Saturday 7 November 2020


Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

“Have you ever imagined the impossible? You are about to embark on a journey into the Surreal. There are no wrong turnings.”

Opening text

A Kept Id Ain’t No Id

This is probably the first time I’ve reviewed an exhibition I didn’t see. Pretty Surreal, huh? Alright then, no. In fact you can not see it the way I didn’t, via a virtual tour. And as it was forced to close soon after opening, that’s how most will have done it.

First stop, virtually speaking, is Ithell Colquhoun’s ‘The Sunken Cathedral’ (1951/2, above), which portrays an island containing a stone circle half underwater. And the double ring seems designed to demonstrate that water and land represent the unconscious and the conscious, not opposing and contrary states but existing in a dynamic interplay.

The land/water border also features in Edith Rimmington’s ‘The Oneiroscopist’ (1947, above) - this time with a beaky bird about to go deep sea diving. But there’s a stronger similarity - both works aren’t any good. Okay, they’re not bad either. But they’re merely adequate, serviceable, examples of rather than contributions to the genre. Rimmington’s the better of the two, better executed and with the inherent bizarreness of a bird going diving enhanced by that human hand. Bur her title, which translates to the quasi-Freudian ‘Interpreter of Dreams’, states the problem out loud. Works by Grace Pailthorpe then go on to underline it. A psychoanalyst, she explained that Surrealism and Freud were about “the same - the liberation of man.”

The best that can be said is that the fault line is so widespread in Surrealism we shouldn’t be surprised to see it here. They did have a tendency to find in Freud just what they wanted, something he commented on himself. And in-so-doing they never seemed to quite comprehend how anti-liberatory his theories were. Perhaps best explained by Erich Fromm in ‘Fear Of Freedom’:

“Freud accepted the traditional belief in a basic dichotomy between men and society, as well as the traditional doctrine of the evilness of human nature. Man, to him, is fundamentally anti-social. Society must domesticate him… refine and adroitly check man’s basic impulses.”

So it followed that Freud’s attempts to explore the subconscious was a way to control it through mapping. Thinking the id could be tamed, he was as much a coloniser as the British empire was in Africa. Such savage forces had to be subjugated, tamed and put to productive use. The horror film trope of the demon or monster which at first rears up inexplicably, but whose origins are later found to be determined and thus can be dealt with, that surely stems from Freud.

It could be said that the Surrealists intended to reverse this, to not constrain but stir up subconscious forces. They could say this themselves at times, if not entirely consistently. But what’s really required isn’t to reverse but disrupt this system. Anti-colonialism doesn’t mean Africa invading Britain, like in all those far-right guilt-projection fears, it means ending the whole business of domination.

But beyond that, the Surrealism that can be made sense of - that’s not a form of Surrealism at all. Which is why any association of it with therapy culture is so disastrous. It shouldn’t be allying with but actively sabotaging sense. Its credo should be ‘never knowingly understood’, and not just by the know-nothings of the dominant culture. It should be inexplicable even to Surrealists, with artists surprised by what springs from their own hands. You can’t unleash the savage then expect him just to do the things you want. The show includes a splendid quote from Conroy Maddox on this:

“A Surrealist doesn’t know what he is doing. I don’t know what I’m doing. Something happens and it develops, but you don’t analyse it. By doing that you destroy a Surrealist image.”

No Surrealism Please, We’re British?

And in what feels like another attempt to familiarise something whose essence is the very opposite, the show spends time finding examples of proto-Surrealism. None of which seem terribly convincing; Blake is more of a Symbolist, Fuseli is Gothic, Carroll an Absurdist and so on. But more widely lineage seems simply the wrong place to be looking, as if the point was whether you had a Great Uncle already employed at the firm. Rather than hunt hopefully for ancestors and precursors it would be better to search for Surrealism around us. The irrational and inexplicable hasn’t and could never be repressed, but we can be conditioned into not seeing it.

