Friday, 12 May 2023

Coming Home To Painting

 This might not mean a huge amount to a lot of people, but I am starting a new painting and it is actually the second largest painting I have ever made. I only realised this the other day when I set the stretchers against what had previously been my second largest painting and it was larger by a few inches than the old work. Now, some people might wonder about how large this massive work may be and will probably be a bit disappointed to learn it is 3ft x 4ft, 36"x48" or roughly 91 x 122 cm. This isn't huge for many people and for some, used to working on a large scale, even diminutive.

However, for me it means a lot. I gave up painting in oils in 1992, when I seemed to be overwhelmed with anxiety and a kind of revulsion towards my painting every time I set foot in the studio. I could only outpace this anxiety by drawing extremely rapidly and more or less automatically. So my work for the rest of the decade, and into the early years of the 21st century were, typically, A1 sized drawings, usually on very smooth hot-pressed paper, in pencil and occasional touches of wax crayon. (See here for a couple of not wholly typical examples:

For several years I did very little drawing, focusing on photography, (My photography Flickr page is here: and while I found the pursuit of the strange images discovered in the streets to be well worth the effort, I was not firing on all creative cylinders while I was not painting and drawing. Then I was able to retire and move to Wiltshire with Jane and suddenly had a decent studio space for the first time in many years. Within a few weeks I had my space assembled and bought a couple of canvases and made a start.

In fact, I made a number of false starts. Fortunately, I didn't feel that old anxiety, and kept plugging on. After a few weeks I decided that I needed to come to terms with this new (for me), but ancient landscape and, by degrees, started to become a landscape painter. If I had any qualms, it was that the majority of these new works could not, in any way, be called surrealist. I have given over such a large part of my life to the surrealist vision, this seemed odd, and maybe even odder, I wasn't that bothered. I don't mean that I had dropped surrealist ideas, just that they were at most in the background of the new works, if at all, and mostly not.

I started to develop a new technique for myself, starting in acrylic, many washes over a drawing, reasserting the drawing, spattering and dripping the paint, sealing it with acrylic medium, then repeating the process, then at some point switching to oil paint. Sometimes the whole work would become so hopeless that I'd overpaint it with something else. I made a series of small paintings based on drawings from the 80s, which at least were more imagination-based, and a new version of a painting from the same period that I had sold, it is of a staircase in the house I lived in back in the late 70s, in Bloomsbury. So, it was already a memory painting back then, now, a memory of a memory. I started to play with the forms just a little, letting them not quite work. Instead of correcting proportions, just letting them be awkward and difficult to navigate, as places in a dream or a memory can be, but apparently crisp and sharply outlined, at least in part.

The new work is also a memory painting and set in Bloomsbury. I originally thought of setting it in Little Russell Street, where I lived,, but because I had conceived it, not only as something very personal around my own memories, but as a sort of homage to Balthus' great canvas Passage du Commerce-Saint-AndrĂ©,  and the view into Bury Place from Gilbert Place (where Austin Spare had once lived) was closer in aspect to the Parisian scene. (Near here:

So, I have sized and primed the canvas and now need to wait a week or two before starting, letting the priming cure thoroughly. (For those interested in such things, I am using a casein priming, which I have used a couple of times on small works.)  I'm expecting the painting to take months, at the very least, probably letting each layer settle down possibly revising it for years while undertaking any number of new works as well as revising older ones. I have found that very few works simply feel finished and in adding new layers I can add to the emotional and perceptive weight of the painting as well as developing it more intellectually, it is a matter of seeing where to take it, whether a matter of slight adjustments, major revision or complete reinvention.

I have not posted any of my work for a very long time, but promise to do so in future, the lack of it really isn't down to shyness, but mostly the unfinished nature of most of it. Time for that to change?

Wednesday, 10 May 2023

Two More Reviews: Oystercatcher #20 and 'Patastrophe! #7


I received two new magazines in one week and, very superficially, they looked oddly similar, although they are quite different in many ways and both maybe quite unique.

The Oystercatcher is the brainchild, or lovechild of Ron Sakolsky and he produces it every year, officially on the First of May. 2023 brings us up to issue 20 and I really hope he continues for many more years because it is very worthwhile. Ron situates The Oystercatcher fairly and squarely within the contemporary surrealist movement and from an avowedly anarchist perspective. It contains rants, reviews and more considered articles by Joel Gayraud, Penelope Rosemont and others. There are illustrations by Janice Hathaway, Rik Lina, Steven Cline, Guy Girard and others, including a very small one by John Welson.

