AGES OF WONDER

SCOTLAND’S ART 1540 TO NOW

Collected by the Royal Scottish Academy

4 November – 7 January 2018, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.

Mary Bourne RSA (b 1946) Dava Targe, Kilmartin Slate, 1994., RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 2009.

“Only when we recognise that we are heirs can we truly be pioneers” Martyn Bennett, Musician and Composer (1971-2005)

The visual language of Neoclassical columns, white marble, gilt and pediments adorned with statues usually infers learned authority, or the political need to project it. Architectural revivals of Golden Ages past are always about the power of knowledge and how it is used, for good or ill.  When visitors enter many Western public art spaces a powerful statement is communicated by the built environment and the institutions that occupy them, as arbiters of collective aspiration, education and good taste. On the surface the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy buildings also display these loaded facades.  The underground link between the two is not immediately visible to the visitor, nor is the history of artist led advocacy that binds them and created a National Collection for Scotland. The 1910 accord which brought the RSA collection under the umbrella of the NGS is echoed in Ages of Wonder, an extensive exhibition occupying all seven upper galleries, sculpture court and four lower galleries in the prominent RSA building. Effectively reclaiming the whole space for Scottish Art past and present makes a powerful statement of its own.

Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844) by Thomas Duncan RSA (1807-1845)

History and tradition are richly in evidence, reflecting centuries of masculine leadership and disciplinary hierarchies, but thankfully there is significantly more on display than the pomp of the Edinburgh Arts establishment. The guts of this show are the practice of Art and the necessity of making the work of Scottish Artists visible. On entering Gallery 7 Portraiture and Presidents for example, paintings of RSA presidents and their projected status are certainly part of the display, but equally so is the human Art of portraiture. It is an immense pleasure to discover works such as James Cowie’s quietly understated portrait of Miss Barbara Graham Cowie (Oil on plywood, 1938, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1946) or the intriguing man behind the presidency in Thomas Duncan’s RSA Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844, Presented to the RSA by fifty Scottish artists, 1845, transferred and presented by the RSA to the NGS, 1910.) Emerging out of a pitch dark umber ground, channelling the introspective spirit of Rembrandt, we see the face of a man who we feel is not entirely without privilege, but also not without care. His prematurely receding hairline, high forehead and deep-set eyes are at one with the space he occupies. With his hand resting pensively below his chin, it’s an intellectual, charismatic vision of the self, dwarfed by the mysterious, ever-expanding depth of the canvas. His mouth contains the vaguest hint of a smile, concentrated in circular tension at either side of a mouth which is simultaneously straight and curvaceous. We feel there’s wit in that feint glimmer of a smile and that he might speak at any moment, having first greeted the viewer and met our gaze (and his mirrored self) with equal regard. The entire portrait suggests, independent of his white cuffs, signature ring and the century inhabited, that there is infinitely more to this man that what is illuminated by the posed three-quarter focus lighting. Being in the presence of this ageless 19th Century gentleman rendered in oils by his own hand, we see that we are not simply in the company of an office bearer, but an artist, demonstrating through his own crafted image that there is infinitely more to see. Like all great portraits Duncan’s conceals and reveals in unexpected ways.

There are many more gems in this show that bring Art practice centre stage and assert the value of making as an imperative. Curated by current Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) President Arthur Watson, RSA Collections Curator Sandy Wood and Honorary Academician Tom Normand, Ages of Wonder is a collaborative project of unprecedented scale. Arranged thematically by subject and discipline, the exhibition is also defined by live events, touring elements, a collecting symposium, an exhibition catalogue and book of essays. Created in partnership with the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Dundee, it’s an exhibition brimming with possibilities in terms of how we might perceive and celebrate Scottish Art differently. At the heart of the show is the question of how our national collections are valued, conserved, expanded, utilised and shared, locally, nationally and internationally. The question of how we value artists as a society and the nature of what we choose to build also underpin that potential.

Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) Design for the Royal High School , (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831)

The “two temples of Art” on The Mound were both designed by William Henry Playfair RSA (1789-1857) at a time when the city was reimagining itself. Between ancient “Civilization” and the progressively Modern, it’s an architectural vision of the “Athens of the North” with Edinburgh at the centre of European Enlightenment. Playfair’s contemporary, Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) also reflects this idea in his Greek Revival design for The Royal High School, Edinburgh, (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831). Hamilton’s delicate watercolour imagines a seat of learning, defined by Neoclassical sureties and a warm Mediterranean palette of forward thinking optimism. This vision of the city has its roots in the glories and mythologies of an ancient past. Taking Gallery 6 of Ages of Wonder as an example; Architecture: Hamilton, Playfair and the Making of Edinburgh certainly makes an aspirational statement about how we reimagine our collective selves within a built environment. Although firmly anchored to where the viewer stands, among the drawings, paintings, models, photographs and other archival material on display there is also a less site specific, universal and transcendent creative drive at work. In the same gallery, William H Kinnloch’s 1978 design for a house at 46 Dick Place is a fine example of a very beautifully drafted, fluidly executed watercolour, unlikely to be part of an architect’s working process today. There’s essential tension between practical, ideological and institutional elements of the show which are ripe for debate. My hope is that rather than alignment with the colonnade, the creative core of the show will be a catalyst for future collaborative events and new ways of seeing Scottish Art. There is a golden opportunity, particularly within the live elements of the exhibition, to redefine the relevance of cultural institutions, their function and the value of Art practice in the 21st Century.

Beth L Fisher RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006).

Ironically the traditional techniques, training and sensitivity found in The Life School: Drawing, Anatomy and the Figure in Gallery 1, are principles that popular culture and art colleges throughout the country have largely abandoned. In this wonderous, “connected” age of technology, you would be hard pressed to find a more moving, empathic expression of grief than the rendering of human figures in Beth L Fisher’s RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006). On the opposite wall Samuel John Peploe’s RSA Female Nude with Pitcher (Oil on canvas, 1895, RSA Life School Award Deposit 1895) is an equally illuminating realisation of the Feminine. Standing in the Life School Gallery seeing works like these, the Laing Bequest of Old Master drawings, the spirit of enquiry in Andrea Vesalius’s etched plates and a live Life Class taking place, it is easy to see why what is not being taught is in such increasing high demand. The RSA has always been a teaching institution and this live element is a very promising initiative. Selected students will be working directly from the model, under the guidance of tutors John Byrne, George Donald, Jennifer McRae and Robert Rivers, weekly for the duration of the show. Contemporary innovation, in terms of making and seeing, is dependent on deeper understanding of artistic discipline. Imaginative freedom, individually and collectively, is impossible without it.

Elements like the live Life School and Professor Dame Sue Black’s DBE, FRSE, HRSA lecture on Art and Anatomy give valuable insight into the practice of Art and Science that many visitors (unless they are practitioners themselves) will be unfamiliar with. The focus on Original Print and the Art of Etching in the Finlay Room also features live events with artists Frances Walker, Stuart Duffin, Paul Furneaux, Delia Baille, Marion Smith and Jessica Harrison creating work on “ES Lumsden’s historic star wheel printing press (the first piece of machinery to enter the Academy’s collections)”. Leading into The Art of Etching section, the supreme skill and artistry of John Martin’s (HRSA) apocalyptic mezzotints, with the hand of the artist present from conception to completion is another unexpected highlight. The printmaking and Life School elements of the exhibition will tour in 2018/19, extending the reach of the show beyond the capital. Hopefully this will also stimulate revival of the radical practice, established between 1840 -1932 when academicians, or “visitors”, taught in an RSA operated Life School. Although the idea of “an independent post graduate facility for elite art students” requires examination of the qualifiers, recognising and utilising the knowledge, skills and expertise of professional artists as a national asset is long overdue. Established in 1829, the RSA remains the longest established artist-run society in the country. In terms of political leadership, Art Education, training and investment in creative process it is a vital resource and a foundation of advocacy.

