Art, Brexit, Dorothea Tanning, EU Referendum, George Grosz, History, International Surrealist Exhibition, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Surreal Encounters | Collecting the Marvellous, Surrealism, Surrealists
I visited Surreal Encounters, the summertime show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, around a month ago. Afterwards and outside again, with the distracting squawks of Brexit issuing from every rooftop, I decided rather too promptly that I did not have time to write about this exhibition. I had convinced myself that my confused feelings towards it amounted to a kind of critical neutrality, and that this unremarkable reaction accordingly rendered the exhibition unremarkable.
What irresponsibility! Surreal Encounters makes every modern exhibition of “avant-garde” art seem like an ever fainter echo. Think back to the International Surrealist Exhibition which was held in London in 1936. This was a vast Kubla Khan pleasure dome of freedom, a garden of electrifying thrills and revolutionary delights. Every piece of art was a heroic cry, startling you into reflecting and reconsidering, challenging the dreary inevitabilities of the Depression and rising Fascism which waited again outside the doors. So Surreal Encounters flatly submits its demand to the writer of any worth – account for this, calculate the correct valuation, choose your words carefully!
At the time I was reluctant to review Surreal Encounters because of the temptation to work the subject of Brexit into my writing, in a potentially cheap way. A month on and I am now confident enough to salvage a couple of points from my reluctance. Following a referendum campaign in which isolated state-funded artists across the country have been moaning for the EU, usually monotonously and in English, it is interesting to note how lavishly European the Surrealist movement always was. Certainly the last few decades can cite no equivalent aesthetic crusade, in which an elite of artists and intellectuals from all around Europe have found each other, exhibited together, partied together, became friends, lovers, and ferocious enemies, appeared in each other’s art and snapped up each other’s artworks. We do not have such an intensely passionate and collaborative culture these days, in part because state funding removes the need for the bonds between artists to be spun from gold thread.
In visiting the exhibition days after the Brexit vote, I was also haunted, perhaps more so than I would have been normally, by the inclusion of George Grosz’s 1920 photo lithograph “The Toads of Property.” Grosz here lays down in frank glaring lines the two nations, the elites and the masses, the haves and the have-nots. His masses are not an indiscriminate blob, but they have individuality stamped upon them, a pride and a human completion even in their rags. They are battered but nobody could call them victims. The toads are circled defensively around their money and the people are gravitating towards it, but the money is still not quite the focus of the image. The people look like they have a lot that they want to talk about. Strangely, given that they are drawn figures, their silence is potent.
Instead of necessarily reviewing this exhibition, maybe I should offer advice on how exactly to view it. The exhibition brings together four collections of Surrealist art which were amassed before and after WW2 by Roland Penrose (1900-84), Edward James (1907-84), Gabrielle Keiller (1908-95) and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. Penrose and James were contemporaries and cronies of the Surrealists in the “golden age” of the 1930s; Keiller and the German purchasers formed an auxiliary generation of collectors in the 1960s. The National Galleries of Scotland website dedicates a superb short video to each collector. It is best to watch these videos before visiting Surreal Encounters, and this will get most of the reading out of the way.
It actually helps to get the reading out of the way. This exhibition was ultimately at fault, I felt, because it tried to recruit the artworks into delivering a useful educational presentation about the history of Surrealism. Indeed, it sometimes appeared as if this objective had been dumped on to the artworks, or contracted out to them. Considering that the most of the works are defiantly and at times even elaborately useless, employing them in such a way sets the Surrealists against their own show. In that 1936 exhibition, after all, Salvador Dalí had lectured about Surrealism from the confines of a deep-sea diving suit (he almost suffocated), using upside-down slides. Rather as with a display of taxidermy in a museum, the stuffiness of this exhibition’s chronologising and classifying is directly at odds with the original liberation within the artworks. It slows everybody down this having to pause at every painting and read its blurb. Four galleries into the exhibition and you have virtually scanned a book. So here is a thought experiment…
Imagine that the artworks were completely naked. Imagine that, aside from the name of the artist, the artwork’s title, and the date, there was not a scrap of information framing each work. Once these objects had roamed within the fabulous interiors of Monkton House, Edward James’ West Dean House, and Roland Penrose’ Farley Farm House. Dalí’s triptych “Landscape with a Girl Skipping Rope” (1936), for example, was painted to adorn James’ home. Many of the pieces within this exhibition were never intended as public art and their possessors were incorrigible interior designers. Their transmission to the public realm comes with too much of a jolt. There should be a luxury, or at least an at-home unfussiness to how they are exhibited today. And as for the visitors, well if they still really need to be educated about who Salvador Dalí was, then they can surely go away and educate themselves. Importantly, however, this learning would be triggered by the aesthetic appreciation; it would not correspond with it, and blur unsatisfyingly into it.
