Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 to today @ the Design Museum

SURREALISM. Noun: Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, or otherwise, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral considerations.
(First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924)

Surrealism is not a new or better means of expression, not even a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means of total liberation of the mind.
(Surrealist declaration, January 1925)

Introduction to surrealism

Surrealism is ‘a philosophical and artistic approach which violently rejects the notion of the Rational Mind and all its works’. For Surrealists, the True Mind, true human nature – ‘the true function of thought’ – is profoundly irrational.

The Surrealists thought the Rational Mind formed the basis of ‘bourgeois’ society, with its moral and sexual repressiveness, its worship of work and money, its fetishisation of capitalist greed, which had led both to the stifling conformity of Western society and to a series of petty wars over colonies which had themselves led up to the unprecedented calamity of the First World War.

In the Surrealists’ opinion, this entire mindset had proved to be a ghastly mistake. The Surrealists thought that we had to reject it lock, stock and barrel by returning to the pure roots of human nature in the fundamentally irrational nature of the human mind, liberating thought from all censorship and superficial, petty morality, seeking to capture ‘the true function of thought’ and creativity through the exploration of the fortuitous and the uncontrolled, the random and the unexpected, through dreams and coincidences.

The first Surrealist magazine was titled La Révolution surréaliste (1924 to 1929) not because it espoused a communist political line, but because it proposed that Surrealist writing and art would, by its radical dysjunctions and unexpectednesses, reveal to readers and viewers the true nature of unbounded thought and lead to a great social transformation.

Cadeau by Man Ray

Massive show, massive space

This is a huge exhibition containing nearly 350 objects, an overwhelming number, a flood of objects and information in the related wall captions.

Also, the exhibition space itself is big and capacious. Roomy. This allows for the display of lots of large objects, namely furniture, lots and lots of chairs and several striking sofas, mannekins wearing dresses, some enormous sculptures and so on. Not so many tables because tables tend to be enormous, but three or four petite coffee tables or tea tables.

Gae Aulenti by Tour (1993) Manufactured by FontanaArte, Glass; bicycle wheels. Vitra Design Museum

Of course this is because this is an exhibition about design rather than art or sculpture as such. The exhibition is about how the design of objects was impacted by the Surrealist approach and ‘look’ and style and fashion. Hence the need for more than paintings and photos (though there are plenty of these); of designed products.

Chronological

Surrealism was, for its first five years or so, from 1924 to 1929, a writers’ movement, led by the self-appointed pope or bully of Surrealism, André Breton. Only in 1929 when the Catalan Wunderkind Salvador Dalí joined it, did the visual arts come to play a more important role and, eventually, dominate the movement and people’s ideas about it.

The show, like almost all exhibitions, is chronological in structure covering nearly a century of Surrealism from the earliest automatic writing to its most recent manifestation in using artificial intelligence to create artworks.

Thus we start with Surrealism’s first writings and manifestos, and then the outburst of Surreal artworks in the 1930s led by Dalí but with scores of other visual artists, and there were so many of them – Hans Arp, Hans Bellmer, Brassaï, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Wifredo Lam, René Magritte, André Masson, Joan Miró, Meret Oppenheim, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and many more.

The strangeness of objects

The exhibition is divided into themes and begins with the importance of everyday objects. Surrealism took the revolutionary approach of investing the most everyday of everyday objects with an aura of mystery and strangeness.

.It starts with an examination of Surrealism’s beginnings from the 1920s and considers the crucial role that Everyday objects and interiors were embraced by the movement’s early protagonists, as artists sought to capture the aura or mysterious side of ordinary household objects. Cubism had looked at everyday objects – café table, newspaper, bottle of wine – from multiple angles. Surrealism looked at them from a sur-real angle, attributing them volumes of meaning never dreamed of by ordinary people, setting them in weird juxtapositions to jar us out of our everyday doze and jerk us into awareness of the strangeness of being alive and moving through this world of images and symbols.

What could be more normal and everyday than an apple, a businessman and a cloudy sky? Or, in the way René Magritte deploys them, more disturbing?

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

The Son of Man by René Magritte (1946)

These ideas took a while to be developed and fully expressed. It was only the ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto’ of 1929 that introduced the notion of ‘the Surreal object’ – using art or writing to reveal ‘the remarkable symbolic life of quite ordinary, mundane objects’. This inspired artists including Dalí, Magritte, Meret Oppenheim and Man Ray to experiment with an entirely new form of sculpture, by creating absurd objects from found materials and items, revealing the bizarre potential of the everyday.

