Sunday, 19 June 2022

Bubu Johnson Consults His Ethical Advisor


Bubu Johnson Consults His Ethical Advisor


UBU: Are we right to behave like this? Hornstrumpot, by our Green Candle, let us consult our conscience. There it is, in this suitcase, all covered with cobwebs. It is obvious that it’s of no earthly use. (He opens the suitcase.

 Enter Conscience as a big fellow in a nightshirt.) CONSCIENCE : Sir, and so forth, be so good as to take a few notes. 

 UBU: Excuse me, Sir, we have no fondness for writing, though we have no doubt that anything you have to say would be most interesting. And while we’re on the subject, I should like to know why you have the cheek to appear before us in your shirt?

CONSCIENCE: Sir and so forth, Conscience, like Truth, usually goes without a shirt. If I have donned one, it is out of respect for the distinguished audience.

UBU: As for that, Mr. or Mrs. Conscience, you’re kicking up a great fuss about nothing. Answer this question rather. Should I do well to kill Mr. Achras who has had the audacity to come and insult me in my own house?

 CONSCIENCE: Sir and so forth, to return good with evil is unworthy of a civilized man. Mr. Achras has lodged you, Mr. Achras has received you with open arms, and made you free of his collection of polyhedra, Mr. Achras, and so forth, is a very fine fellow, quite harmless; it would be cowardly and so forth, to lull a poor old man incapable of defending himself.

 UBU: Hornstrumpot, my good conscience, are you quite sure he can’t defend himself?

CONSCIENCE: Absolutely, Sir, so it would be a coward’s trick to make away with him.

 UBU : Thank you, Sir, we shan’t need you any more. Since there’s no risk attached, we shall assassinate Mr. Achras, and we shall also make a point of consulting you more frequently, for you know how to give us better advice than we had anticipated. Now, into the suitcase with you! (He closes it again.)

 CONSCIENCE: In which case, Sir, I think we can leave it at that and so forth, for today.

Saturday, 12 March 2022



This is a short intermission in my series of articles to point out something I saw quite by chance, which seems appropriate...I was delighted to see a letter by my friend John Richardson that elegantly manages to admonish the commentators on the current Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition  for their limited and almost wholly retrospective understanding of the movement, while sketching out the activities and perspectives of the movement as it exists now. 

Surrealism lives on – and can light up these dark times

The movement is contemporary, living and relevant, writes John Richardson, and shouldn’t only be seen through a rear-view mirror

Congratulations also go to the Guardian for publishing this letter. All too often they have published appalling things and were complicit in 'crimes against Surrealism' with the BBC in their coverage of the Desire Unbound exhibition, the last Tate extravaganza dedicated to Surrealism. John sets the record straight regarding contemporary Surrealism's continued activity and extraordinary international reach.

Read it, it's short and to the point and might improve your day.

Sunday, 6 March 2022



I thought that a running commentary on the media attention to the exhibition might be instructive and possibly fun. Or possibly not... Most of the journalism is of a rather low order, but some has redeeming features.

Waldemar Januszcak didn't like it:

Sadly, you can't read the whole article without registering with the Times who want your credit card.

The Financial Times was a bit more positive,
and you can read the whole thing, a bit of a mixed bag of clichés, enthusiasm and occasional insights.

The Grauniad got Adrian Searle to review it, so thankfully we don't have to endure the ignorant posturing of Jonathan Jones, the non-thinking man's non-thinking man. Searle does at least know a fair bit about art:

The Torygraph is surprisingly sympathetic: 
considering that "Too often, museums demonstrate a weakness for repetitive “blockbusters” devoted to the same handful of names. It’s brave and original to try something different. This is Surrealism reanimated, unleashed."

The Mail seems to have ignored it so far...a sadly missed opportunity to excoriate 'degenerate art'?

There's a second review from the Times! One Rachel Campbell Thompson grasps a little more than Waldemar, it seems and shows a bit more enthusiasm before one hits that paywall:
and no bad jokes about fish either...