Having previously written posts about both Edward Burra and Paul Nash I’d resolved to fry fresher fish here. But Nash’s incorporation of the seemingly pastoralised English landscape as Surreal is so on point you can’t skip it. As John Stezaker said of him “he brought that strange sense of unreality of the actual encounter with the real word, as opposed to some sort of inner world.” (‘Art Quarterly’, Autumn 2017.) And even Colquhoun, to give her her due, based her work on an island she actually saw.

And this approach overcomes another problem. As soon as this show was announced you knew the critics would chortle. How could Surrealism possibly erupt in somewhere like rainy, deferential Britain?, they scoffed. But the very opposite is true. Just like medicine goes to the sick, the more confined and parochial British life was, the greater the need for the cure. The show is right to describe Britain as “a perfect breeding ground for the surreal.”

Take for example Clive Branson’s ‘Blitz: Plane Flying’ (1940, above). This is very recognisably a regular street, there must be many such places in London and doubtless were more then. And we’re so unused to surreal takes on iconography this British that on first glance we might take it for natural-ness. The way people just carry on under the literal shadow of that huge plane could even be taken as some tribute to the “blitz spirit” and all that. 

But the plane’s not just absurdly oversized, and seemingly skimming the roofs of the buildings. In a remarkable statement to make during wartime, it’s given both Axis and Allied symbols. It doesn’t represent this side or that, but the shadow of war itself. While, with its two roundels echoed in the moon behind the propellor blade, it’s made to seem almost a celestial force.

And the people below, rather than defiantly continuing their regular business, are in a state of transience. This isn’t a cosy England, every front room with curtains to draw and jolly tradesmen filling the street, it’s a world without rest. The woman in the foreground (also oversized) holds a pram, but it contains bundles not babies. A house behind her is being emptied. War could blow them out of this street at any time, forcing them elsewhere - where it might well just do the same thing again.

The Other Light

Less obviously British-based, but a great work for all that is Marion Adnam’s ‘The Lost Infanta’ (1946). These moonlit scenes seem recurrent in Surrealism, for example in Andre Masson’s ‘The Picardy Road’ (1942) as seen in the Tate’s ‘Aftermath’ show. Both are nocturnal, but rather than being about the cover of darkness they evoke the full force of the moon. Objects are quite clearly delineated, just unfamiliar to us daywalkers. And this other form of light has its own energy, the light of the night summoning unreality. I always think of the term ‘moonshine’ to describe this, less for the connotations with booze itself than the sense of the illicit.

The night, the female and the irrational are often brought together like this, witches supposedly drawing their magic from the moon and so on. While here that white curl-adorned head is compared to the haloed moon, with the trees stretching up to meet it. Which, when combined with their bareness, makes them seem a kind of animate un-life.

Herbert Read spoke of Surrealism’s desire “to invest the object with a spirit, a life of its own, and from this point of view Surrealism may be regarded as a return to the animism of our savage ancestors.” Which conflates an animism we never experienced, of our primitive ancestors, with one who did - our own childhoods. With Adnam’s title seemingly reflecting both.

When the critics were doing something more interesting that scoffing, they pointed out how many female artists there were here, and how unusual that was for a movement so often thought of as male dominated. Perhaps, being away from Breton’s overbearing influence, Britain offered opportunities, like he was an ordering sun whose rays you needed to see set before your magic could shine. All of this may well be true. However, it too often makes an unseemly rush from female artist to feminism.

Look back at Adman’s figure. There’s clearly no-one under that billowing ribboned cloth, she’s described by the show as a “paper doll”. The use of ‘Lost’ in the title also alludes to this. And in Surrealist art the male is often seen as a natural presence, going back to “the savage”, while the female is a construction, and often a construction around a central absence. 

To give two further examples from this show alone, Colquhoun’s ‘The Pine Family’ (1940) also parallels the male body to trees. While it recounts an anecdote from the 1936 Surrealist exhibition. While mostly (in)famous for Dali turning up in a diving suit and nearly asphyxiating, it also included a ‘woman with a bouquet of flowers’, which obscured and essentially replaced her face.