Object by Meret Oppenheim (1936)

This is the point of Marcel Duchamp’s famous ‘readymades’, objects he noticed amid the bric-a-brac of ordinary life and carefully selected to be placed within a gallery setting, in an exhibition in a gallery, where they acquired completely new resonances, the cheapest of mass-manufactured objects acquiring a holy aura, its entirely practical aspects magically converted into profound and mysterious statements about shape and dynamism and meaning.

Bottle Rack (Porte-Bouteilles) by Marcel Duchamp (1914/1959)

He was to some extent mocking the idea of ‘art’ and ‘the gallery’; but he was also discovering the numinous in the quotidien which was to inspire artists ever since. But this gesture also, as the curators pithily point out, prioritised concept over craft and conceptual art has been with us ever since.

Paintings

There are cases containing manifestos and magazines, key works by Breton such as Amour fou.

There are early paintings by Dalí, Le Corbusier (who was a painter before he became an architect), the mysterious desertscapes of Yves Tanguy, a couple of weird paintings by the English artist, Leonora Carrington who came on the scene a bit later, in the 1940s.

The Old Maids by Leonora Carrington (1947) © Estate of Leonora Carrington / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

Photos

There are lots of photos, maybe a hundred photos, performing its two functions, as documentary record and as artwork.

Among the documents are scads of photos of the founders and early protagonists, Breton and his Parisian colleagues, then the artists. There’s records of the famous 1936 Surrealism exhibition in London, of the Surrealist pavilion (the Dream of Venus’) Dalí created for the World Fair in 1939, and so on. There’s Max Ernst at home in his apartment surrounded by African and Oceanic masks and artefacts (a lovely photo by Hermann Landshoff). And so on.

In the section about ‘sex and desire’ (every art exhibition has to have a section about sex and desire) there’s a suite of photos of Surrealists cross-dressing or being deliberately androgynous, for example photos of Marcel Duchamp dressing as his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, in 1921, and Claude Cahun’s calculatedly androgynous photographic self-portraits, from 1928.

There are photos of works of art, such as the still-disturbing fetishistic mannekins created by Hans Bellmer, or the room full of a mile of string created by Marcel Duchamp for a 1942 exhibition in New York.

And there are photos which are works of art, such as pretty much anything by the genius Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890 in New York but who changed his name and moved to Paris where he spent most of his career).

Le Violon d’Ingres by Man Ray (1924) © Man Ray 2015 Trust/DACS, London 2022

Films

There are four or five films. There are early black and white silent Surrealist films, such as Entre’Acte by Rene Clair (1924), winningly described by the director as ‘visual babblings’.

Oddly, they didn’t have clips from the most super-famous experimental movies by Bunuel, Luis Buñuel’s ‘subversive’ early films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or.

Later in the show there’s a few art films from a generation later:

And a much later film by an African director:

But dominating one wall, not least because it has a loud musical soundtrack, is a screen showing Destino, a short Surrealist animated film which was an unlikely collaboration between Dalí and Walt Disney. It tells the love story of Chronos – the personification of time – and a shapeshifting woman. In fact the movie was never completed because war work took precedence, and the project was only revived in the 1990s when Disney animators competed it according to the original sketches and scenario.

The significance of the film is its indication of Dalí’s success and name recognition in the USA by the 1940s, and the way in which what, on the face of it, are a sequence of nonsensical absurd events, have been assimilated enough for a mainstream producer like Walt Disney to agree to it.

Partly this is down to the instant recognition of a relatively small number of surreal images associated with Dalí. The short 7-minute animation is a collection of greatest hits such as the desert landscape setting, melting clocks, ants appearing out of cracks, human faces or bodies moving into trompe l’oeil settings to cleverly morph into something else.

Also in America during the war, Dalí designed shop windows for the Bonwit Teller department story. Frederick Kiesler designed a new gallery for rich art collector Peggy Guggenheim in a Surrealist style with curving walls. Emerging designers like Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi used the zoomorphic curves found in Surrealism to design more moulded products, such as chairs (Eames) and a chess table and baby monitor (Noguchi).

Was it during the war, when so many European artists were exiled in America, that Surrealism’s pre-war radicalism was neutralised and converted into one more among many styles and fashions?

Sculpture

There are some sculptures, especially from the early period, but not many and this is because of the focus of the exhibition which is not on art, per se, but on design. Therefore, instead of abstract art sculptures, what the rooms are full of is designed furniture.

