OCA guided visit to Surrealist Exhibition, Edinburgh

Another World: Dali, Magritte, Miro and the Surrealists
13 Nov 2010

On 13 Nov last year I joined a group of other local OCA students to tour the “Another World” exhibition at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. The tour was led by Jane Mitchell, who did a great job of leading us through the exhibits, telling us all about the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, and encouraging us to form our own conclusions about the works on display.

It was a great trip, especially meeting other students and having a chance to do some sketching in the gallery, and discuss the results.

We started with a room dedicated to Dada. Dadaism was a movement that began during the first world war and was at its height between 1916 to 1922. It found expression in art, but was a wider movement that included music, poetry, comment and literature. Jane explained that Dada was not associated with any particular artistic style or approach, but rather that Dada was a rejection of art in general, of the status-quo, of order and the politics that were thought to have led to WW1.  Artists such as Duchamp, Ernst and Klee abandoned aesthetics and logic in favour of shock value and nonsense, themes that had a very large influence on the development of the later Surrealist movement.

One of the most famous pieces shown in the exhibition was the 1917 work “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp – a urinal, laid on its side and simply signed by the artist using a pseudonym. This demonstrates the use of a “readymade” or found object as an art work – it deliberately provoked controversy among the art establishment over whether it really was art or not. Its admirers claimed that the object had been transformed from ordinary object to artwork simply because it had been chosen to be art, thereby creating for it a new meaning. This theme has had enormous resonance for the modern art movement ever since.

My reaction to Dada? I can’t say I liked the majority of the work shown, although I do appreciate the sense of freedom and novelty the artists achieved in many of the pieces. However one piece I loved was “Revolving Doors” by Man Ray. This is actually a collection of beautiful prints – based on collages done in 1916-17 – showing geometric shapes and lines in vibrant colours. Lots more info and some images at the National Galleries of Scotland site. They appealed to me on a purely aesthetic level – I just love the forms and colours, against so much white.

On to the Surrealist exhibits. Surrealism developed out of Dadaism in the 1920s, and was heavily influenced by Freud – this is particularly demonstrated through themes of automatic writing/drawing, expressing unconcious thoughts and dreams.  The images we saw were often disturbing, nightmarish, with insectile imagery a common element, along with a good bit of mysoginy thrown in,  although there were more positive pieces too. 

Our guide explained that we shouldn’t necessarily try to understand the pieces – and that often the juxtapositions they presented eeally were meaningless. I struggled with this I suppose – it’s natural I feel to try to interpret things that are not immediately representative.

While again I didn’t enjoy the majority of the pieces on display, one in particular caught me eye immediately (ironically this was by an artist who did not consider himself part of the Surrealist movement).

“The Joy of the Worlds” (1937) by Cecil Collins is an explosion of vibrant green.

My notes and quick sketch for "Joy of the Worlds" at the Dean Gallery

It made me grin just to look at it  – the colours are so alive, and the forms convey energy, life and positivity.  The central image is of a human figure surrounded by organic, cell-like forms, while other shapes seem to represent radiating or flowing energy. I sketched this piece and made notes on it – sketching really helped me to “see” it properly.

Another I liked – in fact that the whole group seemed to like – was Henry Moore’s 1940 piece “The Helmet”. Interestingly, this also shows a human figure enclosed within a larger head-shaped form. Perhaps both this and the Collins piece are examining the idea of a soul, or the essence of a human, enclosed inside, but distinct from, the body that sustains and protects (or imprisons) it?

Some sketching
The Dean Gallery has a great collection of work by Eduardo Paolozzi, including the huge, fantastic “Vulcan” statue from 1999 that dominates the gallery’s central space, towering

Sketch of part of “Vulcan” by Paolozzi

from the ground floor cafe up to the 2nd.  This exhibit, though not part of the Surrealist exhibition, shows how Paolozzi was influenced by the common mechanical and industrial themes of Dada and Surrealism – and I love it. I had time to sketch a small part of this giant – his hammer and left hand.

It was a great visit – especially meeting other students and having the chance to sketch in public – always a scary prospect. I’ll look forward to the next one!


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