Surrealism and the Exquisite Corpse
In 1920s Paris a group of writers and painters invited chance into the creative process. They invented a parlor game in which each player supplies a line or word then hides it from the next player. The first session produced a poem containing the phrase “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.” The exquisite corpse technique became imbedded in surrealism, a massively influential artistic movement of the early 20th century.
Guillaume Apollinaire is sometimes called the inventor of surrealism. At the very least, he coined the movement’s name—specifically, in a program note for the 1917 ballet Parade, performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with a scenario by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie and costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso. The collaboration gave rise to “a kind of surrealism,” Apollinaire wrote, adding prophetically, “In my view this is just the first of many manifestations of the new spirit now abroad.” He used the term again later that year in the preface to his surrealist drama The Breasts of Tiresias (1917). Apollinaire led the avant-garde, and his influence on all early-20th-century arts extended far beyond terminology. Shortly before his death from influenza in 1918 he delivered a lecture, “L’Esprit Nouveau et les Poetes,” in which he called for pure invention and a total surrender to inspiration. Among those who heeded the call was André Breton, who became the leader of the surrealist movement. The writer Jacques Vaché (who soon died of an opium overdose), wrote to his colleague Breton, “[Apollinaire] marks an epoch. The beautiful things we can do now!”
Connecting the surrealists to their immediate precursors, the cubists, is poet, playwright and critic Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1905 he formed a close friendship with Pablo Picasso, just before the painter turned away from figurative representation to experiment with abstract canvases filled with overlapping planes and facets, mostly in browns, grays or blacks. In 1907 Picasso laid the foundations of cubism with his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon; originally titled The Brothel of Avignon). Picasso’s technique was as controversial as its subject matter; his portrayal of five prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel is two-dimensional and largely monochromatic—a radical break from the play of light on scenes of nature and everyday life that had preoccupied the impressionists.
Apollinaire, meanwhile, was publishing pornography, writing poems that playfully exploited typesetting techniques and challenging the bourgeois establishment as an avant-garde man-about-town. His most famous run-in with the authorities came in 1911, when he was jailed under suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. (He implicated his buddy Picasso, but both men were quickly exonerated.) Apollinaire wrote one book on art, The Cubist Painters, published in 1913.
By 1916 a number of European artists had fled to Switzerland, which remained neutral during World War I. In a Zurich tavern that became known as Cabaret Voltaire, the group founded the Dada movement to rally against the culture that had given rise to such large-scale, savage bloodshed. “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art but of disgust,” said Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet who became the group’s leader and strategist. Dadaists launched attacks on bourgeois art and culture in journals across Europe and created “nonart,” such as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a sculpture consisting of a urinal turned on its back.
In 1920 Tzara went to Paris, where André Breton, a young writer and critic, greeted him enthusiastically. “I gaze at your photograph at length,” Breton gushed with the zeal of a young lover. “I want for nothing more than you.” But Breton’s enthusiasm and Tzara’s influence soon waned—perhaps Dada was a victim of its inherent nihilism, as expressed in such proclamations as “Dada is useless, like everything else in life.” But Dada’s irreverence helped nourish surrealism, a movement that, with Breton at the forefront, sought new nonrational forms of expression by accessing the subconscious.
André Breton said of the surrealists, “Completely against the tide, in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally.” To do so they employed automatism: Like psychic mediums channeling spirits, they let their pens and paintbrushes travel rapidly across the paper, tapping into the subconscious, as Breton wrote, “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Spanish painter Joan Miró took up automatism as a way to break free of conventional bourgeois art, which he felt was propaganda promoting a culture that venerated material wealth. He said, “I’d go to bed, and sometimes I hadn’t any supper. I saw things, and I jotted them down in a notebook. I saw shapes on the ceiling.” Perhaps the most exemplary work of the period is the painting Nude (1926–1927), created by Miró, Yves Tanguy, Max Morise and Man Ray in the spirit of the surrealist parlor game exquisite corpse. Each artist added an element, and the resulting female figure, with leaves for ears and snowshoe feet, defies our sense of reality and order.
