Sunday, 28 March 2010

British Surrealism

Why wasn't Surrealism popular in Britain? With this question Gists and Piths begins its survey of the British movement. The question is the right one, but the answers are not to the mark, relying a little too much on Herbert Read. Some alternative explanations could be:
  • Britain didn’t need it
  • A more relaxed literary culture
  • No equivalent of the Catholic Church in British life
  • Breton didn’t speak English.
  • Communism always a minor cult
I explore this topic a little more here.

Gists and Piths begins its series on British Surrealism by asking why didn’t it take off in this country. It’s the right question, though the answers given are inadequate: to blame a national distrust of Romanticism is to mix up audience and practitioner. While the conversion of British Surrealists to politics and religion, or a different version of Modernism, doesn’t explain why so few British artists became adherents. 

Why did Surrealism lack appeal?  Here are five possible reasons:
  • Britain didn’t need it: it had its own tradition of fantastic literature
  • The national culture wasn’t restricted by a rigid Classicism; at breaking point, it is true, in France by the early 20th century
  • There was no equivalent of the Catholic Church in British culture at this time: dogmatic and still politically and culturally powerful
  • Breton didn’t speak English.  Important, because Surrealism was Breton
  • The Marxist/Communist ideology much weaker in Britain
However, the issue is wider than Surrealism, for in the early years of the 20th century Britain stood somewhat to the side of European Modernism, and Surrealism reflects this detachment.  Of course, two of the most important poets were in England, and one, Eliot, could at a pinch be compared to the collagists of Dada, though his fragments were much more highbrow.  But they were not English. So why, given England’s economic and political power, was she not driving the artistic Avant-Garde, as one would expect, like America after World War Two?

This is an even more difficult question to answer than the first one.  A tentative explanation may be found in the nature of Modernism itself.   This was an attempt to deal with the ruin of Christianity; the wreckage of its ideology and iconography (and many of the factions of Modernism were utopian projects fusing politics and art).  On the continent the demand for this revolution was more immediate, and the results more radical: eg. the dominant status of the Catholic Church in conflict with its epistemological irrelevance; the fragility of the new nationalisms, particularly in Germany and Italy.  From out of these pressures and conflicts Modern art tried to create a Modern religion.

In Britain there wasn’t the urgency.  The old Whig interpretation of British history has many faults, but it does capture the gradualism of Britain’s entry into the modern world.  So, by the late 19th century as a culture it had come to terms, to a far greater extent than elsewhere, to the decline of Christianity; replacing it by a mild secularism.  It didn’t need the Sturm und Drang of European revolution, either in politics or the arts.  And thus, it didn’t have them.

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