The legacy of Surrealism

Ian CollinsSurrealism was one of the 20th century's most influential art movements – and now a new exhibition in Norwich considers the subversive legacy on current creativity.Ian Collins

Eighty-five years ago Surrealism was founded by angry and angst-ridden artists in the wake of World War One. How fitting that a year after the near-collapse of the global financial system a review of the planet-rocking movement has rolled into Norwich.

Then again the art of the surreal - of disconnected and disturbing imagery designed to open up a new way of looking and a new world of meaning - never really went away. It was annexed by advertising, to add another ironic dimension to an art form intended as revolutionary.

But the survey Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art - at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from today - certainly has the bite of the moment. Here everything appears to be coming apart at the seams.

Subversive Spaces challenges our experiences of the everyday world - and still more the everynight world - by linking vintage surrealists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico with sly and wry creators of today.

Home is where the heart-ache is - witness Lucy Gunning's celebrated image of 1993, Climbing Around My Room, giving a new take on the fairy-tale idea of the girl in the party dress who ends up on the shelf.

But the crashed and stashed figure in the red dress has fared rather better than the Man With A Newspaper in Ren� Magritte's cartoon-like sequence painting of 1928.

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There he is minding his own business top left in a dull interior, but then the room swallows him up and continues with its own empty existence as if he had never been there.

Furniture can have a devilish life of its own in the eerie photographs of Sarah Lucas - the Young British Artist now thrillingly relocated in middle age to a village near Eye.

Like Freud, the Surrealists were big on dreams and on sleep-walking - detecting true desire in the jumble of gobbledegook assembled by the slumbering brain and deep meaning in that nocturnal, sub-waking impulse to make for the lavatory and end up in the street.

Old Sigmund and his artful young admirers believed, for instance, that a dream of going up or down stairs equated to the sexual act. So unfair on healthily-sexed people who happen to live in bungalows.

I confess to seeing fabulous comedy rather than serious revelation here. But then I speak from hilarious experience.

Sharing a hotel room with my brother on the eve of his wedding, I was awoken by my bro leaping out of bed, grabbing the phone and shouting: 'Tell Alphonse he can parachute down now!' Goodness only knows what they made of that at reception.

Less amusing was when my grandmother gave chase as the young somnambulist headed for the river at Wroxham. But killingly comic was the room-sharing time when my sibling yanked my arm from under my sleeping head, pressed it hard and then screamed. 'My arm! My arm! I can't feel anything!'

Then, save for an element of comedy, is there anything more boring than other people telling you about their dreams?

Magical reality has always seemed less magical than reality to me. And those who think Magritte a wacky fantasist can never have been to Belgium (a crazy non-country with a pose of bourgeois respectability).

If, like mine, your car has ever conked out on a weekend midnight on Tombland you will have witnessed a surreal scene as the fine city of Norwich hosts The Fall of the Roman Empire, with young people who have somehow lost their wits and/ or their clothes apparently having the aim to fight or fornicate but happily being able only to groan and vomit in the gutter.

So the key theme in Subversive Spaces of wandering the city at night in the Thirties or in our own Naughties can be less disquieting than the real thing. At least in Brassai's glorious black and white shots of pre-war Paris, sex was mainly hidden in brothels while deserted streets exuded a glamour that was only faintly sinister.

Like my brother and his arm, I felt nothing when first pondering Robert Gober's Unitled of 1989-92. It's a leg sticking out of the wall at ground level, starting where the knee should be and extending in trouser, sock and shoe.

But then I suddenly thought of Ronald Blythe's Akenfield - that factual portrait of a Suffolk village, first published 40 years ago - and the farm labourer recalling the hell of the trenches, where the spirit of Surrealism was really born.

Bodies were stuffed into trench walls, until one poor soul's arm sprang out and stayed stiffly in the air. The living would shake the rigor mortised mitt and say 'Good morning!'

At that point of shocking recollection the whole of this show came alive.

Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, on the University of East Anglia campus, until December 13. (01603 593199; Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm (until 8pm Wednesdays). Combined admission with Justin Partyka's farm photos The East Anglians is �4, concessions �2. Entry to the permanent collection remains free.