*this was written days ago, but I’ve been too busy too get to the cafe to post it*

You know how some days you wake up a little bit more ‘malleable’ than you did the day before. For some reason this day is the day you are more receptive to the world around you.

I had that day today.

By a flicker of fate I manged to have to merge my insides with the outside world, and I expereinced an amazing exhibition. If I’d seen it yesterday, I don’t think the effect would have been anywhere near the same. Sometimes you look at the world. Other times, you actually see it.

Without getting too airy fairy, there was something about me that felt more ‘open’ than usual; more receptive, more willing to be challenged, feeling more; more vulnerable to tears and laughter in public places.

Yesterday that wasn’t me. Today it was.

I went to the Hayward Gallery to make the most of half price Mondays, and see Undercover Surrealism – Picasso, Miro, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille. I have never spent so long in an exhibition before (near on 4 hours), especially one that was effectively four large rooms partitioned into areas of surrealist focus (i.e. film, formless, skulls, abattoir etc). And this is an exhibition that has not been successful with many critics.

Let me start from the beginning…

My university education focused on literary theory, literature and politics. I’ve never studied art history accept in relation to architecture (a brief foray into studying architecture was quickly followed by the realisation that, “yes” you do need a head for maths and science, which I don’t have). My art and cultural history was family-taught.

I have the pleasure of ‘owning’ a mother who was always culturally and artistically ahead of her time, in a critical sense. Like me, she can’t paint (except walls and furniture), is about as graceful as a hippopotamus when on stage, and sings well, if no one else is listening. But her appreciation is above and beyond, and I grew up in a house filled with of art, dance, theatre, film and music.

My mum took a huge amount of pleasure in teaching us about music (classic, opera, world music) and all other artforms, and then feeding any fascinations or interests we had. My brother loved nature and animals – she went out of her way to tape or find any animal documentary, made sure he had access to all sorts of books and films that were far beyond his age, but fed his passion – it’s one that continues to this day.

For me it was two things – art and dance. I always had a fascination with dancers and choreography. One of my loveliest memories as a child was of my mum waking me very late at night, because she’d just found a documentary about Margot Fonteyn on TV. Knowing I would love it, she cheekily woke me up, made me a weak tea, and allowed me to stay up late with her watching it. I was about 7 years old.

In many ways it was a conservative-bohemian upbringing. There were always artistic people around, madrigal groups, singers, musicians, writers, and artists. It was inspiring; especially when I realised I myself had no artistic talent and had to rely on others to feed my passion!

So when I say that I have a basic understanding of Surrealism, I don’t mean it in any academic sense, but more from “trawling galleries with my mum and later with friends” sense, from reading books and looking on the internet. Nothing formal

My first engagement with Surrealism was when I was about 6 or 7 and my mum and I saw a Picasso – my mum did an admirable job of explaining what Surrealism. I was comfortable with the concept. I understand it originated as a term coined by something-Breton to describe a movement rather than a style. I understood the quote (sadly I can’t trace it any longer, but it stayed in my head and I’m confident I’m faithful to it) “Surrealist artists believe human nature is irrational”.

Today, at the Hayward, I saw a different type of Surrealism. One I had never been exposed to before. A side of Surrealism that was bone jitteringly scary and confronting. But challenging and inspiring.

It focused on the magazine ‘Documents’, edited and created by George Bataille.

Documents 1

I’d not heard of him or the magazine before, but imagine if you will;

Room upon room of different aspects of sur-realness. Anti-realness. An exploratio n of reality within the un-real traditions and expectations of ethnography, archaeology, ritual behaviour and the radicalisation of music and painting.


A black and white image of cows’ intestines in an abattoir, A cloak from American Indians depicting a hunting scene. Sounds of Duke Ellington and the noises of a voodoo Haitian ritual. The image of a silver gelatin 1928 Broadway film with dancing girls and futurist drama, and the contrast of Salvador Dali’s ‘Un Chien Andalo’ (one of the first images is gut wrenchingly of a scalpel piercing through an eyeball). Max Ernst drawings with their cryptic-clue-like titles and Joan Miro’s universe traversing paintings.

Un Chien Andalou

It left me almost shell shocked. Suddenly I knew so much less than I thought I did about about art. I knew nothing – and I had to force myself to start the exhibition again, because I knew this experience wouldn’t happen again. It’s an exhibition aimed at a mainstream audience, but still an eclectic and unusual collection. It’s accessible, if you’re happy to float through it, or challenging if you begin to play around with the ideas and theories.

So here is a little of what I felt and learnt, both amusing and sincere:

1) I find Salvador Dali attractive

2) I never knew Joan Miro was a man (why would I? – I’ve admired his work but never discussed it with anyone, so no one could have corrected me previously)

3) I never considered photography as an effective form of surrealist artistic expression (mainly because I hadn’t recognisably engaged with any), until now. Eli Lotar’s series from the abattoir will have a long lasting effect on me.

4) The image of ‘Renee Jacobi’ by Jacques-Andre Boiffard was my favouriteimage, and a strange example of playing with imagery. Because the artist insisted on it being “upside down” (head ways up) it is mysterious and intriguing. But when I bought the postcard and turned it the other way round I realised it was actually a very simple photo simply turned upside down.

5) Green Pastures was one of the most fabulous black and white films I’ve ever seen. It’s heaven depicted as The ole’ South. Everyone is African American, with the very late 1920s slave costuming, but played with so they all look like angels. Gabriel is the most amazingly good looking African American man you have ever seen (thing Patterson Oliver from Neverwhere – all manly and strong) and God is a wonderful old man dressed in a Colonel Sanders Deep South-style suit, but black. It was amusing, poignant and thoughtful.

6) I need to get me some more art edu-ma-cation.