The Observer's reviewer felt the excitement of the show's bold ambitions, while not knowing quite enough to always be accurate. Still, not a bad review:
It's like she almost gets it: "The ultimate achievement of this exhibition is its hypnotic offering to the viewer. On my second visit, I couldn’t make it through half the exhibit in two hours. It’s an incredible achievement, exposing many to work they would never have seen otherwise. Walking through these works, we may feel thousands of tiny eyes peering back at us, asking us who holds the baton beyond the corner, and what will we do about it?"
and then slightly ruins it by saying:
"Exiting the Met, I suddenly wanted to put on riding clothes and go in search of a submarine. I wanted to unlearn anything my art teachers in strange hats ever told me and follow my psychic intuition. I looked at the horses tied up in the park and wondered if they needed a dose of the surreal as badly as I did."

If you are fed up with reading, try You Tube for an oddly unsettling - I assume CGI review of reviews:

If you want to see how your 'surreal' investments are doing, this slice of meretricious trash may beguile you with its sheer vacuousness:
(I had not grasped just what a complete idiot Tim Marlow is. I find it rather sad to learn that he is the director of the Design Museum.)

There's also a number of reviews of the Met's iteration of the show:

More to come, I expect. Feel free to point out reviews I have missed.

Thursday, 3 March 2022



It's big. It's heavy. It's complex, full of short essays, lots of references. At first it is a bit confusing, so many parts that don't always add up to a single point or refer much to each other, a sort of maze of texts and images, crowding each other out. The catalogue certainly adds a lot of polemical weight to the exhibition, but seems to pull in many different directions. Many important manifestations of Surrealism get rather short shrift in order to fit in the global reach of this exhibition.

I have already mentioned in my previous post the very minimal showing of Czech material, I saw two photographs by Styrsky, one by Reichmann, one film by Svankmajer and one painting by Toyen. There's also a very interesting essay by Krzyzstof Fijalkowksi on the 1968 exhibition Princip Slasti. This last usefully contextualises the exhibition in relation to the very important Prague Platform, but also makes clear that the exhibition, while being the ground for new debates between the Paris and Prague surrealists, after a very long enforced silence, was not an exhibition of the Czechs at all, but entirely of the French surrealists. 

Krzyzstof is a friend and, while he is best known as a scholar, with an extraordinary track record for translating and editing important, but little known surrealist texts, he also frequently exhibits as a surrealist. There are other writers here who are either active within contemporary Surrealism or are close to and friendly with the movement, such as Abigail Susik. Abigail writes on Surrealism in Chicago, sympathetically and intelligently. There's many other writers who I have never heard of, and this is actually quite heartening, as it means there's a lot of people doing new work on under-researched areas rather than ploughing the same old furrow of Paris between the wars.

The general tone is rather more sympathetic to Surrealism than many exhibitions and many researchers, while their distance to Surrealism usually remains clear. It might be to, once again, point out that this is an exhibition about Surrealism, not a surrealist exhibition, and it is also an art exhibition, not an expression of surrealist endeavour 'in the round'. But a catalogue like this could be an opportunity to set right various shortcomings of the exhibition. For instance, although Octavio Paz does get mentioned a couple of times, there's no real sense of his importance or even of the nature of his writing. One could hardly expect a great deal about him on the walls, but an exhibition about Surrealism needs to look well beyond visual work or fall into the trap of considering it to be an art movement.

 I could only find one work by Matta in the exhibition, there is a second one in the catalogue, and I wondered if I'd somehow missed a room. Jorge Camacho seems wholly absent, as both artist and as writer,  although he gets a mention as mentor to Telemaque and is included in Long Distance, along with many others such as Zeller and Wald, Cogollo and many others.

Butoh, a configuration of modern dance, traditional Japanese theatre, Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty and Surrealism, is not mentioned, despite the attention to Japanese work here, and, given that this is first and foremost an art exhibition, it is understandable that there's be nothing up on the walls, it is less understandable that an essay on Surrealism in Japan should not at least refer to it.

Like with the exhibition itself, I will come back to the catalogue and add to, and revise my comments, but for the moment it is worth saying that this scattershot method of exhibiting is probably necessary in order to display the breadth of work, but inevitable the depth of what is shown suffers. It leaves plenty of scope for many more focused exhibitions and research publications. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2022

So Ya Wannabe A Surrealist? Part 3. Surrealsplaining and 'favourite surrealist syndrome'

 So Ya Wannabe A Surrealist? Part 3. 

