Surrealism and Scotland

Patricia Allmer (University of Edinburgh)

Gráinne Rice (National Galleries of Scotland)

Susannah Thompson (Glasgow School of Art)

Scotland has a distinctive heritage of engagement with Surrealism across a wide range of contexts. These include the University of Edinburgh’s appointment of Herbert Read as Watson Gordon Professor (1931-33); the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s key holdings of the Gabrielle Keiller and Penrose Archives and Libraries and strategic building of its surrealist collections; and a distinguished surrealist exhibition history, including the Society of Scottish Artists’ 1934 exhibition on ‘sur-realism’, the Royal Scottish Academy’s The Belgian Contribution to Surrealism (1971), and Max Ernst: The Sculptor (Edinburgh Fruitmarket, 1990). Scotland has also held major collection exhibitions, including The Edward James Collection: Dalí, Magritte, and Other Surrealists (1976), The Magic Mirror (1988, displaying the substantial surrealist holdings of Gabrielle Keiller for the first time), and Surrealist Encounters (2016). These have often been connected with Edinburgh’s Festival, another space of surrealist performances and manifestations.

Many Scottish (or Scotland-based) artists, curators, writers, and critics have aligned with Surrealism or intersected with it in various ways, including William Gear, Edward Baird, James Cowie, William Johnstone, Joanna Drew, Eduardo Paolozzi, and more recent and contemporary artists such as Steven Campbell, Moyna Flannigan, Maud Sulter, and Laurence Figgis.

This panel will explore some of these interconnections, and offer new critical and historical insights into Scotland’s relations with Surrealism and its traditions.

Speakers & Abstracts

Surrealism and its Heritage – Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh: A case study

Patricia Allmer (University of Edinburgh)

Art Schools and universities have been major influences on the historical developments of Surrealism in Scotland, through collaborations with cultural institutions, organisations and learned societies, teaching, research, student activism, publications, and scholarships and grants. The prominence of Surrealism in the shared history of Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) and the wider University of Edinburgh is evident from the appointment of Herbert Read as Watson Gordon Chair of Fine Art (1931–33), and from Eduardo Paolozzi’s studies at ECA (1943–44) and his 1996 visiting lectureship. Joanna Drew, a key figure in the dissemination of Surrealism in the UK, studied from 1947 on the ECA/University Fine Art course. Surrealism is also a long-established research and teaching area in the university, evident in academic staff’s extensive involvement in key Surrealist publications and exhibitions. Postgraduate scholarships enabled travel opportunities to foster what the artist William Gear called (in 1995) a distinct ‘Edinburgh–Paris axis’, and the ECA/University Fine Art Society ran activities including annual exhibitions – for example, the May 1936 show had a strong Surrealist focus, including works by René Magritte.

This paper will trace ECA/University of Edinburgh’s historical and contemporary engagements with Surrealism to offer a case study of the ways in which educational/academic institutions have perpetuated, contributed to and shaped historical and cultural developments within the field of Surrealism.

Three Scottish Surrealists: Sulter, Douthwaite, Flannigan

Susannah Thompson (Glasgow School of Art)

The legacy of Scotland’s engagement with Surrealism can be seen in the work of many recent and contemporary visual artists whose practices embody both the key characteristics and defining features of Dada and Surrealism while simultaneously symbolising aspects of Scottish culture and identity. In art, film and literature, ‘Scottishness’ is frequently bound up with associations of absurdity and dark humour, a cultural tendency towards interdisciplinarity (fostered by George Davies’ notion of the ‘democratic intellect’), and, in terms of subject matter and imagery, a fixation with the Glaswegian psychiatrist R. D Laing’s notion of ‘the divided self’: of the Scots as both enlightened and savage, the inventors of the modern world in thrall to base instincts and subconscious desires.

This paper will consider the work of three women active in the late twentieth century and beyond: Maud Sulter (1960-2008), a Scots-Ghanaian writer and photographer and two figurative painters, Pat Douthwaite (1934-2002) and Moyna Flannigan (1963 -). Of the three, only one (Flannigan) studied in Scotland, and the ways in which the individual works intersect with Surrealism are quite distinct in terms of style and form. But what unites these apparently disparate artists is a concerted interest in the representation of women and the use of Surrealist visual tropes to critique and destabilise conventional approaches to portraiture: the use of collage / montage; depictions of often disturbing and decontextualized objects and images; dream-like, irrational narratives, often exploring ‘transgressive’ sexuality; and fantastical, exquisite corpse-like juxtapositions, sometimes pairing elements of African and European art.  The work of these iconoclastic, latter-day Surrealists are both feminist riposte and homage to their art historical precedents. This paper seeks to trace some of the artistic intersections between Surrealism and Scotland through a discussion of key works by Sulter, Douthwaite and Flannigan.

Steven Campbell: Surrealist affinities

Gráinne Rice (National Galleries of Scotland)

This paper will consider the work of postmodern Scottish painter Steven Campbell (1953–2007) and his engagement with Surrealism and its legacies. The confusing, dream-like narratives in Campbell’s paintings can be read as an homage to Surrealist preoccupations with the subconscious, a revisiting of Levay’s notion of ‘modernism’s deep connections to popular and middlebrow culture’ (Levay 2013: 3).

In 1981, while a student at Glasgow School of Art, Campbell made a collaborative performance, Poised Murder, based around the true story of Surrealist cause célèbre Violette Nozière whose case of patricide was also the inspiration for ELT Mesen’s 1933 publication Violette Nozières. As an appropriative artist, Campbell continued to look to Surrealism for source material. Dense visual and literary references can be found in his work to Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas character, and to René Magritte, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst amongst others. Later, Campbell’s 2000–02 Psycho Rugs series of drawings and paintings is a synthesis of motifs borrowed from 1930s detective comics, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho and true crime stories. Campbell’s exploration of detection, crime and violence can be linked to a wider artistic interest in these subjects in the postmodern art and literature of the 1970s and 1980s. Through this paper I will consider whether Steven Campbell can be understood as a latter-day Scottish Surrealist and whether Campbell’s representation of crime and violence equals a continuation of a significant Surrealist concern.

The Spookier School: (Anti-)Surrealism in Glasgow (a contemporary artist’s perspective)

Laurence Figgis (The Glasgow School of Art)

This paper poses the question ‘What is Surrealism?’ from a particular vantage point: that of a practising artist who has lived and worked in Glasgow since the turn of the 21st century. Placing particular emphasis on two aspects of my painting and writing practice that might be called ‘Surrealist’ (the method of collage and the simulation of metamorphosis), I will consider my troubled relationship with the category ‘Surrealism’, as contingent on the specific trends of the Glasgow art scene during this period and the broader international context.

In particular, I will address a pervasive interest in the subconscious, dream imagery and the occult that suffused many Glasgow-based artists’ practices in the early 2000s (in opposition to the neo-conceptual genres that had placed prominent Glasgow artists on the international map in the previous decade). Whilst acknowledging the value of my research into the historical Surrealist movement of the 1920s–30s (for shaping a more rigorous understanding of categories and language relevant to my practice), I will also recount my frustrations with the movement (in both its avant-garde and pop-cultural manifestations): my doubt regarding the ‘revolutionary’ power of the unconscious, and my ultimate valorisation of ‘linear’ narrative thinking – even in the domain of the ‘fantastic’.




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