Image of RSA Ages of Wonder Exhibition ,Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice, Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Viewers may be diverted or overwhelmed by elements such as the 19th Century Academy: A Victorian Eye Salon hanging of works in Gallery 3. Stepping into this space with its sumptuous walls of deep claret and green velvet adjoining couches for cultivated conversation in the centre, there was also the very humorous touch at the press view of 21st Century dandy/ artist/ practitioner John Byrne being interviewed amidst the loaded hierarchy of Masters hung from floor to ceiling.  However, being temporarily dazzled by the sheer weight and density of tradition or artist as celebrity still doesn’t trump the grounded practice and connectivity of Art, driven by our innate curiosity as a species and our profound need to understand. In the Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice displays some of the contents of his studio gifted to the RSA, including drawings, inspirational organic objects, handmade tools, macquettes and full-scale works, giving insight into Rand’s thought process and crafting of objects. Part of this display is a leaf, an object from the natural world that is instantly relatable regardless of the viewer’s education or background. The visitor free associates between these man-made objects and those from the natural world, rather than receiving explanation via a label about a designated Art object. In this way we are brought into direct contact with creative process, the individual artist’s and our own.

Detail of Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer – “a new cabinet of curiosities”. Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer “a new cabinet of curiosities” featuring rare books, sculpture, objects, photographs and digital Turning the Pages software is a brilliant manifestation of this principle of creative connectivity and sense of ownership. The RSA library may seem like a scholarly and remote repository but here a contemporary commission transforms what we think such a collection can be. Beautifully sleek, designed to be viewed from every angle and lit for illumination of each unique piece, the alluring three-dimensional framing invites you to come closer and be curious. Exploring the contents and the imaginative connectivity of objects across time presents a less linear view of collections /collecting and for the viewer there is freedom in that fluidity. Drawing inspiration from architect Sir John Soane’s (HRSA) donation to the RSA library in 1829 and his extraordinary London home (now a museum and itself a cabinet of wonders, well worth visiting) the juxtaposition of objects is a constant source of surprise as you move around the 21st Century cabinet. Jewel-like enamels by Phoebe Anna Traquair, an elemental watercolour on parchment From the Red Cabinet (2001) by Kate Whiteford, Hew Martin Lorimer’s small bronze Our Lady of the Isles (about 1954-1972) and a printed book bound in the publisher’s original paper (1826) of William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job are just some of the treasures within and thankfully out of storage.

Sir James Guthrie PRSA Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1892) RSA Diploma Collection Deposit 1893,

Other contemporary commissions also lead into historical works on display in surprising ways. Adjacent to Kenny Hunter’s four part bust of Sir James Guthrie PRSA is the artist’s glorious celebration of light in Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1890) in bold, dappled impasto and a living palette of vivid green and purple. Seated beneath a low canopy of trees, three women are drinking tea, each inhabiting their own world despite the appearance of society. The combination of light and shadow brings unexpected emphasis on the inner world of each sitter, beyond the aesthetic comfort of an Impressionistic style. Hunter picks up Guthrie’s inner palette in the split sections of the portrait bust, suggesting various aspects of personality beyond the public persona.

Frances Walker RSA RSW DLitt. (b1930) Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980)

Strangely, Gallery 4 The 21st Century: A Contemporary Academy left me feeling rather cold and dispassionate in comparison to the works of living artists relegated to the 20th Century A Nationwide Gallery (Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, The Highlands and Northern Isles) in Gallery 5. Frances Walker’s Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980) is a fine example, a supremely balanced composition of subtle greys, accented with orange, pink and green. It’s a potent statement, 37 years ahead of its time with large boulders, lumps of concrete and smoothed pebbles, punctuated by manmade detritus. The eye is drawn to human interventions and signs of industrialisation, a plastic bottle and white traces of rope or wire. The scale of transformation along the eroding shoreline dwarfs the only visible human figure silhouette in the distance, whilst the high horizon line is populated with industrial buildings. Walker’s work is informed by the tracery of human marks upon the Northern landscape. The sea is rendered as a rhythmic pattern of white lines on mid grey, drawing the viewer into the detail of a place lived and observed. The organic erosion of wind and waves is tempered with industrial paint colours in a complex dynamic of realism. This is the very altered land and seascape of the Highlands, Islands and North East of Scotland, striking in its immediacy and contemporary relevance.

Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999)

Also featured in the same room is a work by Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999), linked to one of the most important bodies of work ever created by any Scottish or UK Artist, War Tourist. Over a decade in the making, this extraordinary body of work was exhibited at the Aberdeen Art Gallery from 10th February to 8th April 2006 and has yet to be shown elsewhere. It is a response to war that began with the artist retracing her Father’s experiences in WWII through Europe and North Africa, leading her to Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland and to the contemporary experience of televised warfare seen during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), where ethnic and religious conflicts again resulted in genocide. Her meditations on major international conflicts and experience of wartime on the home front often incorporate everyday objects of remembrance. There is no other artist in the country who paints large scale figurative compositions with such skill, power and compassion. Inspired by German artists such as Dix and Beckmann whilst still a student, equalling their precision and emotional gravitas, her work is richly expressive and dreamlike in its evocation of human memory.

In Polish Journey we see a semi-autobiographical female protagonist wearing an image of the artist’s father around her neck. Her sallow skin appears stained by the knowledge leaching out of yellow cloth printed with the Star of David, used to mark and condemn Jewish victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. This bundle of industrially printed cloth is a chilling indicator of scale and over it is a wreath of poppies “In Remembrance”. The psychological stain on the soul in seeing sites of starvation, misery and mass murder is coupled with the solemnity of her expression and a tellingly composite uniform. The stitching of HMS Ark Royal, a modern invincible class navy flagship, grey military coat with black and red trim, German belt bearing a swastika and striped skirt aligned with the material draped like a proscenium arch above the scene, brings together the human fabric of all wars. The oppressors, the oppressed and liberating forces can transform into each other during wartime with astonishing speed and righteous self-justification. There is often a sense of the Feminine protagonist or witness in Cairns’ paintings, taking on this mantle of human shame, atrocity and bravery, enabling successive generations to see and acknowledge what we are and what we are capable of. In Cairns’ work human creation and destruction are equally present. The arrangement of other objects in the composition are an interrogation of commercial and domestic complicity hidden in plain sight. Cairn’s flips the idea of the benign, traditionally feminine still life genre completely on its head by combining it with the traditionally masculine dominance and authority of History Painting. The presence of a Zyklon B Tesch & Stabenov canister, a company who produced pest control chemicals and were implicated as suppliers to Nazi Death camps at the Nuremberg trials, is a powerful reminder of how ordinary people actively participate in persecution and genocide. Around the central figure three dolls are suspended as if hung, one in striped camp uniform is labelled with a number, another with a suitcase resembling a child arriving off a train with her name “Klara Sarah Goldstein” chalked onto her luggage. Broken dolls are part of the trajectory that projects into the viewer’s foreground. We can’t comfortably relegate this image to history or as a distant memorial, because in human terms it is ever present, absorbed into the steely blue and cadmium red palette of conflicted Nature that we are as human beings. Cairn’s deconstructs this with the passionate impetus of Expressionism and the pure compositional order of Abstraction. She is yet another artist, based predominantly in the North of Scotland for much of her career, long overdue for a major national retrospective. In contrast to the exposure afforded her male contemporaries its an oversight that needs to be rectified and perhaps the collaborative nature of this exhibition will enable that to happen. The positioning of some artists in the show, or their absence from the national collection altogether, is worthy cause for further debate. From the display of a single painting to wider acknowledgement, placing the work of our greatest living artists on a global stage is entirely possible. In Cairns’ case, I can think of no better time for an international collaboration exploring her connections with the confrontational Neue Sachlichkeit/ New Objectivity of Weimar Germany and the contemporary relevance of her practice in a “Post Truth” world.

What I took away from this exhibition was excitement in seeing human “curiosity and practice” in action, a positive statement of value in relation to Scottish Art made visible and the possibility of future investment and collaboration. Although there is more work to be done before our National Collections adequately reflect important work by Scottish Artists throughout the country, this exhibition is a significant step forwards in terms of Scottish Visual Culture entering public consciousness. The decision to make the exhibition free, therefore accessible and able to be visited multiple times is exactly as it should be, both for residents and visitors. Perhaps Ages of Wonder will also pave the way for a more balanced permanent display of Scottish Art in the capital and wider circulation of works from the National Collection around the country. People cannot discover, champion, love or be inspired by what is hidden.

www.royalscottishacademy.org

www.nationalgalleries.org

#AgesofWonder

Dreamers Awake

White Cube Bermondsey, London

28 June – 17 September 2017

Jo Anne Callis Untitled (Woman with a Black Line) Archival Pigment Print. ‘From Early Color Portfolio’ Circa 1976 Credit: © Jo Anne Callis, Courtesy of the artist, Rose Gallery and White Cube.

