From its beginnings, Surrealism’s objective was to subvert the things most people believed to be the very foundations of modern civilisation: logic, convention and reasoning. Surrealism promised intellectual liberty to its followers – initially writers, and only latterly visual artists. These artists aimed to open doorways on to worlds that political authorities can’t penetrate: the imagination, impulses and dreams.
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And subsequently a history was told by scholars to define Surrealism. This involved a condensed cast of (mostly male) heroes including the movement’s father André Breton, who had written the first Surrealist manifesto in 1924. Mostly, it involved his disciples – artists like Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Max Ernst. It also became intimately linked with Western cities: particularly Paris and New York.
“That’s how histories are made and simplified for people to get a grip on,” Matthew Gale, curator of Surrealism Beyond Borders, an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, tells BBC Culture. “Historians complicate them by doing research.” This research, which was undertaken by Gale, his co-curator Stephanie D’Alessandro and a team of scholars, involved going back to original publications and exhibition catalogues, and discovering many lesser-known artists that deserve re-examination. “We’ve approached it from a transnational and transhistorical point of view,” says Gale, “Surrealism is not a style, it’s a state of mind that leads to a free individual creativity.”
To demonstrate this new perspective, Matthew Gale reveals how artists from six continents – Australasia, Asia, Europe, North America, Central America and Africa – were inspired by Surrealist techniques and ideas.
Tusalava (1929) by Len Lye, New Zealand
One of the exhibition’s most extraordinary artworks is Tusalava (1929), a 10-minute animated film by New Zealand-born Len Lye. In it, primordial, worm-like forms wriggle out of a void, give birth to a humanoid figure, and then vanquish him. Lye was inspired by tales of the witchetty grub which came from the Arrernte people of Central Australia, and used imagery inspired by Māori and Samoan art. But these cross-cultural interests were combined with a technique beloved of the Surrealists.” It is painted directly on to the film, so it is a sort of doodling automatism made directly on to the celluloid,” Gale explains. Automatism is a characteristic Surrealist process that involves “free” writing or drawing, in an attempt to decouple expression from conscious control. The film – the result of two years’ worth of painstaking work – brings the spectacle of automatism breathtakingly to life.