Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes at NGV

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Greatest Hits, Melbourne, est. 2008, Gavin Bell, born Australia 1985, Jarrah de Kuijer, born Australia 1985, Simon McGlinn, born Australia 1985, Untitled 2012, taxidermied cat, electronic components, 40.0 x 21.7 x 34.0 cm (variable), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Yvonne Pettengell Bequest, 2014, © Greatest Hits

Optical illusions, exaggerated perspectives and maze-like rooms are integral to a provocative new exhibition Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, on show at NGV Australia.

This highly creative show in Melbourne is on view until January 31, 2016 and is sure to have the whole city talking.

At the preview fashion models dressed in surreal, experimental garments were unveiled alongside Barry Humphries ‘siamese’ shoes.

A taxidermy cat has its front leg raised, a weird salute, drawing attention to himself and the artist who gave it new life.

Surreal is a term we have all tossed off carelessly when endeavouring to put words to paper to describe something we often don’t understand or comprehend.

Curators have taken a thought-provoking approach, highlighting the ongoing vitality and power of Surrealist thought, which had its period of Genesis prior to World War I.

A collaborative effort between various departments of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the show highlights the influence of Surrealism on popular culture through the mediums of visual, performance, film and fashion as art.

It certainly reveals the breadth and depth of human ingenuity and expression in works that while strange are continually fascinating.

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Rosslynd Piggott born Australia 1958 High bed 1998, painted wood, metal, cotton, polyethylene, terephthalate, satin, mirrored synthetic, polymer resin, synthetic polymer paint, on existing walls, 370.0 x 200.0 x 230.0 cm (variable), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased, 2000 (NGA 2000.231.A-I), © Courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery

All art remains subjective; open to interpretation and how it affects human emotions. The structured hierarchical society of the nineteenth century had imposed straitjackets on art through its restricting values.

The style now known as Surrealism emerged during the 1920’s following World War I at Paris, followed by England, America and the rest of Europe.

Surrealism had an aim to resolve dream and reality began by calling on the unconscious to express itself through unnerving images, illogical scenes and strange creatures emerging from everyday objects.

Gender roles were also part of the original challenge. An exploration of woman in society meant that her lips, torso and reproduction areas inspired works that can still be confronting or playful.

A high bed on a plinth with a ladder to the top for instance, could be viewed as a stairway to heavenly dreams, to erotic adventures or indeed, a stairway to where your worst nightmares come true.

Times have changed and as bizarre as it may seem, its appeal in its most challenging images while limited, certainly has its champions. It could be likened to freedom of speech, without the words.

Like all art forms it has a central core with racial elements ranging left and right and Surrealism is entirely dependent on how you would like to view it.

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From the Dali-esque dreamscapes of Australian artist James Gleeson to hauntingly beautiful photographs by iconic photographer Max Dupain, the NGV show Lurid Beauty at NGV Australia Fed Square presents more than 230 works traversing painting, drawing, collage, sculpture, fashion, film and photography.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, said, ‘It is inconceivable to imagine a world without Surrealism. The rich legacy of the movement is pervasive not only in contemporary art, but also film, theatre and even advertising, showing its continued influence upon modern society’.

Two iconic objects of the surrealist movement we recognise are a Lobster Telephone and Mae West Lips Sofa created by attention seeking Catalan artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989). After World War II his grandiose ideas and outlandish behaviour was constantly headline making.

He relished shocking everyone and and compared to contemporary painters declared in 1960 “… I am the most big genius of modern time”. His skills were often likened to masters of art in days of yore were integral to his visual repertoire, including painting, sculpture and photography.

Dali Sofa

Mae West Lips Sofa designed by Dalí in 1937 on display at the Surrealism and Design Exhibition at the museum Boymans in Rotterdam in 2007, Robert Vos/EPA

Luxe was a style Dali comprehended and embraced, loving that he had a ‘romantic’ ancestry, his family descending from the Moors. He twitched and twirled his waxed, upturned mustache and for many seemed completely out of this world while inspiring the artists who admired his work and shared his vision.

