Following the much documented downfall of Surrealism as a movement we find numerous contemporary artists working in its idiom but few claiming to maintain its philosophy. However, considering instantly recognisable works of the celebrity Surrealists and the alienating strictness of André Breton nearby, it is perhaps unsurprising that Surrealism declined on the stage of thought and found its global audience as a visual style. Likewise, the necessarily fluid definition of Surrealism has guaranteed the spread of its influence but also confined meaningful discussion of its thought to academia and art history, nurturing the divide between stylistic and academic approaches to its art. On the whole it appears that the uncertainty that once characterised the spirit of Surrealism found compromise (or at least receded) in the wake of the popularity of artists like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, whose self-referential styles made them ambassadors for the movement despite their excommunication.
The risk posed to Surrealism by the emphasis of a visual style cuts away at its capabilities as a mode of critique or subversion, something that should be considered an essential element of its original depth and potential for re-working. After all, thought and literature were the founding sparks of inspiration for the young Andre Breton and short-lived Jacques Vaché, whose proto-Surrealism is one of an infinitely more interior nature when contrasted with the final paintings of Salvador Dali. Upturning the everyday and restoring fascination to the commonplace required continual revolution, and it is this that one can see in the highly varied works emerging at the time of the first manifesto. Saying this is not to fault the initial transition that Surrealism made into visual art, but to reconcile the radical thinking that was at the core of its literary beginnings and reconcile it with a quotable sense of style that has dominated many contemporary Surrealisms.
Perhaps such a reconciliation is wishful thinking when put into the contemporary perspective; Surrealism has been re-worked in tandem with the rise of media and is famed for its ease of transition into concretely un-Surreal arenas such as advertising. Nevertheless it is possible to find an attempt at such an idea in the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Czech polyglot and self-described Surrealist. In his most recent exhibition at Kampa Prague, Naturalia, Svankmajer embraces the terminology of his Surrealist ancestors and vocally gives credit to the methods of creation that were developed over the course of the original movement whilst managing to avoid any Bretonite allegiances or extremities. The extensive selection of works all in some way revive the marvellousness and scope of the Surrealist project for contemporary audiences, throwing a much needed new light on the idea of Surrealism in the art world today.
From the outset of Naturalia Svankmajer evokes the same collage mentality that stimulated the comic and uncanny works of Max Ernst and nearby Hannah Höch through the mode of the Kunstkammer – the cabinet of curiosity. In his usage, the notion of the Kunstkammer is extended to become a curatorial tool that specifically rejects any linear experience of artworks, demoting the role that chronology and biography traditionally play in retrospectives. The result is a menagerie of works that present themselves to you on the single predicate of miscellany; insisting on a freeform collection that seems more wistful than it does curated. Svankmajer’s willingness to skip the formalities of traditional curation highlights another element of his approach that is deeply in line with Surrealism, the revival of play.
Surrealists like Aragon, Souppault and Breton were all graduates of Zurich Dada and it is never hard to sense their element of playfulness is inherited from the outright ridiculousness that preceded it. Where they betrayed their heritage was in the systemisation of ludic subversion, putting parody as a means to societal reform rather than as a slap in the face. The Surrealists did less to laugh at the world around them than to theorise it and the underlying academia that came with this is what separates them most from the Dada. As if in response to this lineage Svankmajer provides his own practice of play that straddles the two, re-establishing the silliness of Dada spirit and keeping his work free of overarching judgements of the world. His nightmarish taxidermy and anthropomorphised agates are striking for their obscene proportions, impossible configurations and their general absurdity; but none are aggressive or political, and are instead born of the compulsion to repurpose and reassemble that was true to proponents of both movements.
While conceptual aspects establish Svankmajer as a Surrealist by nature, more explicit references to the history of the movement bring him into a palpable discourse with its incarnations over the years. Looking to the past as a thing to be transfigured is nothing new to Surrealists, and indeed one of Surrealism’s greatest departures from Dadaism was to willfully engage with an intellectual and artistic heritage that had become a vast and fertile source in the neglect of the Dadaists who insisted on starting anew. The following re-evaluation of literary figures like the Marquis de Sade and more immediate artists like Giorgio de Chirico fuelled critical discussion and creative frameworks but brought with it a tendency to create idols, confirming itself in visits to La Coste, letters to Sigmund Freud, and finally the worship of Marx. In this manner Svankmajer reveals some orthodoxy. His predilection for Sade, for example, is made very clear in Lunacy, employing ideas very much in line with Surrealists before him like Man Ray, de Chirico and Paul Eluard, all of whom portrayed Sade with a view to reframing ideas of insanity and amorality. However when Svankmajer looks beyond the unwavering idols of the movement he nurtures the founding impulses of Surrealism to work again by setting them to new grounds. The best known example is of course Alice, his jarring interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy world. Alice not only popularised Svankmajer by exposing many to a brand of Surrealism that was wholeheartedly cinematic, but successfully situated the story and its characters on new foundations characterised by the curiosity that first turned Surrealists to their past.
Maintaining a connection to these formative philosophies is essential to Svankmajer’s model of Surrealism. His appreciation for the movement can be noted everywhere in his work yet it upholds a tangible object oriented aesthetic that is arresting and uncomplicated. Because of this Svankmajer puts himself closer to the contemporary world by freeing himself of metaphysical statements and trusting the malleable but thoroughly material approaches that made some of Surrealism’s most intriguing artworks. The poeme-objet and collage are reworked by way of a readiness to borrow from recognisable and seeming vital visual sources; skeletons, fruit and rocks, reconfigured in a light-hearted and often humorous way. Svankmajer’s advantage is that he engages the tenets of Surrealism intuitively, in full knowledge that such techniques must never allow a unified aesthetic and yet be recognisable for their sur-reality against the conscious world around us.