Classic Surrealist furniture

If the 1930s was the decade when there was an explosion of Surrealist art and the movement broke through into the general consciousness via a series of well-publicised exhibitions (and carefully staged scandals and press events, such as Dalí attending the opening of the London exhibition wearing a deep-sea diver’s outfit) it was in the 1940s that designers began to incorporate elements of the style into their work.

The Surrealists themselves had led the way. If they started out by invoking the weirdness of everyday objects and thoroughly explored this in paintings, sculptures and photos throughout the 1930s, some had applied their deliberately, provocatively bizarre way of seeing to create bizarre household objects, tables, chairs, lamps.

The most florid early examples come from the joint venture between Dalí and the English collector and patron, Edward James. James had Dalí create an entirely Surrealist interior for his home at Monkton House, West Dean in Sussex, notably the famous sofa designed in a cartoon imitation of the lips of Hollywood actress Mae West.

Mae West’s Lips sofa by Salvador Dalí and Edward James (c. 1938) Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton and Hove. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2022

Also on display is the famous lobster telephone, alongside less well-known objects such as the standard lamp made out of brass casts of a stack of champagne glasses (which ‘subverts’ the Victorian notion of a standard lamp); and, most obviously humorous, a carpet with human footprints cut out of it. These, we are told, were the footprints of his wife, the dancer Tilly Losch. When Tilly danced right out of his life, James commissioned a new carpet with the footprints of his dog in it, the dog making, he dryly remarked, ‘a more faithful friend’.

Other rich people commissioned Surrealist interiors:

  • Swiss architect Le Corbusier was commissioned by eccentric millionaire Carlos de Beistegui to design his Paris apartment in a style which combined fantastical elements with clean cut modern lines
  • clean Le Corbusier-designed furniture was included in Dali’s house in Portlligat, Spain
  • aristocrats Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles commissioned Man Ray to shoot a Surrealist film at their modernist pad on the Riviera

By the late 1930s the new surreal style of interior design had been given a name, Fantasy Modernism.

This suite of objects amount to some of the greatest hits of first wave surrealism but they weren’t alone. Meret Oppenheim produced equally imaginative and talismanic sets of surreal objects such as the fur cup and saucer mentioned above, and her birds-leg tables.

Occasional table (1939) by Meret Oppenheim

Occasional table (1939) by Meret Oppenheim

Modern Surrealist furniture

Once you turn the corner into the post-war period, you encounter two big rooms full of more contemporary interpretations of surrealist furniture, by designers from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and through on to the present day. These include lamps, chandeliers, some tables, but above all a lot of weird, wacky, and humorous chairs.

Hand Chair by Pedro Friedeberg (about 1962; this version 1965) Vitra Design Museum

I find it very revealing that this chair started life as a throwaway, joking remark of Friedeberg’s to a carpenter. He thought it would be funny to try and make a chair shaped on a human hand. For me this little anecdote is symptomatic of the way Surrealism stopped being subversive and became a type of visual joke, more like a branch of comedy than an art movement.

There’s:

  • a chair made out of burned carbon i.e. has been burned to a crisp – Smoke Thonet chair number 209 by Maarten Baas (2019)
  • Capitello chair by Studio65, a chair shaped like the capital of a classical column only made of comfy styrofoam instead of marble
  • Ruth Francken’s Man Chair (1971), shaped like a man’s body, the legs the shape of real legs, the arms effigies of two real arms
  • a chair made out of two thick jagged slabs of grass held together by thick steel springs
  • La Momma, a feminist piece by Gaetano Pesce (1973), the ball and chain referencing the oppression of women in a patriarchal society
  • Due Più by Nanda Vigo (1971)
  • Conquest by Nina Saunders (2017)

There’s a chair by Sara Lucas, characteristically lowering the tone (not necessarily a bad thing) with its two boobs made of lots of cigarettes glued together. What I noticed was a) that’s a really basic, anonymous, institutional chair, the kind you get at a school or college, and b) the cigarettes are really nicely arranged, not just bodged together but arranged in a neat concentric circles which bring out what a visually pleasing thing a cigarette is, with its nice alternation between white tube and sandy brown filter; the brown matching the wood brown of the chair seat and back i.e. it’s a funny gag, ha ha, but it’s also a nice ensemble to look at, aesthetically.

