Exhibition Review: British Surrealism at the Dulwich Picture Gallery
26th February-20th May 2020
Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality. (Lewis Carroll)
This exhibition was an admirable attempt to tell a story which —like the subject itself— strains our credulity. While the show contained some notable works, there were also some questionable pieces which failed to convince, and the outcome was that the whole was rather less than some of its parts. However, the major problem lies in the nature of Surrealism itself, a movement based on breaking established rules and then inventing new ones to break them in turn. Like Dada, from which it sprung, it cannot really be disassociated from its roots, the political and social basis environment in which it was founded, with the result that, while we may admire individual works, the argument for a Surrealist movement specific to this country is less than convincing. Indeed, for the art-viewing public, classifications ending in ‘ism’ are a mixed blessing: while they may help us to mentally locate individual painters, the terms are often so broad as to be almost meaningless. ‘Post-Impressionist,’ for example, is used to classify those artists who followed that famous movement, but in style they vary enormously. So too with the Surrealists —while they shared some common threads, their work could differ widely, as this show clearly demonstrates.
The man who cannot visualise a galloping horse on a tomato is an idiot. (André Breton)
André Breton published the first Surrealist manifesto late in 1924. However, it was not until the mid 1930s that English artists began to take note of their European counterparts, and when, in 1936, the International Surrealist Exhibition opened in London, the organisers had to trawl around the studios of local artists to find works that were sufficiently ‘surreal’ to be included. Although a fine early work by Francis Bacon was displayed in this Dulwich Picture Gallery show, it is worth noting that in 1936 he was rejected by the organising committee for not being ‘surreal’ enough! Some of the artists who exhibited then are included here, but it is an unfortunate truth that most of them were only associated with the group for a short while, leaving to forge their own paths within a few years. Leonora Carrington, Paul Nash and Eileen Agar are all here, but they are impossible to shoehorn into a single group. Nevertheless, many of the characteristics and ideas of Surrealism stayed with them, so that it is right that they should be represented here.
The curating of this exhibition does not assist the argument for a coherent Surrealist movement in this country. Dispensing with the more usual chronological format, it is split over four rooms, each with its own theme: dreams and their revelatory meanings, automatism and the subconscious, politics, and sexuality. While this helps in that works that share a common thread can be viewed together, it does give a slightly disjointed feel, as, for example, when the 1783 Fuseli painting of Macbeth’s three witches is placed next to John Banting’s spectacular 1939 drawing The Abandonment of Madame Triple-Nipples. It is also slightly confusing to see works included that cannot be classified as Surrealist. Paul Nash’s 1918 masterpiece We Are Making a New World, for example, while certainly a precursor of the movement, is not in any way an imaginary landscape. While it may be exaggerated, Nash was expressing the brutal truth of what he had seen in the War: our new technology had given us the means to destroy on an unprecedented scale, and the result was a barren landscape where nothing could survive or grow.
Life, what is it but a dream? (Lewis Carroll)
The key principles of Surrealism have been taken as the main drivers of the exhibition. The curator David Haycock writes in his introductory essay for the catalogue that “Surrealism revelled in dreams, unconscious acts, chance, deja vu, madness, surprise, disinhibition and the exploration of the subconscious,” and he organised the paintings in such a way that these principles were emphasised —yet, while it is entirely appropriate to highlight this aspect of Surrealism, it is also an obstacle to understanding the movement in its historical context. On the other hand, the exhibition’s organisation might be seen as a microcosm of Surrealism itself: back-to-front, disorganised, and capable of being read in several different, even conflicting ways. Overall, however, it must be said that this exhibition did not illuminate the contribution of English artists to the wider development of the Surrealist movement in Europe and America.
However, for those who simply want to immerse themselves in the spirit of Surrealism, there was much to enjoy. Haycock stressed the importance of humour and of random artistic choices. Combined with a political stance broadly situated to the left of the contemporary spectrum, many of the works on display took on a life of their own, separate from their supposed significance within the dialogue about the progression of Surrealism in England. One such work by Edith Rimmington, an artist with whom many will be unfamiliar, was a particular highlight. The Oneiroscopist (1947) is located in the first room, the one most associated with dreams and the inner self. The title refers to someone who interprets dreams, and the central figure is reminiscent of those images of London plague doctors dressed all in black with long bird beak hoods. The extended beak is skeletal, as are the claw-feet, which are strapped together. Around the neck is the collar of a metallic diving suit, while the helmet and air tubing lie next to the seated figure. Although this work was painted in 1947, Rimmington first encountered the Surrealists in 1937, at the time of the first International Exhibition. As has gone down in art history folklore, on July 1st, a few days before it closed, Salvador Dalí gave a public lecture enclosed in a maritime diving suit. Nobody could hear him inside the costume, so the audience was unaware when the suit’s airway became blocked. One of the organisers, Roland Penrose, realised that Dalí was suffocating, found a spanner with which to open the mask, and discovered him close to death. Rimmington’s picture clearly references this event, but has other sinister overtones. The shackled figure is seated on a platform in a bleak, cloud-surrounded landscape. Clearly the interpretation of dreams is a melancholy and disturbing affair, recalling negative past experiences.
