The Poetry of the Absurd


Posted by in May's Magazine

When nothing makes sense, surrealism becomes the new norm claims Colin Montgomery

It was the Marx Brothers that started it for me. Or rather, it was my father’s fondness for them that started it. Around Christmas and Hogmanay, BBC2, were desperate to fill the schedules (these were the days before streaming, TV on demand and all the rest of the tosh that now allows you to inject television shows into your buttocks). So they would whack on a Marx Bros classic like Duck Soup or Horse Feathers around 11pm. Dad would sit there in his dressing gown, nursing a dram, chuckling away at the lunacy unfolding before us.

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All of it was irresistible. The wordplay and wilful rejection of logic combined with the sheer effrontery of it all was like poking yourself repeatedly in the third eye and really enjoying the burning sensation. Plus of course there was Groucho, zingers shooting from beneath that bogus moustache, eyes rolling and cigar waggling, like a dog’s tail. Throw him a bone and he’d throw it back at you with feeling. And then some 

It was probably around then, I realised I carried the gene that makes you a sucker for the surreal, whatever form it chooses to take – film, painting, comedy, literature. Some might dismiss the Marx Bros as contrived zaniness. No matter. They were deemed surreal enough for Dali to hook up with Harpo Marx, pen a screenplay for a Marx Bros film to be called ‘Giraffes on Horseback Salad’* – which never saw the light of day, sadly – and then write effusively about Harpo’s genius in a letter to the High Priest of Surrealism, Andre Breton. 

The tag ‘High Priest’ was not complimentary. It reflected a growing orthodoxy in the Surrealist movement – and a growing autocracy in Breton’s character as he wielded power by diktat, becoming more conservative as time went on. This from the group who had once railed against the establishment, even going so far as to laud the act of kicking a cleric in the street as a defiantly subversive way to spend an afternoon. They documented this – and other absurdist time-wasting pursuits – in the The Book of Surrealist Games, which is worth a read.

Giorgio de Chirico’s Song of Love: Effectively ‘doing Dali before Dali’

Such tropes and traits were portrayed as evidence of a deep-seated desire to resist the stifling mores of the conventional – a kind of portentous frivolity. Yet, after a while they are nothing but petty parlour games for the idle. Of more import was the explosion of imagery and ideas that accompanied the emergence of Surrealism as a force majeure in modern art. There are so many choice moments; it’s hard to know where to start. But for me it’s hard to see beyond the genius that was Giorgio De Chirico’s early work of the ‘Scuola Metafisica’. 

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO…SCUOLA METAFISICA. GET YOOOUUUU. OK, fair enough. I’ll dispense with the pseudo-intellectual art history lecture and shortcut this baby. All you need to know is De Chirico’s work from about 1910 to around 1915 give or take, was full on bonkers but beautiful. Not because he was some Rembrandt with the brushes (very few can compete with that talented bastard when it comes to handling the physicality of paint to recreate texture, surface, skin, the space between spaces and aw that). More because he could use colour, light, shade and line to create the most astonishing visual ambience. 

I know…’visual ambience’…I’m slipping back into wanker mode. What I mean is in works like Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), ‘The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’, ‘Anxious Journey’ and ‘The Red Tower’, he captures that strange feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another  – a weird blend of nostalgia, reflection and, if I could be so bold, a kind of unseen electricity just humming away under the surface of the fabric of reality. I used to get it when the sun was low on Sunday afternoons, sitting alone on a bike on a street corner, listening to the distant chimes of an ice-cream van – each to their own. 

A weird blend of nostalgia, reflection and, if I could be so bold, a kind of unseen electricity just humming away under the surface of the fabric of reality 

In other works, like Song of Love and Uncertainty of a Poet, De Chirico effectively did a Dali before Dali, bringing together seemingly disparate objects – a ball, a glove, some bananas, a classical mask, a lounging statue, a train – to create some strange kind of aesthetic poetry. Yet to all intents and purposes, this gave rise to what most people would recognise as the widely understood visual vocabulary of surrealism: the clownish juxtaposition of the unconnected; lobsters and telephones, elephants on stilts, eyeballs being slashed, dead horses being dragged along on legless pianos, all that malarkey. 

The marvel of the surreal may have been tainted or tamed by such formalisation of its tenets in art – at least I would argue so based on my own preferences. But it could never quite contain its core spirit. That spirit that went on to inspire others in music, dance, writing and architecture also informed post-war comedy in the UK – The Goons, Python, Vic and Bob, all reworking, reinventing and refreshing the surrealist impulse in their own different ways. 

Thank goodness for that because when faced with the self-destructive madness of a world that has slipped its moorings, I’d rather have the poetry of the absurd.

*Giraffes on Horseback Salad is allegedly available as a graphic novel.


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