British Surrealists: Minor league, but major players

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A new exhibition of British Surrealists in Middlesbrough may not be crammed with big names, but all of these artists deserve a second look, argues Tom Lubbock

They've been gradually dying off. ELT Mesens went in 1971, so did John Tunnard, and John Banting the following year. Roland Penrose went in 1984, John Melville in 1986, Ithell Colquhoun and Julian Trevelyan both in 1988. Eileen Agar went in 1991, Emmy Bridgwater in 1999. Conroy Maddox went in 2005. Tony del Renzio went only last year. And that's it. The British Surrealists: all gone to their reward.

As for their earthly reward: well, how many of those names do you actually recognise? Surrealism in Britain was an affair of the 1930s and 1940s. It arrived from Paris late, but with an enormous splash. In the summer of 1936 the International Surrealist Exhibition opened in London. It ran for a few weeks and took a thousand visitors a day.

Stunts abounded. A rotting kipper was attached to a Miro painting. Salvador Dali gave a lecture in a deep-sea diving suit and nearly died. Artists flocked to the cause, but feuds were already brewing. The young Maddox denounced the whole thing as a fraud: "The British participation in this show was mainly made up of artists who, in their day-to-day activities, professional habits and ethics could be called anti-Surrealists..."

There was always a question of who followed the true line, and who had to be expelled. But what isn't in question is that none of the British artists closely associated with the movement achieved a lasting fame not compared with contemporaries like Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash or Henry Moore, though the last two were briefly Surrealist fellow travellers.

OK, I guess Agar has an artistic reputation still. The multi-gifted Humphrey Jennings (died 1950) is remembered mainly as a film-maker. Penrose is remembered, just about, as a writer and general cheerleader. And I must admit there are one or two on that roster, like Bridgwater, who until a few days ago I hadn't heard of at all.

But one of the first paintings you meet in the Middlesbrough show is Bridgwater's Necessary Bandages from around 1943. Its impact is immediate. Flat and wonky and violent, it shows a face plastered, fused, with bandages. The flesh and the crude crisscross dressings and the rough dragged-across brushstrokes become one. It hasn't at all the smooth finish you might expect of Surrealism. The picture surface itself feels painful.

Necessary Bandages is a very direct first-person image. It may suggest facial burns, and you note the date, but its wounds are psychic a response not to war but to Bridgwater's break-up with the most pugnacious member of the British team, del Renzio. It's a straight shot of anguish, and with none of Frida Kahlo's self-rhetoric. Great title, too. It's enough to get you interested.

British Surrealism & Other Realities is an eloquent display. It's just opened at the Middlesbrough Institute for Modern Art, and its hundreds of works come from the collection of one individual, Dr Jeffrey Sherwin. A Leeds medic and former Tory councillor, Dr Sherwin has an unlikely pedigree for a passionate Surrealisto, and he only started collecting about 20 years ago. Given that, the show is pretty comprehensive.

And how good it looks. Mima has done the boys and girls proud. The big facing wall in the first room carries a dense cluster-hang of about 25 pictures, by numerous hands, all variations on the human head, with John Selby-Bigge's Tyrolean Dreams at the centre an arrangement of mountains, river, serpent and chalice, like a Tarot card manqu. The curating pursues visual reverberation, not historical connection. Works by the same artist are hardly ever hung adjacently. It's a relay linked by imagery, colour, shapes. The styles of Surrealism are pretty various anyway, but a few non-Surrealist works from the Sherwin collection are added to the mix Gaudier-Brzeska's low relief Wrestlers, an abstraction by Roger Hilton to set up further echoes.

The ensemble effect is very successful. But when it comes to singling out, the best artworks here are the one-offs maverick works like Necessary Bandages, or a quiet, strange painting by Jennings, Concealed House by the Water, whose date, without the label, you'd never guess: it might be yesterday. Likewise Sam Haile's Brain Operation, an aquarium of flat blobs and eyes and fingers, could be a half-joke version of abstract art done by some painter of today.

Or there's Tunnard's Diabolo on the Quay, a mysterious equivocation of Miro and Nicholson. Or Ceri Richards' Bird and Breast, pure creature energy, whose title seems to contain a deliberate and misleading Freudian slip for the thing that isn't a bird is clearly a beast, a hairy doggy-hedgehoggy animal, quite possibly (if you want to be Freudian) an angry vagina, but in no way a breast.

Imagine what you like: that was the great law of Surrealism, and these works follow it to the extent that they don't look much like Surrealism or anything else. But their vitality is the exception. This show makes the best plea it can, but the mainstream of British Surrealist art was never a strong current. It was a thin run-off from the European source. And often the problem isn't derivativeness so much as sheer unassertiveness: again, an occupational hazard of following Surrealism, which (as a doctrine) set no store by the formal virtues. A feeble Sunday painter like del Renzio could cast himself as a master. It was just a stroke of luck, so to speak, that Magritte and Miro really knew how to put a picture together.

So these are predominantly minor artists. But minor artists are useful. The enduring work of genius tends to distract us (rightly) from its origins. The work of minor artists is more transparent. You can see through it to the time of its making, to the artistic milieu it emerged from the ideals, the clichs, the personalities, the struggles.

And with Surrealism, especially, there has always been an issue about whether the art or the anarchic ethic was more important. The works of Banting or Melville or Trevelyan may not do much now as pictures; the excitement of them lies in imagining how exciting it must have been back then to paint like this, throwing in eyeballs and jawbones and polyps, and feeling you were off on a great adventure of mental liberty.

The show detaches works from context. That's a good decision overall, because visual advocacy is what the art now needs. But it weakens our sense of the adventure. Surrealism in Britain sat at the heart of a web of assorted radical activity psychoanalysis, anti-fascism, avant-garde poetry, the pioneering sociology of Mass Observation, experimental cinema, pranks. Even a simple spidergram, laying out all the connections, would be handy.

Dr Sherwin, for his part, believes that the story still continues. It was taken up in the 1950s by artists like Anthony Earnshaw, Patrick Hughes and Desmond Morris yes, the zoologist, the Naked Ape-man. Their work is in the collection and in the show. I don't believe this, because Surrealism can never be a genre or a style. The trouble with these second generation British Surrealists is that even more than their predecessors they know exactly what Surrealism is supposed to look like. Deprived of a conviction of its own wild novelty, of doing things unattempted yet in art or mind, Surrealism becomes a more-or-less routine exercise in clever oddness.

People have said that Britain was Surrealism's original native land Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, William Blake, the gothic novel, Gulliver's Travels etc. Perhaps we didn't need the whole movement-and-manifesto thing. But it produced, slightly by accident, a group of very interesting pictures that ought to have a wider showing, and which the Sherwin Collection is willing to lend.

British Surrealism & Other Realities, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (01642 726720), to 17 August

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn