Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 23/12/2001.
I keep feeling I should be adding some sort of progress updates to the Art pieces like I have with all the rest, but I can never think of anything to say. Sorry.
So a couple of days ago, I found myself having to write an essay about the Peasants' Revolt for a history exam. Only two problems with this:
1. I'd only just found out I was taking an exam, and
2. I hadn't studied any history whatsoever for over twenty years.
But when you're thrown suddenly into these situations, you have to improvise. And after a couple of minutes of panic-stricken staring at the blank paper, I started to come up with a plan. Using the name of Wat Tyler as a starting point (the only concrete fact I knew about the Peasants' Revolt), I'd throw together a made-up collage of every other historical revolution I could remember, in the hope that at least a couple of the details would also apply here. Having settled on this as a course of action, I picked up my pen and -
- and then I woke up.
Christ. Even my dreams are post-modern assemblages cobbled together from other people's cliched old dream scenarios. It makes you wonder, does the subconscious mean anything any more? We're all so aware of what's meant to be going on under the surface of the conscious mind: has exposure to a century of dream sequences in movies, psychoanalysis and surrealist art completely infected us to the degree that we all dream in the same few archetypes nowadays?
One of the major attractions of Surrealism: Desire Unbound - an exhibition of Surrealist art showing at London's Tate Modern gallery until January 1st 2002 - is the opportunity to see how artists grappled with the unconscious mind in the early part of the 20th century, before the concept became common currency. Some history for you: Andre Breton formed the Surrealist movement in Paris in 1924, at a time when Freud was just starting to get his works translated into French, and his ideas about the revelation of our innermost desires were starting to go global. Breton said in the movement's original manifesto that its aim was to reveal "the real functioning of thought", though many other definitions have been coined subsequently, including some that are pieces of Surrealist art in their own right - how does "the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table" grab you?
Once you get past the intro room of the exhibition - centred around Max Ernst's Man Shall Know Nothing Of This, a collision of eroticism and geometry that's presumably meant to indicate what we're to expect here - the gallery is split into thirteen roughly themed rooms, each generally consisting of a piece of art that gives the room its title, plus assorted contemporaries and other works on a similar theme.
The first room you encounter is The Bride Stripped Bare, named after Marcel Duchamp's well-known work on glass. As it's the first famous Surrealist work visible in the exhibition, you have to fight through large crowds to see it - alternatively, just look at the back of it and imagine hard. I'd already seen Bride in the main Tate Modern collection, so I wasn't too fussed about struggling to catch it again. Besides, there are some interesting works accompanying it, notably some some dark Duchamp paintings and a selection of playful Man Ray photos (such as a self portrait achieved with a carefully lit egg whisk).
The Child's Brain is named after a Giorgio de Chirico painting that was a huge influence on Breton's formation of the movement: legend has it he saw it in a gallery window as he went past on a bus, and was so enthralled he had to terminate his journey early. This painting is on display here, but I preferred his large scale dreamscapes - all huge open spaces, vaginal arches, phallic trains and reclining figures. Also on offer here are the first of a reasonable number of Salvador Dali paintings on offer, giving me further opportunities to gawp at the way he represents light in a totally unrealistic yet lifelike way. We also get a couple of works by Max Ernst, and it's hard not to be filled with childlike delight on seeing the wooden bits attached to his painting Two Children Are Threatened By A Nightingale.
Dawn Over The City's title painting is my main discovery in this exhibition. A young version of the artist Paul Delvaux wanders through a city of naked women, while an older clothed Delvaux observes his disinterest. There's a fabulous amount of detail crammed into here, including a discreet couple of other guys in the distance and at least one skeleton. Some of Dali's wittier constructions are on display in this room, notably the self-explanatory sculpture Venus With Drawers, and the painting Couple With Their Heads Full Of Clouds (two Daliesque landscapes in man- and woman-shaped frames). It's at this point you start to realise that Dali's legendary technique would go for nothing if he didn't have the ideas to back it up: rather, the gorgeous surfaces are what lure you into exploring ideas that you may be unable (or even unwilling) to explore usually. In this room I'm also taken with Rene Magritte's A Courtesan's Palace: basically a study of a room with a passage leading off to the back, but dammit you want to see what's going on around the corner.
The Anatomies room gathers together the nude photos of Man Ray, Dora Maar et al, showing the human form abstracted to hell and beyond. Ray's Minotaur initially has you looking for the missing head of the person in the photo, before you realise all of it is the head - the arms raised as horns, the sucked-in chest as mouth, the breasts as eyes. Next door we have The Imprint Of Desires: mainly the work of Joan Miro, who I'm happy to write off in half a paragraph because I don't really like him. You know what I was saying about technical skill without ideas to back it up? Well, that's Miro for me. The most interesting thing in here is the discovery that at least one of the Miro paintings is on loan from the collection of dead Remington guy Victor Kiam.
Halfway round the gallery, and Love, Poetry is where it's finally admitted that Surrealism was a literary movement before it moved into visual art: so what we get is a huge collection of surrealist texts and associated objects. Most of the artists customised editions of Surrealist literature with pictures and found objects, which are delightful to look at. There are also some cool adverts for the movement itself - 'if you love love, you'll love Surrealism' - and examples of surveys the Surrealists held with themselves and each other. The Tate website's attempt at a Surrealist survey isn't quite in the same style, but is rather fun to take part in (see the link below).
