Surrealism and the Marvellous
The “Paolozzi Gallery and Studio” and “Surrealism and the Marvellous” at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Gallery Two, Free Entry
From inside, the sound of the howling gale suggests a fierce wintery storm is raging against the walls of the turreted gallery. Outside, despite (or perhaps because of) the howling gale, there’s hardly a cloud in sight, and the sun is bright, even trying to beam out something akin to warmth. I’d like to say that that was an appropriately surreal touch. In reality I think we all know that that’s simply a fairly standard example of our glorious Scottish spring. A surreal touch certainly would have been appropriate though, because today we’re looking at two of the displays at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: “Surrealism and the Marvellous” and the “Paolozzi Gallery and Studio”. The two galleries make a nice pairing taking an overview of one of the most captivating art movements of the 20th century, and looking at how it fed into the works of artists like Paolozzi and the movements which would follow on.
Eduard Paolozzi was born in Leith 1924, and went on to study at the Edinburgh College of Art. He is most famously associated with the Pop Art movement and is generally considered one of its progenitors. Many of his works though, especially before the true dawn of Pop Art, have evident Surrealist influence. The pairing of Paolozzi’s works alongside a number of pieces from Surrealist Max Ernst is interesting – and pays off well. If you don’t like Surrealism, this may not be the display for you, but it is still worth a look – you may find it interesting to see how the work of both artists varies across the mediums they worked with; the sculptures, paintings and collages of each artist seem at first glance to be radically different forms of expression, yet many of the same themes drift through all three.
“Surrealism and the Marvellous” takes a broader sweep, commanding a first rate selection of work. The displays are well captioned enough that you can visit without prior knowledge of the movement or the artist, and still get a handle on what’s going on. Or not, perhaps, as the artists intended. Rather than duplicating the commentary you receive at the gallery, it’s worth noting what was missing from the commentary. Throughout the captioning it is constantly alluded to, but never actually stated or explained that the Surrealist Movement was highly politicized. From its inception towards the end of the First World War, the Surrealist movement had shared perspectives with Communists and Anarchists. From the late 1920s, these links would become increasingly explicit, with a many artists from the Paris group joining the French Communist Party – amongst them André Breton who co-authored a book on art with Trotsky during his time in Mexico. In the main display these links are most overtly alluded to in the captioning for René Magritte’s 1937 Le Drapeau Noir [The Black Flag], and the allusions to ‘Guernica’. Many of the Surrealists were supporters of the Spanish Republic, the POUM and the anarchist groups active in Catalonia. Surrealism had something to say about the world. The artists had something to say about the world. They were political, and we shouldn’t shy away from that. I don’t know who started that trope of a painting of “cow in a pleasant looking field” as a stereotypical shorthand for “uncontroversial” art (possibly early cavepeople), but in truth both forms do have a message, are equally valid, and are equally worth embracing.
So what happened to the Surrealist movement? It ended as an organised artistic movement in the 1960s, but that was not the end of its influence. Its influence can be seen in the movements that followed it, the political works it inspired, even in surrealist comedy and beyond. The organised movement may have dissipated, but we live in a world that bears the marks of its legacies. What better time then, to take a glimpse back to Surrealism in its golden age, and what better place to do so than with this pair of displays at Scotland’s premier Modern Art space.