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Surreal Things at The V&A

Surrealism is one of the most familiar art movements and works by Dali, Magritte and Miro among the best known in 20th century art, but the current show at the V&A concentrates on less familiar aspects of this influential and enduringly popular movement. Called ‘Surreal Things,’ it focuses on the surrealist object and the effect of the movement outside the fine art world; on fashion, advertising, theatre and interior design.

The exhibition begins with a recreated set design by Giorgio di Chirico for ‘The Ball’, a ballet staged in 1929 by the Ballet Russe, which was famous for commissioning set and costume designs from leading avant-garde artists. Di Chirico’s ‘metaphysical’ paintings of the early 1900s were hailed as prototypes for surrealism and greatly influenced Dali’s work. Also on show are weird and wonderful designs for other ballets by Miro and Andre Masson.

A central concept of surrealism was the combination or juxtaposition of unrelated objects or images, either by chance, randomness or through the suggestion of dreams, in order to create new, unexpected meanings. At first this was done in writing and painting but then the surrealists took Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the ‘readymade,’- a man-made object selected by the artist from the real world and elevated to the status of art by virtue of that selection. Several examples of Duchamp’s readymades are featured in the show. The surrealists combined seemingly unrelated objects in ways which suggest new possibilities – like Dali’s telephone with a plaster lobster instead of a handset, Oscar Dominguez’s wheelbarrow upholstered in plush velvet like a piece of luxury furniture, or, my favourite, Meret Oppenheim’s table supported on long, elegant bird’s legs, suggesting that it might strut away at any moment.

The natural world was an important source of ideas and images – a metaphor for the ‘unconscious’- the primitive and irrational side of our consciousness which the surrealists wanted to tap into. In particular, they developed what was dubbed ‘biomorphism’ – organic, amoeba-like shapes that suggest, but never quite define, plants, animals, humans, even machines, sometimes all at once. These feature most strongly in the work of Miro and Masson and fed into the world of design, especially in the USA after most of the surrealists moved there to get away from World War Two. There are several examples of fabric design and blobby looking furniture in what the Americans called ‘freeform’ style.

Surrealism began as a politically radical, left wing movement, like Dada, from which it grew. Not surprisingly, some of its members kept aloof from its increasing commercialisation during the 1930s. Others however were happy to cross over into the world of advertising and the applied arts, particularly fashion design, since the human body, especially the female body, was so central to their work. At a notorious exhibition in Paris in 1938, the artists tried to outdo each other in adorning a female shop mannequin with ‘ready-made’ accessories, eroticising and fetishising the body and equating art with a shop window display. Several examples have been recreated for the exhibition. There are also lots of dresses, improbable hats and creations in fur on show as well as jewellery. My favourite was Dali’s Ruby Lips brooch, taking literally the metaphor of pearly white teeth, surrounded by glittering rubies. Fashion and fashion photography were the main ways in which the surrealists’ fixation with the body became commercialised. Through fashion photography, cover designs for Vogue and advertising, surrealist imagery gained popular currency and its influence persists in the way advertising today grabs our attention with strange and unexpected juxtapositions or transformations of familiar objects.

The exhibition continues at the V&A, London until 22 July.

--Mark Beesley, May 2007

More info

For more information about the Surreal Things exhibition, images from the show, and details of opening times, etc, see the V&A web site:

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