In this blog we re-live the moment in 1936 when Surrealism arrived on British shores, in the form of the International Surrealist Exhibition. The exhibition is fully documented in the Roland Penrose Archive, which contains correspondence, installation photographs and snapshots of events, hanging plans, minutes of meetings, catalogues, cards, typescripts of lectures, and news cuttings.
Surrealism arrived in Britain later than in the rest of Europe. It erupted onto the scene in the form of the International Surrealist Exhibition, which opened at 3pm on 11 June 1936, at the New Burlington Galleries in Burlington Gardens, behind the Royal Academy in London. The prime movers behind the show were David Gascoyne, a nineteen-year-old English poet and author of A Short Survey of Surrealism, 1935, and Roland Penrose, artist, collector and friend of the Surrealists in Paris. Penrose and Gascoyne met in Paris in or shortly after July 1935, when they were introduced by their mutual friend Paul Eluard. Together, the English pair resolved to bring Surrealism to Britain.
The task of organising fell largely to these two, together with the critic and poet Herbert Read. The show was of course discussed with André Breton and Paul Eluard, and a London committee was formed, consisting also of Humphrey Jennings, Henry Moore, Rupert Lee, Diana Brinton Lee, Hugh Sykes Davies and Paul Nash. The selection of work by British artists was difficult as no formal British Surrealist group existed. The consequence was that the work of artists such as Eileen Agar and Graham Sutherland - who had not thought of themselves as Surrealists - was included in the show alongside work by Penrose, Moore and Nash, whose work could be more closely associated with Surrealism.
Max Ernst designed the poster, and a programme of lectures, debates and poetry readings was arranged to accompany the show. A parallel French committee of Breton, Eluard, Man Ray and Georges Hugnet, together with the Belgian ELT Mesens, selected works by non-British artists such as Dalí, Miró, Duchamp, Ernst, Picasso and Magritte. In the months before the opening, Penrose shuttled between London and Paris, arranging loans with the artists and collectors.
Over 390 paintings, sculptures and objects by sixty-eight artists were selected. Works were hung in double or triple rows, alternating large and small paintings, so that the viewer had to step forward and back to view them. Ethnographic sculptures and found objects were interspersed throughout.
Penrose documented the exhibition in a scrapbook which combines installation photographs with annotated sketches of the hang.
The exhibition opening attracted over 1,150 people who listened to an introductory speech by André Breton. Salvador Dalí attempted to deliver a lecture whilst wearing a deep-sea diver's suit and holding two hounds on a leash. Dramatically, he nearly suffocated and had to be released from his helmet with a spanner.
During its three-week run the exhibition attracted over 23,000 visitors and considerable attention from the British press. The Roland Penrose archive contains a number of press clippings which show the response of the press, both to the exhibition and in particular to the efforts of Sheila Legge in promoting the exhibition. Dressed as the Phantom of Surrealism, her head entirely covered by a mask of flowers, Legge posed for photographs among the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. She then headed to the New Burlington Galleries where she wandered around the exhibition holding either a pork chop or a prosthetic leg.
A British Surrealist group was formed in response to the show and their work was selected for subsequent Surrealist exhibitions in New York, Paris, and Tokyo. The group continued to meet, exhibit and write until it eventually broke apart in 1946.
The artworks and material used in this blog are just some of the treasures contained within our archives. They can be viewed by appointment in the Reading Room at Modern Two.
This text was adapted from the National Galleries of Scotland publication Another World.