The S Word: Lurid Beauty at the NGV

Siamese shoes IBarry Humphries,Siamese Shoes I, 1958, remade 1968.


There is nothing like the seductive beauty of a tapered stiletto.  Why do we love them so much despite the agony they cause?  Originally high heels were worn by men but now they are predominately the refuge of women.  They are worn for a multitude of reasons.  Status being one of them, they put you literally eye to eye with men in height, and there is nothing like the flash of a red sole to show wealth, or fashion.  And then there is sex.

VoicingPat Brassington, Voicing, 2001.


Sex brings me to the point of all of this: Surrealism.  ‘Surreal’ is a word often misused.  It is quite broad and hard to pin down.  It can be a painting of a melting landscape, an oversized tall bed, a plaster cast of a woman.  The high heeled shoe is a great example of what Surrealism is or can be.  It was described once as the perfect Surrealist ready-made, at once channelling masculine and feminine.  A shoe by its own is not Surreal, turn it upside down and put it on wear it as a hat and it is.  It’s the everyday literally turned on its head, it’s about unconscious desire, sexuality, the bazaar; illogical and irrational.

christopher day
Christopher Day, Untitled, 2015.


Surrealism as a movement began is France but it didn’t take long to spread.  Now it is hard to imagine any medium without it: literature, art, music, film, fashion, theatre, advertising.  As a movement that began in the 1920s it has had an incredible enduring legacy and influence.  Think of the newly released film The Lobster for example.   It is little wonder then that it has pervaded the work of Australian artists, both Modern and Contemporary.  When it reached Australian shores in the 1930s, Surrealism as a movement was a breath of fresh air.  Before this time Art in Australia had been very much Colonial, with the influence of Impressionism also making its mark.  It was time for a truly Australian art to come to the fore.  As artists struggled with ways to embrace a new Modern approach to Australian Art they were highly influenced by Modernism from Europe, including Surrealism.  And once they started they never stopped.  And they embraced Surrealism in all its forms.  In the work of James Gleeson it is easy to see the melting Surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dali, In Sidney Nolan’s early collages the work of Max Ernst.  Influenced by psychology Albert Tucker and Joy Hester depict the distorted faces of people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress and other injuries after the war.

susan fereday
Susan Fereday, Not for Reproduction, 2007-2013


The influence of Freud on Surrealist thought is something that is being challenged  by contemporary Australian women artists such as Fiona  Hall and Julie Rrap, confronting the female form and societies fear of it.    A whole room of the National Gallery of Victoria’s  exhibition Lurid Beauty  is dedicated to this subversion.  This exhibition also attempts to subvert the traditional layout of an exhibition space.  We find ourselves in strangely shaped rooms, walls plastered with Surrealist imagery, and without a direct chronological order to the works, they are rather grouped thematically.  The inclusion of some beautiful ephemeral works painted directly to the walls of the gallery subvert the idea of what should be shown in a gallery, especially a large state institution.  As a survey this exhibition is very successful, it covers a wide variety of artistic mediums, approaches and interpretations of what Surrealism is (not all of which I would necessarily agree with).  But that is part of what makes Surrealism still such a vibrant influence, there are almost infinite ways to interpret, re-interpret and subvert what we think it means.

greatest hits
Greatest Hits, Melbourne, est. 2008, Untitled, 2012.


It is hard to imagine an exhibition on Surrealism not being popular.  Surrealism gets at the heart of our unconscious, which can be uncomfortable but also compelling.  Certainly it is not all going to appeal to everyone, but in a survey such as this there is bound to be something that gets at you.  For myself it was a lot of familiar faces, works I have seen in other exhibitions or from the collections of major institutions around Australia.  But it is great to see them here all together as a vast representation of Surrealism in Australia, and more broadly it is a great way to get an overview of the development of a truly ‘Australian’ art practice.  Curatorially it is an interesting exhibition although despite the interesting displays I feel like they could have pushed the boundaries even further.

Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and It’s Echoes
Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
9 October 2015 – 31 January 2016 

Image Credits:


3 thoughts on “The S Word: Lurid Beauty at the NGV

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