Surreal Encounters at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh

Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous brought together some of the finest Surrealist works of art from four legendary collections, those of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. The ways that Surrealist art had been collected display many of the idiosyncratic passions of Surrealism itself. The exhibition examined the different impulses behind these four extraordinary collections presenting a fuller and richer picture of the Surrealist movement as a whole.

This was a most engaging and thought provoking exhibition. There is an awful lot to take in. For someone who is not a natural follower of surrealism I found it fascinating to see the how the support and influence of Penrose and James was so critical in maintaining the movement’s momentum in the 1930s. Penrose in particular was actively promoting their work in London. Each collector in their own way has contributed to sustaining this most individual of art movements.

Surrealism started out in literary form, which is well documented in the exhibition. In respect of the artists I find the very intellectual approach to making the art somewhat off-putting as I see little or no emotional balance in the imagery, which I appreciate is my problem and no-one else’s. I tend to look at art intuitively and surrealism doesn’t allow me to engage in that way. This on one level makes the exhibition quite a challenge and I found myself reading the wall labels carefully in order to follow the narrative. However after about a third of the way through I couldn’t take in any more information. Unusually for me I decided to buy the catalogue which will allow me to catch up in my own time.

On the plus side it was a tremendously comprehensive show taking up the entire ground floor of Gallery ONE. There were those one expects to see – Ernst, Magritte, Tanguy, Dali –hanging alongside others whom I wouldn’t have thought of as being connected, Picasso being the standout example. Delvaux is included though he didn’t consider himself a Surrealist. I found it best to view the works for their own sakes and not get too concerned in the moment to grasp the thinking behind each one. The visual games are a wonder, whomever the artist or whatever the medium. As I progressed through room after room of mind bending imagery, Dali’s Mae West Lips Sofa came as light relief.

This is a milestone exhibition and I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If you missed the show in Edinburgh it will be at Hamburger Kunstahalle, Hamburg from 7 October to 22 January, and then at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam from 11 February to 28 May 2017. Museum Boijmans is a major lender to the exhibition, its collection clearly of equal importance (if not more so) to the SNGMA collection in keeping Surrealism alive in our consciousness.