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Australian surrealism


Orphe, Sidney Nolan, c.1948 enamel paint and silver paper on masonite. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 2007.1101

Surrealism was one of the most influential art movements of the twentieth century, affecting visual arts very strongly, especially painting, sculpture, photography and film. The Surrealist Manifesto was published by Andr Breton in Paris in 1924 and its aim was to transform society through the liberation of the imagination from the dominance of reason.  Surrealism's fascination with the unconscious led to a new kind of imagery.

While there was no organised surrealist movement in Australia, it changed the course of Australian art. Artists in Australia seized its ideas and responded in individual ways to the opportunities it offered. The style of 'illogical, unexpected juxtapositions' also informed the practice of collage – a classic surrealist style.

Employing dream imagery, poetry and precarious juxtapositions, Australian artists in the 1930s and early 1940s responded to European surrealists and were part of an international surrealist movement – 'in all its clarity'.  Many of Australia's best known artists of the period embraced the movement: James Gleeson, James Cant, Russell Drysdale, Jeffrey Smart, Max Dupain, Adrian Feint, Ivor Francis, Donald Friend, Robert Klippel, Joy Hester, Dusan Marek, Sidney Nolan, Douglas Roberts, Peter Purves Smith, Eric Thake, Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd.

As a result, a surreal Australian landscape with its mythic characters, flora and fauna came to represent an Australian experience of desolation, alienation, dispossession and incongruity, with the body as part of this landscape – in all its possible evocations of sexuality and mortality.

Influence and effect of surrealism in the 1930s

Man wearing a bowler hat

Man Wearing a Bowler Hat, Clifford Bayliss, c.1945, brush and coloured ink and wash on paper. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 2007.925

In the 1930s in Australia, surrealism was often more visible in the realm of popular culture than in the fine arts.  In 1938 the fashionable The Home magazine commissioned Max Dupain to take a series of surrealist inspired portraits of socialites.  Dupain was the only Australian photographer of his generation who was attracted to surrealism.

By manipulating several photographic negatives, Max Dupain created composite images with strange juxtapositions and sexual overtones, where the body is a landscape and the landscape is a body.

Australian surrealists in London

In 1936, Australian artist Peter Purves Smith, then living in London, is known to have visited the International surrealist exhibition.  His subsequent works show the stylistic influence of surrealism in their strange figurative distortion and mood of disquiet.  Fellow Australian expatriates James Cant, Clifford Bayliss, Geoffrey Graham and Roy de Maistre all experimented with surrealism.

James Cant (1911–1982)

James Cant was the most strongly influenced and painted in a surrealist style influenced by Giorgio de Chirico and Magritte.  Cant had arrived in London in 1935 and, through de Maistre, was introduced to the Mayor Gallery, which had held solo exhibitions of the surrealists Max Ernst and Joan Mir.  Almost immediately, Cant was invited to become a member of the British Surrealist Group and his work was regularly exhibited in surrealist exhibitions to critical acclaim.  In 1940, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Cant returned to Sydney.  Joining the Communist party, Cant repudiated surrealism in favour of social realism.

In London in the early 1930s, James Cant responded to an advertisement to take part in a clinical trial of the effects of the hallucinatory drug, mescaline.  He found the drug produced visions more intense than any dream he'd had. Although not painted under its influence, Returning Volunteer is a nightmare vision of desolation and despair.

1939 watershed

The attitude of lightning towards a lady-mountain

The Attitude of Lightning towards a Lady-Mountain, James Gleeson, 1939, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 2007.969

By 1939, the watershed effect of surrealism in Australian art was evident with the first exhibition of the Contemporary Art Society, a group whose aim was to promote new ideas in art.  This exhibition, held at the National Gallery of Victoria in June 1939, was an important showcase for modern art and attracted widespread attention.  The exhibition included the surrealist paintings Happy Landing (The Happy Father) c.1939, The Philosopher (1939) and The Attitude of Lightning towards a Lady-Mountain (1939) by Thake, Tucker and Gleeson respectively.  With the publicity received by these works – The Attitude of Lightning towards a Lady-Mountain was reproduced both in the popular press and Art in Australia – surrealism announced its arrival on the Australian scene.

