Dr David Boyd Haycock is a freelance art historian, author, curator and lecturer. Haycock read Modern History at St John’s College, Oxford, before completing an MA in Art History at the University of Sussex, followed by a PhD in History at the University of London. His published work includes the books Paul Nash (2001) and A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War (2009).
Haycock recently curated the exhibition British Surrealism at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Marking 100 years since the birth of surrealism, the exhibition champions the British artists that contributed to the iconic movement with over 70 eclectic works from the likes of Leonora Carrington, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Ithell Colquhoun and Conroy Maddox.
Closed early (along with the rest of Dulwich Picture Gallery) due to lockdown, British Surrealism was scanned by the Net Gallery and remains available to view as a virtual walkthrough. We took the opportunity to speak to Haycock to learn more about the ideas and themes behind the exhibition, as well as some of the art on show.
The Net Gallery: How far back does your personal interest in surrealism go, and when did you first become aware of British artists working within the surrealist movement?
David Boyd Haycock: Surrealism was probably the first artistic movement I was really aware of – when I was about fourteen my grandparents had a print on their dining room wall of the 1937 painting ‘Swans Reflecting Elephants’ by Salvador Dali. I found it very intriguing and would spend a long time at meals studying it. Somehow that led me to the work of René Magritte and I found the whole image-play of surrealism fascinating and amusing and strange. A few years later I became more interested in British artists such as Paul Nash and Francis Bacon and their responses to the experiences of war – and it was only a few years after, when I was studying for my MA, that I discovered that they’d also been surrealists too. After Oxford I went to the University of Sussex, and I wrote my dissertation on British Surrealism and Neo-Romanticism under the supervision of David Alan Mellor.
That, ultimately, was the origin of the British Surrealism exhibition, which emerged from conversations with staff at the Dulwich Picture Gallery following my 2013 exhibition there, ‘A Crisis of Brilliance’. That exhibition included early work by Paul Nash, which led on to conversations about his role as a leading figure in the British Surrealist movement, and the suggestion that this could lead to an interesting exhibition in its own right. That’s one of the reasons we had Nash’s 1918 painting ‘We Are Making a New World’ in the show. Though painted before the ‘invention’ or discovery of Surrealism by Andre Breton, it reflected many of the themes and ideas that would be explored in this exhibition. I still think it is one of Nash’s most truly surreal paintings.
TNG: Can you give a sense of the stages involved in getting from the point of the initial concept through to realising the show, as well as any particularly difficult challenges that cropped up along the way?
DBH: The first stage in an exhibition like this one is preparing a ‘wish list’ of the works that one would really like to have – the real key pieces in British Surrealism – and then seeing if one can obtain them for the show! And this is the particular challenge, too – as certain pieces turn out to be unobtainable for various reasons. Sadly, one challenging moment was when a key supporter of the exhibition, the collector Jeffrey Sherwin, died suddenly shortly after we had visited him at his home in Leeds. Happily, his family agreed to continue his support of the show, and a number of works came from his collection.
TNG: How would you position the contribution of British artists to Surrealism, both in terms of how influential and important their work was within the international surrealist movement or tradition, and how they are perceived within the canon of British art?
DBH: There certainly isn’t really a British Surrealist as prominent in the public imagination as Dali or Magritte, and many people would probably find it quite hard to even actually name a British Surrealist. But many significant British artists were involved in the movement – the most famous being Henry Moore and Paul Nash, who were both active members of the surrealist movement in the 1930s, with Moore going on to attain international fame after World War Two – though the influence of Surrealist ideas upon his work is often forgotten. Two other artists with significant international reputations are Lucian Freud, who was active in the fringes of the movement in London in the early 1940s, and Francis Bacon, who had expressed a wish to exhibit with the British Surrealists at the International Exhibition of Surrealism in London in 1936. His subsequent work utilized various surrealist ideas.
TNG: Is there a piece in the exhibition that you particularly enjoy and what is it about it that interests you?
DBH: There are two particular pieces of British Surrealism that I have admired since the 1990s and which I was delighted to be able to have in the exhibition: Ithell Colquhoun’s Pine Family and John Banting’s The Abandonment of Madame Triple Nipples. They both seemed to combine all the best ideas of surrealism: they are at the same time weird, unsettling, confusing, ambiguous and amusing, whilst also being ‘good’ art – in the sense that they have been well produced, they’re a very fine painting and a very great piece drawing. If there were two works I could take away from the exhibition to keep they would be these.
TNG: How do you view the relationship between psychoanalysis and Surrealism? They deal with a lot of similar themes – such as dreams, the unconscious and our inner desires and emotions – but, as you’ve made reference to elsewhere, surrealist artists often resisted analysis of their work, with Conroy Maddox saying that, “By doing that you destroy a surrealist image.”
DBH: The relationship between Surrealism and psychoanalysis is absolutely key – I sometimes remark that Surrealism has three (yes, I know that doesn’t quite add up properly!) essential parents: Freud, Dada and the First World War. Their resistance to having their work analysed is indeed – when first looked at – a paradox. But I think Maddox is talking about his own analysis of the image: the work is open to (endless) interpretation by others, in the way that the analyst is able to interpret dreams in a way that the dreamer is not able to themselves. The interpretation thus comes from the viewer and not the creator.
TNG: Surrealism was perhaps one of the last big figurative movements in painting, developing in parallel to the emergence of abstract art. Figurative art has arguably seen a resurgence in recent years, though there is less sense today of new movements in painting, with painters tending to work within existing traditions, or adopting elements from different styles that appeal to them. Do you follow contemporary painting and, as a medium, do you think it has the same potential to shock, inspire and amaze as it did when Surrealism emerged?
DBH: I do follow contemporary painting and work with a Mayfair dealer who specializes in painting rather than any other modern media, and quite a number of the painters I have met through him have had some interest in Surrealism, and have seen it as having an influence upon them – though none by any measure would call themselves surrealists. I think the Postmodern agenda is that anything and everything is available to the artist. But the power to shock, inspire and amaze probably has been lost to a large degree from painting – though it is still possible in contemporary art, though rarely (I would say) by putting paint on canvas. In some ways it seems quite quaint the impact that paintings could have had less than a century ago.
Interview by Richard Unwin
You can view the virtual walkthrough of British Surrealism, scanned and produced by The Net Gallery, on the Dulwich Picture Gallery website, here.
The image at the top of the page shows the entrance to British Surrealism, taken from scan footage captured by The Net Gallery.