After viewing Dulwich Picture Gallery’s latest exhibition, British Surrealism, Jennifer Brough reflects on one of the west’s most disruptive art movements, its elitism, and how women surrealists are gradually being given the space they deserve.
To mention surrealism is to conjure dripping clocks, abstract anthropomorphic shapes and vast deserts inhabited by everyday objects. But outside of the large personalities that dominated public consciousness, most would be hard pushed to name a British surrealist beyond Leonora Carrington.
Yet 23 such artists participated in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, which, aside from Dali almost suffocating in his deep-sea subconscious diving suit, opened with André Breton acknowledging surrealism’s debt to writers like Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift alongside Charles Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade. And so, Dulwich’s exhibition traces how the originators of British surrealism aimed to canonise a movement through literary and artistic ‘ancestors’, including William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Christopher Marlowe, whose writings explored the subconscious, dreams, alchemy and fantasy.
Despite strong public reception and surrealist contingencies springing up across Europe in the early twentieth century, British critics were divided between deeming the 1936 show sensational or dismissing it as beyond reason. This division extended to British surrealism’s development after its launch, with ongoing aesthetic tensions between its leaders regarding genealogy, a relationship to modernism, and the gendered perspective that had emerged.
Such in-fighting characterised surrealism before it was imported from Europe where it was spearheaded by a dynamic and difficult Breton. Working as a medic, he observed Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques used with soldiers in a trauma centre and recognised that stream-of-consciousness accounts and dream analysis could be valuable tools to help reimagine a world teetering on the edge of destruction. Breton soon fell in with Dadaists, an anarchic avant-garde group that protested the violence of war and rejected nationalism, but soon butted heads with founder Tristan Tzara and separated into surrealism, with two groups laying claim to the name. Breton and his allies won the fight artistically and literally – he physically fought rival Yvan Goll at one point, in a kind of surrealist West Side Story – and defined the movement in the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 as:
…pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
Despite the seeming freedom of these words, Breton was an ardent gatekeeper expelling members of the official group who did not maintain his cultural vision. Indeed, we learn that Francis Bacon (represented here by his discomforting Figures in the Garden, 1935) was deemed ‘not sufficiently surreal’ for the 1936 show and hear Lucian Freud bemoan the movement, which made it ‘easy for people of no talent to practise art’. This disunity, in part, accounts for one reason why British surrealism didn’t fully take hold. With the Spanish Civil War unfolding shortly after the exhibition and an unstable Europe heading towards another world war, the movement was abandoned as a collective and left individual artists to retreat into their own styles, though each retaining the marker of surrealism. While the works displayed are slightly less explosive than their European counterparts, like Picasso’s Guernica (1939) or Dalí’s The Enigma of Hitler (1939), those that do take war as their subject have a quiet urgency to them. F.E. McWilliam’s sculpture Spanish Head (1938-9) is perfectly placed in the eerily lit Gallery’s sunken crypt, while a macabre reality is thinly veiled by the comic in Edward Burra’s colourful Dancing Skeletons (1934).
Amongst the 70 works of paintings, photography, etchings and sculpture from more than 40 British artists, the highlights are works by women, namely Marion Adnams, Eileen Agar, Emmy Bridgwater, Leonora Carrington, Ithell Colquhoun, Grace Pailthorpe, Edith Rimmington and Paula Vézelay. At last, here and elsewhere women surrealists are having a long-overdue resurgence, with Tate Modern’s recent shows on Dorothea Tanning and Dora Maar, Fantastic Women at The Schirn Kunsthalle, and several upcoming exhibitions at galleries worldwide. But it is no wonder that even those women closest to the centre of surrealism were mostly relegated by history to the role of ‘femme enfant’, model or muse, as Breton claimed in the second iteration of the manifesto that, ‘The problem of woman is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in all the world’ – simultaneously centring their bodies and silencing them as artists.
Though the exhibition briefly acknowledges the contributions that women in the movement made (despite continual challenges faced through their rejection of societal expectations), their work speaks for itself; compared to their male counterparts, British surrealism was explored by its female members daringly and distinctively. From Carrington’s enchanted interior landscape in The Old Maids (1947) to the isolated symbolism of Adnams’ L’infante égarée (1944) and Rimmington’s Family Tree (1938), the latter of which could almost be companion pieces in their moonlit coldness, there is a rich style that encompasses the inherently feminine and a deep connection with the natural world. Here, Colquhoun stole the show as a perfect example of women and world-making. At 4 by 6 feet, La cathédrale engloutie (1952) is a breathtaking pink landmass home to one of two submerged stone circles. A painting – I later learned in a cosmic coincidence from Richard Shillitoe at a Treadwell’s talk – which was inspired by the ancient stone of the islet of Er Lannic. Elsewhere, Alcove I (1946) and Alcove II (1948) demonstrate her use of decalcomania – a technique where paint is spread and compressed between two sheets of paper —resulting in two pulsating halves from one form.
The absence of the history – technical or otherwise – behind this and other pieces throughout the exhibition means the viewer relies predominantly on their own interpretation. Though this can be a refreshing approach and encourages further research compared with other text-laden shows, it could prove frustrating for those want to learn more about British roots in the movement. This is not to say that the show is not an enjoyable one. Playfully acknowledging the exclusivity that has long permeated the surrealist movement and wider cultural scene, David Boyd Haycock’s curation goes some way towards undoing this with eyeball-adorned plaques encouraging viewers to replicate surrealist tropes, like wordplay and automatic doodling or writing to create their own work. In the spirit of surrealism, however uneasy its collective origins, the exhibition places an onus on the individual to pick their own path thematically.
However, the lack of a clear narrative thread uniting the rooms means the exhibition falls short of being brilliant. It teeters on the cusp of proffering connections, with minor exposition and hints of relationships or splinter groups, only to sweep them away. Perhaps this is one of surrealism’s ‘get out of jail free’ cards – if it doesn’t make sense, that is down to the viewer’s discernment. But in omitting some of the complex elements of surrealism’s establishment and the back story of the fringe figures exhibited, it remains tantalisingly dreamlike, its true meaning out of reach upon waking.
British Surrealism is on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 17 May. For more information or to book tickets, click here.
Feature Image: Leonora Carrington, The Pomps of the Subsoil, 1947, © Estate of Leonora Carrington / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019, UEA 28. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia. Photographer: James Austin.
This review was commissioned under our new theme Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, we at Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.