With Le Surréalisme et lobjet, the first large-scale exhibition devoted to Surrealist sculptural techniques, the Centre Pompidou
invites visitors to take a new look at a major avant-garde movement of the 20th century at a time when its historical importance is still highly topical, and its influence on contemporary art increasingly evident.
From Marcel Duchamps first ready-made the famous porte-bouteille (bottle rack) of 1914 to Mirós sculptures of the late Sixties, the exhibition looks back over the various stages of the Surrealists daring stance in sculpture through the use of everyday objects.
Didier Ottinger, the exhibition curator and assistant director of the Musée national dart moderne, takes a fresh look at the Surrealist movement. He explores the idea that in 1927, with the endorsement of dialectic materialism by André Breton and the movements most influential figures, the Surrealists focused on the object as a response to an ideological situation that denied the power of dreams and the subconscious. As the objectivisation of the dream, the object, in their eyes, was an effective means for poetically subverting reality.
The history of the Surrealist object starts with Alberto Giacomettis Boule suspendue (1930-1931). A look back at the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects staged at the Charles Ratton Gallery in May 1936 is the high point of the exhibition. The sculptures produced during the Second World War by Max Ernst, Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso illustrate the place now occupied by the object in Surrealist art through the use of a sculptural technique similar to the art of assemblage.
Through more than 200 works, including numerous masterpieces by Giacometti, Dalí, Calder, Picasso, Miró, Max Ernst and Man Ray, Le Surréalisme et lobjet highlights key moments in this way of thinking, and its fertile posterity in contemporary art.
THE CIRCUIT LAYOUT
In galerie 1 (2,100 m2), the exhibition le surréalisme et lobjet consists of a chronological circuit with twelve rooms, from objects that appeared in the context of dada (Duchamp, Man Ray, Arp) to the late sculptures of Miró.
The transformations arising from the found objects of Marcel Duchamp and the mannequins of Giorgio de Chirico which both made their appearance in 1914 act as the common, intersecting themes of the exhibition.
The rooms dedicated to the works illustrating the history of Surréalisme et de lobjet (Objects with a symbolic function, Bellmers Doll, the Exhibition of 1936, and so on) lead off from a central gallery. This contains groups of contemporary pieces that echo the work of the Surrealists (by Ed Ruscha, Mona Hatoum, Heim Steinbach, Cindy Sherman and others).
Excerpts from L. G. Berlangas 1973 film Grandeur Nature (Life Size) and historical documents are projected onto translucent screens dotted around the circuit, which structure the exhibition.
The exhibition recreates the atmosphere of the theme park or ghost train to which the critics of the Thirties and Fifties compared Surrealisms historic exhibitions.
Ready-mades and mannequins
Ten years before the creation of Surrealism, Giorgio De Chirico and Marcel Duchamp invented two objects in 1914 that were to gain enduring currency in the imagination of the movement. The former introduced the image of the mannequin into his painting; the latter bought the bottle rack that became his first ready-made. From Hans Bellmers Doll (1933-1934) to the dummies lining the streets of the 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism, mannequins made a regular appearance in Surrealist events. The Manifesto of 1924 presented the mannequin as one of the most propitious objects for producing the marvellous sought by Surrealism, and for arousing the sense of strange uncanniness inspired in Sigmund Freud by his discovery of a doll in a tale by Hoffmann.
In 1938, the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (shorter dictionary of Surrealism) made Duchamps ready-made an object raised to the dignity of a work of art by the artists will alone: the prototype of a Surrealist object crystallising the dreams and desires of its inventor.
Objects with a symbolic function
] Dalí and I endeavoured to find basic points from which every Surrealist can exercise their talent in a common direction, within a discipline accepted by all. One of my concerns was to prevent our interest in psychoanalysis and relationships between the conscious and subconscious drifting towards philosophical assertions that our opponents would call idealistic, giving substance to accusations of Freudism. [
Dalí proposed producing objects with a symbolic function [
]. (André Thirion, Révolutionnaires sans révolution (1972), Actes Sud, 1999, p. 512-513). Through its latent eroticism and form, more like a childs toy than a traditional sculpture, Alberto Giacomettis Boule suspendue, discovered by Salvador Dalí and André Breton in the Pierre Loeb Gallery in 1930, appeared to be the response awaited by a Surrealism enjoined to come to terms with reality.
