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

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