Tracing the origins of Surrealism

Kirstie Meehan, Archivist at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, curated a display in 2015 entitled ‘Surreal Roots: From William Blake to André Breton’. In this blog Kirstie discusses the themes and motivation for the display which occupied the Keiller Library at Modern Two from the 28 March until the 5 July 2015.

When you think of Surrealism, do you picture Magritte’s bowler-hatted men, or Salvador Dalí’s dripping clocks? At first glance it seems that the movement’s bizarre imagery and anarchic nature sprung from nowhere, but in fact André Breton – the so called ‘Pope’ of Surrealism – keenly acknowledged those writers and thinkers who had blazed the trail before them. Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) lists some of the figures whose work influenced the movement: people like Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). Identifying forerunners was a way for Surrealism in its early years to establish a group identity, and to make clear exactly what kind of group – freewheeling, provocative, boundary-pushing – they saw themselves to be.

The Hunting of the Snark’ by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by Henry Holiday, 1898
The Hunting of the Snark’ by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by Henry Holiday, 1898

It’s not surprising that the Surrealists were drawn to the eccentric and often rackety lives of 18th and 19th century writers such as the Marquis de Sade (imprisoned in the Bastille during the French Revolution) or Raymond Roussel (who ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at once to save time when writing plays). Part of the pleasure in curating a display like this is researching the curious lives of such figures! But there’s more to it than this: what the display Surreal Roots: From William Blake to André Breton tries to do is to show how progressive and challenging these forerunners were, both in defying social norms and in pushing at the limits of what writing could be.

‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by John Tenniel, 1878
‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by John Tenniel, 1878

But how do you sum this all up in a one-room display? We showed original artworks by William Blake (on loan from the Scottish National Gallery), in addition to 18th and 19th century publications by Lewis Carroll, Guillaume Apollinaire and Sigmund Freud.

The display juxtaposed these with works by the Surrealists: drawings by German artist Hans Bellmer, exquisitely drafted to accompany the explicit writings of the Marquis de Sade, and Salvador Dalí’s illustrations to the Comte de Lautréamont’s The Songs of Maldoror. These rare publications are accessible to the public by appointment but aren’t often exhibited, so this was a rare opportunity to see them up close.

The Keiller Library at Modern Two

Most of these publications are from the library of British Surrealist artist and collector Roland Penrose, which we purchased in 1995. Born into a wealthy Quaker banking family, he inherited a number of antiquarian books from his grandfather, Baron Peckover, including publications by William Blake, Milton, Dante and Oscar Wilde. Penrose built upon this literary foundation, adding to the library works by those writers and artists who inspired the Surrealists, as well as publications by the Surrealists themselves.

By Kirstie Meehan, 27 March 2015