Monday, 24 April 2017

Fifty Years

Let’s play a new game.

I tire of endings.

Every Surrealist today has, at some point or other, complained at the historical falsifications and traducements of our opponents and art historians. More particularly, it is a commonplace to mock their random selection of a date for the death of the movement: the Second World War, the death of Breton, invent your own, it’s a lucky dip completely unconnected with the ongoing activity and existence of Surrealists and Surrealism.

But it’s not interesting.

So let’s play a new game.

Let’s pick beginnings.

Like any vibrant movement, Surrealism has had its ebbs and flows. It hasn’t had a straightforwardly ascendant trajectory (that’d be liberal nonsense) because it needs fighting for and championing. As a result, at certain points, there have been vital lurches forward, vital steps taken that have shaped our subsequent fortunes. Go on, pick one! Pick several! The founding of the Chicago Group, the 1976 World Exhibition, the establishment of the Stockholm Group … Of course there have been many illusory moments that led to nothing, but there have also been real developments that have given a spur to our renewed vitality.

In Britain, where Surrealism’s been marginalised and overlooked at best, the sometimes contradictory character of such events has been pronounced: some events have been spectacular in the minds of their organisers but had no lasting effect whatever, while the lingering effect of others has been underestimated by even sympathetic commentators. The hilariously bathetic conclusion to Michel Remy’s purported chronology of British Surrealism – ‘Failure to restructure activities’ – may reflect his sketchy coverage of the recent period, but it is unjust to its subject (the Melmoth Group) and also in its failure to acknowledge the later establishment of the longest-running Surrealist group in Britain (Leeds).

So let me tip my hat to one hugely important contradictory event that opened 50 years ago today, the Enchanted Domain exhibition, the Exeter Festival of Surrealism (24 April-20 May 1967). Dismissed at the time by the Paris Group as a ‘nostalgic reunion’, it was nonetheless a key moment in identifying and organising Surrealism in Britain. It brought together work by international big names and various figures associated with the movement in Britain.

Its organisation was an indication of how such events are situated historically. Conroy Maddox, perhaps the single most important individual catalyst of post-war British Surrealism, organised the show in collaboration with bookseller John Lyle. Maddox, already established as an important figure in his own right, worked closely with ELT Mesens to ensure the loan of works from the latter’s collection. Another contributor of historical pieces who also helped organise the event was the veteran French Surrealist Jacques Brunius, who had worked with Buñuel and Dalí on L’Age d’Or and participated in British activity since the war.

Indeed, if you wanted to be playing endings, there’s your chance. On the morning of the show’s opening Maddox received a ’phone call from a hotel manager informing him that Brunius had died of a heart attack overnight. (Mesens said to Brunius’s girlfriend ‘Did you go through his pockets? You can’t trust hotels’, before turning to Maddox, Lyle and Roland Penrose to ask ‘What shall we do with dear Jacques? Shall we incinerate him?’)

Look round trees with Brunius (from To The Rescue)
Mortality and accusations of nostalgia notwithstanding, however, the event kickstarted interest in Britain. Within 18 months there was another show, in Durham, while Lyle and Maddox began producing the magazine Transforma(c)tion, bringing together the likes of Tony Earnshaw (later a big influence on the nascent Leeds Group), Patrick Hughes, Ian Breakwell and others. Maddox himself, always vigorous, began collaborating anew with younger figures like John Welson, John Digby, and with several of the emergent attempts at groups. Exeter 1967 is where to look for the start of recent Surrealist activity in Britain.

It hasn’t been smooth progress, but anyone who wants a beginning to result automatically in an unbroken and unbreakable upward ascent is looking for a religion, not a practice. Exeter was a large rock thrown into a muddy pool. It is worth remembering today because so many got their trousers splashed by it.

So let’s play a new game, again and always.

Let’s play beginnings.

Again and always.


  1. Miguel Corrales has posted an interesting comment about this on his excellent blog Surrealismo Internacional, offering a tempering of the comment about the Paris Group. I'm not a hispanophone so have to rely on Google Translate for most of it: it's clear enough, however, and the comment that the show was hoped to be 'préparatrice d’un net regain d’activités' is plain. I think Miguel's point is worth taking into consideration, although I think it also touches on a whole other crowd of problems around the way John Lyle was treated in the period after this. Miguel's also right to mention the São Paulo show of the same year, but that kind of reinforces my point: I've seen very little to suggest it had any impact on activity in Britain, sadly.

  2. I really like this article by Paul, and that is why I have recommended his reading. I must say that I have a great appreciation for John Lyle: he got me many surreal books when I was young and I admire his surrealist strength and his polemical character. I think he fell into the trap of Jean Schuster answering the "Coupure" poll, and that Franklin Rosemont was completely wrong with him.
    On the events of "A Phala", I just want to point out the coincidence with another great surrealist exhibition, which showed the international continuity of surrealism, two years before Schuster and his acolytes decided to bury him.
    But surrealism continues more alive than ever!