The quasi-phallic trees reinforce what the central female figure, in Freudian terms, ‘lacks’. And here Adman is essentially going along with Surrealism’s highly gendered symbolic system. To be clear, it’s a strong work which we should celebrate. But it takes more to make a feminist work than a woman’s hand. And we should find same problems here as we do with so many of the male Surrealist works.

Leonora Carrington’s ’The Old Maids’ (1847, above), with it’s all-female figures, might seem a more likely claim for feminism. Yet it immediately brought to my mind my own childhood. With her long black dress and central placement, the smaller figure seems set against the others. So I took her to be a child, perhaps with the hatless apron-dressed figure behind her the mother and the three gathered, hat-adorned figures the old maids of the title. So she represents a child’s-eye view of an adult work, stuffed with rules and customs which seemed to make no sense. 

Certainly in my childhood domestic spaces always seemed not just female-run but feminised. Men theoretically ruled over them, but as absentee landlords unfamiliar with local customs. Childhood gave me some semi-shamanic status, able to slip between these worlds. Black-headed-and-tailed the birds seem associated with the child, untamed forces in this mannered setting.

This is enhanced by Carrington’s illustrational style. Like Branson’s street we associate it with the comforting, in this case the world of children’s books, while she works to undermines this. But it also suggests narrative while she offers us only ungraspability.

No Fairground Mirror

It’s often assumed that Surrealist art was plausible in style, offering conventional depictions through conventions we’re familiar with, in order to be serve up impossible content. Its game is to hold a fairground mirror to our consensus reality, in which swans morph into elephants. Some argue that proves it to be aesthetically conservative, and therefore not really a Modernist movement at all. This isn’t untrue exactly, we’ve seem before how that was the downward slope Dali slid down. But it scarcely covers the whole of Surrealism.

For example Eileen Agar’s ‘Guardian of Memories’ (1938, above) seems a composite of Modernist styles, mixing up oil, crayon and collage. There are frames within frames, a checker pattern alongside a recognisable profile. It might seem most indebted to Cubism. Yet Cubism’s multi-form images were about the non-singularity of objects, a means to ‘unpack’ their three dimensions onto a flat surface. Particularly given its title, Agar seems more interested in conveying the multiplicity of the self.

You can see the lure of painting “well”, to make the strange stuff seem convincing. But it more works the other way. Slickness came to undermine the surreal, smothering the strangeness in gloss. Whereas what was painted roughly, as if in haste to get down some sight before it left you, just makes the image seem more powerful and urgent. Have you ever tried to keep a dream diary? In which you tried to capture a fleeting, fading memory in words? The effect’s similar.

See for example Cecil Collins’ ‘Obseques of Time’ (1933), which could conceivably have been made from coffee grounds on a napkin. Some of the forms are similar to Henry Moore’s sculpture, but while he was calmly monumental the different style makes these volatile and unsettling. The rougher look means you can’t forget that this was drawn, and so you don’t make the same category divisions between figures, objects and landscape.

But let’s finish with a couple of works which, rather than serve up the standard imagery of hallucinogenic figures artfully arranged on isotropic plains, engage with the less-explored connections between Surrealist and abstract art.

John Tunnard’s ‘Magnetic Field’ (1945, above) has the smoothness of Pop Surrealism, but at the same time possesses huge vibrancy. There’s objects which look solid and static enough, but the whole thing is charged with invisible forces, as if things are no more than temporary repositories of energy. As such it seems almost as much a Futurist work as Surrealist, albeit one which steps away from Futurism’s more direct points of inspiration - machines and urban spaces. And for all the solid blues and ruddy reds the brightest colour seems white, like these other objects are emerging from its scorching furnace. It’s also beguilingly indeterminate whether we are looking at an abstract or a form of pictorial space.

