieces of billboard art. The Arts Council refused to fund him, and some of these designs appeared as forms of concrete poetry in New Worlds and other journals like the poetry journal Ambit.

Text collages by J G Ballard, c. 1958

Text collages by J G Ballard, c. 1958

J G Ballard’s experimental text collages, later titled Project for a New Novel, combined scientific and technical material cut from science journals.

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Photographs of J G Ballard, 1950–60

Photographs of J G Ballard, 1950-60

J G Ballard in 1960 in his garden at Shepperton, in front of a billboard-style display of the experimental text collages he created c. 1958.

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At this time, Ballard even became an art curator himself, famously curating an exhibition of crashed cars at the Arts Lab in Camden. Ballard managed to source a mangled Lincoln, the make of car in which Kennedy had been killed. The show was active research for his most controversial novel Crash (1973), in which a character called James Ballard is introduced to a weird cult that haunts London’s Westway motorway, exploring the sexual possibilities of car crashes, the interplay of technology and perverse desire. When the author J G Ballard crashed his car shortly after completing the novel about the character James Ballard, he took a number of photographs of the wreck, images that are now in the British Library archive of his papers.

Invitation card to J G Ballard's 'Crashed Cars' exhibition, 3 April 1970

Invitation card to J G Ballard's 'Crashed Cars' exhibition, 3 April 1970

The provocative ‘Crashed Cars’ exhibition allowed J G Ballard to interrogate his developing ideas about the cultural and psychological dimensions of the car crash.

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Ballardian art

Even more strikingly, the Gagosian exhibition was a demonstration of Ballard’s huge influence on artists too – this was not just the case of a writer passively reflecting the world of visual art, but helping to shape it. His work had a major impact on the land artist Robert Smithson, for instance. Smithson famously constructed an artificial spiral jetty out of rubble in the Great Salt Lake of Utah in 1970. It echoes Ballard’s story ‘The Voices of Time’, and a copy of Ballard’s collection of short stories titled The Voices of Time was found among Smithson’s books after he died in 1973. American artist Richard Prince has also directly used Ballard’s work in his paintings and installations, echoing Ballard’s obsession with car wrecks and automobile design. Ballard’s fiction has been acknowledged as an influence by a number of figures in the YBA ('Young British Artists') generation that emerged as art-stars in the 1990s. Jake and Dinos Chapman spend time adding graffiti to Goya etchings – but they also messed around with the text of Ballard’s Crash to produce the art-book Bangwallop, a book-object designed to echo the lurid 70s paperback cover of Ballard’s novel, right down to the creases in the spine. Video artists Jane and Louise Wilson film spooky tracking shots around abandoned nuclear test sites or old space launches, directly inspired by Ballard’s interest in the ruins of the future. These films could not exist without Ballard’s stories like ‘Memories of the Space Age’ and others collected in Myths of the Near Future (1982). Similarly, the photographer and film artist Tacita Dean has long produced work that deserves the epithet ‘Ballardian’ – images of abandoned futuristic houses, rotting away and overtaken by weeds, or work focussed on lone obsessives like Donald Crowhurst, the man who elaborately faked the trajectory of his lone round-the-world sailing trip before committing suicide. In her film JG (2013), Dean directly focussed on her long engagement with Ballard’s work, and on letters they exchanged. Her film juxtaposes readings from Ballard’s ‘Voices of Time’ with a visual attempt to rediscover the lost site of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah. There are many other contemporary artists, from the installation artist Roger Hiorns (who has turned a council house flat into a ‘crystal world’) to George Shaw (painter of banal yet menacing suburban spaces) who are clearly influenced by Ballard.

Ballard in the British Library

After his death from cancer in 2009, Ballard’s papers were deposited with the British Library. There is a wonderful moment in his Paris Review interview in 1984 where Ballard discovers from his interviewer that authors' papers might actually be worth something – it genuinely appears as if he had no idea. The collection is therefore fairly sparse from his early years, but has much more detail from the last phase of his career. The visual materials, such as postcards, photographs and images of paintings do suggest how important visual culture was to Ballard. Indeed, it is impossible to consider Ballard’s fiction without examining his saturation in the modern and contemporary art that surrounded him during his career. The exhibition at the Gagosian emphasised this, as did the exhibition at the Barcelona Centre for Contemporary Culture in 2008 about Ballard’s work, called ‘Autopsy of the New Millennium’.

Further reading

Jeannette Baxter, J. G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

David Brittain, Eduardo Paolozzi at New Worlds: Science Fiction and Art in the Sixties (Manchester: Savoy Books, 2013).

Crash: Homage to J. G. Ballard, ed. by Mark Francis and Kay Pallister (London: Gagosian Gallery, 2010).

Roger Luckhurst, 'The Angle Between Two Walls': The Fiction of J. G. Ballard (Liverpool University Press, 1997).

This is Tomorrow Today: The Independent Group and British Pop Art, ed. by Brian Wallis and Thomas Finkelpearl (New York: Institute for Art and Urban Resources, 1987).

  • Roger Luckhurst
  • Roger Luckhurst is Professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist in Late Victorian literature, Gothic and Science fiction literature and film, and the history of the supernatural. He is the author of Science Fiction (2005), The Mummy’s Curse (2012) and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and H P Lovecraft. His book on the film Alien appeared in 2014 from the BFI and one called Zombies was out with Reaktion Press in 2015.

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