What art have I seen?

Posted in Exhibitions by chrisfremantle on July 2, 2010

Leonora Carrington, Guardian of the Egg, 1950, Oil on canvas

Surreal Friends, Pallant House, Chichester

I wondered why this exhibition wasn’t also visiting Edinburgh, given that the Dean Gallery has Roland Penrose’ Surrealist Library amongst other materials.  Then I discovered they are having a big exhibition about male surrealists at the Dean this summer.  This exhibition would have been an excellent counterpoint: male/female, domestic/public etc.

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Spanish painter Remedios Varo and Hungarian photographer Kati Horna ended up in Mexico because of the war – all of them would have been dealt with ruthlessly by the Nazis if they had stayed in Europe.  Moving to Mexico gave them space to develop their art in a context of friendship and a conducive culture: just look at Horna’s photographs of sugar skulls.  Mexican culture is closer to death and of course has its own Surrealists (Frida Kahlo’s ghost is present, but does not diminish this work).

Where a lot of surrealist work emphasises the artists’ unconscious in quite a dream-like landscape (think of de Chirico’s piazzas), for these artists the surreal is also the personal – the internal personal is also the external personal.  Settings are often houses and gardens.  children and animals belong to families, not just to dreams.

The curatorial approach has a personal dimension not normally seen in public retrospectives – many of the essays in the catalogue are by relations and friends.  Individual connections are foregrounded – Joanne Moorehead is related to Leonora Carrington.  Edward James lived just down the road at West Dean as well as in Mexico and was one of the foremost collectors of the work of these artists as well as part of the social circle.

The personal iconography is of cooking merging with alchemy and families with tethered animals.  Strangeness is in the opening up of the basement of everyday life as part of a complex, but lived reality.  Carrington draws on the language of Italian and Dutch Renaissance painting, and there are moments where her lover Max Ernst is also referenced, but these are the interpretations of an artist with her own language.  If the male surrealists draw on the aesthetic of the Barque and Classical ages, where history painting is the highest form, these artists find their inspiration in the painting of the Renaissance.  Looking not only at Breugel, but also at the backgrounds of images by artists such as Leonardo, Botticelli and Raphael, Carrington populates her paintings with vignettes and scenarios.  She also explores abstraction and still-life.  Knowing more of Jung, Gurdjieff and hermetic writing would enable a more detailed understanding of these complex works.

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