The Language of Dreams: Symbolism and Surrealism in 20th Century Art

CRAWFORD EXHIBITION ART REVIEW by Tara O’Malley-Brown

The Language of Dreams opened in Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery on the 2nd of October 2015. It explores Surrealism, an artistic movement started in the 1920s, which investigated the subconscious of the mind and the dream world.
It’s well known that the famous movement was mainly based in France, but did this movement affect Ireland? Were Irish artists influenced by the Surrealists? The Language of Dreams answers these questions.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a renewed interest in mysticism and storytelling in Ireland. In the 1930s, a great amount of Irish painters and sculptors travelled to France to see Surrealist work.
The exhibition showcases the influence of Symbolism, Surrealism and Photo-Realism on Irish artists. It examines how Irish artists dealt with “new ideas regarding creativity, the nature of reality and the hidden depths of the human mind.”
As you enter the exhibition, you are confronted with a wide open space. Paintings flank either side of the room. The paintings are grouped into similar subject matter. There is a large space in the centre to walk around. It is well lit with artificial lights and large windows at the back of the room.
The collection introduces several forgotten artists. A number of the artists in the exhibition were part of the White Stag Group, which was a group of British artists who were based in Ireland in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They were interested in “Subjective Art.”
One such artist is Basil Ivan Rákoczí, who led the White Stag Group in the 1940s. He explored the subconscious in art. Basil Ivan Rákoczí’s painting Resting by the Shore (1975) is one of the first paintings you encounter when you walk into the exhibition space. Resting by the Shore depicts a woman lying on the shore in the foreground with a boat in the background. It is blurred and has a dreamlike quality. The influence of Surrealism on this painting is clearly evident. However, Rákoczí has given his own style to it.
A painting of a similar theme has been placed beside it. Hilda Roberts’ Kneeling Nude with Fish (1927) relates to the sea. It portrays a nude on white steps, around the nude is a swirl of blue waves and hidden in the waves are fish. It is as if the nude depicted is caught up in a dream.
Works by Salvador Dali: Four Dreams of Paradise: Romantic (1972) and by Giorgio de Chirico: Il Trovatore (1960), are interspersed within the exhibition. As two artists closely associated with the Surrealist movement, they serve as key comparisons to their Irish counterparts. At the top of the room, there is a selection of paintings by Gerard Dillon. Gerard Dillon was a figurative Irish artist. In his paintings you can see a European influence but he combines it with the Irish landscape. A good example of this is The Black Lake (1940) which depicts a rural landscape. A very two-dimensional piece which uses blocks of colour.
There is also one sculpture in the exhibition: Woman in a bomb (1974) by F.E. McWilliam It is an impressive but small sculpture in bronze, at about waist level and you can walk around it. It depicts a thin woman who is falling and her dress has blown up on her face. It is fanciful and imaginative.
Another notable painting is Bon Voyage (1976) by Colin Middleton. Bon Voyage is very similar to Giorgio de Chirico’s work. Its subject matter is strange and fantastical. It is extremely Surrealist in comparison to the other paintings in the exhibition. It depicts a woman being carried by a cube. She attached by a string and wears a check dress. It is surreal and dreamlike.
In the lower gallery, there is a film called the The Door Ajar (2011) by Patrick Jolley being shown from the 19th of October 2015. This film relates to the exhibition. It shows the journey of Antonin Artaud to Ireland to find the lost staff of St. Patrick. It depicts his journey in a surreal and hypnotic way.
The Language of Dreams shows the progress of Irish Surrealist art alongside European artists. It also focuses on the individual stories of these artists. However, its main focus is on the relationships between these artists and how they shared new ideas. It highlights that Irish artists of the 20th century were aware what was going on around them and what was happening in Europe. It has a good selection of artists and different mediums.
There is not a huge amount of text in the exhibition but this good because it allows the visitor to make their own observations and judgements. The visitor can appreciate the paintings on their own or can read the catalogue and explore the stories.
The Language of Dreams is open to visitors of the Crawford Art Gallery until the 6th of February 2016.