Welson also makes an appearance in 'Patastrophe!, a rather more significant one, taking up a whole page., along with other surrealist luminaries including Doug Campbell, Jay Blackwood and John Richardson (who also appears in Oystercatcher, so I'm sure I could have made a better segue...never mind...)

'Patastrophe! is the journal/zine of Surrealerpool, which is a sort of meeting point for varied surrealists, 'pataphysicians and others, and I must admit I originally approached it with some doubts as to what it was intended to be. Anybody who knows me or has followed this blog will know I can get a bit exercised at stuff that purports to represent surrealism but fails to understand where surrealism is coming from in any way. My feeling is that 'Patastrophe! has very little interest in representing itself as some kind of official surrealist publication and intends to remain somewhat eclectic and quite fun. It sometimes, but not always, does this well. As an interface between surrealism, 'pataphysics and general weirdness it works well enough, with some high points and few low points too. It is well produced and illustrated, occasionally suffering from a what seems to me at any rate to be a self-conscious eccentricity that grates a bit. For instance, the article "Clarimonde - A Lost Weimar Film?" is so very obviously nothing of the kind, it feels a little embarrassing in its pretence. If one is going to write a spoof, one needs to be more convincing I think. The supposed film still of Clarimonde doesn't belong to the 1920s, but very obviously shows a modern woman dressed in Goth fashion. They provide a link to the film, ( and I have to say that it is, in its own terms, a successful and poetic interpretation of a story by Theophile Gautier, constructed of still photographs, and presumably made on a zero budget.

Two profile pieces are, by themselves, sufficient to make the purchase of this issue worthwhile as far as I'm concerned, one on Arthur Adamov, absurdist playwright and occasional participant in surrealism, and Jean Ferry, an important but too little known surrealist.

There's a good deal to be gleaned from both publications, I was fascinated by Abigail Susik's interview with the anarchist Ben Morea in Oystercatcher. It is in fact Part 2, the first part published a year ago and I'd forgotten, so obviously I need to look at the previous issue. Abigail's presence is felt in a review of "Resurgence! Jonathan leake, Radical Surrealism and the Resurgence Youth Movement 1964-1967" edited by Abigail Susik and published by the Eberhardt Press. I have my copy, but have not had time to read it yet. The effect is that these two magazines have done quite a lot to keep me busy over the next few weeks as I catch up with my reading, that must be a sign of a good publication, surely?

Oystercatcher #20 can be obtained from: 

Ron Sakolsky/The Oystercatcher, A-4062 Wren Road,Denman Island, BC Sla-Dai-Aich/Taystayic, Canada V0R 1T0


'Patastrophe! #7 can be obtained from:  or from their ebay shop:

Saturday, 29 April 2023

Surrealpolitik by John Schoneboom: A Review


John Schoneboom's new book Surrealpolitik: Surreality and the National Security State is by turns a frustrating, occasionally annoying, sometimes fascinating and, in concept at least, a quite necessary book, but not, to my mind, the book it should have been. Let's break this down slightly.

Frustrating because, although Schoneboom is clearly advocating a surrealist "mode of enquiry", and he obviously has some understanding of surrealism, he nevertheless falls short of developing this thesis into something really concrete. Rather, he tends to describe the "National Security State" in terms of dream, fascism and antifascism, paranoia, black humour, despite giving examples of surrealist and pre-surrealist writing, he ends in each case by suggesting that a surrealist mode of enquiry could be fruitful.

Annoying, partly because he sometimes seems to chant "National Security State" and "surrealist mode of enquiry" like mantras, which I must admit I find a bit irritating. He also seems at times to be rather uncertain as to who the surrealists are, he names Boris Vian as a surrealist for instance. As far as I know, Vian never participated in surrealist activities and never subscribed to specifically surrealist ideas. He was, of course, a prominent member of OuLiPo, which does have some connections with surrealism at  a distance, but simply can't be thought of as a surrealist group. See below for a further discussion of this problematic attitude.

Fascinating because Schoneboom provides a lens to view to contemporary political world that exposes its meanness and monstrosity and the obscuration of truth and he is often a lively and cogent commentator.

Necessary because surrealists should be writing books like this and getting them out into the world. They should be, but often are not. I include myself in this accusation. My excuse is a lack of access to publishing beyond the surrealist echo chamber, whatever its faults, Surrealpolitik addresses, if not quite the world, at least a broader public than most surrealist publications can achieve, and I am increasingly convinced that this is essential for our future. It often seems to me, not that surrealism has become too inward-looking so much as too inward-publishing and discussing, the echo-chamber I mentioned earlier.

