Dear Readers, whenever I hear the word ‘Surrealism’ my mind instantly heads for Europe and Salvador Dali, René Magritte and André Breton. Indeed, for many people Dali ‘is’ Surrealism, and in 1980 my mum and dad queued around the block for several hours to see his exhibition at the then sole Tate Gallery on Millbank. Dali is the people’s surrealist, and so many people have a copy of one of his canvas lurking somewhere in their house. My mum, an artist herself, was mainly taken by the strange realism of his images, I think, and his undoubted technical skill.
The exhibition that I went to yesterday, though, spreads its net much further, and looks at how surrealism morphed and changed as it was picked up by artists across the world. It pays much more attention to people of colour, and to woman, who contributed greatly to the Surrealist movement but who didn’t get the acclamation of the ‘usual suspects’. I’d like to concentrate here on just two artists: Ted Joans, a black American musician, writer and artist, and Remedios Varo, a Spanish-born artist who worked for most of her life in Mexico.Ted Joans (1928 – 2003) was born in Cairo, Illinois, the son of parents who worked on the river boats of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He was an avid jazz trumpeter – he once said “Jazz is my religion, and Surrealism is my point of view”, but he was also a poet (he is seen as being one of the originators of the spoken-word movement) and a visual artist.
Joans moved to New York and was a friend of Jack Kerouac and, for a while, a room mate of ‘Bird’, Charlie Parker. One of his most famous images is ‘Bird Lives’, painted after Parker died. The image was to be replicated in graffiti all over New York.
What intrigued me most about Joans’s work, though, was a piece called ‘Long Distance’. This was based on the Surrealist idea of the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ (cadavre exquis), a game whereby a painting or poem is passed from person to person, with each person only being able to see the last entry. As Joans was friends with practically anybody who was involved in the art work this made for some very interesting collaborators, including Allan Ginsberg and Dorothea Tanning, who painted this compelling work.
‘Long Distance’ travelled the world until 2 years after Joans’s death, and in its completed form is 30 feet long. It’s fascinating to see how the drawings of the 132 participants feed into one another, and you can watch a Youtube video of the whole thing here. It rather reminds me of ‘Consequences’, a game that we played as children where each person had to enter details of an encounter, then fold over the paper. How we used to laugh, especially if it was smutty. I love the idea of this kind of collaborative working, and it’s something that was a theme amongst the Surrealists, who often formed collectives in response to political or social concerns. Considering the times in which they were working and the horrors that were happening, I suppose this isn’t surprising. Simone Breton, an early Surrealist working in Paris, described how collaboration could release ‘images unimaginable by one mind alone’.
It also linked people across many countries and regions – Joans travelled widely across the USA and Europe, spent his winters in Timbuktu in Mali, and also spent a lot of time in Morocco. Typically, Joans preserved all the envelopes and wrapping that he used to post ‘Long Distance’ from one participant to another. I love that it carried on travelling for two years after his death. What a rich and varied life he had!
The second artist that I’d like to look at is Remedios Varo (1908-1963).
Varo was born in the village of Anglés in Catalonia, Spain. Her father was a civil engineer, and he encouraged his daughter in her artistic interests, encouraging her to copy his technical drawings, and providing her with the books of Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe. Her mother was a devout Catholic, and Varo was sent to a Catholic girl’s school, where she was something of a rebel. You can see the influence of that technical drawing in Varo’s work, and she also reproduces some of the architectural features of the buildings from her home village.
Varos had an event-packed life – she fought in the Spanish Civil War, and was imprisoned in France just before the Nazis arrived. In 1944 she went to Mexico, and never left.
The triptych is both the story of her life, and something more universal. In the first picture, ‘The Tower’, a group of young girls are cycling away with a Mother Superior figure. The sky is dark, and birds fly from the tower. The girl in the centre looks out of the painting directly at us, while her companions appear dull-eyed and hypnotised. I have no idea what the man with the sack is doing, but that’s Surrealism for you.
In the second picture, ‘Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle’, a group of women are at work creating the world, with the cloth pouring out of the windows of the tower. They are watched over by the rather sinister figure with the book, who seems to be providing the thread for the women’s work. Varos had great anxiety over the conflict between her Catholic upbringing and her scientific/humanist inclinations, and although this is an alternative ‘creation story’ it doesn’t look overly joyful to me.
The final picture in the triptych is The Flight (La Huida). It shows a young woman escaping to the mountains with her lover. I love how the light is turning gold to the right of the picture, and the way that the woman’s hair is uncurling, in a rather similar way to the woman with green hair in the Dorothea Tanning picture above. Clearly wild hair is associated with some kind of liberating power. The characters seem to be standing in some kind of boat – it almost looks like a coracle, a Welsh boat made out of oiled skins.
Varo saw surrealism as being ‘a way of communicating the incommunicable’, and there is something about her work that reaches beyond the conscious, a keystone of the Surrealist movement. Like Joans, Varo was in close contact with the key artists of the kind: she has a long-standing friendship with Leonora Carrington who was also a Surrealist, and in Mexico with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She did less collaborative work than Joans, and had a deeply individual vision. After she died of a heart attack in 1963 her partner catalogued her work and she has become more known, with one of her paintings recently selling for $3.1m, and an exhibition of her work in 1971 at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City having the largest attendance in history, with more people coming to see her work than went to see Diego Rivera, the father of Mexican painting.
I loved this exhibition. There is something very satisfying about seeing the art of people who don’t normally come to mind when someone says ‘Surrealist’. There is so much here to ponder, and it has certainly made me think.
Photo One by By , Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29768556
Photo Two from By Kati Horna – Original publication: unknownImmediate source: http://www.femmespeintres.net/peintres/mod/varo.htm, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62799123
Photo Four from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/838523
Photo Five from https://www.remedios-varo.com/la-huida-1961/