November 22, 2012
It is often held that to many non-Indigenous Australians there is an intensely surreal quality to our being in this land – an ancient land full of mystery and magic upon which, even after many years of colonisation, we find ourselves somewhat perilously situated. We may love our country but we generally turn away from the centre and cling to the shore, snuggled cosily (or not so comfortably) in suburbia.
It was the Surrealist paintings which expressed the weirdness of our presence in this land, especially those of Jeffrey Smart.
Jeffrey Smart, Playground (Children playing), 195, oil on canvas
It is not just the Australian outback which can be perceived as surreal. Jeffrey Smart has shown us that there can be a sense of menace in our everyday streets in suburbia – in the haunting quiet of a playground.
According to Elena Taylor at the Australian National Gallery there was no organised Surrealist movement in Australia; its importance lies in the fact that some of Australia’s leading artists were influenced by Surrealism at a formative period of their careers.
In Adelaide, Surrealism crystallised around the precocious poet and intellectual Max Harris. In 1940, while still a student at the University of Adelaide, Harris had established the literary journal Angry Penguins. Harris declared himself an anarchist and a Surrealist, and the second issue of Angry Penguins featured a reproduction of Ralph Gleeson’s Surrealist painting Images of spring. Taylor says:
Ivor Francis was Adelaide’s most prominent Surrealist painter. Around 1940, he met Max Harris and began his own investigations into Surrealism. Francis was also greatly inspired by Harris’s writing, particularly his Surrealist novel The vegetative eye of 1943. Investigation, scientific or otherwise, of matter without form 1943 employs a nightmarish dream-imagery to suggest the fate of man at the mercy of psychic forces.
She adds that Adelaide soon received another adherent of Surrealism. Dusan Marek arrived in Adelaide in 1948 after fleeing the communist regime in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Marek had studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in Prague where his teachers included Frantisek Tichy, a supporter of Surrealism.