Dreams and Nightmares – British Surrealism on Show

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons
Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons

Surrealism was an art movement that merged dreams with reality. It held that the unconscious mind was the source of artistic creativity and its aim was to liberate art from the constraints of rationalism and realism.

Dream-like visions, and paintings as windows into strange worlds, are the hallmarks of a movement which is often thought of as European – where major figures such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte tend to take centre stage.

But there were many British surrealists – albeit less well-known – who produced fine examples of the movement. Some 70 of these are now on show at Dulwich Picture Gallery’s British Surrealism exhibition which brings together the work of 40 artists and traces the movement from its roots to its conclusion in the 1950s.

Surrealism was a revolutionary movement. Established truths, traditions and conventions were up for grabs as artists explored the themes of war, sexual desire, radical politics and the macabre, and tried to create a new way of seeing the world. The exhibition is organised around these themes.

Sam Haile Woman and Suspended Man

It also explores the origins of surrealism and includes items from as far back as 1783. Great works such as Fuseli’s Macbeth and Paul Nash’s haunting and bitter We are Making a New World put surrealism in a historical context. Among these “ancestors of surrealism” is the not-to-be-missed Head of a Damned Soul by William Blake.

My personal favourites include John Tunnard’s Magnetic Field painted in 1945 and rather like a wind tunnel of shapes and planes. Edward Burra’s Blue Baby, Blitz Over London is an extraordinary vision of the blitz as a blue devilish figure looming over the city. And don’t miss F E McWilliams’ sculpture, Spanish Head, which captures the agony and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War.

Surrealism had its dark side, and there are nightmares as well as dreams in the exhibition. But there is much to enjoy. Flights of fancy, whimsy, absurd visions, and leaps of imagination are in abundance to engage, amuse and provoke.

The exhibition runs until 17 May in Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, SE21 7AD. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. £8 – £16.50.