An Introduction to Surrealism
Where did this revolutionary movement emerge from, who were its key players and what legacy does it have amongst later artists.
Surrealism was one of the most radical movements of the twentieth century. Founded by the poet André Breton in 1924 it was both a literary and artistic movement. Surrealism sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance with unexpected and fantastical juxtapositions.
The germ of Surrealism lies in Dada, which sprang up in several cities almost simultaneously during the First World War. Indeed it was the war that gave birth to it: Dada artists discussed their passion for the irrational and the nonsensical in terms of a rejection of the bankrupt political, cultural and nationalistic values which, they argued, had created the war in the first place. Dada took the form of performances, music, theatre, poetry and art. In its iconoclasm it owed something to Futurism, but its love of the absurd was something new.
When the war ended Paris became a melting pot for artists and writers who had spread around Europe and America during the conflict. However, inevitably for a movement that thrived upon discord and anarchy, Dada began to disintegrate and factionalise. It was during this period of infighting and implosion that Breton emerged as the leader, shifting Dada’s focus away from its love of anarchy, negativity and nonsense, towards more intellectual pursuits involving automatic writing, dreams, psychoanalysis and chance.
The main tenets of Surrealism thus existed in the early 1920s - indeed the term ‘sur-realism’ was coined by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 – and there was a group of poets, writers and painters who were interested in exploring these issues. However, the individual strands of this would-be group had nothing to bind them together, and it was not until October 1924 that Breton galvanised the group by publishing his Manifesto of Surrealism. In it, Breton famously defined Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true functioning of thought”.
The slightly surprising thing about Breton’s manifesto is that it scarcely mentions painting and is instead concerned – as Breton’s definition indicates – with writing. Yet the two quickly began to develop hand-in-hand, and today Surrealism is more associated with its visual aspect than the literary strand.
Surrealism was originally a Paris-based phenomenon but Breton’s aspirations were not limited to establishing an art movement; rather Surrealism was part of a full-scale revolution with international ambitions, and not just in the arts. Breton’s book ‘Surrealism and Painting’ appeared in 1928 and his ‘Second Manifesto of Surrealism’, in 1930. These important texts clarified the nature and ambitions of the surrealist movement, but in terms of visual art itself, of equal importance at this time was the emergence of Salvador Dalí, who is now one of Surrealism’s most famous faces. Breton had misgivings about the Spaniard’s political leanings and his bizarre obsessions, but he also recognised Dalí’s extraordinary talent and charisma, stating that his art was “the most hallucinatory known until now".
Although Surrealism had become a potent force in many countries by the 1930s, in Britain interest was only just beginning to stir. It was thanks to the young artist and collector Roland Penrose that Britain became aware of the movement. Penrose, along with David Gascoyne and Herbert Read, organised the International Surrealist Exhibition, in London in 1936. When it opened, the exhibition provoked enormous controversy. Featuring about 400 works by artists from thirteen different countries, it included all the leading names in the surrealist group, such as Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró and Dalí. Over 1000 people attended the opening and some 23,000 saw the exhibition during its twenty-three-day run.
However, with the outbreak of World War II in 1939 many of the surrealists moved abroad and the group became plagued with infighting. The end of Surrealism as a vital force is often linked with the exhibition Le Surréalisme en 1947, in Paris. Conceived by its organisers, Breton and Marcel Duchamp, to mark the return of Surrealism to Paris following the war, it did that, but it also served to show that the younger generation, including artists such as Francis Bacon, Alan Davie, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, was moving in a different direction.
Surrealism did continue to exist in Europe after the war but largely in the hands of the artists who had pioneered it in the 1920s and 1930s. However, its legacy and influence on further generations of artists is undeniable.
It comes as a surprise to some of our visitors to find that the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art owns a world-class collection of surrealist art. Moreover, our collection of rare illustrated books, catalogues, manuscripts and journals by surrealist artists is one of the best in the world. This is all thanks to the acquisition of part of the Roland Penrose Collection and Archive, and to the Gabrielle Keiller bequest of 1995.
The surrealist movement was launched in Paris in 1924 but it was not until 1936 that the British responded by creating their own surrealist group and staging their own surrealist exhibition. If it is true that British artists were reluctant to join the movement, it is also the case that British museums and galleries proved slow in joining in. The first broadly surrealist painting to enter a public collection in Britain was probably Giorgio de Chirico’s triptych The Philosopher of 1928, which was given to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester in 1931. And it was not until 1941 that the Tate Gallery in London acquired its first example of continental Surrealism, Max Ernst’s The Entire City.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art opened in Edinburgh in 1960 and the first painting by a surrealist artist to enter the collection was an untypical late work by André Masson, River in Winter, bought in 1967. More impressive, however, was Alberto Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut which was purchased in 1970, with further additions by René Magritte, Joan Miró and Ernst. Through one-off acquisitions such as these, the Gallery assembled a reasonably good collection of surrealist art.
