Australian Surrealism and its Echoes
Profound jokes are sometimes best told by those not trying to be funny.
‘The problem of woman is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in all the world’ wrote chief honcho surrealist Andre Breton in 1929, cue laugh track.
A couple of self styled Aussie Andre Breton type characters graced the opening of Lurid Beauty, Australian Surrealism and its Echoes at the NGV a few weeks back. The Aussie Andres (unphotographed here) have learnt from the father of surrealism how to work a room. As self-elected cultural leaders, they enlist the support of bands of gullible followers. The role of the followers is to do what they’re told and to prop up the ideas about the art of their leader. In line they fall, marching to the beat of the drum of their hero. Follow Andre’s rules for fear of expulsion from the cosy comforts of the group, gasp. Excommunication is a common strategy. There must be consequences to speaking one’s mind. Especially if it’s not in keeping with the words of the master.
Let’s consider for a moment where the magic of surrealism might have gotten to, if Andre Breton hadn’t squeezed the very life from it. You can love something to death. Rules, so many rules, stifling work methods, stifling results, list upon list of things to do. And things not to do. To say this guy Andre had control issues would be like calling Gala popular with the lads. The author of books of rules he called manifestos, Andre could have been an excellent PE teacher. His shrill referee’s whistle swinging from a rope round his neck, judging, always judging what a violation of the code of rules of the game looks like. Anticipating problems.
‘It’s my way or the Highway’ he’d say. ‘Don’t deviate from the path as I’ve set down, for I know best’ he’d declare in the arduous weekly meetings, and they’d all mutter agreement, whilst slugging back quantities of red wine, to numb the pain. Young, beautiful women looking for liberation would fall for this patriarchy until it got too boring and they told Breton to piss off. The surrealists had a turnover of staff that would rival the Masons. As far as women went, the surrealists loved ethereal sorceresses, spontaneous, instinctive women who rebelled against the social order and had a taste for political subversion. That’s until the rent was due, then they liked their women bourgeois, independently wealthy and generous, so you can still see the echoes of this influence within Australian art today.
Andre Breton isn’t all bad. He did write some stuff about women that’s so effusive it could be an episode of The League of Gentlemen.
‘Mesuline….. her belly is the whole harvest of August, her torso springs like fireworks out of the curve of her waist, molded like two sparrow’s wings, her breasts are ermines taken in the trap of their own cry, all the more blinding because they light themselves with the ardent coal of their shrieking mouths. And her arms are the soul of brooks that sing and perfume. And, under the collapse of her tarnished golden hair, all the distinctive features of the child woman are forever assembled.’ Andre Breton
Breton and his mates liked the female presence to augment the male creative cycle. Woman as Muse, the standout muse being Gala. Gala certainly knew her way round an erotic and poetic inspirational energy session! She must have been very good at it too. The penises of artists, they popped up where ever she turned her inspiring gaze. Max Ernst, Paul Eluard and Salvador Dali are just some of the artists Gala inspired to make great art with her lust and their desire. Gala had no interest in political or philosophical discussions, so that made her more popular with the boys too. The surrealists often greeted the appearance of a particularly successful painting or poem with the words: ‘Ah well, he was in love with Gala then.’ Max Ernst loved Gala deeply, until he met young beauty Marie-Berthe Aurenche. She inspired his collage novel, Dream of a Little Girl Who Wanted to Enter a Convent. It was already too late for Gala to be joining any Convent.
Beautiful American photographer Lee Miller fell out of favour with Breton and Man Ray, after she volunteered to be in Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film, Blood of a Poet. Breton and Man didn’t approve of Cocteau’s flamboyant style of homosexuality, his use of drugs, or his appropriation of surrealist themes and images for his own work. Without him begging for their permission to leap through the looking glass too. Breton and Man liked to kid themselves that they had intellectual property rights over the trippy shit. Jean Cocteau and Lee Miller weren’t having a bar of it. Lee rightly decided that a collaboration with party boy Jean Cocteau, author of Les Enfants Terribles, enduring handbook for alienated youth, might be quite a lot of fun. She told Breton and Man Ray where to stick it and went partying instead with her smart, gay friend. The best way to deal with bullies, is to walk away.
