There’s nothing more tedious than having to listen to someone tell you about their dreams. So it’s amazing that this is at the heart of one of the most popular art movements in history: surrealism.
You already know plenty about the genre. Started in 1920s Paris, surrealism wanted to break down the layers of rationalism, consciousness and politeness that were swaddling society. Magritte, Dali, Breton et al did that by letting their inner lives out, by allowing the subconscious to become conscious through painting, poetry, films, novels and actions that celebrated the weird, the uncanny and, yep, the surreal.
But it wasn’t confined to Paris. Surrealism spread all over the world, and that’s what this show’s about.
It’s organised around places. There are rooms about Egypt’s Art and Liberty group, Mexico’s Los Contemporáneos and the artists working in the Caribbean. But there are also rooms about automatism, reason, collective identity and dreams. There’s a Joan Miró from the 1960s, a Picasso from the 1920s, there are photos and magazines and books. Essentially, it’s a huge, broad, overwhelming mess of a show.
There are some big names here, like Magritte and de Chirico, but this isn’t really about them
There are some big names here, like Magritte and de Chirico, but this isn’t really about them. It’s about international artists, and some of them are brilliant. Yamashita Kikuji’s ‘Deification of a Soldier’ is brutal, horrifying, dark and stunning; Hector Hyppolite’s flat, colourful sword brandisher is simple and brilliant; Amy Nimr’s vile image of a globby corpse is putrid; Kamel El Telmissany’s ultra-violent painting of a woman pierced by stakes is shocking and political. Best of all is Ted Joans’s 132-artist exquisite corpse, an endless scroll with each chunk done by a different person.
Is all of this art actually surrealism? Not really, and a huge number of these artists would have absolutely rejected the term. In an effort to squidge in as many artists from around the world as possible, the Tate has just chucked in anyone who ever expressed an interest in the movement. A lot of these artists are just surrealism-adjacent. Like, they’ve heard of surrealism, went to a meeting once maybe, and now, years later, they’ve been stuck with it. Imagine if you once said you quite liked cherry tomatoes and then 70 years after your death you’re in a cherry tomato-lovers exhibition.
There’s a specific intention here: the curators want to ‘de-centre’ surrealism, to extricate it from its dominant western narrative. But by trying to shove all these artists under the umbrella of surrealism, by tarring them all with a specifically European brush, they’re undoing all of that.
As a result, the show’s at its best when it zeroes in on specific places with explicit links to surrealism. The Mexico and Egypt displays are great, but the rest is too broad to work. Fewer artworks, a narrower focus, and you might just have the exhibition of your dreams.