If Tunnard is Surrealist Science, Gordon Onslow Ford’s ‘A Present For the Past’ (1942, above) does the same for nature. With its birds and that central egg form, it doesn’t seem composed so much as grown. Particularly with the simple colour scheme (blues, greens, browns, a touch of pink and purple) it initially looks quite simple, with its richness only gradually emerging. Much in the way that natural objects, such as leaves or pebbles, do. 

The central egg and ellipse shapes at first seem to dominate, but develop all the way into geometric patterns on two of the corners. His ‘point’, if that’s even the term, is that creativity doesn’t work by logical progression but is more akin to morphogenesis. Onslow-Ford himself later recalled:

“I had no pre-existing model from which to work. My approach to the unknown was through numerous automatic drawings that were distilled on to canvas. The painting began with lines and blank space… From this base, the painting slowly grew out of itself. Each part was an invention that did not become clear until it was down on the canvas. I had the impression that, in venturing into the inner worlds, nothing was lost. All was there, but seen in a new way, a merging and interlacing of sky, mountains, plants and creatures.”

Ultimately its the group-show nature of the exhibition which defines it, more than anything spelt out in the title. And like so many other group shows it’s in equal parts frustrating and fascinating. A conceit of the signage invited to to follow your own path, which ironically would have been impossible given the one-way restrictions on shows that did stay open. It’s true that show which promises no wrong turns is full of wrong turns. But if there’s stuff you skip over, there’s other points where you’re left wanting more. It’s a mansion of stairways to nowhere and wardrobe doors which open onto expanses, a myriad of byways and secret passages.

And this is enhanced by its engaging tone, presenting Surrealism not just a dead art movement served up for contemplation, but as something which can still be of use to us. Your head is filled with further questions, even as you know they’re probably unanswerable. Which is just the effect a Surrealist show should have.


  1. "Thinking the id could be tamed, he was as much a coloniser as the British empire was in Africa."

    Woah, woah! That makes no sense to me. When I try to tame my id, I am attempting to place one part of my in control of another — in other words, to change who I am. How is that like take control of others' lives?

    "But beyond that, the Surrealism that can be made sense of - that’s not a form of Surrealism at all. Which is why any association of it with therapy culture is so disastrous. It shouldn’t be allying with but actively sabotaging sense."

    This is where I struggle with most surrealism. The word means more than real, but most of what I see seems less than. I'm not seeing new insights into reality, just a loss of coherence — something broken rather than something created. I think of Gabriel Syme's words in G. K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday:


    The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”


    Isn't it all too easy to come up with something that is not real, and much more difficult and magical to come up with something that is real? (And of course to make something that is genuinely more than real — that's magnificent.)

  2. Thanks to Blogger for practising auto-destructive art on my first reply. Let's see if this goes through...

  3. Okay, now to try and remember what I said! The thing about taming the id looks at the mindset of the coloniser, no more. "By bending this savage thing to my will, I benefit the world". Arguably it's more extreme to do such a thing to part of yourself, if the other is obviously materially worse.

    With the stations analogy, the point of Surrealism wasn't be be an accomplished artist so much as an explorer. That involves going to places where the stations aren't built yet.

  4. While "more than real" works as a literal translation of Surrealism, "beyond real" is a better description. It wasn't about coming up with things, real or unreal. It was about our stopping seeing the two halves of our minds, the rational and the imaginative, as separate spheres and more as interlinked. The Surrealist film-maker Svankmajer said “Only the fusion of dream and reality can make up a complete human life”. I even called this blog Lucid Frenzy after that notion, tho' it turned out to not be a common Surrealist phrase. They felt a repressive society was the source of this separation, and tries to challenge it. How well they succeeded is up for debate, of course. As I said in the piece not all Surrealist artworks are any good if measured by their own yardstick.

    (I said it much better the first time, honest!)

  5. That ... actually makes perfect sense! Thank you.

  6. About Surrealism? Well that's no good then!

  7. Well, you did it. I literally laughed out loud.