Schoneboom seems to waver between quite a good understanding of who and what is surrealist and a confusion that depends far more on the critics (academic or otherwise) than on the surrealists themselves:

"My reference to the term "surrealism" is not intended to be limited specifically to Andre Breton's historical movement and its ever-shifting (and usually dwindling) formal membership. Rather, proceeding from the notion that "a state of mind survives" the surrealist school (Blanchot 1995 [1949], p. 85), I'm trying to locate an affinity within a more generously defined, yet still coherent, set of ideas and practices, predominantly originating in surrealist thinking but inclusive of related ideas from the movement's heirs, precursors, renegades, critics, competitors, and  usurpers."  

( Accessed 28/4/23

He often discusses writers like Conrad or Chesterton at greater length than he does Breton or Aragon and apparently conflates Baudrillard's 'hyperreality' with surreality:

"For example, when Jean Baudrillard describes a hyperreality that "can no longer dream" because images have become indistinguishable from the real "as though things had swallowed their own mirrors" (Baudrillard 2008, p. 4), one can, without going so far as to theorize a grand unified neo-surrealism, identify a certain specular resonance with Louis Aragon's statement in A Wave of Dreams, that "[t]he only way to look at Man is as the victim of his mirrors." (2010 [1924]). (Ibid)

I also find Schoneboom's range of surrealist references oddly narrow. I found ten surrealists in a bibliography that stretches over 30 pages, and only arrived at that number by including Bataille, who although not actually a surrealist as such, did at least participate at times and helped define the surrealist spirit.  He refers to Terry Gilliam (his film Brazil) but not Jan Svankmajer, who is both surrealist and relevant to Schoneboom's arguments, but as he considers the surrealist movement a thing of the past, which, of course, it is not. Now, one might feel inclined to criticise the state of the surrealist movement, many do, including surrealists, but it has never ceased to exist, despite as Breton remarked, 'gravediggers' announcing the death of surrealism almost as soon as the Manifesto of Surrealism was published.

Schoneboom believes that "But isn't surrealism dead? Yes and no. Certainly the original movement rose, sustained itself, and fell in close parallel with the original fascist movement" (Schoneboom, 2022. P.6.) and he speaks "therefore not of resuscitating the exquisite surrealist corpse, but of adapting some of its surviving virtues in order to inform a particularly appropriate way of interrogating the incongruities and delusions of our present political condition." (Ibid. p.6). So here's the problem, claiming that the surrealist movement in non-existent is, quite simply wrong, he doesn't know what he is talking about at this point. He could claim that the present surrealist movement either lacks its historical prestige, or a cogent position on the problems of our time, or even many great artists, and one could argue about this, but he either chooses to ignore the existence of a contemporary surrealist movement that exist in continuity with the historical movement (which is to say, not a half-arsed revivalism) or he is simply ignorant.

Another problem is that although Schoneboom sets out his chapter headings with bold surrealist themes such as dreams, paranoia and black humour, much of the content appears to derive from postmodernism, which he believes "...can fairly be described as a descendent of surrealism, with both endeavours engaged principally in the disruption of semiotic systems." (Ibid. P.6) and goes on: "One suggested term for a post-postmodernist surrealism-plus-simulacra is hyper-surrealism....which has a certain appeal but may not add anything that wasn't already there. Ultimately, of course, the label is not as important as what's in the can." (Ibid. P.6) On that last point a least, I can agree, but the rest of it is pointless fluff.

It's this level of misconception that holds the book back, take out all references to surrealism and "a surrealist mode of enquiry" and you have almost the same book, a bit shorter, giving a more-or-less postmodern account of the "national security state". The latter seems to be his equivalent of the Spectacle or of the coming together of surveillance-fascism-capitalism. I'd have thought that enlarging on Debord's concept of the Spectacle would have been very relevant to Schoneboom's argument, but Debord does not appear in his bibliography and Vaneigem only as the author of the utterly wretched "Cavalier History of Surrealism" and the situationists have a stronger relationship to surrealism than most of the authors discussed in this book, despite their somewhat fractious attitude to surrealism back in the day. 

I hope I have conveyed my sense of this book being, above all, a missed opportunity. It's not that it should be an entirely surrealist account of the political problems that beset us (although, actually, why not?) but I do think that when one employs the word 'surrealism' it should mean surrealism and not something close to its opposite. (Postmodernism might be described as, in some senses as a descendent of surrealism, but, for better or worse, an illegitimate one, not only the wrong side of the blanket, but a different blanket!) By all means employ surrealist terms and concepts, but don't relabel non-surrealist concepts as surrealist. By all means go beyond the strict purview of the surrealist movement, but be clear about it, such confusionism helps nobody.

