Stick A Fish In It
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.