Dalí gave an initial definition to these new types of creation: These objects, which lend themselves to a minimum of mechanical functioning, are based on the fantasies and representations that can arise from the performance of subconscious acts. [
] Objects with a symbolic function leave no place at all for formal preoccupations. They depend only on the amorous imagination of each person, and are extraplastic. (Salvador Dalí, Objets surréalistes, Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, no. 3, December 1931, p. 16).
André Masson noticed the sculptures Giacometti exhibited in 1928 at the Jeanne Bucher Gallery. He approached the artist, and put him in touch with the regulars at his Rue Blomet workshop: Antonin Artaud, Raymond Queneau, Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille, who shared the sculptors taste for tragic violence. The following year, Giacometti joined the circle formed around the magazine Documents, founded by primitive art historian Carl Einstein and Georges Bataille. His works took on violent, sacrificial themes, typical of the direction Bataille gave to his review. His latest sculptures, shown in the spring of 1930 at the Pierre Loeb gallery, impressed André Breton, who proposed that he join the Surrealists. Giacometti took part in the groups events until 1935, producing object-sculptures literally inspired by the interior model Breton invited the artists of the group to submit to: For years, I only produced the sculptures that came to my mind fully-fledged, and I limited myself to reproducing them in space, without changing anything. His return to model-based studies in 1935 led to his break with Surrealism. I was drawn to Surrealism in its heyday. These were artists who interested me, but in fact, even during the time I belonged to the Surrealist group, I was trying out experiments that I felt were short-lived. But I pictured myself, with terror, being obliged one day to actually sit down in front of a stool.
In the middle of the Twenties, Hans Bellmer approached Lotte Pritzel, a wax doll maker, who a few years earlier had been asked by the Viennese painter Oskar Kokoschka to make a dummy as a substitute for Alma Mahler, when she finally ended their romantic relationship. (Kokoschka eventually entrusted the doll-maker Hermine Moos with the task of making a life-sized figure of Alma).
At the beginning of the Thirties, a series of events led Bellmer to start work on his own Doll. In the winter of 1932, his mother sent him a case full of his childhood toys. Among the nostalgic remains enclosed in this marvellous box there were some dolls with disjointed members mingled with indescribable remnants. At the time when Bellmer was moving closer to Georges Grosz, the painter of Dadaist automatons, he discovered the doll Olympia in Offenbachs opera based on the Tales of Hoffmann (The Sandman), which brought Kokoschkas fetish to mind. He made his first doll, and staged it in photographs that were then reproduced in the Minotaure magazine in December 1934. A crucial landmark in Surrealist mannequinerie, Bellmers Doll was imbued with the erotic dimension associated with these female effigies, from the myth of Pygmalion to Bibienas licentious tale (La Poupée or The Fairy Doll, 1747) and modern silicone dolls.
] One fine spring day in 1934 induced [Giacometti and me] to wend our way to the flea market. [
] That day, the objects that, between the weariness of some and the desire of others, make one fantasise in a second-hand market were hardly thick on the ground during the first hour of our stroll. [
].The first that really drew our attention, and attracted us as something completely new, was a metal half-mask, striking for its rigidity at the same time as its power of adaptation to a necessity unknown to us. Our first completely whimsical idea was that it was a highly developed descendant of the helm, which had carried on a flirtation with a velvet mask. [
] Giacometti, though usually very detached in general from any idea of possession where such objects are concerned, put it back regretfully. He seemed to conceive fears for its future as we walked away, and finally retraced his steps to buy it. [
] A few stores on from there, I had to make just as specific a decision with regard to a large wooden spoon very rustic, but rather beautiful, I thought, with a rather bold form, and a handle, when it rested on its convex side, that was raised by the height of a little shoe joined onto it. I immediately bought it.» --André Breton, L Amour fou (1937), complete works, Paris, Gallimard, La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, vol. II, 1992
International exhibition of Surrealism, Paris, Pierre Colle Gallery, 7-18 June 1933