From this point onwards, the exhibition starts to lose some of its surprise value: shock was a major weapon of the Surrealists, and there's only so many times you can be shocked in one day. Still, The Accommodations Of Desire manages to still pull off a couple of surprises, notably in just how damn sexy Meret Oppenheim's manipulated objects are. Considering those objects are a fur-lined teacup and a pair of trussed-up shoes, that's kinda worrying.
The Robing Of The Bride is one of the few rooms to acknowledge the contributions of female artists, though it's dominated by the large Max Ernst female nude of its title. Some works by Leonora Carrington include her Cat Woman, a life sized painted female wood figure: it's the single most lovely thing on display here, but totally the wrong shape to be illustrated on this page. (Not even the Google image search linked to below appears to be any help on this one, unfortunately.) Also on display are Frida Kahlo's curiously arousing Self-Portrait With Monkey (famously on loan from Madonna - right on, motherfucker) and Dorothea Tanning's splendid Birthday, depicting a woman on the brink of 30 in front of an array of open doors.
Eros is the predictable 'dirty bit' of the exhibition, though unlike its equivalent in the main gallery it's not full of dodgy sensation seekers. Perhaps they're being put off by the taped soundtrack of orgasmic wails, replicating the sound design at Duchamp's 1959 exhibition. We get assorted black and white erotic photos, some works inspired by de Sade, and a sidebar exhibit on the work of the Czech Surrealist movement (which is interesting in the light of the film work of Jan Svankmajer). More disturbing sexuality is on display in The Games Of The Doll: entirely dedicated to Hans Bellmer's repetitive photos of deformed dolls, with one on a bed as the centrepiece of the room. Somehow it manages to be more playful and less disturbing than the similar work being performed by Jake and Dinos Chapman nowadays: possibly because Bellmer's pieces are so deformed as to lack genitalia completely, while the Chapman dolls seem to be nothing but genitalia.
The Her Throat Cut room is apparently about "the dark side of Surrealist desire", according to the catalogue. Unfortunately, nobody's really looking at the few works on the walls, as they're all gathered round a screen watching the classic Surrealist movies Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or on a video loop. This is the first time I've seen Andalou, surprisingly, and it ends up like the first time you see Hamlet in a theatre. Everyone knows the most famous bits - the woman's eye being sliced open by a razor, the injured hand full of ants, the armpit hair that transfers itself to a character's mouth - and you just end up waiting for those to come around, everything else feeling like mere connective tissue. But there's no denying that Bunuel and Dali's movie still has huge visual impact after all these years, and is uproariously funny to boot. When people talk about Monty Python being surrealist humour, they tend to forget even the Pythons never came up with an image like two clergymen each dragging a grand piano with a dead horse under the lid.
The final room in the circular tour of the gallery is Erotic Objects, which returns to the theme of finding sexiness in the most unlikely of places. Duchamp's miscellaneous creepy objects - including one combination of masculine bronze and feminine dental plastic - are especially freaky. We also get (after the photos) an actual Bellmer doll that looks like two arses stuck on a torso, and Dorothea Tanning's Rainy Day Canape, looking for all the world like a sofa that's trying to shag itself. Plus Louise Bourgeois contributes something that looks like a gigantic cock on a hook, to send us all out with a smile. (Except it's at this point you've realised that you've accidentally passed one more room in the middle of the exhibition and have to go back. In fact, Before The Mirror's collection of gender-bending portraits isn't terribly exciting, though you do get to see Duchamp in drag as his feminine alter ego Rose Selavvy.)
So if you're reading this piece in the few days between its appearance on the web and the end of the exhibition, give Surrealism: Desire Unbound a go. It'll excite you, arouse you, maybe even repel you if you're lucky. And at least I managed to decide at the end of it what my Xmas card design would be for this year. Being a monkey, and all.
The BBC website has an ongoing collaborative project with the Tate [dead link] that's worth a look. Their feature on Surrealism: Desire Unbound [dead link] includes an analysis of the exhibition [dead link], an automatic writing/image generator [dead link] to produce your own surrealist art, and comments on the movement from people like Terry Gilliam [dead link].
http://www.surrealist.com is probably a good place to start if you want to find out more about the Surrealists, if only because they've gone to the trouble of getting the URL. Lots of biographical information and other resources, including Breton's key text on the movement, What Is Surrealism?
alt.surrealism is the Usenet newsgroup dedicated to discussion of Surrealist art past and present: although as with most newsgroups, it's a place where a community of like-minded people can talk about pretty much anything. This link is via the filtered Google Usenet Archive, so I can't tell you if people post Surrealist spam on here or not. ("MAKE $$$$ FAST USING YOUR OWN SEWING MACHINE AND UMBRELLA AT HOME!!!")
The Google image search is still only in beta test, but is a fabulous way of tracking down images if you want to find out more about the artists mentioned here. Just enter names like Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Paul Delvaux, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Joan Miro, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, Hans Bellmer, Luis Bunuel or Louise Bourgeois, and see what comes out.
Jan Svankmajer's site covers the life and works of my favourite Czech Surrealist. (Don't ask me who my second favourite is.) Obviously lots of stuff about his movies, but it also documents his work in other media. Check out his wanking machine! [dead link]