Cigarette Tits [Idealized Smokers Chest II] by Sarah Lucas (1999) © Sarah Lucas. Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London

Picking up on the sofa theme set by Mae West, there’s a bang up-to-date piece, wherein a classic Chesterfield sofa, covered in trademark buttons, has been ‘released’, set free, and ‘melted’ out of shape and over the floor, in the manner of Dali’s melting watches – Pools and Poof! by Robert Stadler (2019).

There are several chandeliers, including this striking piece by Ingo Maurer. It immediately made me think of Cornelia Parker‘s famous exploding works, and made me wonder which came first.

Porca Miseria by Ingo Maurer (2019 edition of 1994 design) Vitra Design Museum

And dominating one of the rooms, a life-sized model of a horse, cast in black plastic and with an everyday lamp coming out of its head.

Horse Lamp by Front Design (2006), manufactured by Moooi BV, Breda /Niederlande, Plastic; metal. Vitra Design Museum

When you learn that this comes in a suite of animal furniture including a rabbit lamp and a pig table, you realise the original impulse has become washed out into a kind of homely humour. It’s become about as ‘radical’ as Ikea.

Fashion

One of the most high profile aspects of design is fashion, which holds shows around the world on an annual basis at which dress and clothes designers compete feverishly to outdo each other with new and outlandish ways to ornament the (tall, skinny) female body.

The world of Surrealism overlapped the vast ocean of fashion design, events and, above all, magazines, from the start of the 1930s when, as I’ve described, the visual side of the movement took over from the purely literary.

Thus several surrealist artists also worked as fashion photographers, including Lee Miller and Man Ray. Some, like Dalí and de Chirico, created covers for fashion magazines such as Vogue (some are included here). The exhibition includes fashion photographs and vintage copies of fashion magazines to highlight these connections

Dalí’s collaboration with the French fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (who set up her haute couture house in 1927) resulted in several ground-breaking designs. Their first collaborative piece, the Telephone Dial Powder Compact of 1935, became very popular and was copied and bootlegged for the mass market.

Over in a side room is a dais with five shop-window mannekins sporting classic surrealist designs. One applies Schiaparelli’s signature pink to a minidress contoured to look like the chest and stomach of a very buff man. Another is a modern reworking of iconic Skeleton Dress. There’s a dress by contemporary designer Mary Katrantzou which, when you look closely, uses elements of a typewriter.

Typewriter’ Printed Silk Dress by Mary Katrantzou (2018) Courtesy of Mary Katrantzou

Alongside other designs by Maria Grazia Chuiri, Christian Dior, Iris van Herpen and emerging Afro-surrealist inspired fashion designer Yasmina Atta.

These are funny conceits well executed but I couldn’t help thinking they’ve reduced Surrealism to a gag, a gif, a meme, a one-liner. ‘Did you see the typewriter dress?’ ‘Yes, Wasn’t it funny?’

Generally, by the time something reaches the world of fashion its disruptive energy has, by definition. been neutered, for example punk. Nothing is disturbed. Everything remains in place, but with lolz for a million Zoolander clones.

From communism to consumerism

At around this point in the exhibition, where I encountered the absorption of the Surrealist impulse into the world of international jet-setting fashion, I began to have my doubts.

Breton wanted Surrealism to trigger a genuine revolution in society and perception. He thought bourgeois society could be smashed apart by ripping a great tear through reality and letting out deeper realities. He talked about ‘convulsive beauty’, he wanted a kind of stricken, epileptic aesthetic.

Breton and many other Surrealists became card-carrying communists during the wartorn 1930s. Their movement was a protest against a bourgeois industrial society which had reached the end of its useful life and needed to be torn down to create a free-er, fairer world.

Ironic, then to see the entire movement, the impetus for revolutionary change, utterly absorbed, neutralised, defanged, neutered and then absorbed into the world of the international haute bourgeoisie in the form of high fashion. For me high fashion is the acme of consumer capitalism with its relentless drive for novelty and new product to keep the profits rolling in.

Fashion is not only a forward post of consumer capitalism but at the cutting edge of unnecessary consumption, the epitome of built-in obsolescence whereby you simply have to buy this season’s must-have items and junk last year’s hideously out of date clothes, handbags etc. Epitome of the compulsive need to keep up, to buy the new thing, which we now know, without any ambiguity, is using up the earth’s finite resources and destroying the planet.

Nothing I say, do or write can dent the huge power of the destructive urge to buy buy buy ever-new stuff, but I despise it and, in a way, fear it, this hysterical need to use up all the planet’s resources in the neurotic pursuit of novelty. What will our grandchildren make of the urge to fly round the world from fashion show to fashion show, seeking endless novelty, encouraging the throwing away and junking of what we have, burning up the planet at an ever-increasing rate.

