The word “Surreal” has become polluted over the past 80 years. It has almost come to signify the merely strange or nonsensical, applied as an adjective to anything from the LSD gibberish of 1960s psychedelia or the absurdist fantasias of Terry Gilliam to poorly thought-out juxtapositions in adolescent poetry. But Surrealism was never as simple as a collision of crashingly irrelevant images; that was far more the territory of its wayward father, Dada. The Surrealists attempted to represent the world of the subconscious, a dream-world of obsessions and constant metamorphoses. If the Cubist aesthetic can be described in terms of representing a single object from several viewpoints at once, then the Surrealists could be said to be trying to depict several images simultaneously in a single object. It wasn’t just a case of some artist saying: “Oh these’ll look weird together – ha ha ha.”

It being the 1920s and 1930s, the subconscious was inexorably tied up with the fetters of Freud – his name is prominent in André Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. And Freudian psychology is only concerned with one thing – “desire”. The ways in which desire manifested itself in Surrealism were as varied as the ways it manifests itself in the brain. Magritte’s iconic suited men, for example, are the very image of buttoned-up respectability behind which desire hides. More blatantly, Dalí’s work fairly throbs with phallic symbols propped up on crutches – a symbol of impotence – or conglomerations of ants forming shapes suggesting pudendae. Then there are Man Ray’s photographs of nudes, such as those contorting themselves around Paul Eluard’s poetry or the close-up study of Lee Miller’s bare chest – the latter gaining added resonance when the genital face of Magritte’s The Rape has burnt itself onto your retina. And more explicit still is Hans Bellmer’s The Doll, a jointed amputee sculpture supposedly deriving from his sexual obsession with his niece.

With these images of desire flowing directly from the subconscious, the head became another potent Surrealist symbol. The artists’ attempts to depict the interior landscape of the mind were given literal form in Dalí’s diptych Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds. In the case of the transgressive photographer Claude Cahun, her skinhead self-portrait Que me veux-tu? concerns itself with questions of identity, as the title suggests. For an artist with a wide range of self-images, two heads were clearly better than one.

The epicene photographer, who dyed her cropped hair pink or gold some 50 years prior to punk, is one of a number of more obscure artists employed to flesh out this show beyond the stock crew of core Surrealists. The fact that many of these are women – Dorothea Tanning, Toyen, Remedios Varo – betrays a certain gender agenda on the part of the curator, the usual attempt to “redress the balance” in a movement dominated by priapic males. The cynic would suggest that the reason these artists have been overlooked is that they are simply not as good as the masculine competition. The haunting images of Man Ray, Magritte, Dalí or de Chirico cast long shadows, and by comparison the work of a Tanning, say, seems messy and confused. Unfortunately, this standpoint rather crumbles when hypnotic photos such as Que me veux-tu? enter the equation – only the most curmudgeonly of critics could maintain that this double-headed Nosferatu was not worthy of inclusion in its own right.

First published in World of Interiors issue 228. Reproduced with permission.

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