How does one become a surrealist? By taking lots of drugs, I would have imagined, had I not seen Philippa Perry’s excellent documentary How to Be a Surrealist this evening. I adore the surrealist art movement, not just for its comparative accessibility, but for its fascinating philosophy. Perry’s frank yet informative approach to explaining surrealism saw her recreating Max Ernst’s rubbings and stripping off to be photographed by a neo-surrealist. It was, at times, hilarious, and at others very thought-provoking. There’s a lot to learn in this documentary, I expect that most viewers won’t have known half of the information that Perry conveys (I certainly didn’t). And that’s the interesting thing, despite surrealism being one of the most heard-of movements in modernism, it’s often recognised for the wrong reasons. It’s made clear in the documentary that Magritte’s bowler hats and Dali’s melted clocks do not embody the movement because they weren’t even hinted at in the original surrealist manifesto. The movement was originally pioneered by poets! I cannot deny that I’d learned a great deal by the end of the film.
Philippa Perry was the perfect candidate to present this witty and enlightening examination of the period. Not because of the fact that she is married to a well-known artist, but because she is an accomplished psychotherapist. The heavy emphasis the period places on dreams and the subconscious is quite clear, we learn, as Perry describes the Bureau of Surrealism from the comfort of Sigmund Freud’s armchair. I was enthralled to learn that there once existed an office where people passing by would pop in to divulge their dreams. How surreal! Perry’s recreation of this very bureau on a less than busy street was a well thought out and funny segment.
It is explained that the word ‘surrealism’ stems from the French phrase ‘sur-réalisme’ that can be translated as ‘beyond realism’. In this world beyond reality, it is customary for a man to have an apple for a face (The Son of Man – René Magritte), atypical that a woman should cry glass tears (Glass Tears – Man Ray), and, as an excuse for lateness, it is more than appropriate to say that “the clock melted” (The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali). The key to understanding surrealist art is by suspending ones disbelief.
I had no idea about the surrealists’ questionable attitude towards women. This discovery of Perry’s was incredibly curious. Nor did I know about the filmography of Man Ray. Philippa Perry presented this hour-long documentary in the original and open-minded spirit of the surrealists. It is, as a result, riotous fun. My favourite finding of hers about surrealism (that I will be remembering and applying) is that: “It isn’t a style. It is a philosophy.”