Surrealism was always one of the most playful of art movements, so it should come as no surprise that the Tate Liverpool’s new Surreal Landscapes season, bringing together a trio of artists from different eras and working in different media, is excellent for children of all ages.
The main – and best – exhibition takes a fresh look at Leonora Carrington, an artist and writer who escaped from a strict, privileged and constraining Lancashire childhood to an adventurous life among the Surrealists in Europe and then later in Mexico. Like the rest of the Surrealists, Carrington was inspired by dreams, visions, the uncanny and alternative dimensions of reality, and her works are full of symbolism from a variety of sources: Greek myth, Celtic lore, alchemy, the Jewish kabbalah and her own personal mythology. A recurrent motif is the white rocking horse from her childhood nursery – by this time transformed into the artist’s own alter ego, wild and unfettered, galloping towards the future.
Indeed, kids love spotting animals in Carrington’s colourful works – monkeys, birds, cats and more. Some are kindred spirits or guardians, others might be monsters. Humans merge with the natural world – roots grow out of heads. In some works, it’s day and night at the same time. Life and death are not opposites. Boundaries don’t exist.
You don’t have to understand the symbolism to appreciate Carrington’s work. Part of the fun is just looking, and looking again – spotting tiny details you missed the first time. Fish with human hands, shadows that don’t match the shape of their object… Many works displayed don’t have any commentary; instead, quotes by Carrington, transcribed onto the walls of the gallery, divide the display into loose themes or at least lend the exhibition a narrative thread. Motherhood, fertility and genesis, for instance, or witchcraft and other forms of transformation. But you are left to interpret them yourself – to use them to tell your own story. And which child doesn’t like telling stories?
Arty teens may be inspired by the Sisters of the Moon series that Carrington did while at boarding school in Florence at the age of 16 – brought together here for the first time, courtesy of her surviving family in the Liverpool area. Meanwhile, younger kids could spend hours spotting intriguing creations and mysterious elements in the monumental 4.5m-long mural Magical World of the Mayas, on its first showing outside of Mexico. There are also masks that Carrington made for the theatre, hat designs that she collaborated on with Leonor Fini, and even excerpts from a film on which she worked with one of her sons.
In a second Surreal Landscapes exhibition, contemporary Scottish artist Cathy Wilkes has created three theatrical sets that, similarly, invite the viewer to piece them together. Perhaps best understood as immersive installations, they include enigmatic and even spooky mannequins – some of them children – engaged in activities involving found objects such as crockery and clothes. Family life, daily rituals and working conditions are all brought to mind, but again, the viewer is left to make of them what they will.
A third linked exhibition is devoted to photographs, photomontages and photograms that resulted from Hungarian-born György Kpes experimentation with light as an agent of transformation and meditation on worlds behind the visible one.
Time your visit with the Easter school holidays to catch Surrealist Family Adventures in the Clore Learning Centre family space – free experimental workshops suitable for all ages. The Tate also has free rocket backpacks for exploring the galleries, and for older kids, aged 15–18, there are creative forums on fashion, drama, textiles, photography, performance poetry and rap.
See more on family breaks in Liverpool.