Peter Batten asks a question. . .
One of the most treasured items in my modest collection of Art books is a small book with pink card covers. It is the Catalogue of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London. In the 1990s I bought it quite cheaply from a bookshop in Belfast.
For London this was an outrageous event. The British public had not come to terms with ‘Modern’ Art. Few people had any idea what it was. Suddenly it was here, an exhibition of over 400 items, at the New Burlington Galleries in the poshest part of the city. And when Salvador Dali turned up to give a lecture in a diving suit covered with wine glasses, the press went mad.
In Europe Surrealism had been making this kind of impression for 20 years; it had been announced by ‘Da Da’ events in Switzerland during the Great War. By the early 1920s it was a recognisable group of artists and writers, with André Breton as its leader.
‘Surrealism’, as it soon came to be known, claimed to be a revolutionary new movement in the Arts. That was not true. Its manifesto spoke of the depths of the human psyche, the power of fantasy and dreams, the strangeness of human sexuality, which its members were revealing for the first time. But the Romantic Movement in the Arts had been gradually exploring these subjects for almost 200 years. The European novel, for example, began with narratives where the author carefully explained the motives and behaviour of his characters, but gradually this omniscience was discarded. Who would dare explain the motives and behaviour of human beings? Even among the novels of the 18th century there were weird and fantastic creations. And, of course, novels consisting of letters challenged the reader to interpret and pass judgement. In his comments on the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ which he wrote with Coleridge at the end of the 18th century, Wordsworth explained that their purpose was twofold: to reveal the strangeness of ordinary life and to explore some realms of fantasy (‘The Ancient Mariner’). He might have been offering advice to future Surrealists!
Where am I going with this? Although their claim to be revolutionary was not justified, Breton and his Surrealists were right about the timing. As the Romantic spirit began to reveal the contradictions and challenges of human behaviour, it was the moment to step inside people’s heads. If you are honest you will have to admit that the strangeness and the sheer multiplicity of the ideas and fantasies passing through your consciousness minute by minute is staggering. Breton and his friends set out to present this treasure trove through their pictures, novels, poems, even films.
The Surrealists sought to shock their public into acknowledging this inner reality. What would they make of the situation today? I was three years old in 1936. The changes in our understanding of human consciousness and human sexuality during my lifetime have been extraordinary. For Breton and Co the idea of two men being married in church and celebrating their union with a kiss would be the inspiration for an anarchic film with which they would hope to shake conventional society to its roots. For some of us, I admit, such changes are still deeply challenging, but the behaviour is widely accepted as legal – and only a minority would see it as blasphemous.
I began to write this article thanks to Grayson Perry. Once again, he was on the front page of a national newspaper. I was about to move on to ‘more serious news’ when I stopped to think. I have been to his exhibitions, read his articles, admired his skill as a potter, but because he is so widely accepted I tend to overlook the achievement which he represents. He can choose to present to the public whichever image of himself he chooses. He can voice his opinions with the confidence that most of them will be widely accepted. He can play with his identity and his sexuality publicly and many people will understand and empathise with him.
At the Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 Grayson might have been an important exhibit. This could be you, the Surrealists might say, this may be what goes on inside your head. Today I turn the page and accept that Surrealist claim as true.
What goes on inside your head??