How many lightbulbs does it take to change a surrealist? Modern One has the answer

All-star surrealist retrospective opens at Belford Road this week, drawn from major international collections

How many lightbulbs does it take to change a surrealist? Modern One has the answer

Of all the great art movements of the 20th century, surrealism was the weirdest, and of course, that was the whole point. It was born out of the intersection of the First World War and the efforts of Sigmund Freud to attribute some kind of structure to the human unconscious, and the resulting boinging sound that it made echoes through the culture to this day, in the visual art of David Shrigley, the film and television drama of David Lynch, the music of David Bowie, and the work of many other people whose names happen not to have been David.

Now you can experience surrealism in all its mind-twisting, hovering-apple glory, as Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art One opens a summer-long retrospective, Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous, featuring over 400 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, artists' books and archival materials drawn from four major collections: those of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller, and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch.

Surrealism was an unusual art movement in that it had an actual founder and self-appointed high priest in the form of French poet André Breton. For all Breton's proclamations of surrealism's revolutionary craziness, he ruled over the movement with the hissy-fit-prone authoritarianism of Richard Briers's character Martin Bryce in the 1980s sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles. A born poet, Breton was also (like his sitcom counterpart) a born organiser, motivator and lawmaker who was always grumpily excommunicating people, and his eloquent paeans to heterosexual love should be weighed against his homophobia: he expelled the writer René Crevel from the movement because of his personal distaste for Crevel's bisexuality.

In spite of Breton, surrealism encompassed a huge range of artistic talent. Dalí, Miró, Leonora Carrington, Giorgio de Chirico, Man Ray, Picasso, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Yves Tanguy, Leonor Fini, Marcel Duchamp and Paul Delvaux all produced surrealist work at one time or another. And don't even get us started on the Belgian surrealists, who were to Breton's great annoyance a fiercely independent bunch that tended to view their French colleagues as snooty, uptight creeps. Belgium's René Magritte was probably the greatest surrealist of all, the painter whose work has the power and clarity to make the least visually sophisticated person stop and stare in astonishment. The poster image for the show is Magritte's La reproduction interdite, the artist's response to his patron Edward James's request for a portrait: Magritte painted James from the back, looking into a mirror in which he sees his own reflection, also from the back.

The exhibition looks at the ways in which collectors like James, Penrose, Keiller and the Pietzches assembled their collections, with the aim of giving us a fuller and richer picture of the movement as a whole. And when your mind has been suitably blown, there are family-friendly activities on Modern One's front lawn. Surreal Adventures is an enclosed park featuring a Magritte-themed slide, a distorted picnic area and some mysterious doorways. It hosts special family days on Sat 2 Jul and Sat 6 Aug, with free activities, surreal games (gotta try the Exquisite Corpse!) and storytelling. From Fri 19 Jul, the Pig Rock Bothy will be selling ice cream in a range of surrealist-inspired flavours (bicycle and pepper? Herring praline? Hopefully not too surrealist). Finally, the whole show is of course accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue.

Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is at Modern One from Sat 4 Jun–Sun 11 Sep.

Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous

  • 4 stars

A major overview of surrealist art, drawing from four of the biggest collections of it, those of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla & Heiner Pietzsch. Edward James was such a dedicated collector that he's actually in some of Magritte's paintings and Magritte is just one of the artists here…


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