‘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.

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