In the 1933 exhibition at the Pierre Colle Gallery, Surrealism affirmed the place now occupied by the object in the Surrealist imagination. Tristan Tzara rewrote the preface of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition: Unpleasant objects, chairs, drawings, sexes, paintings, manuscripts, objects to sniff, automatic and unmentionable objects, wood, plasters, phobias, memories from the womb, elements of prophetic dreams, dematerialisations of desires, spectacles, fingernails, friendships with a symbolic function, frames, deteriorating chimney pieces, books, everyday objects, taciturn conflicts, geographical maps, hands, retrospective busts of women, sausages, cadavres exquis, palaces, hammers, libertines, pairs of butterflies, perversions of ears, blackbirds, fried eggs, atmospheric spoons, pharmacies, abortive portraits, loaves of bread, photos, tongues. Do you still remember that time when painting was considered an end in itself? We have moved on from the period of individual exercises. Authority is another thing. This Surrealist painting has been able to acquire at the expense of any personal opportunism. Time passes. Through the emotional characters of your meetings. Through the experimental explorations of Surrealism. We dont want to build any more arks. As sincere partisans of the better, we have tried, physically and morally, to embellish the face of Paris a little. By turning our backs on paintings. The word crime has not, in general, been understood. Do you remember? (Max Ernst, Tristan Tzara, preface to the catalogue for the International Exhibition of Surrealism, Paris, Pierre Colle Gallery, June 1933)
Surrealist Exhibition of Objects, Paris, Charles Ratton Gallery, 22-29 May 1936
The Surrealist Exhibition of Objects staged at the Charles Ratton Gallery in May 1936, reveals a Surrealism capable of transmuting the most ordinary objects and thus of transfiguring reality itself. A far cry from any manifestation of artistic genius, the power of the designation Surrealist was the very subject of the exhibition: a high point in Surrealist thinking applied to the object.
This is the exhibition of Surrealist Objects at Charles Ratton, in May 1936. At last, here are garden alleys paved with agate, bordered with will-o-the-wisps: nature has most obligingly lent us her aid. There are also those objects found in a staircase: always in a staircase: The path to the top and the path to the bottom is the same. (Heraclitus). Any piece of flotsam within our grasp should be considered a precipitate of our desire. Alternating with the previous ones, and alone fixed, alone spared by the panic laugh uttered in the course of the last cartoons and the contemplation of cyclones from a good distance, are the god-objects of certain regions and times, standing out from everything through the staggering defeat they inflict on our laws of plastic representation, whose evocative power we are particularly jealous of, which we see as depositaries, in art, of the very grace we want to reconquer. (André Breton, preface to the catalogue of the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects La Semaine de Paris, 22-26 May 1936; OEuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade coll., Le Surréalisme et la paint, vol. IV, 2008, p. 692)
International exhibition of Surrealism, Paris, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 17 January-24 February 1938
The contestation of the traditional work of art, and the aim of inscribing Surrealism in the concrete world, as witness the proliferation of objects, was also expressed by the conquest of real space. This took the form of staging Surrealist exhibitions in a way that heralded the art of the installation. Marcel Duchamp, enthroned as generator/arbiter of the 1938 International exhibition of Surrealism at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts, was in charge of the exhibition set and stage design. Each of the sixteen participants was invited to dress a mannequin taken from a department store window. These mannequins formed a line on either side of the Surrealist Street greeting the visitors. The presence of an automaton an authentic descendant of Frankensteins monster announced for the preview, and the darkness enveloping the exhibition (whose first visitors discovered the works using bright torches), led one critic to compare the exhibition to a ghost train.
Surrealism in exile: the object as a challenge to sculpture
The Second World War drove the Surrealists into exile. André Breton, Max Ernst, André Masson, Roberto Matta, Yves Tanguy and others moved to the United States. The Forties and the years that followed saw the appearance of a new generation of sculptures, where the ordinary, everyday object became the basic material in assemblages constructed along the lines of the Cadavre exquis (the free juxtaposition of disparate elements). Max Ernst produced anthropomorphic creatures by assembling plaster moulds of domestic objects (bowls, plates and the like).
Alexander Calders meeting with Joan Miró in 1932 had led him to widen his formal vocabulary to a register inspired by plants and animals. Apple Monster, 1938, made from apple tree branches collected near his studio, humorously evokes Surrealist teratology.
