Landscape from a Dream

It’s often been observed that surrealism was the principal twentieth century art movement that seemed to have a natural resonance with the English imagination. Paul Nash perhaps epitomises this, with his Blakeian emphasis on seeing the universe in a grain of sand, and reconciling English landscape painting with the sense of the uncanny in Magritte and De Chirico. As I’d never seen much of work I was interested to hear that Dulwich Picture Gallery were mounting an exhibition thereof. It’s an odd mixture of opposites. In some, like Angel and Devil and Solstice of the Sunflower mythological scenes are placed out in the English countryside. In others, the landscape is unpeopled and the allegorical content may be entirely absent or implied in the manner of De Chirico. In some, very specific places like Wittenham clumps are depicted. In others, place seems to corrode altogether, as in Three Rooms or Nostalgic Landscape. It slips between the universal and the particular rather unpredictably.

Afterwards, I walk on to the Horniman Museum. This is somewhere I wanted to go for a long time. The place does rather betray its Wunderkammer origins in spite of its progressive evolution into a more formalised museum. The odd inclusion of a German Apsotle clock in the Natural History Hall or the ordering by function rather than by ethnicity rather serve to reinforce this, with Punch and Judy puppets displayed alongside Japanese Noh masks. The Natural History Hall is a rather grisly exhibition when seen by contemporary eyes; the pious notes about species extinction being somewhat undermined by the problem of how Great Bustards, Passenger Pigeons and Great Auks came to be stuffed in the museum in the first place. I am quite struck by some of the animals; Ibis and Cardinal Birds with their red plumage still brilliantly colourful, Golath Beetles and Fruit Bats. A somewhat intimidating Robber Crab proves a source of horror for some visiting children. Pride of place is rather oddly given to a large Walrus precariously perched on top of a fake iceberg.

The Ethnography gallery is of greater interest to me, with a bewildering range of exhibits like a faked Merman, an inquisition torture chair, Venezulean carvnical masks, a Welsh hobbyhorse, Victorian busts showing India castes in Rajasthan. Most striking is a sculpture of Shiva beibng trampled by Kali; the painted wooden sculptures are entirely realistic in spite of the fantastic depiction of Kali. It rather reminded me of Spanish religious sculptures. The remaining gallery is dedicated to African subjects; not an area I had felt I knew a great deal about, so it was particularly interesting to see exhibits like Benin plaques, Ethiopian icons, Egyptian mummies, a skull headdress from Trinidad, Tuareg veils and talismans to ward off evil, a replica Voodoo altar and an Ijele mask. A pair of sedate funerary cement sculptures had a rather disturbing effect; viewed from the other end of the gallery I wasn’t sure that they weren’t real people. Other items scattered around the galleries included a Navajo sand painting, a large Japanese cloisonne vase and a pair of Chinese brass bells.

Finally, there’s the aquarium. Probably designed for a family audience intimidated by the taxidermy upstairs, it was nonetheless rather engaging; I particularly liked a fish in the mangrove tank whose eyes were subdivided to see above and below water simultaneously. Other denizens included a Frogfish, Spider Crabs and Jellyfish.