I would also suggest that although his chapter headings reflect areas of surrealist concern, they are very far from comprehensive. The ones I have mentioned, dream, paranoia and black humour are accompanied by anti-fascism and 'spectacular crime'. I have no issue with any of these, but suggest that, for a possible future project on might add desire, automatism, dialectic, analogy, wandering, atopia - I could go on, but all of these add both to an appreciation of both the surrealist view of daily life and of the bigger political picture. The National Security State is indeed oppressive and needs to be combatted, both critically and practically, but it is only one facet of a bigger problem which is why I mentioned both The Spectacle and Capitalism and all are ways in which corporations and the state come together, the very definition of fascism given by Mussolini.

Perhaps this somewhat half-arsed book can provide sufficient provocation to help develop a renewed critique from the surrealists and their allies. Anybody who reads this review should be in no doubt that it is greatly needed. 

The great thing about blog entries is that they can remain a bit rough and, if necessary, can be revised and polished later. The less good thing can be that the revision and polish can be a consequence of reactions and criticisms of the original article, and that can be sometimes sadly lacking. I hope that I might have cause to revise this, or add comments...let's see.

Schoneboom, John (2022) SURREALPOLITIK: Surreality and the National Security State. Wincester UK and Washington USA. Zero Books.

Surrealpolitik website @

Friday, 31 March 2023

Reality, Simulation and Time

Every now and then I seem to manage to write something that makes some kind of sense and also seems rather well put...those times are too few and far between. A friend posted something about a theory about our universe being a simulation. This sort of thing is quite fashionable, of course, and versions stretch between post-modern theory to crazed conspiracies from people who took the Matrix films a bit too seriously. 

Another post was concerning time being an illusion. I am aware that the physicist Julian Barbour has called time a "well-founded illusion" which points out that to call time an illusion does not even remotely do away with time (an interview with Barbour records that he arrived for the interview late!) but the nature of time, and of reality, are, nevertheless in question.

Needless to say, I don't have the answers, but I have been asking some of the questions for sometime. Anyway, here was my response, which I think with this bit of contextual explanation, stands alone quite...not badly...

 "The thing is, except for the nutters who believe we are in the Matrix, run by shape-shifting lizards (who, oddly enough, turn out to be Jewish) while inside the hollow earth, when we are told that time is an illusion or similar, we have to attend carefully what that really means.

At some level, EVERYTHING is an illusion because we see it at a particular scale and according to our sense organs and the way our brain interprets the data.
In the case of time, it simply can't be dismissed as an illusion because it is both real and a number of illusions, depending on what you are referring to.
The imposition of quantitative time as qualitative time is the tyranny and that is what capitalism does. The revolt against clock time doesn't destroy time, but can liberate us into genuinely lived, qualitative time."

Here's another perspective:

Sunday, 26 March 2023


 Regard this as an informal enquiry, as a stimulus to thought and action. In 2023 we are only one year away from the centenary of the publication of The Manifesto of Surrealism. For various people surrealism is a great success, an abject failure, a revolutionary project run into the sandbanks of art, an art or a literary movement, a continuing revolution beneath the surface of life. Most definitions see surrealism from one corner only, so, for art historians, who often seem to dominate the recording and interpretation of surrealism, see it as an art movement, still relevant or not, depending on their personal agenda, and so on. Very often, what the scholars write about has very little to do with anything surrealism has ever been or indeed is. 

Surrealists have always defined surrealism as beyond art and literature, also beyond politics and philosophy, although it has been active in all these realms. Many current surrealists do seem content to paint and write and play some games and I don't want to dismiss these activities, it would be hypocritical for me when I have very happily rediscovered painting in the last couple of years, and wouldn't even categorise much of what I produce as 'surrealist' at present. (But I hope I can say "watch this space...").

 I am deliberately trying not to over-formulate my questions at this point, but I hope I'm clear that I don't want us to be helpless at this critical time, a time in which we may perhaps already be doomed, given that governments and corporations are recklessly slow in acknowledging the environmental crisis, the political crises everywhere around us and are in any case complicit to varying extents with the worst aspects of these factors. Disaster Capitalism may destroy us all.

So my question is, what should and can surrealists be doing at this present time that is not simply making pictures and writing poems? What can we do that might make some impact on the world? Can we justify not trying to make that impact at a time when the far right threaten the world to a greater extent than any time since the 1940s? 

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.