The year 1939 was also the first time that works of European surrealism were seen in Australia.  The hugely successful Herald exhibition of French and British contemporary art of over 200 modernist paintings and sculpture toured Australia in 1939, and included paintings by Ernst, de Chirico and Dal.  In response to the interest generated by these works, Art in Australia asked Gleeson to write an article on surrealism.  'What is Surrealism?' was published in 1940 and includes the first discussion of Australian surrealist artists.  The following year Breton, the 'pope of surrealism', also contributed an article to Art in Australia.  Surrealism was now firmly established as one of the most visible of the modern movements.

Australia's dynamic contribution 1940s

Surrealism was so widespread in Australia in the 1940s that differences could be detected in both styles and influences between different cities.

The collector James Agapitos noted that 'A lot of the work originated in Melbourne, which was the centre of powerful emotional statements in what could be called expressionist surrealism ... It was later taken over by social realism.  Sydney with James Gleeson was more academic or psycho-analytical surrealism'. (The Age 16/12/03)  Adelaide was closer to the movement's European sources through such artists as Jeffrey Smart, Douglas Roberts and Jacqueline Hick.

Melbourne – expressionist surrealism

Death of an aviator

Death of an Aviator, Albert Tucker, 1942, Painting, oil on plywood. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 83.3710

During the Second World War and immediately after, a group of painters based in Melbourne, known as the Angry Penguin painters, drew on the 'dream' imagery and poetic form of European surrealism to express their disquiet at world events.  In so doing, they produced Australia's first dynamic contribution to modern art in the western world.

Albert Tucker had direct experience of war when he served as a conscript at a military hospital.  There he saw not only bodies torn apart by shells but also the shell-shocked.  In Death of an Aviator he turns a dead man's head into a surreal landscape.  In Possessed he tries to get inside the skin of a shell-shocked victim; he wants us to understand how it feels.

Sidney Nolan, however, 'was more interested in the poetry of chance than he was in bizarre dream images' (Betty Churcher, Film Australia).  Among the ephemeral and fragile works in the National Gallery of Australia's collection is his Secret Life of Birds – a flowering tree made from a twig and the soft, pink and white feathers of a galah. (National Film & Sound Archive – The Australian Surrealists)

Sydney – James Gleeson (1915– )

The sower

The Sower, James Gleeson, 1944, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

Gleeson is the Australian artist who has been most closely connected with surrealism, its longest practitioner and most prominent spokesman.  Indeed, he has stated, 'I was born a surrealist'.  Gleeson studied at the East Sydney Technical College and the Sydney Teachers College where he had access to a large library of art books and journals. As early as 1938 Gleeson was painting surrealist inspired images and producing poem – drawings which sought to integrate text and image.  Gleeson's first exhibited surrealist painting was The Attitude of Lightning towards a Lady-mountain. (Elena Taylor, National Gallery of Australia)

In 1940, James Gleeson wrote, 'Surrealism comes from the deeper recesses of the mind that the logical mind, with its prescribed formulas of thought is incapable of exploring'.  His work The Citadel is the stuff of nightmares – a psychological landscape where flesh, internal organs and rock are interchangeable.

In 1947, Gleeson left Australia for England.  After a short stay in London he took up residence at 'The Abbey', art dealer William Ohly's property in Hertfordshire, which had been set up as artist studios.  There, Gleeson met fellow expatriate Robert Klippel who was to become a lifelong friend.

Adelaide artists

Max Harris and the Angry Penguins

In Adelaide, surrealism centred around the poet and intellectual Max Harris.  In 1940 Harris established the literary journal Angry Penguins.  Harris declared himself an anarchist and a surrealist, and the second issue of Angry Penguins featured a reproduction of James Gleeson's surrealist painting Images of Spring.

Ivor Francis (1906–1993)

Ivor Francis was Adelaide's most prominent surrealist painter.  Around 1940, he met Max Harris and began his own investigations into surrealism.  Francis was also greatly inspired by Harris's writing, particularly his surrealist novel The Vegetative Eye of 1943. Investigation, Scientific or Otherwise, of Matter without Form (1943) employs a nightmarish dream-imagery to suggest the fate of man at the mercy of psychic forces.  Francis's painting activities declined in the late 1940s after his appointment to the Education Board of the then Australian Broadcast Commission.

