British Surrealism review
Time Out says
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Ah, surrealism. A quick search on Twitter today for ‘surreal’ brings up posts about coronavirus and Russian cosmetics and someone called Rya saying ‘In a few months, I’ll be a junior in college. So surreal wow.’ ‘Surreal’ is now part of everyone’s vocabulary. So it’s strange to think that it was once a super-aloof exercise in cultural one-upmanship practised by a few entitled European blokes in handmade suits. The influence of that original group around André Breton quickly spread. There was a surrealism exhibition in London in 1936, and that is really the crux of this show.
The British take on surrealism is – predictably – awkward. As a style, it’s fatally easy to mimic (which wasn’t really the original intention). Conroy Maddox is the worst culprit here. He gives us eyeballs, bowler hats and a typewriter with nails sticking out of the keys and a reference to wanking in the title. There’s similar tripe from Reuben Mednikoff and Roland Penrose. You feel these artists are just playing with a genre. But away from pastiche, there’s some fascinating stuff here. Women artists fare especially well. Maybe surrealism’s relevelling of the playing field helped back in the day. Eileen Agar and Marion Adnams both have a distinctly feminised approach, while Grace Pailthorpe’s watercolour ‘Abstract with Eye and Breast’ (1938) strives towards expressionism. Some of that delicacy is found in the work of John Banting, too.
What really works well, though, is the context the show gives to some twentieth-century legends: Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. Bacon wasn’t accepted into the 1936 show, because he was ‘not sufficiently surreal’. He was probably well out of it. His work from the year before, ‘Figures in a Garden’, nods to the surreal with its odd oxblood dog-slug-hedgehog and childlike background, but frothing within it is the dysmorphic horror show he will unleash a decade later. If he’d been accepted as one of the gang, it could have been very different.
Lucian Freud (also represented here) thought that surrealism allowed ‘people of no talent to practise art’. On this evidence, he’s sort of right. But as a movement it helped blow apart the whole idea of artistic ‘talent’ as traditionally conceived. And in that respect, he was dead wrong.