There’s a note of irony in Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, the latest exhibition to open at NGV Australia. In the 1930s, the then-director of the gallery, J. S. MacDonald, was an outspoken critic of the Surrealist trend in art, famously declaring that works of the movement were by perverts and degenerates.
It wasn’t until a decade later that the NGV decided to accept donated works from the Surrealist tradition, including Sydney painter and poet James Gleeson’s now-iconic We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit.
While Surrealism is most often associated with European artists such as Salvador Dali and René Magritte, the movement’s impact on Australian art, from the early 20th century up until today, isn’t widely acknowledged.
After its European beginnings in the 1920s, Surrealism came to the fore in Australia at the end of the 1930s as the Second World War was looming. The movement was premised on channelling the “unconscious” and dream state into the conscious realm.
Showing until January 2016, Lurid Beauty marries well-known Australian artwork from the 1940s and 1950s with art by local contemporary artists who pay homage to Surrealism. The exhibition unites the likes of painter Gleeson and his 1940 work, We inhabit, with the haunting existential photography of David Noonan.
The most striking artworks in Lurid Beauty prove to be some of the least well known. While Gleeson, James Cant, and even a few items from the entertainer Barry Humphries occupy centre-stage in the first space of the exhibition, the artworks near the end are by far the most alluring and transfixing.
“Lurid Beauty provides an opportunity to look with new eyes at how Surrealism … ha[s] radically shaped the aesthetic terrain of today,” says NGV director Tony Ellwood.
Take Dusan Mark, a Czech artist who fled Europe for Australia, and his work Gravitation – The return of Christ (1949). His painting places a small metallic sphere at the centre of a desert landscape, cooling the harsh arid scene with the small mirror-like surface in its skyline. The artwork is a perfect intersection of the exhibition: a European artist injecting the surrealist teachings into an Australian dream-like landscape.
Local photographer Christopher Day’s work also builds on this tradition, overlapping images from the everyday into a layered collage of quiet chaos and disorder. In a work commissioned by the NGV for the exhibition called Untitled, Day digitises surrealist techniques, using dream-like images that bleed into each other. These overlapping photographs become hypnotic as they attempt to point out how over-saturated with media and images our world is today.
“Today it is impossible to imagine a world without Surrealist thought,” says NGV curator, Elena Taylor. “Surrealism provides new, transformative ways of seeing and being in the world … providing a reference point for encounters that shock us and stir our imaginations.”
Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes shows at NGV Australia in Federation Square until January 31, 2016.
The exhibition is accompanied by a richly-illustrated book featuring texts by artists including James Gleeson, Peter Ellis, Rosslynd Piggott, Barry Humphries and Tim Schultz, and a poem by Max Harris. Available from the NGV design store for $39.95.