Spotting the birth of an art movement is undoubtedly easier than identifying the moment when it is over. The term surreal was not applied to art until Andre Breton wrote his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. But before that, Marcel Duchamp was already displaying his ready-mades, as was Giorgio de Chirico with his mannequins. Then Breton himself did not coin the term surreal; that honour went to the art critic Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote it first in May 1917, in the program notes for the ballet Parade. So you could, if so minded, summon up an argument about surrealism’s precise birthdate; but all plausible dates are within a few years of each other.
But has surrealism as a movement ended and if so when did it happen? The word surreal is still popularly used to describe anything weird or odd. But art historians have customarily suggested a variety of dates: 1936 – the beginning of the Second World War, 1966 with the death of Andre Breton, or even 1989, marked by the death of Salvador Dali. But the exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Le Surrealisme et L’Objet, seems to suggest that Surrealism is alive and well.
Curated by the Pompidou’s Vice President, Didier Ottinger, the 6th floor exhibition, brings together some 200 objects. There is much in which to take pleasure. There are works by Calder, Dali, Giacometti, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Miró, and Picasso. They include some real classic’s like Victor Brauner Loup-Table and Dali’s Llobster Telephone which, in an exhibition where cameras are generally permitted, has been given the honour of a plinth and a ‘no photography’ sign.
The final room dedicated to Joan Miro’s playful and colourful sculptures is a delight. I rather like the dressed mannequin sitting on a bench which in the dim lighting is hard to distinguish from the real visitors.
Despite such riches, there is a certain awkwardness about the way the whole exhibition has been put together. It feels as if different curators with opposing views have not quite managed to solve their differences, or started with one aim in mind and then run out of time and space. Of course this is not the case – there is a vision but it is one which is cerebral, with lots of jokes and references which will be recognised by art insiders but by few others, and which in the end I felt detracted from what I wanted to see: the work itself.
To begin with it seems straightforward enough; at the entrance there are busts of the important artists involved in the movement. It turns out that the street-names that are projected on the floor were invented for the 1948 Surrealist Exhibition. Man Ray’s Obstruction, a hanging work comprised of 64 coathangers, casts interesting shadows, whilst Gicometti’s sculpture Femme qui Marche has the lighting it deserves.
Also well-lit is Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée, presumably one of the works the Pompidou had in mind, when it put up the warning at the entrance that “Some works of art presented in this exhibition may hurt the public’s feelings, particularly those of young children.” It is nothing like as rude as the Chapman Brothers’ creations,which are not included – perhaps that is why.
But as you progress, it quickly becomes apparent that Ottinger took the view that a time-based layout would provide a too logical structure to an exhibition which is after all dedicated to the bizarre. Quite soon we come across more modern pieces: a 1974 film, Grandeur Nature, in which a man falls in love with an inflatable doll, is projected along one wall. Another huge wall is given over to a couple of 2013 works by Arnaud Labelle Rojaux, whose name hardly trips of the tongue as a leading surrealist. I personally found them crude and uninteresting.
There are a series of photographs – Cindy Sherman’s Sex pictures Series, which also might run the risk of frightening the kids. Are they surreal? I would argue not really. While they might share some similarities, portraying as they do mannequins which have been given various grotesque characteristics, the mindset in making them was totally different. The Surrealists were heavily influenced by Freud’s writings on the power of the unconscious. Sherman was coming from a feminist position and commenting on the pornographic industry and the objectification of women. Freud has been called many things but never a feminist.
Then there is Mark Dion’s Package; this was especially commissioned for the exhibition and comprises a number of brown paper parcels addressed to Ottinger which he had been instructed not to open; instead they are piled up inside a display cabinet. What is surreal about that? Or even original? The idea of the unknown is established territory. A couple of floors below, among the Pompidou’s permanent collection, we have a far more interesting work – Les Archives de Christian Boltanksi, created in 1989, it comprises 646 rusty biscuit tins, in which the artist had placed 1200 photographs and 800 documents from his studio.
While Ottinger was obviously seeking to demonstrate the relevance of surrealism to current work, he is reported as saying that 80% of contemporary artists would have qualified to be included. All artists cannot but help but be influenced by the work that has come before. So why bother to choose a small and not particularly distinguished sample of recent works? The interested visitor can travel back down the escalator to the fifth floor and judge for him or herself the artists who have been most influenced.
Even if one is puzzled by Ottinger’s choice of contemporary works, it would not seem important if they had not appeared to have robbed many of the classic Surrealist pieces of the space they needed.
Described by some reviewers as the highlight of the exhibition, is a room which holds nearly half of the total works the Pompidou has assembled. It references the Exposition Surréaliste d’Objets at the Galerie Ratton, which lasted for just one week in May 1936. Like the 1936 Exposition, the room features an array of objects in a seemingly random display. It must have seemed like a brilliant idea when first discussed. To my mind it does not work. It possibly did not work terribly well in 1936 and our standards of how we expect art to be displayed are now much higher. None of the pieces look as if they have room to breathe. The 1936 Exposition would have stood alone; here, the historic reference is not particularly well signposted and one tends therefore to compares the room to the rest of the exhibition where works are well spaced and well-lit. It looks as though the curators simply became bored.
Look at Jean Marcel’s Spectre du Gardenia. Created in 1936, it is an iconic piece – the head of a woman with zippers for eyes. Placed as it is, right up against Man Ray’s Varlop, and above a stuffed anteater, you might hardly notice it. You have to look hard to find Ma Gouvernante, Meret Oppenheim’s high-heeled shoes dressed up like lamb, which are being used to advertise the exhibition. There, among the rest, is Man Ray’s Venus Restauree, another famous work. For all those that I spotted, there must be plenty that I missed. The problem is, that if you pile artworks up like a load of junk, then junk is what they tend to look like.
There are still a few days left to see the Surrealism and the Object it is running till March 3.