Is Surrealism dated?

Putting aside my antipathy to the world of fashion, by the end of the exhibition the plethora of objects had raised another, pretty basic question, which is: Does any of this shock and surprise any more, cause the kind of frisson of fear, unnerve the viewer, let the unconscious erupt from the conscious mind with shocking force etc, as the Breton’s manifestos hoped it would?

The short answer is, of course: No. No, it doesn’t. Surely Surrealism has been completely assimilated into our bourgeois, neo-liberal, consumer capitalist society. The famous icons, the lobster phone, the Mae West sofa, every painting by Dali, these have been around for nearly 90 years, and you see images of them in any number of art books or postcards in what my kids call bougie (pronounced ‘boozhee’) shops.

Take the series of plates by Piero Fornasetti which run variations on a wonderfully blank, idealised portrait of the Victorian opera singer Lina Cavalieri. I suppose if you were actually eating off one of these, then it might give you a frisson to scrape away at the mashed potato and slowly reveal an eye looking at you. But as an image and idea I feel I’ve seen this hundreds of times and, indeed, almost 400 variations exist, of which seven are on display in an appealing little set hanging on the wall.

Wall plates no. 116 from the series Tema e Variazioni by Piero Fornasetti (after 1950) Fornasetti Archive

In other words, surely most Surrealist art, these days, instead of conveying ‘the shock of the new’ is the precise opposite – reassuring and familiar. We smile or laugh when we see the lobster phone and go ‘oh yes’ with a pleasant feeling of recognition.

Art changes nothing. All art is swiftly assimilated into bourgeois society and loses the ability to shock or even make the viewer think. The simple act of being displayed in a gallery neutralises art, makes it into a mental commodity, to be discussed in highbrow conversations or namedropped to make you seem swanky. Or into an actual commodity, which can be safely hung on the walls of any investment banker or corporate lawyer, or bought by Arab or Russian billionaires and salted away in a vault in Switzerland as part of their diversified investment portfolio.

Thus, for example, the exhibition includes black and white photos recording the Surrealist display Dali created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Apparently you entered the suite of bizarrely decorated rooms by walking between models of a woman’s open legs and through a wall-sized vulva into a ‘womb’ containing a predictable congeries of Freudian imagery, complete with numerous scantily clad models arranged in alcoves or sprawling on a bed amid unlikely ‘Surreal’ bric a brac. Looking at these photos now, they seem like a standard chorus girl show with added lobsters.

A lot of the exhibition, in other words, feels warm and nostalgic, pretty much the opposite of what Breton et al originally had in mind.

Up-to-date exhibits

The curators promise, and the exhibition title indicates, a review from the 1920s up to the present day i.e. covering just about a century of Surrealism, and nearly a third of the objects on show are from the past 50 years.

Thus there are a lot of works from more recent times, the 80s, 90s, noughties, generally by artists I’d never heard of. This is particularly true of the big items of furniture, mostly chairs, which dominate the last few rooms or sections of the show, including:

  • Gae Aulenti’s Tour (1993), a table made from a glass top supported by four bicycle wheels set in chrome forks
  • Jasper Morrison’s ‘readymade’ Handlebar Table (1982)
  • Roberto Matta’s amusing MagriTTA Chair, a sofa style chair which is filled with an enormous green apple, obviously a nod to Magritte’s apple paintings
  • the cartoon chair of Fernando and Humberto Campana from 2007, a basic wide-angle modernistic chair which is then infested with cuddly toys based on Disney characters
  • Sella (1957), by brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, which is composed of a bicycle saddle mounted on a post fixed into a hemispherical base, blurring the boundary between furniture and art
  • video of how contemporary designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec use an intuitive, automatic drawing process to discover new imagery and forms
  • sketch furniture which is created using motion capture cameras to capture the movements of a designer’s hand in the air, save this as a digital file and then use 3D printing technology to print out the object the designer originally sketched out in the air; there’s a video of the process and an actual life-sized chair designed and created using this approach

Or simpler things, Surrealist objects like this absurdist hairbrush spouting hair, worthy of Magritte.

Beauty Hairbrush by BLESS (2019 edition of 1999 design) Vitra Design Museum

Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe I lack taste or sympathy, but I found most of the works in the second half of the show, from the 1960s onwards, far less engaging than the material from the first, classic, era. Take three examples from towards the end of the exhibition.

