The sun is shining and out from the cracks I, creaking, coughing crawl. It is Easter bank holiday Monday here in the springtime April of southern England and I offer to you my first blog post of the year. If we observe the solar calendar, which by heritage I claim, I am actually not that late at all. So, Nowruz Mobarak, Happy New Year, and let us begin… with a story.
One clear, bright Monday morning I found myself – uncharacteristically – unfettered in the capital city. Exactly one week ago today, London was mine. I sardined onto the tube, leisurely, amongst early morning commuters with the joy of unplanned time ahead of me. I had vague ideas and various options. With meandering precision, I aimed for a location; my eyes were elsewhere. Staring back at me, across the cavern of tracks and mice deep underground, was Leonora Carrington. Leonora of her own invention – Self Portrait c. 1937-8. It is thus that I found myself, still before 9 o’clock, changing paths. 45 minutes on foot, under sun, to the river, to the Tate. To the Modern that I (cannot believe. Surely as a child?) had never visited.
I descended that strange slope wilfully, stepping into the gaping mouth of the Tate. The brutal, grey face opened up into a cathedral of cement and steel. It is vast and ugly and undeniably capital ‘m’ Modern. I climbed stairs and stairs with little expectation as I blindly sought Carrington. ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ (as I learnt for £19, including a donation) explores realities unravelling across the world. It is not a Carrington exhibition. It is not exclusive to female artists. It is not Eurocentric. This is its greatest success: that it is so, so much more expansive than that.
A little booklet filled with the words that adorn the walls situate the visitor, providing a literary map to follow. We begin with a “telephone receiver morph[ing] into a lobster.
“A train rush[ing] from a fireplace…
“These are images commonly associated with Surrealism, a revolutionary cultural movement that prioritised the unconscious and dreams, over the familiar and everyday. Sparked in Paris around 1924, Surrealism has inspired and united artists ever since. This exhibition traces its wide, interconnected impact for the first time. It moves away from a Paris-centred viewpoint to shed light on Surrealism’s significance around the world from the 1920s to the 1970s.
“Surrealism is an expansive, shifting term, but at its core, it is an interrogation of political and social systems, conventions and dominant ideologies. Inherently dynamic, it has travelled and evolved from place to place and time to time — and continues to do so today. Its scope has always been transnational, spreading beyond national borders and defying nationalist definitions, while also addressing specific and local contexts. In a world defined by territorial control — and the consequential ideological constraint, expansionist conflict, and exploitative colonialism — Surrealism has demanded liberation and served artists as a tool in the struggle for political, social and personal freedoms. The exhibition reflects this individualism by avoiding nationalities. Instead, it highlights the centres where Surrealists worked and gathered, recognising shared practices and ideals even as territories and place names changed around them.”– Tate Modern
I have been drawn to surrealism, always. When I selected Frida Kahlo for a research project during my art GCSE, when Man Ray led me down a rabbit hole during my photography A-Level, when I delicately swiped a swift finger across a Salvador Dali at the Vatican on vacation… On most occasions I have merely looked (though into Frida I dove deeply); I have not sought to understand, have not thought it essential to surrealism, have simply enjoyed absurdity for its own sake. And whilst, of course, not every piece of art will by necessity have something greater at its core, inspiration across the exhibition appeared, largely, to stem from a distinguishable source of emotions and experiences. It was this – a response to political or personal turmoil, upheaval, suffering, or disquietude – that I found unified the works. War and revolution, persecution, suffering, and loss on monumental and microscopic levels permeated the work. It was wild, uncontrolled imagination, escapism, catharsis. It was beautiful and unimaginably ugly; the symbiosis of reality and surreality. The vividly uncanny.
I shall not say any more because I want you to go and have your own experience; to dance through the maze of rooms and see what or who you find.
They were all there: Dali, Magritte, Picasso, Ray, Švankmajer, Breton, Bacon, Ocampo, Cahun, even a little glimpse of Kahlo and Rivera. The ones I would have expected had I had time to think about it. The ones that delighted me to see in the artificial gallery light. And there were many others, from the South and Central Americas, from Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, from Africa, from the Middle East – from Iran. Artists whose names and works and lives were new to me.
And, finally, at the end of the labyrinth: Carrington, Self Portrait, c. 1937-8. Our eyes again meet.
If you have enjoyed following me in these unfunded pursuits – following portraits across cityscapes – please consider making a contribution, to help keep my eyes open and my oyster card topped up. Thank you.
Keep touring galleries and museums with these past exhibition reviews:
‘Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter’ Exhibition
‘Death: The Human Experience’ Exhibition
‘Sawdust & Sequins: The Art of the Circus’
Or read my short review of Carrington’s collected short stories – a mixed bag with many highs but multiple lows.