THE SCANDALOUS EYE. THE SURREALISM OF CONROY MADDOX
Liverpool University Press 2003 292 pp. 130 Col/93 mono illus ISBN 0-85323-559-7
T his will be the last word not only on Conroy Maddox - the particularly rabid and unreformed aficionado of a movement that he discovered appropriately by chance in 1935 in his native Birmingham - but indeed on English Surrealism in general. Though not an instigator of the British branch of a movement that owed its origins to French symbolist poetry and to the Dadaism of the Great War, Maddox outlived the leaders of the movement in Britain, such as Roland Penrose and E L T Mesens, and kept the flame flickering through out the late twentieth century.
Levy’s meticulously researched and constructed book, backed up by scores of good colour plates and excellent archival illustrations, paints the picture of a technically gifted artist who, through his day job as a commercial designer and advertising draughtsman, had the gift of the graphic gab. His paintings of wild animals on the loose in deserted streets or arcades had a Magritte or de Chirico feeling about them. In later years, he painted full time and dedicated himself to the Surrealist revolution with a rare vigour, sullied only by a temporary flirtation with Paris-influenced abstract painting. His early association with the Melville brothers in Birmingham led, after his move to London, to involvement with front-rank international Surrealists in London (he was too young to contribute to the international Surrealist exhibition in 1936) and more particularly Paris. In 1979 he published a book on that dodgy Surrealist, Salvador Dali.
Maddox’s work was pervaded less with macabre or threatening undertones than with a satirical, mischievous humour, a factor that explains the propensity to tell fibs and misdate his paintings. His Man Ray-like Onanistic Typewriter 1940 and Cloak Secrecy1940, together with the anticlericalism of the ‘Attacking a Nun’ series, were attacks on organised religion and bureaucracy, and through them an attempt to liberate the imagination from the shackles of conventional social mores. The subterfuge of the typewriter with spikes in place of the keyboard contains the humour that prevented Surrealism from becoming too pompous or high-minded. A more spontaneous, graphic side to his work resulted in the photo collages and automatic biomorphic fantasies of the gouaches.
As the dust jacket explains, the book ‘1maps out his place in the history of the surrealist movement and reveals the intellectual complexity as well as the poignant charm of an oeuvre that spans eight decades’. Levy combs his way though a mountain of material concerning the internal politics of the Surrealist adventure, outlining the failings out, Bretonian expulsions, intrigues and other controversies that beset the movement both at home and in its French heartland. Importantly, Maddox had a keen awareness of the tendency of British Surrealism to fall into romanticism and blew the whistle with a Breton-like authority. The book is a very detailed biography of artist and man and, such was the passionately engaged nature of the subject’s career, it amounts to a useful survey of Surrealism at large. Levy’s text is accompanied by a full list of solo and group exhibitions, a bibliography and illustrated catalogue of works. A senior lecturer in French at Keele University, Levy is refreshingly clear of artspeak and has a contagious enthusiasm for his subject.
Writer and artist
The Art Book, Vol. 11, issue 4 (September 2004), pp. 61-62
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