Björk

The famous musician, composer, performer, singer, songwriter etc Björk, is represented by videos of three fairly recent tracks. Visitors pop on swish earphones and listen to the track while you watch the video. They are:

Well, they’re very well made indeed, both the music and the videos – deliberately different, eschewing visual and musical clichés, consciously innovative and imaginative. And yet…and yet…Björk Guðmundsdóttir, born in 1965, has been Björking for 40 years now (her first single was in 1983). She has become a byword in the pop/fashion/music video businesses for her wildly inventive outfits and compellingly original videos etc. Her oeuvre demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of being a lifelong innovator in pop music. But whatever you think of her exactly, she doesn’t tear the veil of bourgeois convention from the world because thousands of pop and rock musicians and video makers have been doing similar or comparable things for decades.

Tilda Swinton

Over by the fashion mannekins are some photos of famous and award-winning actress Tilda Swinton wearing some bizarre / surreal jewellery.

Same as with Björk, Tilda, born in 1960, feels over familiar. She has been doing her brave androgynous schtick since she first appeared in Derek Jarman’s films in the mid-1980s i.e for nearly 40 years. Far from disturbing me, tearing the veil from my mad unconscious urges, Tim Walker’s photos of Swinton looked like standard Sunday supplement fashion shoot any time in the past 30 years, just with a particularly ‘arty’ kink.

Sarah Lucas

I went to the original Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts back in 1997 and it was a genuinely transformative experience, to see so much vibrantly exciting and innovative artworks, all by a young generation of artists reflecting the ‘modern’ world, all in one place. But it’s been some time now since Damian Hirst’s sharks in a glass tank stopped being subversive or world-shattering and became a kind of joke, common enough knowledge to be used in popular cartoons.

Sarah Lucas never reached Hirst-like levels of fame and notoriety, because she kept (I think) her visual metaphors to a much more modest scale and her works reek of laddish, pub culture, and schoolboy (or girl) jokes. Hence her cheap and cheerful work, Cigarette Tits.

Cigarette Tits by Sarah Lucas (1999)

Compare and contrast with Lucas’s fried eggs t-shirt which has become a popular postcard in the kind of bougie shops I mentioned earlier.

When has an art movement run its course?

This all raises the question: when do you recognise that – or admit that – a style has run its course, is worn out, has become pedestrian – has, in fact, become a cliché?

It’s a more relevant question for Surrealism than maybe any other art movement in history because Surrealism set out to be more shockingly subversive than any other art movement in history (with the possible exception, I suppose, of its parent, Dada).

So where are you, what are you to make of it, when the most deliberately bourgeois-bating, consciously ‘subversive’ art movement of the 20th century has long since arrived on the front of colour supplements, inspires high fashion dresses, is reduced to jokes and cartoons, has been done to death in TV, movies, comedy, in every channel of output, only to feature in calm and sedate and scholarly exhibitions like this one?

The curator’s view

Kathryn Johnson, the exhibition’s main curator, optimistically claims that:

“If you think Surrealism fizzled out in the 1960s, think again. This exhibition shows that it is still alive and well and that it never really went away. The early Surrealists were survivors of the First World War and the 1918 influenza pandemic, and their art was in part a reaction to those horrors. Today, in the context of dizzying technological change, war and another global pandemic, Surrealism’s spirit feels more alive than ever in contemporary design.”

Hmm. Are we in the midst of dizzying technological change? I mean, isn’t your laptop this year, or your smartphone, pretty much like the one you had one or five years ago? Maybe you can do a few more tricks on it, but isn’t it basically the same? And did the COVID-19 pandemic produce shattering changes in social structure and values? Not really. I don’t think so. And has the war in Ukraine turned Britain upside down, decimated a generation of young men, traumatised the western world? No, not really, not at all.

Like all curators, Johnson is paid to make the most powerful possible case for her show, and you can see how she’s roping in these adventitious historical events to try and do so, but…she doesn’t persuade me.

Did Surrealism have any impact on twentieth century design?

For the entire time I was at the gallery I was beguiled by the objects on display and spent all my mental energy reading the main wall labels, and then the many captions for each of the individual pieces. A labour of love or a fool’s errand, depending on your point of view.

It was only on the Tube home that something really struck me. The curators claim that Surrealism had a major impact on 20th century design but I’m not sure they prove it in this exhibition. They have gathered nearly 350 Surrealist exhibits, hundreds of which demonstrate how striking and powerful individual Surrealist objects, furniture, photos, films and so on can be. No doubt about it.

