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Monday, 26 September 2011

Brissie day trip turns surreal with great GOMA show

When I jumped in the car yesterday after a sleepless night seeking diversion, and drove 100km south to Brisbane's entertainment precinct, there to take in an art exhibition, I had no idea that Surrealism: Poetry of Dreams would be showing at GOMA. Or a Henri Cartier-Bresson show next door at the QAG. "There," I thought, "nothing like a solid dose of high modernity" to placate the spirits that had tormented me during the night and so I entered and took in the surrealism exhibition with years of exposure to the period under my size-42 belt.

I cannot say I was disappointed. The curators had done their work in bringing hundreds of artworks across the sea from France, labelling and hanging the pictures. And $20 is a small sum to pay for good editing. The crowds were a bit of a bore but nothing out of the usual for a major exhibition in any big city. No. What disappointed me was how small-scale and precious the works seemed, now, three generations on from the time when they had been created in Europe and, finally, in America. Everything seemed so precious, calculated and contrived. The shock of the new was accompanied by an unbreakable attachment to concepts of beauty that belonged to the past, and this collection of techniques served to drain the images of much of their impact. It's easier to change subject matter than to change your way of creating an image, I decided. And so when I saw the Jackson Pollock painting that accompanies this post, painted after many of the surrealists had taken themselves away from a turbulent Europe, in 1940, to the refuge that New York had become, I realised that the strength of the surrealist movement did not last long in the new world and that another, even more modern, movement was about to eclipse it and relegate it to the dry status of a historical moment.

Making these connections only after leaving the exhibition, I made my rounds looking at the careful colouring and painstaking brushwork of pieces from the 1920s and 1930s. Of course there were more-talented artists such as Miro and Ernst, but even here the attention to detail pales, now, in the light of the abstract wave that would come in America during the 1940s and 1950s, into insignficance. It's easy to make such comparisons after the fact (even abstraction can seem quaint, now), even while doing it in what was then a rural backwater with nothing even remotely approaching surrealism in terms of daring. It's easy to write off the gains made by these curious men and women in the light of what was to come afterward. But nevertheless it's useful to try to see the whole picture, as it were.

It was the right decision, my idea to drive down to the capital to take in a bit of kulcha. I got back in the car with a salmon sandwich and a chicken foccaccia for the ride home, turned onto the Go Between Bridge, and negotiated the Gympie Road as big drops of rain splashed onto the windscreen. They disappeared by the time I hit the Bruce Highway but I had the catalogue next to me on the passenger seat to peruse at greater length at some point in the future. If I start drawing again will I include nude torsos, eyeballs, or a melting clock in my frames?

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