Stick A Fish In It

The Arts

Surrealism is back with a vengeance in the UK at the moment; the only possible response to times of upheaval etc etc., but how much of it is any good?

Surrealism has always been the art student’s first port of call. It’s easy to produce – just put a woman in a room with a chicken’s head and surround her with hyenas. It’s amazing how much bad surrealist art consists of a collection of random objects laid out across a flat plane. Want to make your rather poorly painted picture a surrealist masterpiece? Stick a fish in it.

It’s the first stumbling block that besets the Tate Modern’s new ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ exhibition. The intention here is honourable; to show that surrealism evolved in multiple countries over the same period. Yet so much of the art on display might have been painted by one artist – the themes are duplicated, regimented, predictable. Nothing approaches the unheimlich atmosphere of Magritte’s work.

Here, Magritte’s ‘Time Transfixed’, a painting I was obsessed with as a child, stands head and shoulders above the dangling fish and spiky things on hooks because its surrealism is a cohesive whole. The fireplace was based on one in North London and gives the painting a weight rarely seen in the other pictures spread over 11 rooms.

If surrealism is a fracturing of reality into a waking dream, its greatest successes are surely moments when you search for meaning, convinced there must be one, and find none. The beauty of Magritte’s ‘The Empire of Light’ (now apparently in private hands) lies in its impossible simplicity. High streets are stuffed with incongruous objects but that doesn’t make them surreal.

There are some lovely paintings here but they leave you wanting more. The Tate shows have become so explanation-heavy that you end up reading more than viewing. Those central cabinets of little notebooks filled with crabbed writing, mostly unreadable and avoided by visitors, are presumably only there for academics.

A concertina-folded collective drawing started by a jazz trumpeter called Ted Joans is described as an “exquisite corpse” drawing, produced over 30 years and involving 132 participants on three continents, but it’s still less interesting than a child’s scribble-book. 

The exhibition feels smaller than it is, as if the Tate took a few choice bits from its stored collections and topped them up with grainy footage of people running about in silly hats. What do we learn about the surrealist movement? How did it spread to Mexico and Cairo and China? Why is there so much stuff on Leonora Carrington? Why is the moving image so under-represented, why no Buñuel, so little Ernst or Dali? Well, I suppose the show is less about the big hitters than the global reach, so what on earth is the large Picasso doing there? How could it be called surreal?

What I missed was any true sense of the uncanny, no matter how many times the captions told me what to feel. I remember an exhibition at the ICA which featured a walk-in bar full of lone drinkers, where each barfly had the head of a clock. I emerged feeling quite shaken.

Thank the gods then for Remedios Varo, whose strange mock-medieval triptych is so puzzling and remarkable, and Marcel Jean, whose Surrealist Wardrobe feels weirdly as if it’s letting fresh air in.

This messy show won’t answer many questions or address surrealism’s legacy; there’s much to discover from modern artists working in other media, from Japanese Manga and French film, who perfectly capture the illogic of dreams. What it does do, though – and succeeds brilliantly in doing – is displaying a wealth of female artistic talent free of the usual tedious male obsessions. And that is reason enough to attend.

18 comments on “Stick A Fish In It”

  1. Helen+Martin says:

    Why do women artists feel free to avoid “tedious male obsessions” when they enter the realm of the surrealist? Why do they feel the need to deal with those obsessions when they are working in other genres?
    I don’t like anyone telling me what I should feel when I am looking at art – or listening to music for that matter. I respond according to how my background informs my emotions and there is nothing either wrong or right about that response; it just is. I’m glad to be given something about the artist’s background to provide an alternate/subsidiary response but I want that first response to be my own so that I have something real to set the artist’s background against.

  2. Fish banana coatpeg says:

    Patrick Hughes and Glen Baxter – British Surrealism is alive and well. I am not deterred. I think I’ll still go to this. I hope I am at least whelmed by it.

  3. Mary Ann Atwood says:

    Time Transfixed is one of the paintings my husband and I always visit when in Chicago. (the town where we grew up)

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    What is this seeming compulsion on the part of the Tate (and other art museums, truth be told) for what often turns out to be a rather awkward and at times, shabby, ‘relevance ?’ As examples, both the ‘Hogarth’ and the ‘Surrealism’ exhibitions at the Tate are apparently built around the imperative for ‘perspective’ or, ‘explication’ (ad nauseum). Whatever happened to ‘ars gratia artis’ (not that MGM [known, of course, for its iconic logo with the phrase] always took the artistic rosette) or — ‘art for art’s sake ?’ Is the need for a determined point of view some kind of cultural PTSD perhaps, or is it a conscious survival technique ?

