Star turn: Dawn Ades

November 30, 2001

Pat Leon joins art history students, who find out what it's like to be peeping toms...

The day is grey, the leaves are falling and the Thames tide is out. It is London in autumn and we are standing outside the Tate Modern. A group of art history students are about to exchange the buzz of the city for the buzz of art in the former power station. It is a far cry from Colchester, where the students have just started an Essex University course on "Dada, constructivism and surrealism".

Today, they are dropping Dada for "Desire Unbound", an exhibition publicised in shocking pink. The students complain about the cost of getting to exhibitions. Viewing is a crucial part of their courses. "I know loads of people are coming here because of the controversy. It's one of the best. We can't miss it," says Julia Greenwood, a second-year.

Our guide for the day is course leader Dawn Ades, soon to be director of Britain's first research centre on the surrealist movement, which will be established at the Essex campus with the aid of an £800,000-plus grant announced by the Arts and Humanities Research Board last week. Ades is waiting patiently with tickets by the entrance. "I am not sure how things will go," she whispers. "I wasn't sure how many would turn up. If it's very crowded and there are a lot of us, it will be difficult to stop in front of a picture. We may get moved on."

But the class is in luck. Few attendants are on the prowl in the half dark. So the students huddle in front of a huge, cracked piece of glass, framed in steel and wood. The lead foil and wire sculptures inside represent The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors , Even by Marcel Duchamp.

Ades explains how Duchamp used industrial imagery to convey his message about eroticism. "The glass is like a shop window. You're looking through it. It's like desire. You want something but you can't have it. Viewers are like peeping toms - looking into the mind of the artist. We could say this is a failed sexual encounter."

The students perk up: how did the cracks occur, was it symbolic? Ades warms to the topic, adding background about its place in the surrealist movement. As questions peter out, Ades tells us to split up and, after a reconnoitre of other works, to meet by Max Ernst's Pieta or Revolution by Night .

Ernst was a Dadaist, and Ades uses the painting of a bowler-hatted, moustached man carrying the alabaster body of man to talk of the Dadaists, who experimented with trances to draw on their unconscious. She talks of two interpretations of much of the work - Freudian psychoanalysis and the experimental use of form. The pattern of looking, stopping, talking and questioning established, the students drift in groups or alone through the rooms. They are a mixed bunch in terms of sex, nationality and art-history background. Many study completely different periods. Antigone Margaviti, from Greece, says she chose this course option because: "I have a fear of modern art. I don't understand it and so I tend to reject it. My aim is to look and illuminate myself."

Ades has been responsible for some of the most important surrealist art exhibitions in London and abroad over the past 20 years, and her enthusiasm is contagious. But she recognises that many of her students are starting from scratch. "They are very new. They need to read around. They have already read the manifesto (on surrealism) as preparation. We need two visits really - at the beginning and at the end. But we can't afford it."

Some students, such as Richard Butler, find the format difficult. "I'd rather go around on my own to take it all in. I find it hard to break up and to spread. The seminar next Wednesday will process everything for me," he says.

But for others the visit is a real eye-opener, and Ades's presence is essential. Rachel Brown, a third-year, says: "I'm glad she's here. There are important things that you can just walk past without knowing."

"Surrealism: Desire Unbound" is showing at the Tate Modern until January 1.

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