This was the first outing I’d been on since getting Covid (other than work, but that doesn’t count as an outing), and I didn’t want anything too taxing, so the Tate Modern, which is relatively easy for me to get to, seemed like a safe bet. I often think I don’t like surrealism, but really what I don’t like is abstract art – surreal art that still looks like something, even if that something is weird, is ok by me, and Surrealism Beyond Borders, which runs until 29 August, looked particularly interesting because it included lesser-known artists from around the world, instead of focusing solely on the most famous surrealists. Admission was £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and we were able to book tickets the morning of our visit (this was a snap decision on the last nice day in March before the weather turned horrible again).
Unlike the Lubaina Himid exhibition, with its disappointingly patchy signage, this exhibition actually did go into quite a lot of detail about the history of surrealism and the way the movement spread around the world. It was started in Paris by a group of artists in 1924 as a way to “subvert the everyday”, challenge tradition, and explore dreams and the unconscious mind. Surrealism was often collective, as seen by the “exquisite corpse” drawings on display here where one artist would start a drawing, fold over the paper so only the bottom of the drawing could be seen, and pass it along to the next artist who would draw their own image, etc. etc. (I remember doing this as a kid, but we definitely didn’t call them exquisite corpse drawings). Because surrealism had a revolutionary aspect, it also caught on in former colonial countries agitating for political change. Although surrealists were anti-colonialism, because we’re talking about the ’20s and ’30s, they did have a gross tendency to interpret the traditional art of many indigenous peoples as surrealist without understanding the meaning behind it, which this exhibition also discussed.
I’m glad that all this signage was there, because I love a bit of context, but of course I was mainly there for the art, and there was some good stuff. Although there were of course pieces by famous Western artists here, including Dali and Magritte, there was also a decent amount of art from around the world, including a whole room of Caribbean art, and the two pieces above, which I loved. The one on the left was by Japanese artist Koga Harue, and the one on the right was by a Mexican artist (whose name I sadly don’t remember – the label was on a different wall and I didn’t get a photo of it) and shows traditional objects associated with Dia De Los Muertos, including calabacitas, pan de muertos, and a prayer candle. There’s quite a few more pieces here I’d like to show you, but I don’t have all that much commentary (and I’ll be on holiday the week before this goes out, so I’m rushing a bit to get it finished before I leave, to be completely honest), so I’ll switch into photo/caption mode for a bit to save you having to slog through a load of unnecessary text.
I could honestly show you way more, but I think I’ve made you scroll down enough. Suffice it to say that I really enjoyed this exhibition, and recommend seeing it in person if you can, not least to see all the black and white photos that didn’t photograph particularly well on my phone. 4/5.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention A Year in Art: Australia 1992, a free exhibition located on the same floor as Surrealism Beyond Borders. The exhibition is inspired by the 1992 High Court Ruling in favour of Edward Koiki Mabo, who was of Torres Strait Islander ancestry and was trying to reclaim his hereditary land (sadly, this came five months after Mabo died from cancer, but it does mean he was able to be buried on what is once again his own land). Prior to this, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands in Australia were dubbed terra nullius, meaning land belonging to no one (because apparently indigenous people aren’t people), thus making them up for grabs to white Australian settlers. It is appalling to think that this practice went on until the 1990s.
Because it was free, I wasn’t expecting this exhibition to be as large as it was, but it filled one huge gallery space and a few smaller rooms, and included art made using ancient Aboroginal techniques as well as more modern pieces. I particularly loved the works by Gordon Bennett, including Possession Island (above right) based on a painting glorifying Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia, and How to Cross the Void, a series of often darkly humorous etchings criticising Australian culture, one of which can be seen above left.
Other works here included Up in the Sky, a photographic series by Tracey Moffatt that references the trauma experienced by the “stolen generations”, i.e. Aboriginal babies who were forcibly taken from their families and raised in white Christian missions; Judy Watson’s a preponderance of aboriginal blood, which is a series of reproductions of government documents showing the discrimination against people of Aboriginal descent that was enshrined in the Australian legal system through the 1960s, including denying indigenous peoples the right to vote; and Helen Johnson’s Bad Debt, pictured above left, which references the construction of Canberra on Aboriginal lands and the non-indigenous animal species introduced by Europeans that have had a devastating effect on native species (there’s obviously an analogy being made there). I’m glad we stumbled on this exhibition, because it was absolutely fascinating. It’s there until the end of September, so go see it if you can!