The Surreal Thing
There are subjects I return to again and again for a final word. This is one of them.
It started, as so many things do, with art. Magritte and Duchamp, Buñuel and Dali, ‘Un Chien Andalou’ and ‘L’Age D’Or’ and ‘Dr Caligari’.
Many critics wrote off Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech because of his unabashed commercialism, his bad-boy antics and his clown-prince behaviour. An easy mistake to make, but a mistake nonetheless. Beneath the tomfoolery was a bedrock of original thinking and technique that few modern artists can match. Visit the places where Dali grew up and you instantly appreciate his connection to a landscape that provides his colour palate.
An astonishing draughtsman who could paint in virtually any style and was strongly influenced by Renaissance masters, he angered those who tried to take him seriously.It seems inevitable that a man so affected by the subconscious should meet Sigmund Freud, who called him a fanatic. Dali refused to politically commit, feeling that an artist should be apolitical, and was further distanced from other surrealists by seeking commercial endorsements. Yet much of his work remains profoundly disturbing.
Accompanied by his lifelong muse Gala he turned his hand to virtually every imaginable art form, from shop window displays to theatre designs, sculpture, fashion, jewellery, furniture, film and literature. In Dali’s museum in Figueres an entire room turns into Mae West and a ruby heart brooch pulses with life. And weirdly, I got to meet him. But you know that already if you’ve read ‘Film Freak’.
In America’s 1950s, psychoanalysis looked to the surrealism of dreams and became a cocktail party topic. Films like Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ employed Dali to design those dreams, and he’d been employed by Disney on ‘Fantasia’ on a section called ‘Destino’ (above). Surrealism encourages interpretation where none can exist and became naturally allied to symbolism and psychological states as books and films sought to understand and define neurotic behaviour. Naturally, women’s dreams quickly revealed hysteria, repression, depression and other female ‘weaknesses’. What the doctors should have been looking at were the subconscious fears of men.
Surrealism became quite a fad. ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T’ takes the dream-tales of Dr Seuss and renders them real and disturbing. Even mainstream Hollywood fare became surreal. In ‘The Girl Most Likely’, families climb to the top of Daliesque ladders while singing about the pressures of social climbing.
In the psychedelic sixties a peculiarly English form of surrealism appeared via Charles Wood, Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, ‘The Bed Sitting Room’ and ‘How I Won The War’. Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ was given a sharp point thanks to his sage choice of Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown on script duty. Stoppard’s play about Magritte staged some of his most famous paintings in tableaux vivants.
Roman Polanski tapped into the surrealism of dreams in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Repulsion’ and the discombobulating, little-seen ‘What?’ By this time, surrealism found a new younger audience via Monty Python, who revelled in seeing how they could alienate viewers with fractured logic, unsettling images and inexplicable juxtapositions.
To look back at some of the shows today (and to see them uncensored) is quite shocking. But to understand them you need to put them into historical context, which even the immense Python script book ‘All The Bits’ can’t manage.
I was always attracted to disjunctive, disturbing narratives. It’s hard to understand why, but NJ Simpson, John Antrobus, Joe Orton, Fellini, Spike Milligan, Bunuel, Lynch, Caro & Jeunet, BS Johnson and Ronald Firbank all made sense to me. The acid test is trying to get anyone else to watch ‘The Bed Sitting Room’ – or even imagining a time when a major motion picture like it could have been made. The golden years of surrealist media from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies hit the mainstream, and I still cannot shake off the influence of those childhood years.
Eventually David Lynch returned a more sinister sensibility to surrealism, using it to explore our damaged society. And Charlie Kaufman turned up, frustrating and amazing in equal measure. Am I the only person who really likes ‘Synedoche, New York’? When reality becomes too unbearable and unreal, surreality can break through it to better capture the strangeness of the times. In Peter Barnes’s ‘The Ruling Class’, Jesus turns into Jack the Ripper, fourth walls are broken and the House of Lords fills with rotting skeletons.
Death is part of the surrealist temperament, often allied to sex. When we finally look back on the deranged kleptocracy of Mr Trump we may only be able to understand it through surrealism, although of course the most reliable key to those four years is simpler; ‘Follow the Money Through The Family’.
You can be an artist and make a ton of dough. But if it came down to a moral fist-fight, I’d put my money on Dali every time and let Damien Hirst go down for the count.
Today surrealism is used sparingly because a little goes a long way. We live in terrifyingly cautious times. Today’s newspaper headline here was ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly Careful’. Surrealism is profligate, gaudy, tasteless, vulgar, unknowable. All the things we are no longer allowed to access.