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British Surrealists: Minor league, but major players

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