Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes

The artists of the Surrealist movement attempted to ascertain the unconscious mind and transform its power through art. Australia soon felt the ripples of the movement as it travelled from France across Europe. The National Gallery of Victoria presents ‘Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes,’ an exhibition that explores the effects of Surrealism on Australian art and life. With over 200 works involving paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, fashion, films and photographs, ‘Lurid Beauty’ includes work by artists such as Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Max Dupain, Eric Thake, James Gleeson, Julie Rrap, Pat Brassington, Leigh Bowery and David Noonan. With eyebrow-raising tendencies, the Surrealist movement was considered to be the most controversial movement in Australia.

‘Lurid Beauty’ presents historical and contemporary works within specific themes and approaches including: the absurd, abject and neo-dada; automatic drawing; collage and juxtaposition; the biomorphic; feminism’s engagement with psychoanalysis; performance and display; dreams and nightmare imagery; the uncanny and the impact of war and trauma. There is a significant inclusion of contemporary artists in the exhibition and while many of them do not regard themselves as Surrealist, their work was selected based on approach and technique. Curators Elena Taylor and Simon Maidment explain, “We felt there was scope for ‘Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes’ to provide an opportunity to look with new eyes at how Surrealism, and the techniques and ideas it engaged with, have radically shaped the aesthetic terrain of today.” Although some spaces will focus on historical works, the curators explain that the exhibition will also present works thematically in trans-historical dialogue.

Communicating the scope and breadth of ‘Lurid Beauty’ was a challenge. The curators say, “The exhibition is not intended to be a chronological or encyclopaedic presentation of the history of Surrealism in Australia. While the arrival of Surrealism is certainly captured in the galleries and the accompanying catalogue in some detail, the exhibition is intended to flesh out the continued reverberations of Surrealism, and its concerns, beyond the historical moment to today.” A number of the works are visual mind maps filled with hidden or at times, overt symbolism. Works are bold, demanding and limitless. Various pieces fulfill the desires of their masters who have grasped and reproduced what they consider as the unconscious mind. James Gleeson’s painting, We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit, illustrates a landscape with ruptured and missing components. The painting resembles the workings of a dream, unclear yet precise, partially grasped yet partially lost. Gleeson has built a potentially peaceful world with a feeling that calamity is near.

‘Lurid Beauty’ provides an informative overview of the initial foundations built by the Surrealist movement in Australia. The curators say, “We think people will come away from the exhibition, or reading the catalogue, with an appreciation of the subtle, insidious and often unconscious influence of Surrealism. It is impossible today to imagine a world without Surrealist thought.” Ramifications of the surrealist movement are evident in many areas of contemporary art produced today. “Surrealism can be credited still with providing a reference point for encounters that shock us, make us marvel, and stir our imaginations, a movement of perverse pleasures so compelling that it reshaped our language around it. Whether seeing it for the first time, or being reminded of its depth, we anticipate people will be moved by Australian Surrealism, its legacy and influence.”

National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)
9 October to 31 January, 2016

Max Dupain, Australia 1911–92, Surrealist study, 1938, gelatin silver photograph, 45.9 x 35.5cm (image)
Purchased with the assistance of James Agapitos OAM and Ray Wilson OAM, 2007
Courtesy National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

James Gleeson, Australian 1915–2008, We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit, 1940, oil on canvas, 40.7 x 51.3cm
Anonymous gift, 1941. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne