Visual arts: Not just a load of giant eyeballs

Britain is not exactly renowned for its Surrealist movement. But it did happen - and it did pioneer some original ideas.

The man from the Telegraph had it nailed: "poor jokes, pointless indelicacies and relics of outworn romanticism." Surrealism, to you. It was the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London that provoked this comment. And whatever you think of the views expressed, there always remains the suspicion that provoking such reactions was very nearly Surrealism's raison d'etre.

Indeed, the surly critic was only doing what he'd been asked to do. Herbert Read, one of the show's organisers, had written in the catalogue: "Do not judge this movement kindly. It is not just another amusing stunt. It is defiant." Absolutely. And so there had better be a few upstanding citizens around sounding suitably defied. It would be part of the welcome.

This show was Surrealism's first full-dress introduction to Britain, over 10 years after Andre Breton launched it in Paris. It presented work by the usual suspects. Salvador Dali gave a lecture in a deep-sea diving suit and nearly suffocated ("not just another amusing stunt"). But it also included work by British artists, and others were soon converted by it to the cause.

Surrealism: it happened here, but the phenomenon still doesn't figure very largely in the history books. It's treated usually as a matter of one or two hard-core odd-balls, with more mainstream artists - Henry Moore, Paul Nash - getting briefly diverted. So it's good to be reminded. We have a show and a book. At Leeds City Art Gallery there's Angel of Mercy - Aspects of Surrealism in Britain. Meanwhile, Michel Remy's Surrealism in Britain is published, the first dedicated history of the movement.

It's good to have both, because with Surrealism, art is never enough. It's always also a question of ideals, allegiances and betrayals. And that 1936 exhibition provoked adverse comment from a quite different quarter - from a young British Surrealist artist, Conroy Maddox, who considered it 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..'

And from the start, the identity of British Surrealism was disputed matter. Was it, as exponents such as Herbert Read said, a continuation of good old British artistic traditions, of visionary romanticism and the nonsense worlds of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear? Or was it, as the more radical elements contended, a complete rupture with everything, offering a total - if never very easy to define - revolution in consciousness? The more radical elements took over. Eventually, Henry Moore was formally expelled for "making sacerdotal ornaments".

The rhetoric of British Surrealism is often more lively than its art. Going round the work at Leeds you see that in Britain "pure psychic automatism" seemed to produce imagery strangely similar to what the continental Surrealists had been doing for the previous decade. Smooth and featureless desert landscapes; wiggly things and creepy crawlies; doorways opening on to nothing; giant eyeballs; creatures with the wrong kind of head - the familiar fixtures.

You see the origins of 1,000 album covers and New Age posters. And in the work of Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff - who had a peculiar mother-and-son marriage - you see pretty straight-from-the-id psycho-art, which is interestingly not at all what you'd call Surrealism, much too overt in its exposures. John Banting is quite good. Roland Penrose isn't.

Britain made one specific contribution to the Surrealist art repertoire. This was an "automatic technique" that was invented by Conroy Maddox, which he termed "ecremage" (ie skimming), where colour is floated on liquid, and a sheet of paper is laid on and drawn off. Like the other automatic techniques - frottage, decalcomania - the idea is to produce chance configurations in which the artist can see surprising images.

Actually, there was an impressive British precedent here, too, in the 18th-century artist Alexander "Blot" Cozens, who turned random ink splodges into landscapes. Come to that, Victor Hugo used similar methods in his drawings, and so did William Blake. The originality of the Surrealists here lay, ironically, in devising much more methodical ways of doing automatic pictures - and so inventing a means for producing prettily irregular patterns that give pleasure to teenage art-classes to this day.

But Maddox's painting proper is interesting. Often he's a follower of Magritte. He borrows his imagery and his incongruous combinations, and the lifts can be pretty shameless. But he takes something more important too: a way of painting. Someone called Magritte's pictures "collages entirely painted by hand". In the best ones, you can feel this in the painting. You feel that a picture's various elements don't belong in the picture where they now find themselves. Or as Maddox said of his own cut-out collages, "the original identity of the pictorial element remains intact, irrespective of the function it may be given in the completed work". Yes, and Maddox gets this estranging effect in his paintings, too.

Take The Lesson (1938). Now, content-wise, I think it's tedious, a typical Surrealist tease. You're meant to feel that this dreamlike juxtaposition of charged images is maybe meaningless, or maybe a revelation, and not be sure: hey ho. And a lot of the paintwork - the scenes in the windows, say - is just very bad. But look at the person of the young man hiding his eyes, and the way it's painted: it's a beautiful sort of FILLING IN, detached, tentative, not trying to make the figure alive or real, presenting it as precisely a second-hand image that's (in both senses) stuck in the picture. The figure and its painting are, comically, poignantly, not quite in synch. The picture doesn't need much more. And if Maddox had cut out the weird stuff, he would have been very good, rather than (as he is) good in bits.

The other good picture here is Paul Nash's Circle of the Monoliths (1938). Nash's relationship to the weird stuff is also tricky. He was, after all, equipped with a perfectly effective modernist-romantic-visionary style, that didn't need much more than a landscape to get results; the introduction of seriously bizarre elements produced a distracting overload. But in small doses, Surrealism worked well for him, as in this scene.

It's a landscape in which - under cover of visionary perception - you can't quite tell where heightened normality ends, and the impossible begins. Is that the sea encroaching over the fields? Is that a water-spout in the sea? And these monolith things - aren't they really something quite else, something quite unidentifiable? Or is this just, so to speak, a trick of the light? Nash achieves a mode that you wouldn't call Surreal, and that still strikes, while the conspicuous oddnesses around it in this show have conspicuously worn off. Not a strangeness but a mystery.

Angel of Mercy - Aspects of Surrealism in Britain: City Art Gallery, Leeds; till 25 July; free.

`Surrealism in Britain': Michel Remy; Ashgate; pounds 50

Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
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.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower