It’s a tense and sweltering summer afternoon. An exhausted Novak Djokovic sends a backhand crashing into the net. In an instant – and across an entire country – arms, screams and alcohol are hurled into the air. His opponent, in utter disbelief, is face down on the grass. The whole nation watches his mother hysterically cry tears of elation into the chest of someone nearby. It’s a surreal moment, to say the least.
The vanquisher was, of course, Andy Murray OBE, during his famous Wimbledon triumph exactly three years ago today, when he shattered a longstanding record held by the legendary Fred Perry. Back in 1936, Perry needed only an hour’s patience to dismantle Gottfried von Cramm for the title; Britain, however, would wait 77 years before another native laid claim on the Men's Singles Championship trophy.
On the same afternoon in 1936 that Perry was toasting his Centre Court accomplishments, and only an hour from Wimbledon’s umpires and strawberries at London’s New Burlington Galleries, another British man was celebrating the fruits of his labour – Roland Penrose was raising a glass to the London International Surrealist Exhibition’s exploits, the British public’s first real taste of the mysterious and magisterial realms of Surrealist art.
Attracting over 30,000 people over three weeks, the exhibition flabbergasted, unsettled and bewildered all in its wake. Works on the walls were from artists unknown, but now read as a who’s who of Surrealist art: Ernst, Magritte, Miró, Picasso, Breton, Tanguy and Dalí. As Perry was brandishing his racket, Dalí was making one, even delivering a lecture in a bronze deep-sea diving suit (he had to be rescued from suffocation – in true Surrealist fashion – by a poet wielding a billiard cue).
Much of the art on show – some of which was on display in our exhibition Surreal Encounters – has since permeated our collective consciousness, influencing artists from across the creative spectrum. One artist whose work emanates surrealist influence is distinguished Scottish photographer Murdo Macleod, who immortalised the Murray brothers seven years ago for the Observer’s monthly sports magazine.
MacLeod rejects the notion that his idiosyncratic output is consciously influenced by Surrealism – “I do not think about things being surreal or not, I just do what comes into my head”, he tells us. “I remember when I was 16 attending an interview applying to a college – the interviewer exclaimed surprise when he turned to a picture of a severed sheep’s head hanging on nails beside some football boots on a rafter. To me the picture was mundane…”
However, it can be argued that in MacLeod’s work, Surrealism is (fittingly) at play at the subconscious level. Even his old boss, Guardian former editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, notes that his images “verge on the ridiculous… They seldom fall over the edge, but they often teeter on the brink”. Praising both his use of lighting and props as “extraordinary”, he adds that with the Hebridean photographer, “you must always expect the unexpected. There is sometimes an element of magic, sometimes a tinge of Dalí.”
It is not Dalí but another Surrealist we find within Macleod’s distinctive image, which employs a trompe-l'œil effect to rival René Magritte. Taken from a birds-eye position, the brothers lie flat on the court, with tennis props carefully positioned to evoke the impression that Jamie, now the world’s premium doubles player, is standing, while Andy leaps above; the alternate perspective forces several double-takes.
Bold, bizarre and compositionally brilliant, the image – Macleod recalls – was an intended yet makeshift flash of creative genius, sketched “out in biro beforehand” and arriving as an idea “while scouting the venue before they arrived”. His photographs regularly breach the absurd, and in a world of pampered celebrity, leave the viewer wondering how he managed to coax high-profile sitters into such odd scenarios.
Rusbridger offered his own suggestion, claiming Macleod’s “soothing, Hebridean lilt” is culpable for charming sitters into improbable poses, their guard lowered. It’s evident here, as well as in other Macleod works in the national collection, such as ‘Tom Kitchin, b.1977. Chef’, which sees Kitchin pose with a shotgun whilst surrounded by expired rabbits and ducks hovering in mid-air.
MacLeod says he doesn’t even have a favourite Surrealist artwork, although he admits that “somewhere I have a postcard of the ‘Not A Pipe’ picture”, referencing Magritte’s famous painting The Treachery of Images, which features an image of a tobacco pipe and the counter slogan “This is not a pipe" below it.
We avoid informing him that Fred Perry was such a big pipe smoker, he suggested his clothing line’s emblem was to be a pipe before a ‘feminine-friendly’ laurel wreath was opted for… Between chefs with shotguns, severed sheep’s heads, and both ducks and Andy Murray suspended as if in mid-flight, things are already surreal enough.