Wig Stall, Petticoat Lane – Nigel Henderson, 1952 © The Henderson Estate
Surrealism and photography in England
The exchange between Surrealism and photography is usually understood in terms of such formal innovations as solarisation, the rayograph, or photomontage. But Ian Walker’s So Exotic, So Homemade makes the case instead for the importance of documentary photography to the Surrealist movement in England.
Given the historical span of his survey it is not surprising that Walker acknowledges at the outset the fluidity and instability of the three terms that structure his account – Englishness, Surrealism and Documentary – and he advises that they are only loosely defined, functioning as “suggestive possibilities” rather than “absolute categories”. “Documentary”, for example, is understood to include landscape pictures and family snapshots – unburdened by explicit social content or reformist intent. “Englishness” is, where appropriate, understood in relation to a culturally defined sense of space, be it “Deep England” of the rural south, the industrial north, or the metropolis, London. And Surrealism, arriving belatedly in England in 1936 – after groups had already formed in France, Belgium, Catalonia, Rumania, the Canary Islands, Czechoslovakia and Egypt – is considered here mainly free of the militant programmatic commitments that had animated earlier manifestations elsewhere. As Walker states, this is not a study of English Surrealist photography, but an examination of the shifting historical relationships between them.
Walker’s work builds on ground prepared by his earlier volume, City Gorged with Dreams, which explored similar concerns (Englishness excepted) in interwar Paris. Both “So Exotic” and its predecessor stand as a rejoinder to those who have promoted the formal innovations of the rayograph, solarisation and photomontage at the expense of the Surrealist mobilisation of documentary photography. “It seemed to me”, he writes, “that there was a glaring discrepancy in the way that Surrealist photography had been discussed…in that the photographic document and its cousin documentary photography had been left out of the picture.” The paradox Walker unpicks is that photographic realism, could be used to describe the surreal. The ordinary could be made to yield the extraordinary, or as Mass Observers Charles Madge and Tom Harrison put it, “the drab and sordid features of industrial life will take on a new interest”.
Towards the end of the book, Walker indicates that his account is both “partial” and “fragmentary” – “the elements here cannot be forced into a unity”. This is an acknowledgement again of the mutability of the categories and relationships he is charting – nowhere more apparent than in the photography of contemporaries Paul Nash and Humphrey Jennings. In the case of Nash for example – described once as a “dubious guest at the surrealist party” – Walker is able to demonstrate how his photographs can be read as expressive of mystical, insular and Neo-Romantic interests, and yet still be compatible with a materialist, international and Surrealist outlook. The case is made by reference to Nash’s “Monster Field” pictures of uprooted elm trees (photographed in Gloucestershire towards the end of the 1930’s) which function as objets trouves in a “sort of no man’s land” that Walker compares to the (determinedly urban) terrain vague favoured by the Parisian Surrealists.
By contrast, Humphrey Jennings’ reading of Surrealism resulted in a photography (as far as we can tell, from the little that remains) that explicitly favoured the man-made, the urban and the everyday over content suspected of harbouring Romantic affiliations. In a review of Herbert Read’s volume “Surrealism” he wrote: “To the real poet the front of the Bank of England may be as excellent a site for the appearance of poetry as the depths of the sea […] to settle surrealism down as Romanticism is […] to look for ghosts only on battlements.” Jennings sought his ghosts in Bolton on a rainy day, in nondescript cul-de-sacs and on graffittied walls. Again in contrast to Nash, his was a practice that was resolutely group-based and committed to the exploration, not of the individual psyche, but of the “collective unconscious”.
There is much else besides. “So Exotic” divides between thoughtful and subtle individual case studies – of the work of Paul Nash, Eileen Agar, and Roland Penrose with Lee Miller – and more general, equally convincing, essays on the relationships that inflected Surrealist representations of the north and the Blitz. Walker’s analyses are perceptive and considered; and the case he puts forward for the importance of documentary to Surrealism, and vice versa, is cogently made. A final chapter recapitulates the marginalised trajectory of Surrealism during the ”post-war period” with reference to the work of Nigel Henderson, Tony Ray Jones, Martin Parr and Susan Hiller, amongst others.
Published by Manchester University Press
This is an edited version of a review that first appeared in The Art Book magazine.