  5. Alan R says:

    Freud announced that dreaming of fish is a reflection of what is happening in our intimate life. This conclusion may have been influenced by the many years he spend studying fish. Especially his failed research on ell testis. Sticking a fish into surrealist dream art may be more important than we have previously realised. I think you may well have unlocked an exciting passageway between art and our subconscious. Exciting times.

    I think a walk around the Tate is made much more enjoyable after a long lunch and several cocktails.

  6. tony+williams says:

    One of the best collections (although I’ve not been back in a few decades) is the Menil in Houston. Many of the pieces there were ‘commissioned’ by the de Menil family. Well curated when I was there, thematically interesting.

  7. Paul C says:

    Thanks for recommending the exhibition – will try to go. Prompted now to re-read Ruth Brandon’s book ‘Surreal Lives’ which is very enjoyable. Dali and Ernst lived surreal lives – surrealism wasn’t just a choice of style for them, they had a genuine surreal outlook.

    I envy you your trips to Chicago, Mary – I’d like to see Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks at the Diner ‘ there. maybe one day……..

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Alan R Alan, as you no doubt know, Freud’s work in general but, especially on dreams and the unconscious mind, had a seminal influence on surrealism.

  9. Alan R says:

    Exactly Stu-I-Am. I was joking of course with regards to the unlocking of the passageway. But wouldn’t it be interesting to have a machine similar to that used in the Paprika and Inception films, that we could put on the head of some of the best Surrealists to see the subconscious inspirations that led to their artistic interpretations. What was going on in the minds of the people who wrote and directed The Seashell and the Clergyman? That is seriously creepy. Were they dreaming or tripping? Or maybe both.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Alan. Alan, indeed! However, we might find — to the consternation of art critics and historians — that some of the leading lights often had nothing approaching a creative impulse and simply threw a few random objects together — that fish, along with a woman and those hyenas, would of course be the pièce de résistance as CF suggests above. How disheartening to find that being sanctified by the worshipful does not automatically confer excellence.

  11. John+Griffin says:

    You could say Freud’s search for eels testes influenced his phallocratic theories, handling hundreds of slimy stiffs. How many teens would do that for a job today, they were made of sterner stuff then.

  12. Steve Gilbert says:

    The same thing happened to “bizarro” fiction.

  13. Peter T says:

    A few years ago LOML’s mother did a painting broadly copied from van Gogh’s ‘Fishing boats’. The superposition of the rigging of the series of boats one behind the other forms areas, mainly quadrilaterals, against the background of beach and sky. Somehow, she filled in each space with a solid colour from other parts of the picture, a little bit Mondrian. It produced a wonderful surreal effect. Unfortunately, she realised what she’d done, felt very embarrassed and ‘corrected’ it. What makes surreal good is the appropriate or inappropriate rather than arbitrary nature of the juxtaposition.

    Dissecting eels! Yuck! Dissecting an earthworm brought an early end to my biology studies. I lasted that long only because the alternatives were for me incomprehensible, Greek or German.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter T Peter — I gather you did not go on to study medicine at Heidelberg University.

  15. Liz+Thompson says:

    Do you know, I had entirely forgotten dissecting an earthworm? Yet I remember the rat quite clearly. Perhaps some surrealist could create something out of this.

  16. Helen+Martin says:

    We just did a frog and the high school biology curriculum no longer includes animal dissections because it requires the otherwise unnecessary deaths of animals. If we had dissected rats I don’t think there would have been quite such a complaint.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen +Martin Helen, I have to believe that Liz was given a deceased lab rat and did not have to hunt one down in the dead of night. And whilst the practice does still exist in some secondary schools, by and large it has been replaced with computer simulation. But, of course, computer simulation, although used extensively in vet and medical (surgical) training, has not completely replaced the real thing, nor would we want it to.

  18. Helen+Martin says:

    Stu, I wonder if those simulations include the touch sensation. If not, I can only imagine the young surgeon’s reaction when they first cut into real flesh.
    Apparently experienced trauma surgeons are making videos to assist Ukrainian doctors who are suddenly finding themselves with more opportunities than they can easily deal with.

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