One spring day in 1936, Salvador Dalí visited a diving shop in the south east of England and asked to be fitted for a deep sea diving suit. When the salesman enquired how deep he intended to venture, the Spaniard replied that his dive was to be into the depths of the human subconscious – and he hoped to encourage the British public to make the journey with him.
Dalí’s diving suit was the pièce de résistance of an exhibition that exploded on to the London arts scene 80 years ago. The show, the International Exhibition of Surrealism, brought together many of the finest names in 20th century art, among them Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Meret Oppenheim, Man Ray, Graham Sutherland, Francis Picabia and, of course, Salvador Dalí. On its opening day – 11 June 1936 – it stopped the traffic on Piccadilly due to the swell of the crowds and, over the weeks that followed, it stopped the British arts establishment in its tracks, forcing it to reappraise what art actually was as well as what an exhibition could be.
Memories of those weeks in 1936, and their impact on British art, will be very much to the fore at a new show about to open in Edinburgh. Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous draws from four collections directly linked to the exhibition 80 years ago and includes works from the London show; it also aims to reappraise the sometimes undervalued place of surrealism in Britain.
The 1936 exhibition was designed to put surrealism on the map in the UK. Had it not been for the gathering storm clouds of war in Europe, it might have gone on to achieve far more. But even though surrealism in Britain was never the forceit was in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia and later the US (where it became the basis for abstractionism), it still had a far-ranging, if subtle, effect.
“Britain was, in many ways, a natural home for surrealism,” says Keith Hartley, curator of the Edinburgh show. “The 1936 exhibition proved very popular, and I think its popularity was down to its quirkiness. British people love that sort of thing. It’s hard to imagine Britain today without the influence of surrealism: you only have to think of advertising or Monty Python – the dead parrot sketch, the ministry of funny walks. It’s all related to surrealism.”
The 1936 show had its origins in a chance meeting that took place the previous year on the Rue de Tournon on the Parisian left bank, which was the centre of the surrealists’ world. The movement has its origins in Dadaism: it grew from a deep dissatisfaction with bourgeois values that the surrealists believed caused, among other outrages, the first world war. It claimed humankind would be in a better place if more emphasis was placed on unconscious rather than rational conscious thought.
As a word, surrealism dates back to 1917, when it was first used in a play by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Although in Britain it is known mostly as an art movement, in Europe it was far more wide-ranging, encompassing writing and poetry as well as political thought. It was a force for change, and its leader was the writer André Breton, who was known as the pope or the high priest of Surrealism.
As Breton, Ernst, Dalí, Duchamp and others milled around the cafes of Paris, its main flag bearer in Britain was Roland Penrose, a wealthy young artist. The meeting on the Rue de Tournon took place between him and a precocious young poet called David Gascoyne, who had become passionate about surrealism, and had just completed a book about it. The two men got talking about how extraordinary it was that, while Paris was undergoing a seismic art revolution, a few hundred miles away in London no one knew anything about it. They decided to change all that, with a show to jump-start the British imagination.
In the end, some 392 paintings and sculptures were assembled at the New Burlington Galleries. True to the surrealist notion of “objective hazard” (a random but ultimately fortuitous happening), the show was beset by problems which, added to the planned surprises, made it a veritable festival of the best that surrealism had to offer. First, there was the business of transporting the art: two days before the opening, a consignment was seized by Customs and two pieces – one by Wilhelm Freddie showing the naked bodies of dead soldiers, another by the Argentinian Leonor Fini showing young men dancing naked in the twilight – were turned back on grounds of decency.
Next came the hang – or rather the rehang, which happened with just hours to go after the collector ELT Mesens arrived and found it hopelessly unimaginative. The whole point of a surrealist show, he explained, was to make surprising links and to juxtapose works so they were in an unlikely setting. He rearranged things to ensure discord, rather than harmony.
The show opened on a stiflingly hot day, but the painter Sheila Legge – sometimes called the surrealists’ mascot – arrived bearing a pork chop, which quickly went off. Legge, who was dressed in a long, white satin gown, her face obscured by roses and covered with ladybirds – had to discard it and hold an artificial leg wearing a silk stocking instead.
As guests arrived to look round, the poet Dylan Thomas offered them teacups full of boiled string, asking: “Do you like it weak or strong?” Breton, meanwhile, gave his opening speech dressed entirely in green – even the pipe he was smoking was green – and his wife Jacqueline Lamba’s hair was dyed to match. The show continued with similar unexpected events: at one point the composer William Walton pinned a kipper on to one of Miró’s paintings, but the artist Paul Nash removed it because it smelled too strong.
The show mesmerised the press and captivated the public: 30,000 people visited during its brief, three-week run. And for all its eccentricities, its architects were deadly serious about surrealism and its ambitions. “Do not judge this movement kindly,” wrote Herbert Read, one of the organisers, in the catalogue. “It is not just another amusing stunt. It is defiant – the desperate act of men too profoundly convinced of the rottenness of our civilisation to want to save a shred of its respectability.” So far, artists had only interpreted the world, he said, “the point, however, is to transform it”.
The ramifications were far-reaching. After the show ended, Penrose and Read hatched a plan to set up a museum of modern art in London, of the type that already existed in New York. They soon realised, however, that there wasn’t the money to do anything comparable, and the wealthy collector Peggy Guggenheim, whom they recruited to help, wanted too much control. They did, however , go on to found the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Guggenheim set up her gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, and the London Gallery was also reinvented to devote itself to surrealism. Later Peggy transferred her collection to Venice, where it was seen by Gabrielle Keiller, who was moved to shift the focus of her collection – which forms an important part of the Edinburgh show – to surrealism.
But back to 1936 and that diving suit. Dalí’s idea was to give a lecture while wearing it. For good measure, he held two dogs on leads in one hand, and had a billiard cue in the other. During the course of the lecture, however, it became apparent that he was slowly suffocating inside his helmet, and it had to be prised off with the billiard cue. Dalí recovered and went on to finish his presentation with a slide show. The slides, it almost goes without saying, were presented upside down.
- Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 4 June to 11 September. Joanna Moorhead is writing a biography of the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.
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