It's all true, surreally

The last Surrealist, aged 82, is being fted by the art world again. John Windsor pays him a call
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Conroy Maddox, aged 82, is the last surviving Surrealist. He denounced the British Surrealist movement, became the darling of the French and is now being lionised by the art world.

His share in the revived fortunes of the 20th century's most influential art movement is his biggest-ever retrospective show, just opened in Stoke- on-Trent, and an international colloquium at Keele University, from next week. Meanwhile, his enigmatic paintings, aimed at "smashing repose" in authentic Surrealist manner, are changing hands privately for up to £9,000.

Entering the modest flat in Belsize Park, north London, of the man who will have the last word on the Surrealists he knew - Breton, Magritte, Dali, Man Ray - is a shock. The greyish three-piece suite and composite table and chairs are unnervingly banal. It is surely a trap. At any moment, a lion will leap from behind the sofa or a steam engine will rip its way out of the upholstery.

Maddox, wearing carpet slippers, black-rimmed spectacles and a bank clerk's moustache, is smoking cigarettes in the greyish armchair. This is the painter hailed by George Melly, his chum since wartime, as "the youngest, oldest, most intransigent, most charming Surrealist".

Meanwhile, Maddox's biographer and cataloguer, Dr Silvano Levy, lecturer in French at the University of Keele, is balancing some small paintings by Maddox on a radiator and snapping them with a tripod camera. Some are 30 years old. Maddox has fished them out of a cupboard.

"Excuse my fastidiousness," says Levy, handing Maddox a pen to inscribe title, signature and "R" (for "recorded") on the backs, "but I've been over half the country tracking down your paintings." (Tally to date: 2,000.)

He photographs an oil-on-board of 1959: a half-length rear view of a man in a broad-brimmed hat. "The Unexpected Arrival?" Maddox suggests.

"No," says Levy, "you've used that already."

"The Departure?"

"And that."

I suggest Back Again, but my footnote in art history is denied. Levy chips in: "You haven't used The Moment of Departure."

"What about that?" Maddox asks. We all nod.

He paints daily, leaving little time to dwell on the past. But ask him about the original Surrealists, whose time out of the studio was spent alternately getting drunk and excommunicating one another for artistic heresy, and the memories, by now well rehearsed, are enunciated in a crisp, schoolmasterly voice.

On Dali: "There he was, dressed in a deep-sea diving suit at the opening of the `First International Surrealist Exhibition' in London in 1936. They had bolted on the headpiece, lost the spanner, and he was sweating and collapsing inside, with wolfhounds on a leash twisted round his legs. The audience thought it was great: very Surrealist.

"When I had dinner with him in Spain, he got up and lay full- length on the restaurant floor. The diners said nothing. I found him very bright, very perceptive, actually."

On the artist Sheila Legg, at the time of the exhibition: "She was wandering round Trafalgar Square with posies and ladybirds all over her, carrying a lamb chop. It was all part of the spectacle."

On a Surrealist exhibition at the Zwemmer gallery in London in 1940: "When we did the window display, I got hold of a baby's cot. We draped cobwebby things over it, ruffled the covers and stuck a dagger through it. Old Zwemmer saw it and panicked. He was Swiss, but everybody thought he was German and the exhibition had opened the day the Germans marched into Belgium."

On George Melly: "Every other week during the war, we'd all go to the Barcelona restaurant in Beak Street. George would be on leave from the Navy, in his seaman's uniform, and would get terribly drunk and insist on reciting his poems. One ended, `It's raining knives and forks', whereupon he would edge towards the cutlery container and pour knives and forks over himself.

"Capanelli, the proprietor, would go mad and shout, `Out, out!', but he always let us back because we spent money."

Levy has failed to find any trace of the most historic artefact in Maddox's career - the open letter of denunciation that he and the Melville brothers (one a poet, the other a painter) directed at Herbert Read, editor of the connoisseurs' Burlington Magazine, and other organisers of the controversial 1936 exhibition. It protested against their attempts to claim Surrealism as a continuation of the English romantic tradition - invoking Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, the Pre-Rapaelites, even Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll - and derided them as anti-Surrealist.

It also damned Henry Moore for making sacerdotal ornaments, Read for eclecticism, David Gascoyne for mystification and Humphrey Jennings for accepting the OBE. To add to the letter's impact, Maddox's champion, the canny Belgian art dealer ELT Mesens, put it about that Maddox had refused to exhibit.

In fact, the spirit of Surrealism, as proposed in 1924 by its founder, the Frenchman Andr Breton, had nothing to do with Romanticism and everything to do with a new formula for drawing art from the depths of the unconscious: "pure psychic automatism". The notion was inspired by the practice of automatic writing. The aim was to exclude "the infamous operation of reason and logic", thereby creating a non-rational mode of expression capable of awakening an awareness in the perceiver.

Surrealist theory valued the hysteria of the lunatic asylum as poetic expression and put a low value on aesthetics. Maddox complained that the exhibition organisers were encouraging established British abstract artists, including Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, to knock up Surrealistic images without understanding the underlying philosophy. "They went round to Eileen Agar and said, `We want you in this exhibition. You're a Surrealist.' She said `Am I?'."

Maddox explained to me that the French Surrealist group had at first rejected Magritte, regarded today as a quintessential Surrealist, because his work did not appear to have the spontaneity of automatism: "He was considered to be too conscious." It was not until 1939 that the meticulous work of Dali forced acceptance, even by Breton, of conscious control in the creative process.

If Maddox's paintings seem to resemble those of Magritte and Dali, it is only because he has lived for so many years in the Surreal world that they painted. "Art begets art," he says. His own characteristic image is of a deserted townscape whose featureless buildings seem incapable of giving protection from an exotic threat such as the lion in his Gare St Rambert d'Albon II (1980).

His contribution to automatism was the semi-automatic technique of crmage - skimming a sheet of paper across a watery surface on which patches of oil paint have been floated.

The 1936 exhibition attracted 20,000 visitors and was a traffic-stopper. But afterwards, such had been Maddox's impact that its exhibitors retreated to their "nests in Hampstead".

Maddox continued painting, was fted three consecutive summers in Paris, where groups of Surrealists in cafs spoke English in deference to him, and remained faithful to Surrealist principles, avoiding the purges that had Ernst excommunicated for exhibiting in the Paris Biennale and Aragon for succumbing to Socialist Realism.

Unlike the destructiveness of its precursor Dada - anti-establishment, anti-art - Surrealism has always sought to liberate. The vigour of American abstract expressionism - Pollock, de Kooning - owes much to it. Maddox says: "What I like about it is the freedom, the emancipation. No other movement has ever given me that."

He recalls meeting Herbert Read shortly after he had received his knighthood. "I said, `I suppose I should congratulate you.' He looked slightly embarrassed and said, `I don't understand it at all, considering my revolutionary past.'

"I thought: `I can't imagine what revolution that was'."

`Conroy Maddox: Surreal Enigmas. Exhibition': City Art Gallery, Stoke- on-Trent to 4 June, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum 17 June-19 August, Leeds City Art Gallery 7 September-21 October. Book edited by Silvano Levy, published by Keele University Press, £12.95. International colloquium, Surrealist Visuality, 19-21 April, University of Keele (01782 583275).

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here

Comments