(Blogpost) Modern British Art: Real or Sur-real?

Do you ever feel a bit perplexed by modern art? Do the many “isms” and “schools” leave you feeling more confused than enlightened? Or do you get all that, but crave more information about the specifics? If your answer to any of these questions is YES, then you’re in the right place!

Here at Art on Tour we’ve been doing some work to detangle the beautiful and befuddling world of modern British art. A virtual exhibition, Modern British Art: A Story, explains the ins and outs of some of British art history’s defining moments through artworks from Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Alongside this, a series of blogposts expand on some of the exciting groups and movements covered in the exhibition.

As is the case today, 20th century art is littered with lots of different ideas running alongside each other, and the movements covered in today’s post are no exception. In fact, Realism and Surrealism pretty much represent opposite ends of the scale…

Desmond Morris, The Mysterious Gift, 1965

Surrealism was an artistic, literary and philosophical movement, which emerged in France in the mid-1920s, and was influenced by developments in theories of the unconscious. Its artists embraced the idea that art did not need to be shaped by reason or aesthetic judgements, and they enjoyed creating artworks and objects which were unexpected, uncanny and unconventional. Surrealism was predominant until around 1945, though some believe that it did not truly end until 1966, when its leader André Breton passed away. Many agree Surrealism still has a profound influence on art today.

Desmond Morris was born in 1928, and emerged as a surrealist painter in the 1950s, exhibiting with the famous Spanish surrealist Joan Miro in London and writing and directing two surrealist films. Now in his 90s, Morris has referred to himself as “the last living Surrealist” and continues to paint in a distinctive surrealist style, characterised by biomorphic forms within ambiguous landscapes.

The Mysterious Gift is an early example of Morris’ surrealism. It presents an unusual still life, with a vessel balanced disconcertingly on a bone-like support. It contains egg-like naturalistic objects and an indistinct bodily form.    

The origins of Realism go back to the mid-19th Century, when artists began to draw their subject matter from the everyday; such as nature, urban scenes or working class labour. Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries a whole host of other movements erupted throughout Europe, but Realism has always had staying power.

The Euston Road School was a British realist group, which consisted of artists who taught and studied at the School of Painting and Drawing at Euston Road in London. Founded in 1938, its teachers encouraged observation and social relevance, and stood against the spectacle of Surrealism. Though brought to an end by the outbreak of war, The Euston Road School demonstrated a strand of art that went against new developments in abstraction, and advocated direct study from life.

Lawrence Gowing, Portrait of a Youth (Alfie Bass), 1939-41

Lawrence Gowing was a student and friend of one of the school’s founders William Coldstream, whose extremely measured approach to painting the figure became infamous. Portrait of a Youth, which depicts the emerging actor Alfie Bass, demonstrates Gowing’s close observation of his sitter, whom he depicted many times and in several poses. Yet its small size and intimate cropping, combined with the relaxed expression of the sitter, also demonstrate Gowing’s general desire for closer involvement with his subject matter.

Though Realism and Surrealism presented very different visions of the world, they both remain extremely important to artistic practices today. Next time a piece of art catches your eye, it might just be worth asking yourself whether its born of observation, or something a little less conscious…

Don’t forget, if you fancy learning more about Swindon’s collection and the bigger picture (get it?) of modern British art, you can visit the exhibition and/or read the other posts (below) if you haven’t already! You can also hear more about surrealist art in Swindon’s collection by listening to Episode 27 of Art Snaps, A Sense of the Surreal.

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

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