Surrealsplaining and 'favourite surrealist syndrome'

I thought I'd stay in grumpy mode just a little longer... It might actually be my default mode as I shuffle towards old age.

You are no doubt familiar with a term that has become popular over the last decade or so, 'mansplaining'. And if you are a woman I am sure you don't need me to tell you that it refers to a phenomenon where men all too often feel a need to explain something to a woman who has absolutely no need for that explanation, having a full grasp of the subject and in many cases being an expert on it. There seem to have been several cases where a woman scientist has been 'corrected' on her statements regarding her specialism, the field she actually works in, by a man who has a superficial knowledge of that subject, and whose source turns out to be a book that she wrote! I hate to think of it, but I am pretty sure that, at some point I must have done this myself, although certainly not with the intent to condescend so crassly, but it does happen. At best it is a failure of awareness and self-knowledge. 

Although mansplaining is clearly embedded in sexism and even misogyny, the urge to 'splain would seem to be wider, and possibly even a universal phenomenon. In the wake of mansplaining, we saw the term 'blacksplaining' emerge where white people  have found it necessary to explain to people of, primarily African, but also other ethnicities, the oppression they have experienced, apparently unaware that such explaining is, in itself, a kind of oppression, or at the very least an expression of racism, however well meaning.

When I say there is a phenomenon that I call 'surrealsplaining' I mean that it is parallel to such manifestations as mansplaining and blacksplaining and it is mostly based on the belief that an opinion has the same weight as actual knowledge. So here's the grumpy bit, my annoyance at people who think that what I might have to say on the subject of Surrealism pales into insignificance compared to an opinion gleaned from a three minute You Tube video or a review of an exhibition in a newspaper. Usually, that annoyance is mixed with amusement, and that is a blessing, otherwise I'd have exploded with rage long ago, and that would be messy. 

In a previous post I mentioned something that frequently occurs, which goes like this:

Fan: “I love X, X is my favourite surrealist!”

X: “I am not a surrealist, I don’t much like surrealism.”

Me: “X is not a surrealist”

Fan: “You are SOOO narrow-minded!”

For instance, somebody once approached me, referring to Francis Bacon in this way. But Bacon seems to have had a low regard for Surrealism, possibly, in part, because he was turned down from exhibiting in the London International Surrealist Exhibition in the 1930s. Bacon was not a surrealist, he makes scant reference to Surrealism and in general his attitudes are quite different to those of most surrealists, artistically, philosophically and politically. But the fan insists that Bacon is a great surrealist and doesn't look beyond the label being denied by the nasty man.

However, I'd like to claim a rather more nuanced attitude than simply dividing the world into those who can be labelled surrealist and non-surrealist. I think that at several levels and junctures Bacon is potentially relevant to a surrealist painter, for instance, in his use of chance (inspired partly by Duchamp) and perhaps also in how this meshes with issues of embodiment and questioning the grand tradition of painting, for instance his metamorphosis of Velasquez's 'Pope Innocent X'. 

We could also consider Bacon's long friendship with Michel Leiris, once a member of the Surrealist Group and long after with friendly relationships in that quarter, another case of not actually being a surrealist, at least formally for most of his life, but with a definite relationship to the movement, and we can even consider his work to always exist in relation to Surrealism. What can't be done is simply collapse everything into the rubric of Surrealism presented as a simplistic and easy to digest catch-all. That falsifies both the various artists, writers and political activists and falsifies Surrealism.

But to return to the issue of surrealsplaining, a large number of people do seem to want to explain their opinions with very little reference to facts of any kind. A while ago I found myself in this situation online where pointing out that I was a scholar of Surrealism elicited the response that he was referring to Surrealism, not academia, so I pointed out that I had 30 odd years as a surrealist activist, he responded that I was "acting as a gatekeeper". Thing is, I was doing no such thing, but simply pointing out that he had his facts wrong. He'd rather become abusive and accuse me of all sorts of things than consider, even for a minute, that he might be wrong.