Pablo Picasso was one of the key protagonists in this assemblage sculpture. In 1912, he began introducing objects from his daily environment into his works. His 1914 Glass of absinthe incorporates a real spoon. His use of everyday objects became a significant part of the work he began developing in the early Thirties, when he moved closer to Surrealism. In 1942, his Bulls Head resulted from the assemblage of a bicycle saddle and handlebars. A few years later, The Venus of Gas (1945) was no more than a gas stove burner placed in a vertical position.
Surrealism in 1947, Paris, Maeght Gallery, 7 July - 30 September 1947
The Surrealism in 1947 exhibition, which opened on 7 July 1947 at the Maeght Gallery, remained faithful to the principle of surpassing art underlying the pre-war invention of the Surrealist object. In the catalogue preface, André Breton talked of the recent poetic and plastic works, which have a power over minds that surpasses that of the work of art in every sense. In 1947, this power was identified with the ability of these objects to act as the leaven of a new mythology. The heart of the exhibition was a room containing altars dedicated to a being, a category of beings or an object that could possess mythical life. Esotericism was the latest argument put forward by Surrealism to distance these objects from the field of the aesthetic. Once again, Duchamp was responsible for the installation of the exhibition, laying down general staging principles that were given shape by architect Frederick Kiesler.
Exposition InteRnatiOnale du Surréalisme (ÉROS), Paris, Daniel Cordier Gallery,
15 December 1959-15 February 1960
At first glance, it [the exhibition] should not look like a conventionally hung exhibition. (Marcel Duchamp to André Breton. E.B. Archives, cited in André Breton. La beauté convulsive, Paris, published by the Centre Pompidou, 1991, p. 422)
The eighth international exhibition of Surrealism (ÉROS) was devoted to the movements most secret and constant inspirational power. Marcel Duchamp and Pierre Faucheux were in charge of staging the exhibition. Duchamp, who said he wanted to add eroticism to the list of isms proliferating in the 20th century, dreamed up a vaginal doorway, and an animated, olfactory setting: patchouli at the entrance and a variety of refinements right to the back of the last rooms.
The sound, designed by Radovan Ivsic, broadcast amorous sighs in a continuous loop through loudspeakers. The exhibition covered a huge timescale, from Alberto Giacomettis Boule suspendue and Hans Bellmers Doll to Robert Rauschenbergs Bed and Jasper Johns Targets. Mural pigeonholes in the Fetichism crypt designed by Mimi Parent presented objects emphasising the fact that Surrealist objects had been historically linked with erotic inspiration ever since the symbolic function objects. The critics, who compared the ÉROS exhibition with a waxworks museum or a night club, acclaimed the success of a Duchamp eager to defy the laws of «conventionally hung paintings». In one room of the exhibition, a group of mannequins evoked the «Cannibal feast» created by Meret Oppenheim, celebrated at the exhibition preview.
Eroticism is a preoccupation dear to me. [
] It is something animal, with so many facets that it is pleasing to use it like a tube of paint, so to speak, and inject it into your works. (Marcel Duchamp to Richard Hamilton (interview), Marcel Duchamp Speaks, 13 November 1959, in the BBC programme Art, anti-art; see Bief, no. 9, 1 December 1959.)
Joan Miró: Surrealism in full sunlight
Responding to the Surrealist call to found a physics of poetry, Joan Miró briefly abandoned painting in 1929 to produce a series of Constructions, in which Jacques Dupin saw an undertaking that challenged a plastic tool too easily dominated, after long immersion in troubled waters: the mother-waters of the subconscious and dreams (J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, Flammarion/Gallerie Lelong, 1993, p. 361). His Constructions were a mixture of collage and ready-made: He does not collect things like a aesthete in a hurry to play with them, turn them on their heads or subject them to his whimsy [
], nor to integrate them into a constructors vision [
] No, he transplants them as they are, welcoming them into his ploughed earth, his play area [
]. (J. Dupin, ibid., p. 372). The group of sculptures Miró created in the mid-Sixties revives the playful verve of the very first Cadavres exquis.
In the space, umbrellas, sewing machines, taps and mannequins legs compose the Comte de Lautréamonts random poetry made by everything.