Yet it was thanks to Roland Penrose that the collection first grew dramatically. Whilst studying at Cambridge University, Penrose became interested in modern art and in the autumn of 1922 he moved to Paris. By the mid-1920s Surrealism had caught his eye and in 1926 he met Ernst and through him other members of the surrealist group. Following a chance encounter with David Gascoyne, who was researching a book on Surrealism in Paris in 1935, Penrose became determined that they must galvanise support in Britain and organise a major exhibition. The International Surrealist Exhibition, held in London in 1936, was a triumph and succeeded in cementing the movement in Britain.
Following the death of his mother in 1930 and his father in 1932, Penrose had come into his inheritance. His new-found wealth had already enabled him to help finance Ernst’s great collage novel, Une Semaine de bonté, and it also meant that he was in the perfect position to buy the work of his friends. His first major purchase was Ernst’s jungle landscape, La Joie de Vivre, acquired in 1935 before it was even finished.
By early 1937 Penrose owned a small but choice group of surrealist works. In July of that year he transformed his collection when he acquired a set of works belonging to the Belgian collector and businessman René Gaffé. Yet Penrose’s greatest coup as a collector came in August 1938 when he bought more than 100 surrealist and cubist works from his friend Paul Éluard. Suddenly, Penrose had a collection of museum importance hanging on the walls of his London home.
In around 1958 Penrose met Douglas Hall, then Deputy Director of Manchester City Art Galleries. Hall was appointed the first Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in November 1961, and a few months later he took the opportunity to renew his contact with Penrose. In 1981 Penrose attempted to sell a fine Cubist painting by Picasso, Guitar, Gas-Jet and Bottle, but since it failed to sell, it was instead offered to the Gallery, and was bought in 1982. This was the first acquisition made from the Penrose Collection.
Richard Calvocoressi, who took over from Douglas Hall as Keeper in 1987, concentrated the majority of available funds in this area, conscious that while the purchases might stretch the budget, this was the last opportunity to acquire such masterpieces. In 1991, Calvocoressi and Antony Penrose, Roland’s son, together worked out an acquisition strategy that was to bring the Gallery of Modern Art many benefits over the next decade. Miró’s Maternity was purchased in 1991 and Henry Moore’s ‘Helmet’ was bought the following year. In 1994 the gallery acquired Roland Penrose’s magnificent library and archive, which included a large number of rare artist books, and a wealth of correspondence.
When Britain’s first National Lottery was launched late in 1994, the Gallery of Modern Art was an early beneficiary of its grant-giving arm, the Heritage Lottery Fund. A grant of £3 million, awarded in 1995, allowed the Gallery to buy a collection of twenty-six paintings and drawings from the Penrose Collection.
Collector of Surrealism: Roland Penrose
Antony Penrose discusses his father Roland Penrose’s role in Surrealism, the influence of Quakerism, his friendships with Surrealist artists and the family home, Farley Farm House.
Just a few months after these acquisitions the gallery received the most important gift in its history, the collection of Gabrielle Keiller.
Although she never lived in Scotland, Keiller was born north of the border. After the Second World War, she sold her share of the family’s land in Texas and the funds allowed her to indulge her passion for collecting. In 1951 she married Alexander Keiller who also had a passion for the bizarre, collecting books on witchcraft and demonology. Twenty years older than Gabrielle, he died in 1955; however, his interest in the unusual seemed to rub off on her. In 1960 Gabrielle Keiller went on a trip to Italy, where she met Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. Guggenheim’s collection of surrealist art proved an important turning point in Keiller’s life, as too did her visit to the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where she saw work by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. From that moment on her energies were devoted to building a collection of Surrealism and the work of Paolozzi. She was also passionate about the literary aspect of the movement, putting together a magnificent library and archive, full of rare books and manuscripts.
Douglas Hall visited Keiller in January 1976 and on his return to Edinburgh he wrote, thanking her for her welcome, and eloquently implying, without actually stating it, that her collection would receive an equally warm welcome if ever it found its way to Edinburgh. When Richard Calvocoressi became keeper in 1987 he revived the Gallery of Modern Art’s relationship with her, leading to the exhibition of her collection in 1988. As a result of this, and in line with Keiller’s desire to share her collection with others, she decided to bequeath her collection to the Gallery. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s collection thus grew beyond recognition in the space of a few years.
Collector of Surrealism: Gabrielle Keiller
Curator and former director at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Richard Calvocoressi discusses the collection of Gabrielle Keiller, bequeathed to the gallery in 1994.