Dusan Marek

Dusan Marek arrived in Adelaide in 1948 after fleeing the communist regime in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).  Marek had studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in Prague where his teachers included Frantisek Tichy, a supporter of surrealism.  Gravitation - the return of Christ (1949) is one of Marek's masterworks.  In this meticulously painted work, Marek creates a mood of menace and disquiet.  A convex mirror on a boat floating on the rolling ocean gives 'a distorted view back onto the viewer, and acts as an opening onto another reality'. (Elena Taylor, National Gallery of Australia)

Sidney Nolan (1917–1992)

At the State Library of Victoria, while studying at the National Gallery School in Melbourne (1936-37), Nolan encountered the works of the poets Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and William Blake, and writers James Joyce and DH Lawrence, among others.  Arthur Rimbaud, beloved by the surrealists, inspired Nolan as a hero, through both his poetry and his unconventional life.

During 1939-40, Nolan undertook an ambitious series of collages in homage to Rimbaud.  As Bruce James points out, these works 'succeed in emulating the poet's signature fracturing of mood and sense'.  Surrealistic in intent, mood and method, these collages are amongst the earliest forays into the quintessential surrealist medium of collage by an Australian artist.  Nolan's collages destroyed the conventions of representation and linear narrative by using coloured squares arranged in a checkerboard pattern over engravings.

Surreal landscapes

Sidney Nolan, Kelly and horse

Kelly and horse, Sidney Nolan, 1946, enamel on composition board. Image courtesy of the Nolan Gallery.

The intensely surreal quality of the Australian landscape – inviting a liberation of the imagination – captivated many artists.  When artist Klaus Friedeberger was sent to Australia from Britain in 1940 and locked up as an enemy alien at Hay in western New South Wales, he saw the terrain as seeming 'to epitomise the surrealist landscape', and creates images that convey the sense of uprootedness he and others felt at this time.

Nolan explored the idea that the Australian landscape could be a site for a new form of mythology.  Nolan visualised this sense of surreality in his highly evocative images of abandoned beasts in works such as Drought (1953) and Clay Horses (1953).

Nolan's Ned Kelly series, and his invention of Ned Kelly as 'the giant, visored creature striding like a colossus across the landscape' was inspired.  It drew upon surrealist modes of working and thinking to create a powerful symbol of alienation and dispossession.  Throughout his working life Nolan continues to use surrealist devices such as floating forms and automatic gesture to invite the viewer to understand and experience history at an intuitive, imaginative level. (Australian Surrealism Education Pack)

Drysdale also understood the surreal quality of the Australian bush and the outback.  He remarked:

It is not the obvious, but the underlying incomprehensibility, the incongruity, the pervading enigma of a land, its people, flora and fauna ... that wrenches the mind into an awareness ... A world where incongruity becomes the accepted commonplace.

He visualised this in his haunting images of decayed forms, such as Studies of Tree Forms (drought sketches) (1944), made after viewing the drought devastation in north-western New South Wales.  Here, 'the tree forms take on a life of their own and seem to be animated grotesques, gesticulating with their arms and legs, twirling and standing on their heads'. (Anne Gray, artonview, autumn 2008.)

Drawing P19

Not Titled, Robert Klippel, c.1949, brush and ink. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

Peter Purves Smith achieved something similar with his figures in The Chess Game (1948), in which strange mutations look down from the lofty height of a wall, watching the posturing of other exotic figures.  Animated plant forms became even more menacing in the drawings of Robert Klippel such as Not Titled (1949).  Here, the tall cactus-like plants bare their teeth as if to gobble up a floating biscuit and then perhaps to consume one another.

Trees, like other plants, were perceived as surreal – as in James Cant's The Fig Tree (1932).  Cant presented the tree as if it were alive, a creature from a forest of the imagination.

Jeffrey Smart shows a sense of menace in everyday street life – 'in the haunting quiet of a playground'. In Playground (children playing) (1951), for instance, time seems to be suspended for all time (Anne Gray, artonview, autumn 2008).  The categorisation of Jeffrey Smart as a surrealist artist has, however, been disavowed by James Gleeson.


'Australian surrealism is significant because it makes us aware of the surreal around us, it makes us see ourselves in our place with intensity and it visualises a strangeness in the true world that we may otherwise overlook'. (Anne Gray, NGA artonview Autumn 2008.)  Amongst others, the Agapitos and Wilson collection, held at the National Gallery of Australia, shows the link of Australian artists' works to the international surrealist movement.

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Last updated: 18 January 2016
Creators: Kathryn Wells