Blog, Exhibitions

British Surrealism

As I write this and the whole of the world seems to be shutting down and self-isolating, I am delighted that I was able to visit the British Surrealism exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. 26 February -17 May 2020

Marion Adnams, Aftermath, 1946, Photo: 2006 Christie’s Images Limited, © The Estate of Marion Adnams 

         I love the Picture Gallery and it has hosted some fabulous exhibitions including the recent one on Rembrandt and light. DPG has a great modern extension that was completed in 2000, designed by architect Rick Mather described here by Don Cruikshank:

         “Mather’s work at Dulwich is a masterpiece of subtle, informed understatement where the feel for Soane has been combined with a flair for, and awareness of, the potential offered by new forms and new materials.”

 Edith Rimmington, Family Tree, 1938, The Murray Family Collection (UK & USA) © Estate of Edith Rimmington

         Dulwich Picture Gallery was founded in 1811 and was the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery. It gets no regular public funding and It cares for and displays an outstanding collection of Old Master paintings within Sir John Soane’s pioneering architecture. It runs fabulous and inclusive events programme that engages with as many people as possible, of all ages and backgrounds. So having laid out my pitch and said that I am a keen supporter of the gallery, I have to say I am not a keen supporter of this exhibition. Yes it does what it says on the blurb, It marks 100 years since the birth of surrealism. There are over 70 eclectic works from 42 artists including Leonora Carrington, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Paul Nash.  There is even a piece of work by none other than Desmond Morris who is better known for his work as a zoologist, broadcaster and writer than as a painter. 

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons, 1934, (1905-1976). Photo © Tate, Copyright: © Tate 

         The exhibition curator Dr David Boyd Haycock describes surrealism as ‘Probably the most exciting, transgressive and bizarre art movement of the twentieth century”  

 The Dulwich picture Gallery’s Sackler Director, Jennifer Scott says

“ Visitors will be invited to embark on their own adventures into the illogical through some spectacular loans and inventive exhibition design; it is not to be missed.”

         The positive thing about this exhibition is that it includes poets and playwrights from the 17th -19th centuries who shared and inspired the subversive qualities and absurdities of the movement. The exhibition includes works by the, so called, ‘Ancestors of surrealism’ including William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry Fuseli, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Their inclusion feels as if they are there to bulk out what would otherwise be a rather thin offering of work.

 We are shown the echoes and elements of the uncomfortable, rejecting order and chronology to channel mischief and provocation of the movement.

Arranged to reflect the modes and methods of surrealism, with themes of war, dreams, the unconscious, the uncanny, radical politics, sex and desire. The common creative urge, between all artists, are highlighted throughout, revealing the power of the subconscious, and the liberation of the imagination.

Conroy Maddox, The Lesson, 1938/1970, © Christie’s Images Limited, Given with the kind permission of the artist’s daughter

         There are a few stunning of pieces of work such as Marion Adnams  Aftermath, and her painting called  The distraught Infants and  Edith Rimmington’s  Family Tree.

But where are the equivalent of the masters such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte.   Conroy Maddox with his Typewriter is a close second to the work that was made by Marcel Duchamp.

Conroy Maddox, Onanistic Typewriter, 1940, Photo credit Murray Family Collection (UK & USA) Given with the kind permission of the artist’s daughter.

         It appears that many British artists ‘had a go’ at Surrealism but it feels as if their hearts weren’t  really in it as a movement. There is a truly awful painting called Landscape with Birds painted in 1940 by, one of my favourite artists, Lucien Freud. Freud was attending surrealist meetings during the Second World war. But as he later explained. “ I objected to the fact that under the laws of doctrinaire surrealism …… it was easy for people of no talent to practice art.’

         The Sunday Times described this current exhibition as a “Pythonesque celebration of British Eccentricity” and indeed there is a truly Pythonesque  black and white graphic  piece on one of the floors with long black intertwined arms ending to white hands that point in different directions with words such as Desire, Exit, Coincidence, Conflict, Politics, The Impossible “

         There is a small excellent book and gift shop and great café selling delicious food. The museum staff go out of their way to help and engage visitors even small boys, who want to wear the head phones that guide you round the exhibition. So if you have an afternoon to spare I would recommend visiting to find those true gems that are hidden amongst the dross.

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