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

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

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
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star