Until 17 May 2020
When one hears about the Surrealists, one’s mind instantly races across the Channel to France, Belgium and maybe down to Spain. British Surrealism sounds as incongruous as German cuisine, and yet, in 1936, Roland Penrose, himself a failed painter, organised an exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries with the critic Herbert Read and the poet David Gascoyne, called the International Surrealist Exhibition with André Breton, the precursor of the movement, Salvadore Dali, E L T Mesens and Paul Éluard in attendance, and the participation of René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Hans Bellmer, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Some list!
Amongst the British artists hanging were Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Eileen Agar, John Banting Edward Burra and Graham Sutherland, and, indeed, these artists are all represented in the Dulwich show, plus a few more, including Ithell Colquhoun, who joined the British Surrealists in 1939, but was expelled the following year for not giving up her interest in the occult. Colquhoun was famous for her sexualised portrayal of plants as male and female genitalia, which got her into a spot of bother at the Leicester Galleries in 1942. Her Pine Family is an array of truncated torsos, one female, one male and one hermaphrodite. The latter two having had their penises chopped off, and the female has had a leg severed, with a note stuck on the other limb, ‘celle qui boîte’, the one who limps. The hermaphrodite has a label with the legend, ‘the circumcised hermaphrodite’, although that is a somewhat extreme version of the proceedure, and the male has had the same radical surgery, with a flag stuck in his thigh like describing the type of cheese on a board, with the name Atthis, the consort of Cybele. All very mythical so far.
The exhibition starts by listing a number of ‘Ancestors of Surrealism,’ which may surprise some visitors. Jonathan Swift, famous for his Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World with Lemuel Gulliver. Breton was tickled by the notion put forward by Swift in a pamphlet A Modest Proposal, in which he suggested that the poor people of Ireland should sell their children to the rich for them to eat. There is a classic JamesGillray, with the giant Brobdingnag, in the recognisable guise of George III, peering through a telescope at a furious and diminutive Napoleon in the palm of his hand. Although Henry Fuseli was Swiss by birth, the British seemed to have adopted him as their own, and there is his forceful The Weird Sisters from Macbeth. William Blake was another ‘precursor’, according to Herbert Read, who quoted him at great length in Surrealism, and which he edited in 1936. Richard Dadd and Lewis Carroll were other ‘influencers’ of the Surrealist movement, although Alice was unknown to most of the French until the early 1930s.
Of the British Surrealists, there were a small number of important women painters, including Colquhoun, Edith Rimmington, Grace Pailthorpe, Emmy Bridgewater, Eileen Agar, Marion Adams and Leonora Carrington, perhaps the most celebrated of them all. Rimmington is represented by The Oneiroscopist (a person who interprets dreams), depicting a bird-like figure with an elongated beak in a diving suit, possibly inspired by Dali’s attempt to give a lecture from inside a diving suit at the 1936 exhibition, where he nearly suffocated, and was rescued by Gascoyne, who went out to fetch a spanner just in time. Agar was an exceptionally talented painter and was a favourite of Mesens. She had an intense affair with Paul Nash, who had made his name as a war artist, but found surrealism deeply liberating until he moved away from it at the beginning of the Second World War. Carrington ran away to France with Max Ernst, whom she met in London, and produced mythical and pagan scenes that expressed ideas about female sexuality, creativity and power. Colquhoun recalled Breton saying, ‘que la femme soit libre et adoré,’ but most of his followers were no less chauvinist for all that.
Among them, women as human beings tended to be ‘permitted not required.’ Francis Bacon was not invited to exhibit at the 1936 exhibition as Penrose and Read deemed him not to be ‘sufficiently surreal for inclusion,’ in addition to Breton’s deep-seated homophobia.
Like Bacon, Lucian Freud comes under the heading ‘Influenced by Surrealism’, but he objected to the fact that ‘under the laws of doctrinaire surrealism as approved by Mesens it was easy for people of no talent to produce art.’ With his strict autoritarian rules, he drove away Pailthorpe, Agar, Ruth Adams and Colquhoun. The zoologist Desmond Morris was a Johnny-comelately to Surrealism, arriving in Paris just as the movement had moved on, and all but evaporated. Conroy Maddox is represented by a white typewriter on a velvet cushion, with tacks pointing upwards on the keys, entitled Onanistic Typewriter 1, although what that has to do with ejaculation is anyone’s guess.
Dorothy Parker named her parrot Onan, because he, too, spent his seed upon the ground. Maddox argued that a ‘true surrealist painting or object lay beyond interpretation,’ so that will have to suffice. Reuban Mednikoff was born in London to Russian Jewish parents, and joined up with Grace Pailthorpe to study Freudian psychoanalytical research, the results of which were praised by Breton, but the autocratic Mesens contrived to have them expelled from the British group in 1940, for not signing up to an agreement ‘not to join any other group or association, professional or other, including any secret society, other than the Surrealists.’
Henry Moore regarded himself as a Surrealist, but had to abandon the movement when he was called upon to be a war artist, while Paul Nash ‘did not claim Surrealism himself, the movement claimed him,’ and contact with the movement encouraged Nash in his own particular manner of ‘seeing things’ and ‘intensified his perception of the object’, but he never subscribed to the ideology of the movement. Others include John Banting, who died in drunken obscurity in 1972, Graham Sutherland, who went on to become one of the most prominent figures in modern British painting, Edward Burra a stunningly original painter, Frederick Edward McWilliam, who has a single, terrifying sculpture in the show, and said, ‘I was for surrealism but not with it.’ This comprehensive exhibition rounds off with Sam Haile, Tristram Hiller, Stanley Hayter, master printmaker, John Tunnard, John Armstrong, John Bigge, Cecil Collins, who was thrown out of the movement when it was discovered he had Christian tendencies, Oscar Mellor and Julian Trevelyan, who ended up marrying the still life painter, Mary Feddon, a darling of the Royal Academy Summer Show.
Image: The Old Maids. Leonora Carrington. © The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts UEA.