Magazine article The Spectator

Destabilising Forces

Magazine article The Spectator

Destabilising Forces

Article excerpt

Undercover Surrealism Hayward Gallery, until 30 July Max Ernst Helly Nahmad Gallery, 2 Cork Street, W1, until 28 July

'Picasso, Miró, Masson and the vision of Georges Bataille' is the subtitle of the latest extravaganza at the Hayward Gallery. Georges Bataille (1897-1962) is one of those buzz figures, beloved of the moment, without a quote from whom no contemporary art-speak catalogue introduction is complete. He has been influential as a philosopher as well as a writer (he penned a minor cult classic called Story of the Eye), and as a worthy opponent of André Breton, the self-styled Pope of Surrealism. Between 1929 and 1930 Bataille edited a radical surrealist magazine called Documents, which offered a heady mix of art and archaeology, ethnography and popular culture. This show is an examination of French culture through the lens of that magazine -- an ideas-based exhibition if there ever was one.

Curators who ride exhibitions waving banners of theory often need to be treated with the gravest suspicion, for it is the exhibits which make a good exhibition, not the ideas they may (or may not) embody.

Fortunately, this show features several groups of paintings and sculptures of the highest order, so the visitor is able to respond enthusiastically to it on a purely visual and aesthetic level. The display can then also be read and considered on various other levels, not least as a series of documents about the intellectual and artistic climate of Paris around 1930. The presiding genius of the exhibition and doyenne of surrealist experts is Dawn Ades, ably assisted by fellow-curators Simon Baker and Fiona Bradley. The show is accompanied by a hefty catalogue (£22.99 in paperback) which will no doubt become a valued textbook of surrealist studies. The exhibition is quite small, and confined to the ground floors of the Hayward. Upstairs will be a programme of related talks, films, performance and live music (Willard White appears in Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale in late July).

Is this a new direction for the Hayward?

Smaller shows and an emphasis on 'events'? Watch this space. . .

The show opens with some film clips to put you in the mood. Never forget that surrealism is supposed to destabilise you, so we're shown Buster Keaton falling downstairs as well as the unerotically shaped Marie Dressler as the Prancing Pearl. If that's not enough, there are various Afghan and Nigerian sculptures lurking in the gloom, as well as de Chirico's painting 'The Evil Genius' and Picasso's great canvas 'The Three Dancers'. In the main gallery space to the right of the entrance there are lots of photographs and documentary stuff and a lovely group of Picasso paintings -- one of the main reasons to visit the show. 'Bather, Design for a Monument (Dinard)' and 'Two Women Running', both from 1928 and both magnificent paintings, establish the twin poles of this artist's surrealist credentials. (All and Nothing. ) The extremely odd 'Bird on a Tree' adds undoubted piquancy.

Another reason to venture to the South Bank is the group of sculptures on the mezzanine, including Giacometti's 'Man and Woman', some cycladic specimens, several good things by Lipchitz, a Brancusi marble head and a wall of superb Arp reliefs hanging above. Elsewhere on this level are a lovely sequence of Karl Blossfeldt's photographs of ferns and flowers, a group of strange and marvellous Miró paintings (tough, not sweet as some of his can be), and a room of Massons.

These are exceptionally fine, and filled with inspired and inspiring linearity, despite the ostensible subject of butchered horses and abattoirs. …

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