Rendezvous with Sewing Machine and Umbrella
Art critic Christian Huther in conversation with Ingrid Pfeiffer, curator of Surreal Objects at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt
Mannequins with birdcages on their heads or big beetles in their mouths are somewhat unusual, yet the Surrealists decided to start off their 1938 exhibition in Paris with them. Why?
These sixteen mannequins were good illustrations of their themes, such as repressed desire, subconscious drives, the violation of taboos, or the dreamlike.
Now the mannequins can be seen at the Schirn—although only in photos, unfortunately, since after the show, the shop window dummies were restored to their former condition. Surrealist-themed exhibitions are popping up all over the country these days. What makes your presentation different?
One might think that such a famous art movement must have already been thoroughly researched. But, two years ago, when I was searching for classic modern sculptures, I became aware that there had never been a comprehensive exhibit of Surrealist objects. And I realized that these objects are far more contemporary today than the paintings, which tend to seem more historical to us. The objects are a fresh breeze—there is almost something contemporary about them. Unfortunately, there is usually only a single chapter devoted to them in most of the influential literature.
But Surrealists did tend to concentrate on literature or painting. When and how did this tendency change?
Around 1929/30, basically, when Salvador Dalí joined the Surrealists, a focus on objects developed. A larger number of objects were seen for the first time in an exhibition in Paris in 1933. At the time, one of the exhibitors was Alberto Giacometti, who described his works as “mobile and silent objects.” The Surrealists liked this, since they felt that the label “sculpture” was loaded down by aesthetics. Giacometti, who was associated with the group for a few years, created very subtle works. Suspended Ball, for example, is made up of a sphere that almost touches a kind of slide. The work is erotically charged and very mysterious. The Surrealists regarded these kinds of objects as the epitome of the psychological moment—of the maybes, the coulds, the wants, the unfulfilled desire. André Breton, for instance, wrote, “Désir c’est la grande force” (Desire is the great force), in reference to Apollinaire. This became the Surrealists’ theme in the 1930s. There was a real flood of objects, because Breton, the “Surrealist pope,” explicitly demanded their creation and encouraged artists to find inspiration in the everyday, to go to flea markets and find materials.
How many works are you showing?
Around 180 works by 51 artists—of these, 110 objects and 70 black-and-white photographs. Many objects have been destroyed, but we are familiar with them through photos—such as Kurt Seligmann’s stool made out of artificial women’s legs, which is a prototypical Surrealist work.
The Dadaists also produced objects. What is the difference?
The Dadaists were direct and acidic in their criticism of war, society, and politics. We make this clear at the beginning of the show, by exhibiting Wildgewordenen Spiesser Heartfield (Heartfield the bourgeois running wild) from 1920, by George Grosz and John Heartfield. It’s a tailor’s dummy whose right leg has been amputated, and in place of a head, it has a light bulb, to signal that the typical bourgeois has no mind of his own, but instead, can be manipulated. The Surrealists were also part of this critical tradition, but their critique was more literary, more subtle, erotic, and dream-oriented. They did not want to create precise reflections of reality, because they were interested in transformation, metaphor, combination. And the Dadaists tended to use male mannequins, while the Surrealists used female ones. For the Surrealists, women were surfaces for projections. Breton said in 1953, “In Surrealism, woman is loved and honored as the great promise: the promise that lives on after it has been fulfilled.”
Was eroticism the main theme?
Yes, but depictions of it were subtly fragmented and rarely platitudinous. The Surrealists had a complicated relationship to women, whose bodies were often dissected in their works. In our show, we have rumps, heads, hands, feet, and fetishes of all shapes and kinds. Dalí, for instance, turned a red shoe worn by his muse, Gala, into an object.
How important was Sigmund Freud to the Surrealists?
They received his work, but only used it as a creative quarry. Freud wanted to cure people of their psychoses and other problems. The Surrealists wanted to expand perception and experience. They did not want to be cured of their difference. They believed that there would be no hope for a moral and politically enlightened human being, until the forgotten, the repressed, the forbidden and buried, the dirty, and the chaotic saw the light of day.
Was did the female artists have to say about that? Were they also interested in eroticism, with the female body? And how many female artists are included in this show?
At the beginning, the girlfriends and wives of the Surrealists were there, but then later, there were also female artists. Some of them also took up eroticism as a theme, but in a more ironic fashion. The Surrealists are always about humor and eroticism, anyway. But I want to show the entire spectrum of the movement, the internationalism, the different approaches and materials, as well as the associations, which can range from the everyday to the erotic to the dreamlike. We are presenting twelve female artists—that is actually a lot, because the show is concentrated on the object.
What kinds of materials did the Surrealists use?
Almost everything: handmade things, objects found at flea markets, stones found in nature. It was the psychological effect, and not the material itself, which was crucial. That was why it was relatively easy for the Surrealists to make objects. Anyone could contribute a small work to the exhibitions.
How were the works presented in those days? Like art, or like everyday objects?
They started traditionally, with pedestals, but later, Dalí’s Lobster Telephone (also known as the Aphrodisiac Telephone), for example, stood on a little table, next to some peppermint liqueur and glasses. The most famous Surrealist show, which took place in Paris in 1938, turned into an interactive installation. Dalí’s Rainy Taxi stood at the entrance, and inside of it was a mannequin being rained on. That was followed by a long corridor with the sixteen mannequins mentioned above lined up along it. And then came the main gallery, containing objects such as Dalí’s telephone and Wolfgang Paalen’s umbrella made of sponges. They also created a certain kind of atmosphere, so that one could hear the footsteps of marching soldiers or smell coffee, while coal dust trickled down from old sacks on the ceiling. So it was not a white cube, but a mixture of living room and ghost train.
And how are you presenting these works, now?
We are taking a middle road, which suits our present-day era, and have built black pedestals, which are allusions to furniture from the time period. The objects are presented in groups on these pedestals, without any sort of barriers, which is not usual for a museum, but there will still be a certain amount of space around them, for security purposes. Along with the dark red velvet wallpaper, this will create a room-like atmosphere in the six galleries.
Have you also made any discoveries, included any unknown or forgotten artists and works in the exhibition?
The movement is generally regarded as French, but in the 1930s, it became international. At least a third of the artists are unknown, or have been forgotten—for instance, the English artist, Eileen Agar, and her work, Angel of Mercy. We are even showing four works by Breton, whose work is rare. Not to forget Enrico Donati, who worked with Marcel Duchamp in 1947; they made female breasts out of foam, painted them, and glued them onto the cover of an exhibition catalogue, while on the back were the words “Please touch.” This classic Surrealist object confuses the viewer. Am I allowed to? Should I? Can I? It asks for the participation of the observer, yet hinders it at the same time.
You’ve already mentioned the contemporary feel of the works . . .
Yes, the exhibition intends to show the diversity and contemporary characteristics of the objects. Artists today still refer to a quote from poet Isidore Ducasse, which the Surrealists often cited: “as beautiful as the accidental encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Only, in the meanwhile, the rendezvous of the sewing machine and umbrella takes place with different materials. The show should heighten public perception of the Surrealists’ innovations that continue to interest us to this day—such as the involvement of the viewer in the work, or the idea that everything is worthy of being made into art.
February 15, 2011