“Surrealism is a word that is applied to those forms of creative art which are evolved, not from the conscious mind, but from the deeper recesses of the subconscious. The theory of Surrealism is based upon a belief that the logical mind, with its prescribed formulas of thought, is incapable of expressing the entire range of human experience and aspiration. To express such a range, the complete mechanism of the human mind must be utilised.” James Gleeson
This description by James Gleeson is from his essay published in Art & Australia in 1940 ‘What is Surrealism’, which explained the principals and rationale driving the new movement. It is on display in the first room of the NGV’s current Lurid Beauty exhibition (alongside books, exhibitions catalogues, journal articles also drawn from the NGV’s own excellent Shaw Research Library), which traces the emergence of Surrealism in Australian art in the 1930s and its persistence as a theme through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
The exhibition is only roughly chronological, with most rooms organised thematically. But, in the first room we are introduced to Surrealism as it was practised and experimented with by Australian artists in the 1930s and 40s. There are paintings by expatriate artists living in Europe, like J.W Power and Roy de Maistre, whose ‘New Atlantis’ (c1933) shows a corner of the studio of his friend Francis Bacon in London. The perspective of the room is stretched in some places and compressed in others. Sharp angles jostle each other, the corner of the door seems to bang against its own shadow, which then skews off to disappear behind a canvas propped against the wall.
Paintings by artists like James Gleeson and Eric Thake show the first forays into Surrealism by Australian-based artists. Gleeson’s ‘We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit’ (1940) was one of the first Surrealist works to enter the NGV’s collection (decried by some trustees as a ‘disease on canvas’). Donated to the NGV at the same time was Thake’s ‘Salvation from the evils of earthly existence’ (1940), in which the artist takes imagery from flight – and sets it in an empty landscape. Aeroplane propellers seem to float off, light as petals, while rolls of paper hover in the air, suspended by string. This sits alongside Thake’s 1941 ‘Archaeopteryx’,(one of my favourite paintings from the AGNSW collection) where a small plane hatches from an egg and flies away, suggests a surreal evolution from bird to plane, animal to machine. Both paintings are whimsical, even humorous, but for me Thake’s delicate careful brushwork and carefully balanced compositions prompt deeper reflections on our relationship to machines, on whether technological innovations offer escape, and on how they change us. This is one of many enjoyable juxtapositions of works from different collections, which are familiar but not normally seen side-by-side.
Also striking are the etchings from the late 1930s by Geoffrey Graham. The etching (and engraving) has long been a medium used to depict the weird, surreal, and the grotesque (think Goya and Durer). Looking at Graham’s ‘Striding Bone Figure’ (c1938) we see a grotesque twisted figure, all bone and sinew. It is recognisable as a figure but at the same time impossible to really make sense of, limbs twist back on themselves and re-enter the body in strange places. The etched lines have bled into the paper, adding to the sense that the image depicts something indefinable.
The next room shifts from origins to focus on the theme of collage and montage. From the subversive reshuffling of nineteenth-century paintings by Sidney Nolan who cut up steel engravings and reassembled them, to the popularity of layered photomontages by Max Dupain for commercial clients (fashion plates and portraits) to contemporary artists who, while perhaps not aiming to shock in the way the twentieth-century artists did, still create unsettling or provoking images. David Noonan’s photographic collages don’t immediately ‘look’ like collage (the collected fragments of photograph are re-photographed so that they blend together). In his ‘Leicester Square’ (2005) the eye is drawn to the figure of a young woman, gazing at us, and behind her a jumble of rubbish bags, and the bust of Isaac Newton. The feeling is of a claustrophobic space, disparate elements from the square squashed hard up against each other and pushed forward towards the viewer. It is surreal, and it also successfully (for me anyway) captures something of the sense of the real Leicester Square, always a crowded and unsatisfying public space.
In a room where the walls have been lined with hessian—the wall treatments of each room are different, which gently shifts the atmosphere as you walk through the exhibition—are a group of works connected by the theme of violence and the macabre. Louise Hearman’s images of glistening teeth in nightmarish landscapes produced a shiver of repulsion, and then a reflection on why it is that teeth and mouths can be so easily made grotesque. It is as though the more intimate and familiar something is, the more visceral our disgust when it is reflected back at us in a distorted fashion.
In the same room are paintings depicting the horrors of war and of post-war life. Arthur Boyd’s ‘The Cripples’ shows distorted figures of humans hobbling on crutches and painted in muddy greys, faded yellows streaked with green with gashes of red. A small dog struts away from one, head in air, as though it is parading its able-bodiedness. A figure in the background is so hunched and distended that its human form is almost discernible only because of the crutches it holds. It is as though the war fed up ready made subjects for artists, the twisted bodies of the injured already distorted and confronting.
There are several other themes that are explored and worth a quick mention. One room is dedicated to female artists including Fiona Hall, Vivienne Binns and Pat Brassington, who have used the principals of surrealism to explore and challenge the female subject. Jill Orr’s ‘She had long golden hair’ (1980) in which the artist enters a room while an audience of men chanting ‘witch, bitch, mole, dyke; witch, bitch, mole, dyke’, has stark parallels with current abuse of women online.
This is an intelligent and very satisfying exhibition. It is large but tightly curated, works from different periods and in different mediums have been brought together in a fresh context. It traces the current of Surrealism in Australian art, which has clearly continued to inform artists beyond that initial group in the 1930s and 1940s. The catalogue has several excellent essays that draw together the ideas and themes of the exhibition. It also reproduces several key texts written about Surrealism, including the Gleeson essay quoted above. My only gripe is the lack of an index, why are these vanishing from so many exhibition catalogues? I feel as though this exhibition hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves, being rather in the shadow of the Ai Weiwei/Warhol summer blockbuster. If you haven’t seen it yet definitely try to squeeze a visit in before it closes at the end of January.
© Katrina Grant 2016