Lurid Beauty, so the catalogue to the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition explains, “is an exuberant, and at times irrational, exploration of Surrealism and its echoes and repercussions in Australian art”. Some of the 250 works are only tenuously related to the original contexts and impulses of the Surrealist movement, and those “echoes and repercussions” seem at times decidedly faint. Yet Surrealism in Australia had moments of particular intensity that this exhibition manages to capture.
Surrealism emerged out of Dada, an aggressively anti-aesthetic movement created in 1916 in Zurich, where many political refugees had fled at the outbreak of World War One. Dada soon spread to other cities in Europe and to North America, and ultimately to Australia. Barry Humphries memorably introduced Dada to an easily shockable Melbourne public in the early 1950s. His work is fleetingly recalled in Lurid Beauty through such items as an anarchic manifesto and a famous pair of boots conjoined at the toes.
Surrealism was a more ambitious matter. For André Breton, a former Dadaist who formulated its manifesto in Paris in 1924, Surrealism was not merely a movement but an entire way of thinking, of transforming existence itself. The Surrealists were against war, Nazi repression, religion, conventional morality, and other concerns of the times. Influenced by Parisian literary figures such as Comte de Lautréamont and Rimbaud, and by Freud’s writing on dream interpretation, they used performances, demonstrations, meetings and lectures to explore new concepts of automatism, hypnotic sleep and verbal association. Pamphlets and periodical magazines such as Minotaure – published between 1933 and 1939, and included in this exhibition – were further outlets for their thoughts.
Surrealist painting was introduced to Australia in the early 1930s by Sam Atyeo and later by Eric Thake and James Gleeson. James Cant became involved in the movement during a stint in London; his Welcome to Empire Day (1938) and Surrealist Hand (c.1936) are both made up of disparate elements in characteristic Surrealist fashion. In the following decade, Surrealism was developed by artists who worked in the shadow of war: Sidney Nolan (a devoted reader of Rimbaud), Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester. All are well represented in Lurid Beauty.
But the associations with the historical Surrealist context are strongest in the work of refugees fleeing World War Two or its aftermath: Erwin Fabian, Vera Rudner, and Dusan and Voitre Marek. Fabian, a German Jew, had sought refuge in England before being deported to Australia and interned at camps in rural New South Wales and Victoria as an “enemy alien”. The agonised images in Fabian’s monotypes of 1941 – semi-buried bodies make up the blackened ground of Huts, Night, and demons occupy the skies in Mail – are a surreal fusion of charred, war-torn landscapes in Europe and final abandonment in Australia. They powerfully rework earlier Surrealist techniques and imaginings.
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