But whether Surrealist principles, the Surrealist aesthetic, actually impacted the broad range of 20th century design, that’s a lot less clear and the more I thought about it the less plausible it seemed.

Sure there were striking Surrealist chairs and lamps and chandeliers and some ‘Surreal dresses’, but…these are all one-offs. No-one is going to buy the melted Chesterfield sofa or the chair made out of two jagged slabs of glass, or the lamp sticking out of a horse (well, one or two wealthy people might).

My point is that pretty much all the designed objects in the show are one-offs, inspiring, amusing luxury artefacts or art objects, but…could any of them be mass produced and sold in significant numbers? Not really (the one notable exception is the Fornasetti plates, which have been mass produced).

The fad for adding Surreal elements to interior design was christened ‘Fantasy Modernism’ in the late 1930s, but how many homes did it every apply to? The curators name four. Not a large number, is it?

Compare and contrast with the impact of Art Nouveau or Art Deco. A glance at articles about them show that they mainly existed as styles of design: of lovely stained glass and furniture for cafes and restaurants for Art Nouveau; as an entire look in the 1930s which affected everything from blocks of flats to ocean liners.

Or take the impact of the Bauhaus. Without a shadow of a doubt the Bauhaus aesthetic of stripping away Victorian decoration to reveal the clean, geometric functional lines of everything from teapots to high rise buildings massively influenced mid-20th century design of everything, having a world-changing impact on, for example, the design of buildings all around the world for 50 years or so, from the 1930s to the 1980s. Nobody can doubt the profound impact the Bauhaus’s design principles had on all aspects of twentieth century design.

But Surrealism’s impact on design? Look around you. Is anything you can see in your house – interior design, table, chairs, sofa, workbench, laptop, sink, kettle, cups, or outside, the design of cars or bikes or buildings – does anything anywhere around you betray the slightest impact of the Surrealist impulse to yoke together the bizarre and the weird and the absurd? I don’t really think so.

Sure, there are a lot of Surreal works of art. Certainly a contemporary photographer or fashion designer can invoke or reference some aspects of the visual language worked out by Surrealist painters and photographers all those years ago. Movies can have Surreal dream sequences etc. But design? Mass market, mass produced, widely available objects which everyone could have in their house, mass produced styles of car design or architecture? No. Not at all.

Is the entire concept of design the opposite of Surrealism?

There’s a related point: designing anything and then converting the design into an actual object, especially an object produced through industrial manufacturing, obviously takes a lot of time, effort, precision of design and co-ordination of the manufacturing process.

Surrealism was committed to automatic writing, bizarre juxtapositions, spontaneous eruptions of the unconscious, savage breaks in reality. How could the weird, dissociative effects aimed at by Surrealism be reconciled with the careful calculation required of designing anything?

I wonder whether, by bombarding the visitor with 350 examples of Surrealist art works, photos, magazine covers, sculptures, paintings and so on, the curators somehow dodge the central point at issue. ‘Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 to Today’ is a magnificent assembly of Surrealist works in all formats, and includes a lot of interesting, intriguing and amusing pieces from its origins right up to the present day. But does it make its case for the widespread influence of the Surrealist way of thinking on 20th century design. I was left wondering…

Top ten exhibits

The curators made a handy selection of top ten items. I might as well share it with you.

1. Lobster telephone by Salvador Dalí

One of the exhibition’s most iconic works and a key moment in Surrealism’s transition from art to design. Dalí designed it for the collector Edward James, and in the show it is positioned next to a Mae West sofa to bring to mind an image of James’ wild interiors. It is a fully functioning telephone, designed to give the impression that its user is kissing the lobster when speaking into the receiver. Dalí saw both lobsters and telephones as erotic objects, and his first designs for this object were titled the ‘Aphrodisiac Telephone.’

Lobster Telephone by Salvador Dalí (1938) Photo West Dean College of Arts and Conservation. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2022

2. Destino by Salvador Dalí

The cartoon animation collaboration with Walt Disney described above.

3. Porte-Bouteilles by Duchamp

A 1964 re-edition of Duchamp’s 1914 original Porte-Bouteilles or bottle rack. A ready-made sculpture, the original was bought at a department store in Paris. Duchamp didn’t think to keep it, and it was only when the piece became famous later on that he got an identical rack from the same store and remade it. Placing this mass-produced, industrial object in an artistic context was a hugely important gesture. It emphasised concept over craft, one of several gestures by Duchamp which in effect created ‘conceptual art’ which has been hugely influential ever since.

