Could the strange Lobster Telephone by Salvador Dali be the most famous example of surreal art? It’s probably the piece that springs to mind ahead of all others. It’s just so weird but, by dint of familiarity, feels almost normal. This new show at Tate Modern, Surrealism Beyond Borders, spreads the net pretty wide and scoops up examples of surrealist art from all over the world.
It’s suggested that surrealism began in Paris in 1924 but, I’d argue, we’ve seen elements of it in art for centuries. Think of those strange artworks by Heironymus Bosch or William Blake. Maybe the works by those artists were based on dreams or visions? I wonder whether surrealism is the ‘ism’ which many artists choose to adhere to when they stray from conventions of inherited art styles or the familiar and enjoy a sense of ‘permission’ to explore an interior world of their own.
I really enjoyed the words of Grace Pailthorpe who spoke on a radio programme- Mirror for Women – about Surrealism and Psychology in 1944. She suggests that everyone is an artist, in some sense, because we all have ideas and dreams and strive to find ways to realise these dreams. The surreal, she argues, is a means of experiencing personal freedom, the ultimate in self-expression, and the most humble doodle, made when the mind is pausing (for example, when a phone call is on hold) is when the human creative experience is at its most natural and uninhibited.
As a collage artist I was very encouraged to see many examples of collage as a form of surrealism. I totally relate to the idea of assemblage, of creating uncanny relationships between objects or creating visual jokes or challenges. Think of Henri Magritte and the smoking steam engine rushing from a fireplace.
Surreal art can take so many forms. I think the viewer can’t help but try to make ‘sense’ of the image but the point is that these artworks are nonsensical or capture some interior narrative which is peculiar to the artist.
Generally, I think it’s very healthy to embrace the strange and celebrate the weird. In all aspects of the arts this is the place where humans can, metaphorically, ‘let go’ and enjoy flights of fancy, the impact of religion, spirituality, magic and all the inexplicable things which exercise us. This is a good show to look at if you’re in mood to find out what you think about representing all that is odd.
Surrealism beyond borders is at Tate Modern from 24 February to 29 August 2022