British Surrealism in Context: A Collector’s Eye: Leeds Art Gallery

Surrealist artwork seems to divide people in quite a pronounced fashion, often for quite obvious reasons. Personally, I often find the concepts are more interesting than the executions, although for those who are interested in painting but dismiss Dali I would always recommend viewing some of his paintings first hand. There can be little denying his technical abilities, if nothing else.

Anyway, I was curious to see what this collection of lesser-known works by lesser-known Surrealists had to offer in terms of providing a broader vista beyond the big guns who’ve been absorbed into popular culture (while also being interested to see the Magritte sketches being displayed). The exhibition is, in fact, a private collection being publicly displayed. Having attended an exhibition of Surrealist Art in 1986, Ruth and Jeffrey Sherwin became fascinated by what they saw, and they subsequently accumulated what is said to be the largest private collection of Surrealist art in the country.

So, like any personal collection, this exhibition reflected the owners’ tastes, and as such, it’s reasonable to anticipate a degree of homogeneity even if the individual has eclectic tastes. This is certainly true of the Sherwin’s collection. In itself, this is no bad thing, but many elements of the exhibition left me rather frustrated. For starters, it’s not brilliantly laid out – something which is true of much of Leeds Art gallery in general. It’s not even immediately obvious in which room – or rooms, for there are two, but the lack of signs doesn’t make this readily apparent either – the exhibition is in. The pictures are often cramped together, and the words that accompany them vary wildly in terms of the amount of information given. Worse still, many of the tags are poorly written, and are positioned in such a way as to be unclear as to which picture is which.

The area devoted to the ‘Bruno hat’ hoax was informative and well-executed, while the wall devoted to Conroy Maddox was perhaps the strongest and most interesting area of the exhibition in visual terms. However, the labelling system really didn’t correspond, with the number of pictures on the wall not even matching the number of labels. A small detail in many respects, but frustrating nevertheless.

Perhaps if I’d done more research in advance, I’d have been more aware of just how much Surrealist work has been produced in the last 30 years or so, but then, it’s nice to learn something new. Unfortunately, much of the later work is largely derivative, and is either too self-consciously ‘Surreal’ in its use of the juxtaposed and the incongruous, or veers into abstraction. Indeed, taken as a whole, the collection seems to illustrate precisely why the big names of Surrealism eclipse the rest so dramatically, and I’d include Desmond Morris in the list of those eclipsed. Henry Moore, meanwhile, was well-represented, but isn’t primarily associated with Surrealism, and, besides, his work isn’t exactly hard to come by in the North of England.

Still, another problem caused by the organisation was that some of the more significant pieces – such as Kurt Schwitters’ collage piece, which measures approximately 12” x 8” – were easily missed. Situated at the very end and by the door out, it’s both the archetype of Surrealism and remarkably contemporary-looking. However, beneath it is another small collage, very similar in execution, which happens to be an early work by Damien Hirst. It’s strange to think that one of these pieces is likely to have a value vastly greater than the other, particularly when considering that it’s the less original and significantly later piece that would command the higher price.

Pondering this on my departure, I was left feeling not so much disappointed, but mildly bemused by the exhibition as a whole. Which was perhaps only fitting.

The exhibition ends 1st November… but there’s always plenty going on at!

Posted in Art

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