André Breton and the writer Philippe Soupault, two founders of surrealism, published the experimental novel Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields) in 1920. They used automatic writing, a process through which words and thoughts come from the interior world of the psyche without mediation by an author’s conscious intentions. Breton and Soupault contributed random words and sentences, in the manner of the game exquisite corpse, and did no editing or rewriting; a chapter ended when the writing session did.
The first work of literary surrealism, Les Champs Magnétiques suggests the dream imagery of the subconscious. Breton said automatic writing approached the “art of those who are nowadays classified as the mentally ill [and] constitutes a reservoir of moral health.” He also likened automatic writing to the babbling of his mistress, Nadja, whose “fits, frenzies and hallucinations marked her out as a seer.” The influence of frenzied babbling is obvious in such passages as “The elephant tusks lean on the star-rise steps so that the princess can descend and the bands of musicians step out of the sea. There is nobody but me now on this sonorous scale-platform, the equivocal wavering of which is my harmony.”
In April 1917, during the World War I battle of Chemin des Dames, André Masson was shot in the chest and lay unattended on the field overnight until stretcher bearers could reach him. Suffering from grave physical and psychic wounds, he spent two years in hospitals, often confined to a padded cell. Like the work of other painters who lived through the horror of battle, Masson’s postwar paintings took on an ominous quality. The Crows (1922) depicts a dead woodland suffused with foreboding. In The Repast (1922), diners huddle around a gaping pomegranate that looks as if it’s bleeding. Masson said it reminded him of seeing a soldier whose head had been blown open; it’s no accident the French word grenade means both “pomegranate” and “hand grenade.”
Masson eventually became drawn to automatism; he randomly applied gesso and sand to canvas, sketched shapes around them and then squeezed paint from a tube directly onto certain sections. The technique produces forms that, Masson said, are “almost always irrational”—and, at times, sadistic. What emerges from Battle of Fishes (1926) is a ferocious piscine conflict that recalls Masson’s experiences in the battlefield.
While the surrealists used what André Breton called “pure psychic automatism” to create free-form expressions of the subconscious, Belgian painter René Magritte embraced a style called veristic surrealism, which depicts the subconscious using realistic images. Magritte often produced deadpan representations of people and objects in unconventional settings, in works that seem to be records of dreams. In Time Transfixed (1938), a locomotive emerges from a fireplace; in The Menaced Assassin (1927), a man listens to an old-fashioned gramophone, oblivious to the bloodied female corpse behind him. “I have found a new possibility things may have: that of gradually becoming something else,” Magritte said of these dreamlike images. “In this way I obtain pictures in which ‘the eye must think’ in a way entirely different from the usual.” Many paintings by Dada pioneer Max Ernst also use realism to portray the subconscious. Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924) was inspired by Ernst’s sister’s death years before and a fever dream “provoked by an imitation-mahogany panel opposite [my] bed, the grooves of the wood taking successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird’s head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top and so on.”
René Magritte was a man of his time. As a student at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (1916–1918) and in his long career as an advertising designer and artist, he encountered a succession of styles born in the studios of European and American artists. The Nude (1919), an early work, features planes and flat, monochrome colors typical of Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s cubist paintings. His colorful and dynamic Donna (1923) reflects the influence of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and other futurists, whose works show the influence of technology and speed and suggest the coming of a new age.
With his collage The Lost Jockey (1926), Magritte embraced surrealism. The charcoal-on-white subject rides his horse across a wooden stage edged with green velvet curtains, racing between oversize chessman-like balusters wrapped in musical staves and sprouting tree limbs. The image seems to come from the depths of the subconscious, and Magritte revisited it several times, including in an oil painting in 1942 and gouache-on-paper treatments (1948 and 1962), all slightly altered. Referring to the oil painting, he said The Lost Jockey was the “first canvas I really painted with the feeling I had found my way.”