I like surrealism because, despite the latent sexism, women were having a go at making it. So it’s just like in Australia today really. The female surrealists are not household names, not like their male counterparts, not like Dali or Duchamp or Miro or Jean Arp, but they were there. The male surrealists were at least trying to deal with the problem of female participation in art, bless them. This was at a time when women’s liberation was about to be volleyed forward by the necessities of another war.
In 1942, Peggy Guggenheim organized the first of two exhibitions of the work of women artists at her new gallery, Art of This Century. They called the exhibition 31 Women and it was a show based on an idea suggested to Peggy by Marcel Duchamp. Word up Marcel, you are a bloody legend. Art by Leonora Carrington, Jacqueline Lamba, Valentine Hugo, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Kay Sage, Leonor Fini, and Dorothea Tanning was exhibited. The (male) New York art critics went to town with their dismissing criticisms. Henry McBride wrote that the women were better than the male Surrealists, reasoning that:
‘This is logical now that one comes to think of it. Surrealism is about 70 percent hysterics, 20 percent literature, and 5 percent good painting and 5 percent is just saying ‘boo’ to the innocent public. There are, as we all know, plenty of men among the New York neurotics but we also know there are still more women among them….. It is obvious that women ought to excel at Surrealism. At all events, they do.’
H. McBride, Women Surrealists, New York Sun, January 15, 1943.
Speaking of fugly painting, the works of Australian Surrealist Tim Schultz demands special consideration. Setting a new benchmark for the unexpected clash of juvenile line, form and particularly palette, who knew a combination of colours had the potential to look so bad together? Like a teenager auditioning for a Looney Toons cartooning job, the applicant gets nervous, takes some bad acid, then has a go at painting a Salvador Dali dream scape. He’s a big admirer of Dali’s ouvere, and wants to be just like him when he grows up. So he paints Jessica Rabbit, from the mind of a mad man, that’s what it looks like. I would have taken a photo but wanted to spare my camera the challenge of capturing such wanton tragedy. On the up side, the display of an entire wall of Schultzs’ works within the National Gallery of Victoria, will provide hope to the hoards of amateur painters who see them. One day I too could be hanging on the walls of this Gallery they’ll think to themselves. Surreal.
There’s some bobby-dazzler works in this exhibition too. Jill Orr’s 1980 video work She had long golden hair, is a highlight. Her long locks strung up like Stelarc’s skin, an ominous pair of shears glistening, threateningly within the frame. The absurdly poetic performances of Leigh Bowery, always makes the time you spend with him a sound investment. Footage captured by friends, with choreography by Michael Clark, this old video footage is aging very well. Having grown up in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine, Bowery’s work points to the fact that there’s something about the suburbs that makes them ripe grounds for the eyes of potential surrealists, even today.
It’s hard to define what makes an artist a surrealist, it’s just the vibe. But if you’re into the sacred worlds of childhood and madness and dreams and the occult, then Surrealism is the art movement for you. Personally I prefer Australian Gothic. I like to compare Australian Gothic to New Zealand Gothic, just for cheap kicks. Try to work out who’s more Gothic, Australian or New Zealand artists? You should try it. Here’s a starting point, when the All Blacks choke again at the World Cup Rugby, everything in New Zealand goes very, very Gothic.
The Australian popular past time of wunderlust, where everywhere else is more cultural than here, remains alive and well.
It’s such a relief to look out and back. Out at the world and back in time. It beats taking a good look at Australian society right now, and into the near future. That’s some messy shit right there. Could be a great time to get stuck into some Dada. It suits our mood.
NGV Fed. Sq until 31 Jan 2016