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Surveying British Surrealism at Dulwich Picture Gallery

  • Conroy Maddox - Onanistic Typewriter I, 1940
February 3, 2020
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The emergence of Surrealism as one of the most influential avant-garde movements was historically dated to 1924 when the writer André Breton published the notorious First Manifesto of Surrealism. It was a publication that emphasized the methods and propositions of this particular approach to art and life and vice versa. It also included a sort of a historical survey by tracing the initial impulses from the 17th to the 19th century that led to the modern articulation of the surreal, with many of the proponents being British artists such as Lewis Carroll, Henry Fuseli, and William Blake.

To unravel the other side of the Surrealist movement and to underline its British origins, the Dulwich Picture Gallery will present an exciting and encompassing survey simply called British Surrealism with a selection of over seventy artworks.

Leonora Carrington - The Pomps of the Subsoil
Leonora Carrington – The Pomps of the Subsoil, 1947, © Estate of Leonora Carrington / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019, UEA 28. Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia. Photographer: James Austin

A Mad Tea Party

This exhibition will underline the historical influences alongside the actual contributions of British artists who were either part of the movement or were greatly influenced by it. An array of works differing in media by both the prolific and less known, yet equally fascinating figures made between the years 1783 and 1952 will unravel a multitude of fanciful layers of the Surrealist visions.

The showcase itself will channel the spirit of the movement in a specific chronology, so that the dominating themes such as dreams, the uncanny, the unconscious, sex and desire, radical politics, and war could be properly presented.

Left Marion Adnams - Aftermath Right Henry Fuseli - The Weird Sisters
Left: Marion Adnams – Aftermath, 1946, Photo: 2006 Christie’s Images Limited, © The Estate of Marion Adnams / Right: Henry Fuseli – The Weird Sisters, Macbeth, by Henry Fuseli, c.1783, RSC Theatre Collection

The Installment

Reasonably, the chapter to open the exhibition will be focused on the exploration of dreams, a central recurring motif in Surrealism. John Armstrong’s Heaviness of Sleep (1938), a painting depicting an associative landscape, and Edward Burra’s ghoulish Dancing Skeletons (1934) will be among the highlights, as well the works focused on chance and unexpected juxtapositions such as chiseling post-war landscape Aftermath (1946) by Marion Adnams.

The following group of works will reflect the Surrealists’ political aspirations including We Are Making a New World (1918) by Paul Nash, and Edith Rimmington’s collage Family Tree (1938).

The concepts of automatism and the subconscious executed according to the methods of automatic writing and free association appropriated by Breton from Freudian psychoanalysis will follow, as well as the ones exploring sexuality such as The Pine Family (1940) by Ithell Colquhoun and Grace Pailthorpe’s Abstract with Eye and Breast (1938).

The last group of works will illustrate the Surrealists’ tendency to create illogical worlds based on irrationality, absurdity, and the impossible with the highlights such as Lewis Carroll’s works, Figures in Garden (c.1935) by Francis Bacon and Macbeth (1783) by Henry Fuseli.

The installment will include several literary artifacts such as a notebook containing Coleridge’s 1806 draft of his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and a playscript for Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1859).

Sam Haile - Woman and Suspended Man
Sam Haile – Woman and Suspended Man, 1939, © Manchester Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

British Surrealism at Dulwich Picture Gallery

According to the concept and the mentioned highlights, it seems that this survey will shed new light on the origins of Surrealism which influenced an array of artists practicing different media and genres throughout the art history of the 20th century. Dr. David Boyd Haycock, a freelance curator, writer, and lecturer, who prepared British Surrealism stated:

Surrealism was probably the most exciting, transgressive and bizarre art movement of the twentieth century. Its impact on a wide range of British artists, including a number of radical female artists, was enormous. A century after its first official appearance, it is an appropriate moment to expose new audiences to roots of surrealism in British culture.

The exhibition will be accompanied by an extensive illustrated catalog with essays by David Boyd Haycock, Sacha Llewellyn, and Kirstie Meehan.

British Surrealism will be on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from 26 February until 17 May 2020.

Featured image: Conroy Maddox – Onanistic Typewriter I, 1940, Photo credit: The Murray Family Collection (UK & USA). Given with the kind permission of the artist’s daughter. All images courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.