Humphrey Jennings: analytic history and the poetic cross-section

30 September 2021

Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London

Filmmaker Lindsay Anderson famously described Humphrey Jennings as ‘the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.’[1] But what could have prompted Anderson to make such a claim? I propose it was the way in which Jennings imbued the exploration and analysis of photographic factuality with a sense of emotion and imagination. As a documentary filmmaker with the Crown Film Unit, responsible for wartime propaganda films, the materials Jennings worked with were those of the objective world manipulated in such a way as to appeal to British sentimentality. Jennings was also part of a Surrealism emerging in Britain in the early 1930s that explored emotion and imagination alongside empiricist knowledge claims. Educated at Cambridge University within the lively discourses of logical positivism, pragmatism, humanism, and materialism, Jennings’ work displays a set of complex artistic impulses and influences. The way that Jennings generates imaginative and affective expression through the capture of material mundanity is a deliberate result of how he conceives of history, knowledge, poetry, and analysis. Reconciling such often disparate intellectual systems results in what Jennings described as an ‘imaginative history.’[2]

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The Evolution of Eileen Agar’s Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse

1 July 2021

Christina Heflin, Royal Holloway, University of London

bouillabaisse, n.

     –– A dish of Provençal origin, composed of fish stewed in water or spiced white wine [1] 

Amongst her paintings, photographs, collages and sculptures, one work that has become iconic within the œuvre of British Surrealist artist Eileen Agar (1899 – 1991) is a fanciful-looking hat that she is often depicted wearing, The Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse. My academic research at the Tate Archives on Eileen Agar’s papers kept bringing me to this hat. Photographs and clippings indicating its different statuses kept me intrigued, and as I was starting to form my own research topic on the artist, I grew more and more aware that there was something magical about it. Symbolic of the light-hearted nature with which she generally approached her work, this object is, however, more than just a silly piece of millinery decorated with bits and bobs. Initially conceived around 1936, it is thanks to the documentation at the Tate, her autobiography A Look at My Life  as well as a few news reels made over the span of her career put side-by-side that there is evidence of the evolutionary nature of the Bouillabaisse hat.

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Book Review: I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For

26th February 2021

Josie Cray, Cardiff University

Jen Calleja, I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (London: Prototype, 2020)

‘When the rain wept and wailed and hammered its wet fists against the fences and flung itself down on the grass over and over again for two weeks, everyone in the valley was dismissive of it’ (61). So begins ‘Divination’, the fifth short story in Jen Calleja’s newest collection I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (2020). Unlike the rain there is nothing to be dismissed about Calleja’s collection. From a pregnant food writer developing a craving for luxury living to an amateur actor not entirely sure why his performances are so funny, Calleja takes the familiar we find in the everyday and twists it through absurdity, dark humour and the surreal.

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A Delay In Glass: Marcel Duchamp, the Possible, and the Aversion to Déjà Vu

3rd July 2020

Tyrus Miller, University of California, Irvine


In his Green Box (1934) of reproduced notes and images related to his uncompleted and shattered Large Glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), Marcel Duchamp famously characterized his meticulously assembled work not as a “picture” or “painting” but as a “delay in glass”:

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The Eternal and Temporal in British Literary Modernism

Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London

3rd July 2020

‘It was as if the filthy modern tide were wetting my heels as I scrambled to safety.’[1]

-Kathleen Raine

In 1932 Paul Nash questioned whether it was possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British.’[2] As a painter of often abstract landscapes, inspired by his upbringing in rural Buckinghamshire, Nash contemplated the stability of British historical values in the face of modernity, claiming that ‘the battle lines [had] been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the function versus the futile.’ This sentiment gestured towards two types of Britishness: the identity sprung from British cultural history concerned with ‘traditional rural life’, and that which absorbs and welcomes the pace, products and advancements of modernity.[3] Continue reading “The Eternal and Temporal in British Literary Modernism”

Book Review: Surrealism at Play

Susan Laxton, Surrealism at Play (Maryland: Duke University Press, 2019)

Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London

Surrealism’s position in the world of the historic avant-garde continues to provide rich and fruitful discourse. Susan Laxton’s Surrealism At Play is a study of the surrealist movement that puts Walter Benjamin’s notion of Spielraum, ‘free-play’, at the forefront of its aesthetic theory. This prioritisation of the philosophical significance of play offers new insight into some of the movement’s most widely-explored and sometimes tense affiliations; for example, surrealism’s intersections with such concepts as communism, psychoanalysis and historical consideration.  

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Conference review: Surrealisms

 Margaux Van Uytvanck, Université Libre de Bruxelles

The International Society for the Study of Surrealism (ISSS) held its second annual conference at the University of Exeter from 29 to 31 August 2019. The ISSS was founded in 2018 to promote the study of Surrealism and encourage exchanges between scholars of the movement. The inaugural conference of the ISSS took place in November 2018 at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and, following its success, expectations were high for this year’s conference, the first one to take place in Europe. Felicity Gee (University of Exeter), the conference organiser, brilliantly met (and surpassed) these great expectations by offering a fascinating programme of panels at the university’s Streatham Campus, in association with a digital exhibition, a film programme, and a gala evening at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery.

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Differential Diagnosis and Surrealism in Leonora Carrington’s Down Below

Marie Allitt, University of York

In 1940, Leonora Carrington suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a treatment facility in Spain, where she underwent convulsive shock treatment. In Down Below (1943), Carrington offers an account of her experience, from the retrospective point of 1943, where narrative, memory, and mental health are interwoven in significant, yet complex ways. A significant surrealist artist and writer throughout her life, Carrington was born in Lancashire, England in 1917, but spent the majority of her life living in Mexico City. From early on, Carrington rejected the authority, Catholicism, and upper-class values of her family, and this rebellion, alongside her fascination with Surrealism, dictated the subject matter of much her work. By 1937, she was fully estranged from her family, moving to Paris and living with Max Ernst. With rising tensions across Europe and hostilities within France, in 1940, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien, and interned in a labour camp, leaving Carrington alone. She was persuaded by friends to leave France and travel to Madrid, Spain, where the events of Down Below took place.[1] The beginning of the novel explains the journey from France across Spain, the onset of her breakdown and political paranoia, before being committed into the asylum against her will. The rest of the (short) novel depicts the experience inside the asylum; convulsive treatment; cruelty and abuse; her delusions and hallucinations, all of which are framed by her retrospective narration three years later.

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A Surrealist discourse on the Origins of Artistic Inspiration

Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London

Following the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition, Sir Herbert Read collected a series of essays from select French and British contributors, publishing them in a book aptly titled Surrealism. Recalling the successes of the Exhibition, this book hoped to act as a new manifesto of sorts, one that homogenized the emerging Surrealism in Britain with the well-established French Surrealism. In the introduction chapter, Read claims that these collected texts present ‘English evidence’ of the Surrealist project in order to ‘unite it with the general theory of Surrealism, and to reaffirm on this wider basis the truths which other writers, above all Andre Breton, have already declared.’[1] However, instead of communicating a unified vision and purpose of Surrealism, practised harmoniously on either side of the Channel, in many ways Surrealism serves to accentuate their differences.

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