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Undercover Surrealism - Hayward Gallery

Feature by James Haddrell

ANYONE visiting the Hayward Gallery’s current exhibition expecting to see the walls covered in Dalí’s melting clocks or Magritte’s playful visual jokes is in for a disappointment.

Whilst Athena spent years adorning the walls of student houses with Dalí’s fluid dreamscapes, that particular facet of surrealism, infused with feelings of Freudian liberation, is only one side of the Surrealist story. The works on display at the Hayward belong, with some exceptions, to the other side…

In 1929, the Surrealist movement was torn in half. Having been formed around the figure of André Breton, whose First Manifesto of Surrealism was published in 1924, Surrealism presented an artistic engagement with Freud’s notions of the subconscious and the uncanny, creating works of art which sought to unlock repressed feelings and ideas.

Freud himself had little time for the Surrealists, believing the attempt to artificially release and represent the unconscious to be a futile exercise, but Breton’s automatic writing and Dalí’s apparently Freudian associations sought to do just that.

However, the writer and philosopher Georges Bataille, Surrealism’s self-professed ‘enemy within’, had a less rigid agenda for art.

While he, like Breton, advocated the destabilisation of interpretation through the juxtaposition of disparate images, he added to that the desire to undermine the demand for ‘form’ in art, to explore the potentially disturbing effects of art on the conscious mind, and to promulgate ideas about the baseness of the human body.

Contrasting the two approaches, the art historian Briony Fer sums up the difference between Breton and Bataille as the difference between the presence and the absence of hope.

In 1929, Bataille lured a number of Breton’s followers away from him, forming his own splinter group, and launched the magazine Documents. The features and images reproduced in the magazine were wide ranging, taking in Hollywood and contemporary music as well as the visual arts and literature, and it offered Bataille a vehicle with which to interrogate his own ideas about art.

Undercover Surrealism, which seeks to reunite many of the works pictured in the magazine, recreating the ironic juxtaposition of images and the questions raised by the featured articles, is less an overview of a movement in art than a snapshot of the questioning mind of a voracious philosopher.

Bataille’s approach to Dalí is indicative of his whole approach to Surrealism. In the pages of Documents he published an essay which sought to reclaim Dalí’s paintings from the psychoanalytic readings of Breton and emphasise, instead, the brutal comic violence of the works.

As in the pages of the magazine, the works by Dalí in the Hayward exhibition are shown alongside covers of pulp crime novels and crime scene photos.

Similarly, paintings of slaughterhouses by André Masson, which present the scenes with a light, free style, are shown alongside close-up photographs of real slaughterhouse scenes by Eli Lotar, while large scale works by Míro are seen in the same room as a watercolour by Masson’s young daughter.

Everywhere you look, it seems, Bataille is restlessly questioning the art which he celebrates. Míro is clearly worthy of admiration, but why is his work any better than a child’s? And is Masson the painter any better than the photographer who shows us the brutality of the slaughterhouse?

As if to prove the breadth of Bataille’s artistic engagement, several of the works on show are not Surrealist in either form or intent – perhaps most notably the sole piece by the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi.

Brancusi strove to control the manner in which his works were displayed by crafting his own plinths – for this exhibition, the beautifully delicate marble head of Prometheus has been reunited with the roughly hewn wooden stand on which it was originally displayed. The exhibition is full of examples of Bataille’s contrived cultural comparisons, but the contrast of the materials and the levels of sculptural finish in Brancusi’s dual work show the artist’s own pre-Surrealist interest in the same issue.

The inclusion of Brancusi, who was never a member of the Surrealist movement, demonstrates the most admirable thing about Documents, and about Bataille as a philosopher.

There is nothing base about Prometheus, nothing violent, nothing comical. It has little in common with Picasso or Dalí or Masson. But by seeming so alien to the rest of the exhibition, it asks the questions of us that Bataille was constantly asking his readers.

What is the difference in artistic value between Brancusi’s Prometheus and the abstract Giacometti sculpture placed alongside it? How should a deconstruction of form be achieved? How should meaning be created in art?

Whilst apparently polemic in its individual features, Documents was a publication based on questions and this exhibition is as much a representation of the endlessly questioning mind of an aesthetic philosopher as it is a three dimensional recreation of the pages of a magazine.

Picture caption: Salvador Dalí, Female Bathers (Baigneuses), 1928 © Salvador Dalí, Gala – Salvador Dalí Foundation, DACS, London 2006

Undercover Surrealism
Picasso, Miró, Masson and the vision of Georges Bataille
Until July 30, 2006
Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London SE1
08703 800 400; www.hayward.org.uk
Open daily 10am-6pm; Tue & Wed until 8pm; Fri until 9pm
Admission: £7.50 (various concessions from £2)