Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Surrealism's Subversive Enemy within; the Hayward Gallery's New Exhibition Promises Startling Revelations but They Fizzle out in the First Room

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Surrealism's Subversive Enemy within; the Hayward Gallery's New Exhibition Promises Startling Revelations but They Fizzle out in the First Room

Article excerpt


THERE is more to Surrealism than Salvador Dalc, though it was he who made Surrealist art approachable, acceptable and enjoyable, removed it from a controlling clique of theorists and brought it into the bright lights and broad acres of popular imagery.

The "Pope" of Surrealism was Andre Breton, not a painter, not a sculptor, but a poet and cod philosopher; the movement's guiding ideologue, the writer of its manifestos, its chief moral and executive force, his only claim to be anything of a visual artist lay in his assemblages of inconsequential objects juxtaposed, and even these he regarded as a literary form, mute poetry. He could never have been popular.

I would be happy to drown Breton and all other theorists of Surrealism in the Waters of Oblivion. There are other Surrealist painters, but for me, Surrealism stands or falls with Dalc, the movement's supreme practical protagonist, and though, ad nauseam, he wrote and spoke its gibberish, his paintings between 1928 and 1940 were its finest, even its sublime, expositions. In his high colour, scrupulous draughtsmanship and transparent insubstantial glazes, his skills were closer to the High Renaissance than to any painter of his day; add his perspective and his light, and it would not be outrageous praise to dub him the last of the old masters. A man of far wider erudition than any painter now, he borrowed ideas and images from the august Classical and post-Renaissance past, even from smutty 18thcentury pornographers, and from his near contemporaries Picasso and de Chirico. These sources he distorted in the mirror of his self-induced visionary experiences, deliberately falsifying memories, corrupting the clinical study of psychological derangement, imposing fantasy, sexuality and metamorphosis on a world of often commonplace appearances disoriented in the infinite space and time of dreams.

Dalc's calculated purpose was to discredit reality and, by obsessive contemplation, free the contemplated object from its conventional associations and liberate his subconscious mind. He claimed that his art grew from the hallucinatory energy thus induced, that with the door of his imagination flung open by this exercise in contemplation, he found it possible to enter another plane of consciousness and intellect; infinity became his private space, his private perspective the unreal exaggeration of the lens, his private light the clear syrup that preserves the golden apricot. In the ingenious conjunction of unlikely objects that have no relationship other than in dreams, the acceptable qualities of the one he could transfer to the other and make both unacceptable, and in transmutation from flesh to fantasy, from animal to human, from stone to vegetable, in distortion, corruption, decomposition, putrefaction and confusing genital allusion, we advance with him into his private desert, a haunted rock-strewn place of stricken incubi and nightmare fictions of exquisitely unpleasant sensibility, his persistent capacity to disconcert unrivalled. In his private desert he was as much unhinged by solitude and sexual privation as the early Christian Desert Fathers were in theirs; they prayed for absolution for their fantasies, of his he painted pictures.

Only one painting by Dalc is to be found in Undercover Surrealism, the new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery of which the title is a misleading pun.

"Undercover" suggests secrecy and surreption, but here the cover is that of a magazine in which Andre Breton's definition of Surrealism was openly attacked, his doubting allies seduced to the opposing camp. The magazine was called Documents, but it was not in any sense documentary - nor were its subjects restricted to contemporary art, for its founding editor, Georges Bataille, a professional numismatist, was as much interested in archaeology, ethnography, pornography and contemporary photography. Born in 1897, this academic was a few months younger than Breton and, like him, a cod philosopher: he thought of himself as Surrealism's "enemy from within", and there can be no doubt that the enmity made him something of a scourge, a gadfly, for the older, far more established, man, and in this Documents was founded entirely as his personal instrument. …

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