Lye’s friend Barbara Ker-Seymer in the 1930s. Photo Humphrey Spender

Lye’s friend Barbara Ker-Seymer in the 1930s. Photo Humphrey Spender

“I didn’t know you were a surrealist, did you?”

22 Dec 2017

By Raymond Spiteri
School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies
Victoria University of Wellington

In November 2017 I spent five days looking through the archive of papers held at the Len Lye Foundation in New Plymouth. The focus of my research is Lye’s relationship to surrealism, a relationship I would describe as one of proximity and resistance. Proximity, in that Lye was associated with networks with links to surrealism in Paris and London, such as the circle around the review transition in the late-1920s, or the British Surrealist movement in the 1930s; and resistance, in that Lye was always circumspect about his relation to surrealism. My goal in going through the archive was to ascertain if there is any material that can further illuminate this relationship.


Given that my interest was in Lye’s activities during the twenties and thirties, my success was limited. There were no major revelations of previously undisclosed information. The archive principally covers the post-WWII period, after Lye relocated to New York in 1944, and apart from Lye’s scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings of exhibition reviews and film screenings, it is largely silent about the pre-WWII period. When Lye relocated to New York he only took papers directly related to his current concerns, foremost his effort to elaborate on the ideas for Individual Happiness Now.


The most useful source on surrealism is Lye’s correspondence. In particular, the series of letters exchanged between Lye and Barbara Ker-Seymer during the 1970s contain a discussion of forthcoming landmark retrospective exhibition, Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, held at the Hayward Gallery in 1978. Ker-Seymer describes a visit by a researcher from the Tate Gallery in March 1977:

"A young lady from the Tate came to see me the other day about John Banting and the surrarealist [sic] exhibition at the Hayward Gallery next year. She had been landed with a list as long as your arm of British ‘surrarealists’, half of whom are dead or old age. She said in a rather despairing voice, “Have you ever heard of someone called Len Lye?” She got a shock. She was immediately snowed under with press cuttings, articles, photographs, literature, & a complete list of your films from the Cambridge Festival Brochure, covering practically your whole career. I didn’t know you were a surrarealist did you? She assured me that you were represented in the 1936 Surrarealist Exhibition. I think they want to show films. I had to give her your address."[1]

The archive also holds letters from Anna Gruetzner and Joanna Drew, who were involved with the organization of the exhibition, requesting information about Lye’s works included in surrealist exhibitions during the late 1930s.[2] It appears that Lye may have sent 35mm transparencies of several works in response.[3] However, Ker-Seymer’s letters suggest he was reluctant to participate in the exhibition. On 13 July 1977 Ker-Seymer asks Lye’s consent to lend her copy of No Trouble; she later defends her loan of the book, which suggests that Lye was hesitant to have his work included in the exhibition[4]:

"I thought you might have been annoyed with me for allowing No Trouble to the Surrarealist exhibition against your wishes. I didn’t think your reason was good enough, anyway off it went heavily insured and was displayed, shut so as to show the cover in a glass case with other literature, and I am told seen by over 188,000 visitors. It has now been returned safely to my dusty bookshelf. What it has to do with surrarealism I don’t know."[5]

These letters confirm Lye’s resistance to surrealism, but do little of illuminate the overlap between his practice and aspects of surrealism. Although Lye did not identify as a surrealist (and the sense of belonging to a collective movement was a central tenet of surrealism), his work does exhibit a proximity to surrealism: his interest in primitivism, quasi-automatic drawings, photograms, and the veiled eroticism of biomorphic imagery all point to a region where modernism and surrealism have much in common.

[1] Barbara Ker-Seymer to Len Lye, 6 March 1977. Len Lye Foundation, fol. 2110. Ker-Seymer used an idiosyncratic spelling “surrarealist,” perhaps as a phonetic rendering of the drawn out ‘rr’ sound of the French surréaliste.
[2] Anna Gruetzner to Len Lye, 26 February 1977; Joanna Drew to Len Lye, 12 April 1977. Len Lye Foundation, fol. 2112.
[3] Lye annoted Drew’s letter with a list of 35 mm slides, “Artic, Self Planting, Marks & Spencer, Snowbirds,” which correspond to works now known as Ice Age, Self Planting at Night, Marks and Spencer in a Japanese Garden, and Snowbirds Making Snow. See Joanna Drew to Len Lye, 12 April 1977.
[4] Barbara Ker-Seymer to Len Lye, 13 July 1977, 2 August 1977, and 10 May 1978. Len Lye Foundation, fol. 2110.
[5] Barbara Ker-Seymer to Len Lye, 10 May 1978.  Len Lye Foundation, fol. 2110.

Len Lye <em>No Trouble</em> 1929. Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Len Lye No Trouble 1929. Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Poster for the <em>Dada and Surrealism Reviewed</em> at the Hayward Gallery, 1978

Poster for the Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at the Hayward Gallery, 1978