First published on 21 Sep 2011. Updated on 21 Sep 2011.
Brisbane’s Surrealism exhibition is attracting artlovers across the country, but it can feel like a load of old cobblers to those of us who want to get it… but just don’t. You go in expecting to see some lovely whimsical floppy clocks. Instead you get a comprehensive overview of a 50-year-long social movement driven by people who reinvented art, changed the course of history, and can all too easily be dismissed as a pack of tossers.
That’s the problem with art (and life in general), really. If you’re not up to speed on the historic and social context of an artistic or social movement like hip hop or Kevin Rudd’s stimulus package or the original Star Wars movie, it’s too easy to get annoyed and dismiss the whole thing as a load of cobblers.
Curator Didier Ottinger (deputy-Director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris) tries to bring us up to speed with comprehensive notes and biographies, but unless you speak 'highbrow' they can be even more alienating, which is a shame, because the exhibition really is amazing and you should definitely go.
There are many ways “into” art – some people can switch off the rational/linear parts of our brains and just go with it. But to make the whole experience more fun and less infuriating for those who can’t, here it is: Surrealism for the rest of us.
The Early 20th Century: Up until WW1, people were getting bored with wearing corsets and stiff upper lips and were starting to explore the inner world of “feelings”. Art began moving away from paintings of haystacks and sunflowers. Instead of saying “Here’s what stuff looks like” – ie “a flower”, “a haystack”, “some boobs” – painters and sculptor got more into saying: “Here’s what stuff feels like!”
Feelings were everything. Paul Cezanne got morbid and started doing still life depictions of human skullbones instead of fruit. Edvard Munch misplaced his keys and painted “The Scream”. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had some intense, presumably absinthe-fuelled conversations about how the mind’s eye visualises and therefore feels stuff in, like, fragments rather than from a single viewpoint. Then they started looking at the sky through their straw hats and giggling, which lead to the invention of cubism. Cubism revolutionised art and continues to delight millions, while completely bewildering those of us who like our upper lips stiff and our pictures to look like stuff.
The War: When we think of a mind-blowingly bloody and horrifying war, we tend to think of World War Two, but World War 1 made the wars that came before look like a pillow fight between two teletubbies. You think people were annoyed about WMD’s? Imagine how they felt about having their streets and yards blown up and losing nine million brothers and sons for no reason anyone could explain. During and after the war, a lot of French and German artists, writers and intellectuals holed up in the relative safety of Switzerland. They passed their time ranting at each other at barbecues about the establishment, man, just like everyone would do later on in the sixties.
People felt that if modern society could allow such a senseless thing to happen, they wanted no part of it. They wanted to throw out all the old values and reinvent society, (just like in the sixties). So they turned to the newly fashionable “isms”. They waved their arms around and ranted about things like communism, socialism, nihilism and spiritualism at dinner parties and wine and cheese nights and boarding school reunions. They called anyone who disagreed with them “bourgeois scum”, somehow completely missing the irony. One of them threw a dart into a dictionary and hit on a nonsensical term for “hobby horse” and Dadaism was born.
Dada: Imagine if The Chaser or Monty Python teams decided to start an anti-war movement lampooning the establishment. Then make them ferociously serious about what they’re doing and you pretty much “get” Dada. Dadaists were like the disillusioned World War Two vets who founded the bikie movement, or the angry draft-dodgers and veterans of the Vietnam era who started the hippy movement.
Dada was more than art – it was a way of life. Artist George Grosz described Dada as "the organized use of insanity to express contempt for a bankrupt world." Dadaists made fun of “serious art” and the general meaninglessness of the modern world. They mounted porcelain urinals in art exhibitions. They drew a moustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa. They were expressing the rage, confusion and anger people felt as their world was turned upside down. It was a major influence on the punk movement later in the century and still resonates today in music and comedy as well as art.
Dada was driven by self-righteous twenty-somethings and still evokes eye-rolls from the art community, but it forever broadened the definition of “art”. It gave us multimedia art and performance art, collage, photomontage and the use of found objects. It made artists look at themselves for the first time within the context of social relevance, and explored the idea that art could, or should, be a vehicle for social change.
Surrealism: People tend to think of Salvador Dali when they think of surrealism. But Salvador Dali was kind of the Rove McManus of the surrealism scene (if Rove McManus had an extremely famous moustache). Surrealism was invented by a group of poets, not painters, who had got over Dadaism. (Poets tend to be even wackier than artists, as anyone who follows 50 Cent on Twitter can confirm.) The group’s Grand Poohbah, Pope and Nazi was Andre Breton, a poet who was a huge fan of Sigmund Freud.
Breton wrote the Surrealist Manifesto (20th century artists loved writing manifestos) in which he declared that “pure thought” conveyed through the oral or written word, with no boundaries created by reason, aesthetics or moral concern is the only true form of human expression. It was all about releasing the creative potential of the sub-conscious mind, which was a favourite and shiny new concept in those days.
Painters and visual artists read the manifesto and loved it, so they quickly scratched out “either the oral or written word” and penned in: “visual expression.” Then they started working to create artworks that surprise, confuse and challenge – which is why you’ll see works with charming titles like “Woman with Throat Cut”.
Surrealism was a nice flexible concept that could be used to express whatever a writer or artist was into: family dynamics, tribal culture, spiritualism, politics or disembodied eyeballs (which are almost as fun to draw as boobs).
At the Brisbane exhibition, you’ll see the founders of the movement pictured over time with their insane moustaches and earnest expressions reminding us that young men and women really can change the world sometimes.
Breton’s followers were working for the “liberation of man” and surrealist philosophy did actually lead to revolutions. Its emphasis on liberating people from repressive social structures was especially clear in the New Left of the 1960s and 70s and the French revolt of May 1968, with the slogan “All power to the imagination!” coming directly from Surrealist thought.
An avant-garde art movement may not have been enough to unbalance the stuffy, conventional society that surrealists despised so much (other forces like globalisation did that for us), but Surrealism was the twentieth century’s most popular art movement and still resonates today. You’ll see the roots of today’s art, video games and movies in the exhibition. And you’ll find that an afternoon spent drifting through GOMA’s exhibition may give you much to think about and take you “elsewhere” (cue Gene Wilder singing “Into your imagination”). Hopefully, Andre Breton would be okay with that.
And if after reading this, you still find yourself thinking “What a load of toss!”, remember: that, too, is perfectly legitimate response to art.
Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams is at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art until October 2.