“I warn you- I am not an object” Dorothea Tanning

The prospect of exploring “the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists” filled me with high hopes in terms of repossession of the Feminine and reappraisal of Surrealism in the popular imagination. Art historians have only begun to scratch the surface of female artists written out of the original movement, relegated to roles of lover, wife or muse in the biographies of male artists.  Dreamers Awake features “sculpture, painting, collage, photography and drawing from the 1930’s to the present day” including works by Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Claude Cahun, Edith Rimmington, Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgoise, Alina Szapocznikow, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Carina Brandes, Hayv Kahraman, Eva Kot’átková, Nevine Mahmoud, Penelope Slinger, Shannon Pool, Jo Anne Callis and Julia Phillips. Whilst I welcome and applaud exhibitions bringing marginalised and neglected work by women artists into greater public awareness, this show left me feeling conflicted about the nature of Feminine reclamation, particularly in relation to contemporary art/ life.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph: George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

One of the problems I had with the exhibition was the overbearing emphasis on the female body, or rather the persistent disconnect between body, mind and the Feminine. On the one hand there’s a challenge to the image of women as objects of “masculine desire and fantasy”, often “decapitated, distorted, trussed up,” “fearsome and fetishized” as “other” in the hands of male Surrealists from the birth of the movement.  Although this “fragmented, headless body of Surrealism” is a “vehicle for irony, resistance, humour” and freedom of expression in the hands of female artists in the exhibition, there is a tendency, particularly in the work of contemporary artists, to simply offer derivative nods to the body politic whilst continuing the patriarchal tradition of the headless woman. Whilst the show ranges well “beyond those who might identify themselves as surrealists”, the superficial nature of the influence (or curatorial connection) in some work left me questioning the universal ground-breaking media exclamations surrounding the show. Fortunately, there’s enough complex, intelligent and beautifully executed work connected to the body to compensate for the weaker, more obvious and mediocre elements of the show. Caitlin Keogh’s clumsy, derivative acrylics on canvas, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s basic assemblage sculptures or Gillian Wearing’s masked photographic portrait of model Lily Cole laden with illustrative symbolism are examples of work which didn’t engender critical changes in perception.

Rosemarie Trockel’s black and white digital print, reimagining Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde /The Origin of the World, is an example of an appropriated work which became interesting in spite of itself for the questions it raised. My initial gut reaction was to sigh and roll my eyes at the projection of fear onto an image of female genitalia. Placing an enormous black spider where the model’s pubic hair should be, even to reclaim one’s own body, sex or gender struck me as perilously dull. Effectively it’s a reduction of Feminine power to B-Movie Body Horror by depicting the female body as something dangerous or deadly. This associative trope has been used since the Book of Genesis as an instrument of shame, self-loathing and control, turning desire into the fallen or demonic Feminine other. If Trockel’s intention is irony, turning the male gaze and traditions of seeing back in on themselves, then this image doesn’t really succeed, because like the disembodied woman, the work is missing its head. Perhaps what it does do, (though only if the original image is known to the viewer) is point to a canonical image of the Feminine by a male artist to generate debate in the present. Or if the historical reference is unknown to the viewer (masculine or feminine), the print could also be seen as a positive confrontation with individual or collective fears.  The curious irony is that Courbet’s title acknowledges timeless feminine creative/ biological and sexual power in a way that Trockel’s tarantulan image does not.  Strangely his full-frontal honesty is more convincing in its rejection of idealism for realism and/ or masculine eroticism. It was and is an image that in 2017 still wouldn’t be reproduced in mainstream media on the grounds of obscenity. That the female body is still regarded as shameful, scandalous, shocking or dangerous is cause for debate in itself. If Trockel’s intent is humour and absurdity in her juxtaposition of the hairy spider, then it simply comes across as a laddish joke, especially in the context of her surrounding work which is equally unconvincing in its vision.

