British Surrealism

George Melly in anarchist quarterly The Raven, Vol 1 Number 3, November, 1987.

Gentlemen First

Much as it grieves me to agree with Franklin Rosemont (his book on Breton was a hideous piece of hagiography), I must admit there is a great deal of truth in what he says about British Surrealism.
It was ineffectual. It did not consist of an effective ‘movement’. Its adherents were thoroughly confused as to its meaning. It held people until they were offered something unacceptable to it (eg. Henry Moore’s ‘Madonna and Child’), whereupon they left it immediately. Not only Herbert Read but Roland Pensrose accepted knighthoods – in fairness, it is impossible to imagine Breton wearing the Légion d’Honneur, etc., etc.
The question is: What stopped Surrealism from taking root in Britain?
Rosemont suggests individualism as the reason – the usual explanation. But he is rightly a ltiile tentative as to whether this alone is enough to explain its failure. I propose the following additional causes:

(A) English Protestantism

Surrealism nneded Catholicism to work effectively. That is why France was its true home and Spain its powerhouse. Its atheism was central to it. You can’t profane the Host without transubstantiation. No point in jumping on a piece of ordnary bread or pissing in admittedly inferior wine! It is interesting that David Gascoyne, this country’s most commited Surrealist, should have become religious. The rest remained gentlemanly freethinkers.

(B) The non-existence of cafes
Yhis may seem frivolous, but it is not. Pubs are hopeless settings for the exchange of ideas; restaurants too formal. The British Surrealists tried both and found them wanting. The cafe was surrealism’s natural theatre.

(C) Timing
The great ‘heroic’ years of Surrealism were from 1924 to 1930. The movement didn’t reach here ubtil 1936! This enabled highbrow critics to dub it ‘old hat’, for high society to patronise it as ‘amusing’. Even in France by this date there was much that was suspect – Minotaure had replaced La Revolution Surealiste etc., but here it started out as a sensation, a joke.

(D) No Breton
The paradox of the movement was that, devoted to total freedom, its long life can be put down to Breton’s imposition of his own view as to what Surrealism stood for at any given time. Aragon remarked slily that ‘Andre always gave the impression of being in a majority of one.’
Here in Britain the leader of the movement was my much loved, much missed friend, E. L. T. Mesens, a Belgian. Intelligent, an admirable poet and collagist, he just didn’t have the muscle to act as legislator. If he tried to institute a Surrealist commandment, those it would affect adversely just left. Jacques Brunius, a Frenchman of great charm, stood in, as it were, for breton’s Peret.
I attended many of the later meetings of the group. They were rowdy, good fun, even challenging, but they achieved nothing.

(E) Yes, Individualism
The British are bad at collective action. In some cases, it is just as well they are!
Edward Burra, for example, in my eyes the most genuine ‘Surreal’ painter we’ve had, left almost as soon as I’d joined. When I asked him why, he explained, ‘I didn’t like being told what to think, dearie!’

The war finished Surrealism in Britain. The nation turned in on itself; neo-romanticism became the measure of our insular preoccupations. You couldn’t give away Surrealist paintings until time tuned them into ‘investments’.
There was a revival of interest in the ‘mechanism’ of Surrealism in the 1960s, but none in its rigorous programme. A few people did try to keep it alive as a movement. In particular, grumpy but endearing John Lisle in Exeter achieved the authentic tone of breton in orchestrating quarrels and declaring excommunications. He was, however, as Mesens described him, ‘a general without an army’.
Mesens, by the way, had his own explanation of the movement’s failure in this country: ‘The English are always gentlemen first, Surrealists scond.’

George Melly

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  1. Pingback: Surrealism | standupandspit

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