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Anne Wallace, born Australia 1970, Talking cure 2010 oil on canvas 83.0 x 99.0 cm Collection of Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Brisbane, © Courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

It was the early 1930’s when Surrealism really hit Australian shores, where the Director of the NGV at the time loudly voiced his disapproval. Albert Tucker, James Cant and Roy de Maistre are just some of the Australian artists represented in the show and they are featured in a dialogue with key Australian contemporary artists such as Peter Ellis, Tim Schultz, Julie Rrap and Pat Brassington.


J. W. Power, born Australia 1881, lived in Europe 1906–43, died Jersey 1943 Head (Tête) 1930, oil on canvas, 110.0 x 63.5 cm, The University of Sydney, managed by Museum of Contemporary Art, Mrs Edith Power Bequest, 1961

Fashion collective Centre for Style testing the limits of wearable fashion has a tongue-in-cheek installation questioning the functionality of clothes with an array of avant-garde apparel; dresses with impractical, warped silhouettes displayed on tormented wire mannequins.

In one room entirely devoted to collage and juxtaposition, works by Australia’s earliest collagists Sidney Nolan and Carl Plate are on view alongside today’s surreal contemporary works by Zoë Croggon, Christopher Day and David Noonan

The art of surrealism as it evolved and its endeavours to realise imagery from the unconscious, and geometric abstraction, a logical art of precisely engineered rectangles, tilted planes and tensed wires, was a competition more of outlook than style, attempting to resolve the contradictory terms of dream and reality.

Belgian artist Rene Magritte (1898-1967) created some of the most widely recognised images associated with the style.

His Son of Man a self portrait with his face obscured by a green apple was painted in 1964, creating a conflict between that which is hidden and the ‘visible that is present’.

Surrealism became an integral part of a social revolution and like all movements in art had a golden age during the 1930’s with an exhibition at London was seen as one of the high water marks of the style and period.

Like all such movements Surrealism went to extremes of scandalizing viewers before pausing in the flames of World War II.

Advocates today who subscribe to the theory it transcends the arts, still champion surrealism as being dynamic and continually influencing thought.

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Peter Daverington, born Australia 1974, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh 2014, oil on canvas, 260.0 x 198.0 cm, © Courtesy of the artist and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne

Artists like Australian James Gleeson were inspired by the paintings of Salvador Dali and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. He encouraged audiences to look at the world in a different manner.

His initial responses to the violence of war, where human flesh and the earth were mutilated beyond sight are not pretty, often described as the ‘most terrifying’ in Australian art.

A trip to Europe and encountering the old masters did have an impact on his work as it evolved…

… quoted as saying ‘Having experienced the idea of man as the measure of all things, I began to deconstruct that concept and link up with earlier thoughts about man being limited. Gradually, the human form disappeared, as Gleeson came to believe that it could be adequately represented by ‘an arm, a hand, and eye’ he said.

At the height of Surrealism’s popularity progressive painters and sculptors knew they must exercise caution in how they adapted modern ideas.

There was a very real risk their work might become insular and parochial with radical and shocking imagery inspired by intellectual and philosophical ideas, including the theories of Sigmund Freud.

A creative environment fostered gritty urban-focused art that had and overriding aim to explore the concept or irrationality and it tested everyone’s limits

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Barry Humphries, born Australia 1934, lived in England 1959–Siamese shoes I 1958, remade 1968, leather, silk scarves, 26.0 x 10.5 x 54.0 cm, Private collection, Melbourne © Barry Humphries

In Australia the so-called Modernist art was virtually synonymous with the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), which had been formed to support all shades of visual innovation. By the early 1940s the CAS’s Melbourne, followed by Sydney and other branches, were troubled by the radical modernists and their Communist rivals.

Surreal RoomRadical modernists favoured shades of expressionism and surrealism, where-as Communists insisted art should press a political point, leaning toward social realism.

Surreal WomenLurid Beauty at the NGV Australia may not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ but will provide a centre of focus for a healthy creative exchange about what art is, or is not.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Works in Glass

Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes

National Gallery of Victoria
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square

9 October 2015 to 31 January 2016

The exhibition accompanied by a richly-illustrated publication features texts by artists including James Gleeson, Peter Ellis, Rosslynd Piggott, Barry Humphries and Tim Schultz. A poem by Max Harris is featured alongside scholarly essays.

Additional images by Carolyn McDowall



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