‘Surreal Things’ at the V&A

Last week I went to ‘Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design‘ at the V&A. It explores the influence of Surrealist art on design, and demonstrates how quickly surrealist imagery was recycled as a design style; initially in very chic and expensive contexts and then in mass-market commercial design. And demonstrated in the process that it’s a very rare image that still manages to be startling, unsettling and generally unheimlich when used as curtain fabric.

Ruby Lips Brooch by Salvador Dali

That’s true even before the adoption of this imagery into the mainstream. One part of the exhibition was about the house of an art collector who was an early enthusiast of Surrealism. His house was painted purple; it had plaster shapes on the walls to look like sheets hanging out of the windows and huge model palm trees on either side of the door; he had the iconic Dali lobster telephones and Mae West Lips sofa, wolf pawprint carpets, and specially designed china, lamps and so on.

But if Surrealism is a radical exploration of the subconscious, dreams, sexuality and so on, what does it mean to fill a whole house with surreal objects? I suppose the collector might have claimed that the whole house was one Surrealist artwork, but it seems to me that once you’ve decided to use Surrealism as a interior design choice, you’ve already neutered it; it just becomes a set of visual tics.

'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' by Dorothea Tanning

Surrealism is always very vulnerable to that loss of power; like a lot of modern art, the moment the audience stops taking it seriously, it’s very hard to recapture the mystique. The most iconic, striking surrealist works—the lobster telephone, the fur-lined cup, some of those Magritte paintings—are also the most easily absorbed as likeable mainstream objects. You can enjoy them as visual jokes or intellectual puzzles and they are memorable and interesting; but without the unsettling, dangerous quality that I think Surrealism aspires to. There’s a very easy slippage from powerfully strange to amusingly quirky.

‘Undercover Surrealism’ at the Hayward

Going to them one after the other, it’s hard not to see the Undercover Surrealism exhibition at the Hayward as some kind of riposte to the Modernism exhibition at the V&A.

The Hayward exhibition (full title: Undercover Surrealism – Picasso, Miró, Masson and the vision of George Bataille) is about a magazine called Documents which Bataille ran from 1929-30. Bataille was most closely associated with the Surrealists – he had a falling out with the ‘official’ surrealists and was never really a surrealist himself, but that was the circle he moved in. Documents was notable for juxtaposing articles about high culture, popular culture and ethnography. So you get coverage of Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Picasso, Dali, Buñuel, Hollywood, trashy novels, African masks, Ethiopian iconography, and the development of the horse imagery from Roman coins into the coins of the Dark Ages. To be honest I was unexcited by the prospect of an exhibition devoted to a magazine, but the curators have done a good job of tracking down plenty of the objects that were covered; so there are Miros, Picassos, Giacomettis, as well as African masks, Dark Age coins; all sorts of stuff. Including some music and film, which was a good move. Apart from the intrinsic interest of most of the exhibits, it did a good job of evoking a particular artistic moment. You can see some of the work here.

Documents existed bang in the middle of the period covered by the V&A Modernism exhibition, but while Corbusier and the Bauhaus were building their airy white machines for rational hygienic living, the Surrealists were more interested in violence, sex, fetish, blood, transgression and distortion. Here’s a typical bit of Bataille:

The slaughterhouse is linked to religion in so far as the temples of bygone eras (not to mention those of the Hindus in our own day) served two purposes: they were used both for prayer and for killing. The result (and this judgement is confirmed by the chaotic aspect of present-day slaughterhouses) was certainly a disturbing convergence of the mysteries of myth and the ominous grandeur typical of those places in which blood flows. In America, curiously enough, W. B. Seabrook has expressed an intense regret; observing that the orgiastic life has survived, but that the sacrificial blood is not part of the cocktail mix, he finds present custom insipid. In our time, nevertheless, the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship. Now, the victims of this curse are neither butchers nor beasts, but those same good folk who countenance, by now, only their own unseemliness, an unseemliness commensurate with an unhealthy need of cleanliness, with irascible meanness, and boredom. The curse (terrifying only to those who utter it) leads them to vegetate as far as possible from the slaughterhouse, to exile themselves, out of propriety, to a flabby world in which nothing fearful remains and in which, subject to the ineradicable obsession of shame, they are reduced to eating cheese.

That’s one of the entries from the Critical Dictionary that was a feature of Documents. Somehow I don’t think Bataille would have agreed that less is more. Even the ethnographic stuff feels rather fetishised – even though it is a serious and intelligent effort of early ethnography, there are enough hints through the exhibition to suggest that Bataille’s interest in black people was basically sexual. Mind you, he seems to have found most things sexual. The surrealists, of course, were also a key part of de Sade’s reinvention as an important literary figure; it was that moment when Freud was seen as validating everyone’s sexual quirks, and the quirkier the better.

It’s tempting to see the two things – Corbusier on the one hand and Dali on the other – as somehow two sides of the same coin, or each as necessitating the other. Or at the least as products of the same forces; of the Great War, and a moment of cultural and historical instabiity when everything was up in the air and no-one quite knew where the world was going. As Yeats put it in 1920: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Perhaps it’s unwise to insist too much on the historicity of it, though. There are probably always some people who are minimalists by temperament and others who are surrealists.