An exhibition draws our attention to the contribution of British artists to Surrealism.
One doesn’t tend to utter the words “British” and “Surrealism” in the same breath. “French,” yes, and indeed the Surrealist movement, with its often doctrinaire seriousness, left-oriented politics, and poetic rhetoric, has a decidedly Gallic flavor. However, an exhibition on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (through May 17) takes “British Surrealism” as its very title and brings together over 70 works by 42 artists to make the case that not only did the English produce quite a good number of excellent Surrealist artists, but that there was something inherent in British culture itself that was conducive to Surrealism. The full title of the show is “British Surrealism: 1783–1952,” and the provocative dates should give a clue to the ambitions of its curator, David Boyd Haycock. Alongside artworks by recognized British Surrealists such as Eileen Agar, Roland Penrose, Paul Nash, and Leonora Carrington he presents some earlier ones by Henry Fuseli, William Blake, and Richard Dadd, as well as images that relate to the work of literary artists Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll. The exhibition catalogue refers to these as “precursors” or “ancestors” of the Surrealists, and it seems that Haycock, like a dowser, has been on the trail of a secret Surrealist stream running beneath England’s verdant hills and valleys.
Surrealism, at least in its official form, can be traced back to 1920 (the exhibition also positions itself as a centennial celebration). As is well known, it was born from the devastation of World War I, which shook Europe’s confidence in its morals and institutions. André Breton, a young French medic during the war, had treated soldiers with severe psychiatric problems brought on by combat, and this experience had drawn him to the works of Sigmund Freud. At the same time, he was inspired by subversive 18th- and 19th-century French writers such as the Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, and the Comte de Lautréamont and by the eerie paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. In Zurich, right after the war, Breton joined the Romanian-born Tristan Tzara and a few other artistic exiles in the Dada movement, which rebelliously celebrated absurdity. Out of Dada, Surrealism was born when Breton (himself a writer and theorist rather than a visual artist) issued a manifesto spelling out its principles and techniques, notably “pure psychic automatism,” by which the unconscious mind would be allowed to come into its own as a creative force. “I believe,” wrote Breton, “in the future resolution of those two states, apparently contradictory, dream and reality, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may say.”
This intoxicating mix of methods was slow to arrive in England and even slower to take hold. For one thing, English artists had traditionally been averse to joining groups and making self-consciously dogmatic statements. For another, England remained, even after the war, artistically insular, in keeping with its geographic nature as an island apart from Europe. In the early 1930s the British public got its first glimpses of Surrealist art, but things accelerated in 1935, when painter Roland Penrose and the 18-year-old poet David Gascoyne—both of whom had recently lived in Paris—met and decided that they should “get together and do something about bringing surrealism to England.” Gascoyne quickly banged out A Short Survey of Surrealism while Penrose, who was independently wealthy, funded an exhibition that opened at the Burlington Gallery in 1936, with the noted art critic Herbert Read on the steering committee. The “International Surrealist Exhibition” featured 390 works by 68 artists, of whom 23 were British, and it did a great deal to focus public attention on the movement and the local contribution to it. The following year, Penrose became the financial backer of the London Gallery, which showed the work of English and foreign Surrealists alike.
Among the British Surrealists whose works are on view in the current exhibition, Conroy Maddox was one of the most closely identified with the movement, as well as one of the longest-lived (1912–2005). His painting The Lesson (1938) plays with the ambiguities involved in viewing art; it is unclear whether the two figures in the foreground are looking at a painting or at a real scene. The apartment house, real or fictive, contains classic Surrealist subjects such as a disembodied eyeball, a panic-stricken person, and sexual activity. Maddox, in what could be considered a typical English manner, argued against taking theoretical stock of what he and his fellow artists were up to: “A surrealist does not know what he is doing. Dalí didn’t know what he was doing. I don’t know what I’m doing. Something happens and it develops, but you don’t analyse it. By doing that you destroy a surrealist image.” He liked to keep collectors and historians guessing by changing the dates on his works post-facto, on the grounds that time was irrelevant since Surrealism has existed always and everywhere.
Other artists in the show practiced Surrealism but didn’t identify with it. Henry Moore, for example, made sculptures in the ’30s that were Surreal in that they alluded strongly to the human figure but lacked readable faces. However, Moore moved more and more in the direction of abstraction, which was at odds with Surrealism. Edward Burra was attracted to Surrealism by its love of the grotesque, and works of his such as Dancing Skeletons (1934) mine the rich vein of horror and the macabre that was so congenial to the Surrealists. However, Burra—like many others—disliked the controlling, tyrannical ways of Breton and distanced himself from the movement to focus instead on depictions of the seamier side of urban life.
One thing that stands out in this exhibition is the contribution of women Surrealists. This is especially noteworthy in light of the extreme sexism of the Surrealist leaders, for whom women were muses or subject matter rather than fellow artists. While some critics have called these women minor artists, the achievements of Carrington, Agar, Marion Adnams, Edith Rimmington, and Ithell Colquhoun are so obviously major as to silence any objections. Carrington, who died in 2011, is now well known thanks to recent exhibitions, but Ithell Colquhoun is the biggest revelation here. Paintings like The Pine Family (1940) and Alcove I (1946) take us into a strange and luminous inner world where nature and the human realm interpenetrate. Colquhoun is actually beginning to come into her own now, due to the acquisition last year of her massive archives by the Tate. As for women Surrealists in general, Agar summed up the situation with a brilliant quip, given to an inquiring reporter in 1938: “Just being a woman is a surrealist experience.”
As for the “precursors” of Surrealism, the connections drawn by the exhibition can sometimes strain credulity. Does Lewis Carroll’s humorous absurdity really have much in common with the corrosive subversion of Breton and company? Maybe a little, but is it meaningful? William Blake’s work may superficially resemble Surrealism, but his visions were religious and his methods had nothing to do with automatistic delvings into the unconscious. And Fuseli—who wasn’t even English though he lived in England—is Surrealist only in his preference for macabre subject matter. It is not at all clear that the real British Surrealists of the 1930s through 1950s made any connection in their minds between themselves and these earlier British figures. Regardless, though, besides presenting some wonderful works, “British Surrealism: 1783–1952” makes it clear that Surrealism has been and still is far more than just a set of fashionable gestures, that it is a deep-seated attitude which may well, as the catalogue puts it, have “existed in all times and places.”
By John Dorfman