Art Review



Home Reviewers







The Surreal House

Edward Hopper - House by the Railroad (1925)

Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Given anonymously, 1930.

© Photo SCALA, Florence/The Museum
of Modern Art, New York, 2010

Barbican Art Gallery

10 June – 12 September 2010







A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


It was with a mix of curiosity and trepidation that I entered The Surreal House. Surrealism after all, stems from the subconscious, leading one to wonder just what surprises might be unearthed in the process of trying to unravel its true meaning and implications. The exhibition itself is displayed in a house of sorts, designed by architects Carmody Groarke, with winding hallways and shadowy rooms showing the artworks, generally to great effect, though dim lighting sometimes makes the contents of placards rather difficult to distinguish. Paintings hanging along winding corridors, gives one the uneasy feeling of navigating a haunted house. This is appropriate, as one of the most effective segments of this exhibition ‘Haunted House,’ features, as its centrepiece, the striking Edward Hopper painting, House by the Railroad (1925), featuring an imposing white house, standing starkly on a hill which became the model for both the horror house in Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Addams Family.

But there is, absolutely, no way in which popular culture does not reflect on and/or stem from the subconscious. This is evident in the first film on show in the exhibition Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), in which silent film star, Buster Keaton literally, brings the house down. This is apt too, because as any student of Freud (or Jung) would know, the house is the symbol of the subconscious, and in this context, it is one theme the Barbican Gallery takes full advantage of. But before we physically arrive before said screen, we are arrested by a much smaller ‘house’, made of human skin - that of artist Donald Rodney, entitled My Father, My Sister, My Brother (1997). This moving work epitomises the fragility of the human body and life, as Rodney died of Sickle Cell Anaemia in 1998, and composed this work as he deteriorated.

As indicated in the opening section, film forms a pivotal part of the exhibition, drawing as it does on the subconscious. Anyone who’s ever watched The Wizard of Oz as a child and cowered at the sight of the Wicked Witch of the West could confirm that fact through the recounting of their nightmares, also fitting here, as dreams figure heavily in this surrealist exhibition. Films run continuously in various rooms of The Surreal House, an oddly unsettling highlight among them – Jabberwocky (1973) Jan Svankmajer’s stop action animation inspired by Lewis Carroll’s famous poem.

Which, brings us to the question of which artists are synonymous with Surrealism... Leader of the corresponding movement, Andre Breton, also, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Jean Arp, Georgio de Chirico and photographer Man Ray, as well as artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau spring quickly to mind. And any surrealist exhibition centring on houses should, rightfully, feature representations of the work of Le Corbusier. However, here, the eponymous architect is sadly, represented only through Rene Burri’s photos of one of his masterworks, Villa Sovoye, (1928-29) in a state of advanced entropy, abandoned just a few years after its commission. Burri’s photos of the Villa convey a strong sense of desolation and waste.


Salvador Dalí Sleep c. 1937
Private collection

© Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador
Dalí, DACS, London 2010


Then there are less obvious choices like French Postman Ferdinand Cheval, who spent thirty-three years building his ‘Ideal Palace’, artist Jean Cornell whose collage like work forms portable worlds, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, whose beautifully skeletal chandelier is equalled only by his elegantly mysterious sculpture, which together grace a small room. Also present is through is work is archetypal filmmaker Jean Luc Goddard, and comedic star/filmmaker Jacques Tati, whose films often lampooned the accoutrements of modernism.


Gilles EhrmannLe facteur Ferdinand Cheval à Hauterives 1962

Paris, musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou

© Collection Centre Pompidou, Dist. RMN/ Georges Meguerditchian


Primary on the feminine front is artist Louise Bourgeois, who is represented here by a room full of seminal sculptural works and the installation, No Exit (1989).  Bourgeois passed away on May 31st of this year, at the age of ninety-eight, apparently, completing her final work of art the week before her death. Her explorations of feminine roles in society through sculptural metaphors and installations in a wide variety of materials are legion and invaluable. The veiled mystique and ambivalent messages of the aforementioned artists and more are represented in The Surreal House.


Louise Bourgeois Femme maison 1994

Courtesy Cheim & Read, Hauser & Wirth, and Galerie Karsten Greve

Photo: Christopher Burke
Private collection

© Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador
Dalí, DACS, London 2010


Here too are artists whose work flits round the dubious parameters of popular culture itself such as Sara Lucas, whose Au Natural (1994), consisting of a couple of melons, an empty pail and a pair of oranges with a phallic cucumber strategically placed between them, lying in and on a dirty double mattress, implying a couple about to copulate, or seriously bored thereof, seems surreal only in the sense that it is well past its sell by date. Conversely, Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy (1990), a grand piano hanging upside down from the ceiling that intermittently, springs into action, clanging as its keys extend to the max and its lid swings open, while very much a piece of the ‘noughties’ lives to proclaim its timeless tale.


Rebecca Horn Concert for Anarchy 1990

Tate. Purchased with assistance from The
Art Fund and the Friends of the Tate
Gallery 1999

©Tate, London 2010 © DACS 2010


One of the ‘shadow’ art-works of Brit conceptual pair Noble and Webster, a pile of rusty junk, the shadow of which seems to be, fur and all, the realistic namesake of its title, Metal F*****g Rats (2006) sits suitably uncomfortably here, in a mixed room with plenty of gaps allowing for its’ full appreciation. Ironically, Magritte’s The Reckless Sleeper (1928), which also, lingers in the mind after one viewing, seems somehow, aligned with the more contemporary work’s contextual concept, albeit within the context of its own landscape.

However, the most piercingly memorable object on show here is not an object d’ art at all, but a piece of furniture and not just any furniture – it is Sigmund Freud’s chair on its first showing outside of Freud’s former Hampstead home, where he lived following his escape from Nazi occupied Austria and died in 1939, just before the start of the Blitz. This red leather chair was shaped to Freud’s body and the effect of seeing it, sitting in an isolated glass case against one wall under a spotlight causing its lined leather to gleam is eerie and permeating, as it seemingly, oversees the exhibition, with all of its Freudian dimensions.

The Surreal House, with its’ two levels of houses within houses, is the largest ‘loaned’ showing that the Barbican Gallery has staged for twenty years, and the pieces in the exhibition have been borrowed from the Guggenheim Venice, MOMA, Tate, private collections and many other sources around the globe. As is the case with any ‘house’, certain rooms will, no doubt, resonate more than others. Though overall, given the sheer number of pieces in this exhibition (150) and their variety, one comes away with lingering questions in one’s mind as to whether or not this exhibition actually reflects more on the nature of the conscious intent of the juxtaposition of its’ works, or, on the subconscious nature of surrealism itself, as it applies to the architecture of houses, artwork and/or mankind.


Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeannere - Beistegui Apartment, Paris, 1929–31

© Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris.

© FLC/ ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2010.



Barbican Art Gallery

Barbican Centre
Silk Street
London EC2Y 8DS


Open daily 11am – 8pm

(except Wed until 6pm)

Late night every Thurs until 10pm



Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved




Home Reviewers