North Gallery, Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell, courtesy of White Cube

The claim that “by focussing on the work of women artists, Dreamers Awake shows how, through art foregrounding bodily experience, the symbolic woman of Surrealism is refigured as a creative, sentient, thinking being” just didn’t ring true to me in relation to some of the celebrated contemporary artists in the show.  Sarah Lucas’s entwined chairs, The Kiss (2003, Wooden Chairs, varnish, cigarettes, wire, papier-mâché, acid free glue, leather cord) with a pair of breasts on the back rest and a cock and balls protruding from under the seat made from cigarettes is just a clumsy secondary school gag in comparison to a work such as Lee Miller’s Untitled photograph (Severed breast from radical surgery in a place setting 1 & 2, Paris, c.1929, modern gelatin silver prints) which shares the same gallery space. Then and now, Miller was way ahead of the times. Arguably her bodily experience though invisible in the shot is resoundingly present in the composition, with the raw meat/ severed breast served up on a plate with cutlery laid out for the viewer’s consumption. Many of her images cut through to the truth of lived experience, as a survivor of childhood trauma, former model and a war correspondent, Miller found liberation in the Art and life of photography. The juxtaposition of a domestic dinner setting with the disembodied breast is deeply subversive on a multitude of levels. The breast is disembodied, not as an erotic, maternal or biological focus but in the service of psychological, social and cultural interrogation. The two images served up side by side on a relatively intimate scale have tremendous power, in the equality of ideas and execution. Miller’s bloodied amputation is about as far removed from the neoclassical ideal of womanhood seen in the paintings of artists such as Magritte, Dali, De Chirico, Man Ray or projected in Cocteau’s 1932 film Blood of a Poet in which Miller appears in marble whiteout as an armless Neoclassical Goddess. Whilst narrowly fixated male artists of her generation were placing womanhood on a pedestal of passive desire, Miller fearlessly confronts us with an object which is anti-Beauty and savagely confrontational. Of the same generation, Dorothea Tanning’s statement “I warn you- I am not an object” immediately springs to mind. It’s a warning that like Miller’s photographic statement will never diminish in terms of power or relevance. Her emergence as a Surrealist artist equal to those who subjugated her to the role of muse is only just beginning. A pair of breasts, cock and balls made from cigarettes combined with a domestic chair is a lame and underdeveloped contemporary statement by comparison.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

As I wrote in a previous post about the Surreal Encounters/ Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) the real power and contemporary relevance of Surrealist Art lies in “reconnect[ing] the viewer with underlying passions, obsessions and political activism”, “a collective sense” “beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion”. Despite the easy conversion of the movement’s famous poster boys into merchandise, Surrealism is “rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, economic uncertainty, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings.” The premise of the exhibition does pick up on these undercurrents to some extent; “In a world preoccupied with the politics of identity, in which the advances of previous generations must be continually defended, we see the continued- even renewed- relevance of surrealist ideas and strategies.” I couldn’t agree more. What disappointed me were the misguided allegiances to a revolutionary movement playing in the shadows of the contemporary art market.  I looked forward to seeing more evolved attitudes and refined visual language, taking a lead from female Surrealists of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and running with it. I certainly don’t mean “refined” in terms of gentility, but in terms of awareness and the propensity to fight (savagely if necessary) for a way of seeing based on the artist’s identity. The marginalisation of women artists as a homogenous group persists today, therefore this isn’t an exhibition of female Surrealists as much as it is a wakeup call in terms of what we bring to this work as viewers- individually and collectively. It is far too easy (literally and metaphorically) to buy into the “surreal” as a word/idea misappropriated and devalued by consumerist popular culture, creating dreamily vacuous or supremely self-indulgent Art in which the disembodied woman prevails. The best work in the show subverts what we have come to believe (or have been taught) about feminine power, Surrealism and the nature of creativity. In terms of Western society, embracing the unconscious goes hand in hand with acknowledging, confronting and liberating what is held in check beneath the surface for political or patriarchal reasons, which has less to do with sex and more to do with the balance (or inequity) of power.

Eileen Agar Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in)

In Eileen Agar’s Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in) the blue Renaissance silhouette of a woman collaged on a ground of text, essentially the cut out of one age informing the reading of another, operates in a self-reflexive way. The encyclopaedic/ historical text, with reference to British colonies, historical rule and exploration works in counterpoint with the beauty and implied fragility of two exotic looking butterflies and the figure of the “bride”, anonymously blue and as collectable as a specimen in an age of discovery. Agar’s collages are frequently not just about the absurdity of images out of their elements, juxtaposed for 30 second amusement or shock value, but are far more texturally layered and sophisticated in terms of ideas and technique. Here the use of collage doesn’t feel random or automatic but considered in terms of dialogue between elements and the wider context of the work, transcending the time it was made. We may well question the freedoms afforded the Butterfly Bride in our own times.