Or, with today’s technology, it should be possible to have all of the information on a gallery app. Those of us who did not want to be bombarded with distracting information could simply slip away the device.
“In 1925 Max Ernst discovered the technique of frottage.” This happy line, from some accompanying blurb, is probably as near as we get to the proper mentality.
This exhibition is supposed to be a series of “encounters” and the educational videos stress that “chance” was the most cardinal virtue for Surrealism’s collectors. Whilst the exhibition is certainly representative of the Surrealist movement in an everyday or a democratic sense, it is unable to summon the most iconic imagery. The case for Dalí as a great artist is left to be made by his sculptures (the lobster telephone and the pouting Mae West’s lips sofa), with only minor works communicating his powers on canvas. We have more to go on with Max Ernst, whose extraordinary “Pietà or Revolution by Night” (1923) and “Max Ernst Showing a Young Girl the Head of his Father” (1927) are both designated beauty spots on the walk. Although the nimble prankster-painter René Magritte is busy everywhere, neither his this-is-not-a-pipe nor his downpour of bowler-hatted gentlemen is available.
On the other hand, the exhibition reminds us that the middlebrow of Surrealism was often intensely alert. Dorothea Tanning, Paul Delvaux, and Leonora Carrington might not be household names, with their washy realism often mirroring the gloss of old-fashioned illustrated plates, but there are enough ideas within their works to leave you with a craving to explore more of them. This wonderful website of Tanning’s art provides a sketch of what a career-reviewing exhibition might look like.
I suspect that my preference for this softer Surrealism expresses an immaturity or a wish to wriggle out of its sternness. Francis Picabia’s “Girl Born without a Mother” (1916) depicts Eve’s naked body as the machinery of a steam engine. Walls of this exhibition are filled with lines and textures, the harsh graphicality of the polytechnic, and this is prone to disappoint one of my dreamier sensibilities.
Surreal Encounters states that Dalí had remained neutral during the Spanish Civil War. A strip of Picasso’s cartoons which depict Franco as a humanoid penis riding around Spain astride various demented animals is offered by the exhibition as a more sensible political standpoint. Dalí, if truth be told, was mildly flirtatious in his attitude towards fascism. In his autobiography he confessed that, “Hitler turned me on in the highest.” On these grounds, many Surrealists would have objected to his inclusion in the current exhibition.
Outside, apart from Brexit, there is a Surrealist playground planted rather too squarely on the lawn opposite the entrance. It makes you picture the kind of hipster parents who would encourage their offspring to “engage” with Surrealist play facilities. I played on everything, if only in order to meet the responsibilities of the reviewer, and I can report that the slide with Magritte’s “Le Miroir Magique” printed on the front is alone worthwhile.
Surreal Encounters will also lead you to venture across the road to the neighbouring, now asset-stripped Dean Gallery, from where many of the exhibits have been taken, purely to see which artworks did not make the team. A handful of lesser known artworks remain behind, humiliated on the subs’ bench.
I think of the Surrealists as being a band of eccentrics and aristocrats, Agatha Runcible types, the sort who would empty enthusiastically out of a private motor vehicle on to a lonely beach, undiscovered and far from any town, with white sands which are innocent of any human footprint. Here they would cavort and get up to the most enjoyable antics and in this they might as well have been alone together on the floor of a dream. In time, the masses would discover this beach and join in with the escapades of the first arrivals. They would come in huge coach trips and fleets of family cars. The sheer spurious consumption of the 1930s collectors would come to define the 1960s onwards. Anybody could become a collector of useless things if they wanted to. They still can today.