Never a fully committed member of the English Surrealist group, despite signing their 1936 Bulletin (in a 1985 interview he told George Melly that he “didn’t like being told what to think, dearie”), Edward Burra was represented in this show by two superb works which delve into the darker recesses of the imagination. Dancing Skeletons (1934) is a ‘dance macabre’: figures dangle from gallows as a group of disfigured and discoloured skeletons dance in the foreground of a nightmare landscape, a group perhaps inspired by a 1929 Disney cartoon, Skeleton Dance from the Silly Symphony series. Baby Blue, Blitz over Britain (1941) was one of the exhibition’s most interesting pieces. A massively bulbous, scowling, female blue figure floats over a grey and brown shattered landscape, in which desperate figures are either hiding or trying to flee. This is one of those combinations of reality and imagination which, when they work, make the Surrealist approach to painting so communicative. It is a clear statement about the vicious futility of armed conflict and the damage that it does both to the world in which we live and to those directly caught up in it.
Ithell Colquhoun occupies a more legitimate place within this exhibition. She moved to Paris in the early 1930s, and came under the influence of Dalí and other Surrealist artists working in the city at that time. Although her work displays many of the more common themes associated with Surrealism, she only exhibited in one Surrealist show, and left the English group in 1940. However, she continued to explore the possibilities that her fascination with dreams and the occult offered. In The Pine Family (1940), she stacked three dismembered and castrated figures within a bleak and barren landscape. In La Cathédrale Engloutie (1952), ancient stone circles form a figure of eight on an island which is emerging into a brightly lit landscape. It is an unsettling image which, like much of Surrealist art, asks us to step into a world unconfined by our rational rules. The title, translated as ‘The sunken cathedral,’ was also the title of a Debussy prelude, which in turn referenced an ancient Breton myth in which a submerged cathedral would rise up from the depths of the sea on clear mornings, with the sound of bells and priests singing. This combination of ancient myth and music within a landscape in which the human presence is absent but implied is true to the spirit of Surrealism, although the artist had distanced herself from what was left of the movement itself.
Humour is the process that allows one to brush reality aside when it gets too distressing. (André Breton)
Within the Surrealist philosophy (if such it can be called), the key principle is the supremacy of the individual and his or her experience, be it in dreams or in the real world, or in the interfacing of both. On this personal level, the work which most impressed me was Blitz: Plane Flying (1940) by Clive Branson. The Tate have an earlier work of his, Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ Outside Projectile Engineering Works (1937), in which his political sympathies are most apparent: the Communist paper is being sold outside a munitions factory, itself a symbol of the workers’ oppression, since they will be the ones in the front line during the coming war. Blitz: Plane Flying is something quite different, an everyday scene but filled with startling imagery. A Spitfire-like plane barely crests the roofs of a typically working-class street. There is some damage below, with furniture piled up on the street, and a milkman is pushing his loaded cart across the road. All might seem quite ordinary, but look again and the ordinary becomes extraordinary. A woman in the foreground, half the size of the houses, is pulling a pram containing not a baby, but a neatly folded parachute. The Spitfire’s wing has the RAF logo but its body carries the German swastika, while the propellor produces a kaleidoscope of colour around the moon. In the bottom right-hand corner a giant broken egg lies unnoticed by an approaching pedestrian of almost the same size. Branson has successfully combined the two most powerful elements of Surrealism, namely the real world and an unreal mode of portraying it. The plane’s insignia make it clear that this could be any street, in Germany or England, and it is being destroyed while ordinary working people are trying to continue with their lives. The beauty of the night sky is still there, if only human beings would look up to see it.
The progression of the Surrealist movement has been well documented, and while English artists do not figure prominently in the wider European context, a significant number of them found the combination of the internal world of the imagination, the realm of dreams, and socialist ideals very persuasive. If this exhibition fails to deliver a coherent narrative of Surrealism in England, this is because such a narrative is ultimately impossible: artists dipped into and out of a movement which had no definitive leader in this country, and no particular style or way of working other than the highlighting of individual selves, perceptions, emotions, and desires. However, if the paintings selected for this exhibition are viewed instead as a glorious muddle of serious/frivolous, sombre/lighthearted, truthful/nonsense, then the Surrealist spirit emerges powerfully from this choice of works, which becomes something of a celebration.--Paul Flux