Perhaps I've grown up looking at too many poor imitations on 1970s prog-rock album sleeves, but even Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte look like 'commercial' artists to me now!
But I do like me some MAX ERNST or MAN RAY. I think those artists were closer in spirit to the dADa//mErZ of the sainted Kurt Schwitters. You can't beat a good collage (or photomontage) for creating a REAL surREAL image. Sir Roland Penrose (1900-1984) worked closely with these artists.
Looking at this show, much of his own work left me fairly cold, for the above reasons. Sorry, but all I saw were album sleeves! I did enjoy his collage pieces, but only because they were so clearly 'influenced' by Ernst and Schwitters. I think it is as an art CATALYST he deserves to be remembered. As coordinator of the First International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, he was responsible for bringing surrealism to this country for the first time. He studied with and befriended many of the greats (Picasso, Man Ray, Miró, Eluard, Ernst) and brought their influence to the "English" school. He wrote the "Home Guard Manual of Camouflage". He founded the ICA (Institute for the Comtemporary Arts, in London). He curated the Tate's Picasso exhibit in 1960. The Sussex farmhouse he shared with LEE MILLER (an influential figure in her own right), became a meeting place for some of the key protagonists in 20th century art. He wrote the definitive biographies of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. It is for these reasons that he is IMPORTANT, rather for the quality of his own work.
In fact the most fascinating part of the show were the PHOTOGRAPHS: some of them recording the artist himself at work; some delightful 'snaps' of the visiting artists letting their hair down; some pictures that would later inspire larger works; some photographs that were ART in their own right. Penrose and Miller were both very good photographers indeed (aah! black and white!) and had picked up a few tips from Man Ray along the way. Lee Miller had been a fashion model before turning to photography herself, eventually becoming Man Ray's pupil and lover in Paris. (I would like to cover this page with examples, but there are copyright restrictions. Many of the photographs in the show can be seen on the websites linked here.)
Other artists represented in the show included Eileen Agar, Cecil Collins, Merlyn Evans, Ceri Richards, John Tunnard and Paul Nash. Of the paintings in the exhibition that I thought still stand the test of time, I liked the organic looking pieces by Edith Rimmington, including her "Prophylactic Sea-Mouth", Conroy Maddox' Dali-inspired works (these still look like they belong on Italian record sleeves, mind you) and the cute little Miró-esque "biomorph" creatures depicted by Dr Desmond Morris. I especially liked the big blue triptych "The Gathering", in which a variety of little critters do exactly that.
In this country, 'those of a certain age' will best remember Morris as the zoologist who presented teatime telly's "Zoo Time" in the early 60s. But he was an important figure in British art, having been director of the ICA. He was responsible for showing the collection of Max Ernst sketches and drawings in 1976(?), a show that I well remember visiting when I was at art college. He is also famous for his work with the chimpanzee artist Congo, whose paintings were shown at the ICA and even found their way into Picasso's own collection. A video of Congo at work, and several of his pieces, occupied a small room at this gallery.
All veeerrrry interesting of course... but no visit to Southampton would be complete without spending a while immersed in the Pre-Raphaelite collection for which the City Gallery is so rightly acclaimed. Currently they are showing some BIG pictures by Edward Burne-Jones - his series depicting The Story of Perseus, (click that link for a website-full of nice reproductions) suitably exhibited in the Baring Room, a sombrous, oak-panelled Victorian gallery. Yummy.