When I started a study of philosophy years back, my tutor told us "Nobody is interested in your opinion." She was not trying to be crushingly dismissive and rude about anything we might say, but pointing out that mere opinions have no structure of argument, and what is interesting in thinking is how we might employ facts in an argument in order to support a position, or change our position in the light of new facts or a better argument. Sadly, some people never even consider such a possibility, preferring the safety of static and dead opinions. I'm sure I must sometimes be guilty of this as well, it would seem to be distressingly common throughout humanity, so why should I be immune? However, as I am aware of the issue of having an argument that might change my mind, perhaps I'm not wholly hopeless. How about you?

Tuesday, 1 March 2022


 Surrealism Beyond Borders - First Thoughts

The back cover of the Surrealism Beyond Borders catalogue, complete with barcode

Yesterday I made my first visit to the Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition at Tate Modern, I'll be making several more. It's an interesting idea for an exhibition that is at least partially successful, but bound by several limitations regarding the point of view from which it is organised, the choice of works and the very nature of the exhibition.

So, to start, it is an exhibition about Surrealism, not a surrealist exhibition, and this point is crucial to understand, it has been formed in official institutions and regardless of the individual positions of its curators, remains an institutional exhibition. Although it frequently refers to Surrealism's radicalism, intellectual, artistic and political, this is nevertheless filtered through the institutional view of what is acceptable.

The choice of works gives a particular viewpoint that skews the impression formed by the exhibition as a whole. This is inevitable, but nevertheless must be stressed. I think it was important to open up the work of the Egyptian surrealists, but however important they were I don't think that they were less important than the Czechs who are almost invisible here.

There are two very small photographs by Jindrich Styrsky that really work best in the book they were published in "On The Needles Of These Days" and could easily be missed here, alongside a rather lovely photo by Vilem Reichmann. Opposite, there is a film-loop of Svankmajer's "The Flat" on continuous play, and that is that, until much later on, one gets one (superb) late Toyen. So no clear impression of Surrealism in the Czech lands can be formed, and really important works and artists and thinkers are simply absent. There should  have been something by Emila Medkova. She was at the very least as important a photographer as Reichmann, and more involved in organised Surrealism. To omit all of Styrsky's painting seems very odd, surely they could have got hold of something by this absolutely essential surrealist painter? Then there's nothing by Mikulas Medek, (Medkova's husband) or Josef Istler. I could, and at a later date probably will, go on. But my point is that these are artists who are crucial to the understanding of Surrealism at an international level, and whose absence distorts the image of Surrealism, and these might be far more necessary than various artists who are included that were never surrealists, but merely influenced by surrealist art. (Several times we come across an artist who we are informed was "not actually a surrealist but...")

A number of artists among the "not actually surrealist" do add to the overall impression of the extraordinary international reach of surrealist ideas, including Filipino artists, possibly something to discuss further in a future instalment, but the greatest problem with any exhibition of Surrealism is, simply that it is an art exhibition. As one can never over-emphasise that Surrealism is not, and never was, an art movement, despite being best known for the visual work generated by the movement, nor was, or is it a literary movement, despite the vast output of poetry by surrealists. The real importance of the poetic and visual work is in pointing to the body of ideas that constitute Surrealism which get frequent mention, but by the very nature of the exhibition, can't be properly developed.

Another problem with the choice of works is that practically nothing later than 1970 is included. This reinforces the popular idea that Surrealism ceased to exist after Breton's death. But if we consider, for instance, that Svankmajer's "The Flat" was released in 1968, two years before he joined the surrealist group, all of his specifically surrealist work is excluded from the exhibition and this is a great shame. I'm not complaining about the inclusion of "The Flat", it is a great little film and fully in the surrealist spirit, but it is symptomatic of the problems in this exhibition by dint of when it was released. Referring to my earlier point, it is also a shame that the show includes nothing by Eva Svankmajerova, women Czech surrealists are only represented by the single Toyen painting, magnificent though it is, which, incidentally, was painted about 20 years after she moved to Paris.

The catalogue, which I shall discuss another day, is big and expensive (£35) and has what promises to be a number of interesting essays in it, but I noticed that there's a number of works not included in the London exhibition, unless I simply missed them, I'll have to double-check this on my next visit as this too reflects on the scope of the show and what understanding it might provide to the visitor.

