British Surrealism at The Dulwich Picture Gallery By Emmanuelle Pollock and Annabel Bolton, Gallery Assistant

September 17, 2020

The Dulwich Picture Gallery's exhibition 'British Surrealism', transferred online in a virtual format due to Covid-19 public health measures (a surreal experience in itself), has provided an opportunity to celebrate the British Surrealists, and the influence of British Surrealism on artists and artworks here at Philip Mould & Company. 

The British Surrealist movement was uniquely shaped by its own specific national antecedents, in particular the irrationality of World Wars I and II. Emerging from such devastation was a sense of British nostalgia deftly captured by artists such as John Nash, whose paintings have long been overshadowed by his elder sibling and surrealist, Paul Nash. In 1913, the two brothers held their first solo exhibition together, yet their careers were swiftly interrupted by the onset of war. Whilst Paul's surrealism manifested itself in lacerating images of exploding battlefields, John's experience of conflict was somewhat different. Through his understated subversions of English nature and landscape, John Nash's paintings reimagine the haunting beauty of the countryside that had been ruptured and consumed by war. His idyllic A View from the Avon, denotes a quintessentially British perspective of nature that offers relief from war-torn trenches and celebration of the countryside. 

A key concept at play within both Surrealist artworks and the Dulwich Picture Gallery's spotlight on British Surrealists is the idea of forbidden desires: absurd paradoxes merged with sexuality, greed and desire. The consequent abandonment of social etiquette that these desires unfurled was already, at least in Britain, in full swing among the Bloomsbury Group. Their bohemian lifestyle, living communally at Charleston in East Sussex, united by their rebellious identities, encouraged their defiance of the restraints and conventional norms deriving from the preceding generation. One such member, Duncan Grant, often brought his sexual experiences into the centre of his paintings, queering the traditional interpretation of the classical nude. Such a creative output, which was embraced by other members of the group, demanded a new moral code of freedom, love and expression, and helped integrate such forbidden desires into the British consciousness. 

Indeed, in many ways, artist Christopher Wood displays echoes of British Surrealism in his work. Whilst residing in Paris, he met Chilean diplomat Tony Gandarillas, with whom he would form a complex relationship: Gandarillas was married, gay, fourteen years older than Wood, and lived a hedonistic and glamourous lifestyle financed by gambling. He introduced Wood to opium, the hallucinogenic properties of which certainly ignited surrealist imagery in the artist's work, visible in the grotesque faces and caricaturist forms in his drawing, A Side Show Performance at Lunar Park, Paris, dating to 1930. The work is an example of a study for the set design of Boris Kochno's ballet: 'Lunar Park'; also depcited are a six-armed man and one-legged ballerina - who rebel against the ringmaster when he is off-stage. They escape from the niches in which they are forced to perform, leaving only their fake limbs. Both the surrealist storyline and the skewed sense of perspective and space transform us into a dreamlike, perhaps even nightmarish landscape, providing evidence of Wood's intense surrealist tendencies. 

Whether responding to or paving the way for the Surrealist movement, these artists imbued their work with a revolutionary social agendas and a freedom of spirit.

Visit the The Dulwich Picture Gallery's British Surrealism virtual exhibition here.

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500 Years of British Art