Louise Bourgeois Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) Reverse View. Photograph: G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition, White Cube.

There is also more than meets the eye in Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) by Louise Bourgeois. What we see from the front is a sculpture composed of folds of flesh and five breasts like cushions with the pronounced geometry and provocation of protruding nipples.  As you move to the side and back of the structure the overall form comes into view. The associations of comfort and domesticity in an everyday piece of furniture and the couch as a repository of the traditional female nude in art comes into play. Then you come to the switchblade behind, the threat of violence where you’d least expect it, a warning against stereotypes and reductive visions of femininity, maternity and eroticism. The artist’s sculpture is like a surreal beast not in an aesthetic but a revolutionary sense. It defies and changes your perception as you move around and find yourself in relation to it. It’s a tangible presence that nourishes, intrigues, seduces, challenges and menaces the viewer from the plinth. It isn’t fantastical but potently real, infinitely more complex than simple dualism or juxtaposition of opposing elements. The inference of soft comfort is rendered in the solidity of polished metal, the couch accommodating the whole family and its needs, equally a source of feminine disquiet. It lives and grows in the imagination as you experience it resoundingly in three (or more) dimensions, as one would expect from a Master of her own Art. The femininity here has multiple layers, views, identities and hidden capabilities against type- it’s a work which refuses to be boxed, with its own distinct voice. I never cease to be amazed, elated and inspired by the penetrating honesty of this artist’s work. Bourgeois brings much that is held beneath the surface into the light with immense courage, consummate skill, tenacity and feeling.

Hayv KahramanT25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and White Cube.

Shannon Bool’s exquisite monochrome tapestry The Five Wives of Lajos Bìrò (Wool tapestry, 98 1/16 x 156 11/16 in), Carina Brandes’ Untitled (2012, black and white photograph on baryta) a triangular, mythical inversion of Leda and the Swan and Hayv Kahraman’s T25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) rooted in contemporary war on terror were similarly multifaceted engagements with the highly active nature of Surrealism, rather than giving passive aesthetic nods to it. Jo Ann Callis’s Untitled (Woman with Black Line) c.1976, archival pigment print, 22 1/8 x 19 7/16 in) further articulates this idea. It is an image of a woman photographed from above, with just her head and neck visible, face down in a pillow. There’s a drawn line like a seamed stocking along her back and forming the part of her hair, as if she could come apart, be peeled or shed her skin. Is she alive or dead in this sheath of image making? It’s a very intelligent image in terms of where the framing places the camera/eye/ viewer. We are placed in the uncomfortable position of being complicit in this bloodless, internalised crime scene, rendered with a deceptively soft palette of muted colour.

Alina Szapocznikow Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). Front View Photograph G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition,  White Cube

A work which perhaps summed up the exhibition for me was Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). On one side, there is a bird-like creature, composed of cast toes for the two feet, a mouth and chin and what look like outstretched wings, a playful, ingenious, hybrid fusion of a human/ bird free spirit that immediately made me smile. Then on the reverse, a different projection of Self, composed of just the cast mouth and upper breast, defining the “automatic” portrait of a woman. When viewed from this position the potentially shapeshifting woman is invisible. One seeing, the other being seen, one free, the other defined by her body, the living contradiction of what it is to be female in a world that hasn’t progressed far enough. Perhaps it was exactly that which disturbed and disillusioned me considering the exhibition as a whole. As I walked around Dreamers Awake I experienced the hope and exhilarating liberation of Art in terms of human expression, bringing what is hidden into awareness. Equally I saw the retrograde dictation of art by market values and a tendency to adopt traditionally masculine tactics to gain attention. I left this exhibition with faith in the tangible power of imagination and the extraordinary vision of female artists as an agent of positive change. I also saw what Surrealism and Feminism is not. That polarity reflects the wider world of Art/ life and the hard reality of creative work as ever more vital, resistant to or complicit with the political, economic and social extremities of the 21st Century.

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