I think I will have a good deal more to say, in response to further visits, reading the catalogue, and, who knows? maybe reader's comments. I'll certainly want to discuss the inevitable media circus that will surround the exhibition. So this is far from the last word from have been warned...

PS: Ted Joans' "Long Distance" is almost the only work to have been begun after 1970, the final installments added after his death in 2003. Nevertheless, it reinforces that odd deadline.

Saturday, 26 February 2022

So Ya Wannabe a Surrealist? Part 2. The S Word and Other Contentious Issues


The word is 'surreal'. Like "It's so surreal!" meaning what exactly? I hate the word because it is a flabby meaningless word that slinks around the dark corners of dictionaries and signifies whatever people want it to signify, or not. Most surrealists don't use the word because of this vague and fluffy concept of...something weird, a bit unreal. "We took loads of sleeping pills and booze and everything looked so surreal", that sort of thing.

The trouble is, this is pretty much the opposite of what is meant by Surrealism, or by surreality.  Think of the idea as being a sort of 'open totality' of reality bound together with the imaginary, the waking with the dream.

But don't take my word for it, let's juxtapose the "kinda weird" definition of 'surreal' with Andre Breton's definition in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism. This is the absolute classic passage where Breton goes beyond the original definition in the 1924 Manifesto, of "pure psychic automatism" and embraces a dialectical approach to the problems of existence:

"Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future. the communicable and the incommunicable. high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point. From this it becomes obvious how absurd it would be to define Surrealism solely as constructive or destructive: the point to which we are referring is a fortiori that point where construction and destruction can no longer be brandished one against the other. It is also clear that Surrealism is not interested in giving very serious consideration to anything that happens outside of itself, under the guise of art, or even anti-art, of philosophy or anti-philosophy-in short, of anything not aimed at the annihilation of the being into a diamond, all blind and interior, which is no more the soul of ice than that of fire." (Andre Breton. (1929) Second Manifesto of Surrealism.)

I want to impress on you both the intensity and the grandeur of this vision...and I have quite forgotten to tell any jokes...

Another frequent mistake is the equation of Salvador Dali with Surrealism. Dali was indeed involved with Surrealism for a few years, made a significant contribution, but increasingly promoted himself as the surrealist, to the expense of other surrealists and the movement itself while slipping to the far right to the extent that he praised Franco. André Breton famously made an anagram of his name, Avida Dollars. Perhaps I should devote an article to Dali, explaining fully why I dislike him and his work, but really I think it is enough to just say that he was a fascist and a racist who prostituted his undoubted talent and made a great many shitty paintings with immaculate technique. What do they say? Fuck that guy!

Another thing I might as well deal with now is the "last/lost surrealist syndrome". I have seen this for as long as I can remember, well, as far back as the 70s anyway. In that instance it was  André Masson who was described in a newspaper article as the last surrealist, despite the fact that there were a great many older surrealists still going. I have seen it trotted out frequently since then.

I noticed that there will be an event at Tate Modern devoted to Leonora Carrington "England's Lost Surrealist." Who lost her exactly? I remember a splendid retrospective exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery back in 1990, I think it was. Virago published most, if not all, of her writings, and they were pretty popular. She'd had a considerable following for several years before that, in part due to Whitney Chadwick's "Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement", a rather wretched book in many ways, but at least important for bringing a number of women artists to the public's attention. Leonora had, it has to be said, been very well known to surrealists for many years, but as establishment views were that surrealists were obsolete, various important surrealists had to be made profitable before they could be given publicity. So, over the years, a number of really quite wonderful women surrealists have been 'discovered'. A few works, like Amy Hale's book on Ithell Colquhoun, are real treasures, many less so.

If we are to have a sort of award for works presenting women surrealists, it must go the Penelope Rosemont's epic Women Surrealists, which accounts for, I think, over 100, and attempts to give some context to writers, painters, thinkers and activists. I'm not sure it is wholly successful, but it is a hugely ambitious book and could never be wholly successful. It is, however, wholly necessary for anybody who wants a compendious account of women in the surrealist movement. It counteracts the misleading impressions of Chadwick's volume, and that is a good start.

Here it is, now, if you don't already have a copy, you need to hunt it down  and acquire it before making any comments about women and Surrealism...I mean, read it, don't just buy it, right?