Bottle rack by Marcel Duchamp

4. Look 6 Haute Couture by Schiaparelli

Maison Schiaparelli’s shocking pink dress features a trompe-l’œil pattern embroidered by glass tubes, following the contours of a muscular (male?) body. This silhouette is echoed across Maison Schiaparelli’s Spring Summer 21 collection, and is modelled on Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1930s wooden mannequins – a pair called Pascal and Pascaline – that she showed in her shop window in Paris.

Look 6 Haute Couture by Schiaparelli (Spring/Summer 2021) Courtesy of Schiaparelli

5. Hay by Najla El Zein

Created by contemporary designer and sculptor El Zein, this is a piece of porcelain with hay inserted into the holes it to give the impression that it is growing out of the stone. Part of a series called ‘Sensorial Brushes’, this work plays with the transition between familiar and unfamiliar. El Zein’s imaginative use of materials, and the call to her audience to experience the world differently, places her firmly within the Surrealist canon.

6. Fur bracelet by Méret Oppenheim

Méret Oppenheim designed a fur-covered bracelet for Elsa Schiaparelli and reportedly wore the prototype when meeting up with fellow artists Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at a Parisian café. They played with the idea that anything might be covered in fur, and Oppenheim soon afterwards created her widely celebrated Surrealist work ‘Luncheon in Fur / Object’ – a fur covered cup and saucer (see above) which ‘disrupts expectations’ by combining the domestic with the uncanny.

Fur bracelet by Meret Oppenheim

7. Cadeau by Man Ray

One of the first works you see in the show is called ‘Cadeau’ or ‘Gift’ by Man Ray. The story goes that Man Ray was on his way to one of the first Surrealist exhibitions in 1921 and needed to make a piece on the hoof to show. He went into an ironmonger and bought a flat iron and some nails, before proceeding to stick the nails to the flat iron with glue. Not only does it make the iron completely dysfunctional, it also has this aggressive, proto-punk edge. Instead of being a domestic tool for pressing clothes neatly, it becomes a weapon that could rip your clothes.

Cadeau by Man Ray

8. Sketch Chair by Front Studio

This ‘Sketch Chair’ is designed by literally sketching in mid-air with hand gestures. These gestures are captured using motion capture technology, then translated into 3D printed works. The 3D form captures the spontaneity and messiness of human movement in a functional piece of furniture.

It connects with Picasso’s light drawings, photographed by Gjon Mili, from 1949, shown in a photograph beside the Sketch Chair.

9. Photographs by Tim Walker

Tim Walker is known for using Surrealist imagery in his fashion photography. Both photographs in the exhibition featuring Tilda Swinton as a model are from a shoot for W magazine titled ‘Stranger than Paradise’. Walker and Swinton went to Mexico, to the architectural folly La Pazas, created by Edward James – the man who commissioned the lobster telephone and Mae West Lips sofa from Dalí.

They used the folly as a set for a fashion shoot inspired by Surrealist artists, referencing works by painters like Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini. In the exhibition the photos are placed next to original paintings by Carrington (‘The old maids’, ‘The house opposite’) and Fini. Walker’s photography also features jewellery by Vicki Beamon, namely jewel-encrusted lips reminiscent of Dalí imagery.

10. Kosmos in Blue collection by Yasmina Atta

Working in the spirit of the rapidly expanding Afrosurrealist movement, Yasmina Atta’s Kosmos in Blue – from her graduate collection – derives from the confluence of different cultures, including the designer’s Nigerian heritage and her interest in Japanese manga and Gundam girls.

The piece on display here is a set of embellished leather wings that move intermittently. The foam harness attaching the wings to the wearer’s body has an intentionally DIY-feel, as it was made in Atta’s studio over COVID lockdown when her access to materials was limited. She wanted the final product to reflect this experience of constriction, and as a result the wings represent a more personal and ready-made brand of couture.


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Other Design Museum review

Art Deco by Alastair Duncan (1988)

Perhaps most significant to the development of a twentieth century aesthetic was the birth in the interwar period of the professional industrial designer… (p.118) In the 1920s commercial art became a bona fide profession which, in turn, gave birth to the graphic artist. (p.150)

This is one of the older volumes from Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series, famous for its thorough texts but also, alas, for the way most of the illustrations are in black and white (this book has 194 illustrations, but only 44 of them in colour, most of them quite small).

Duncan also wrote the WoA volume on Art Nouveau, which I read recently, and has gone on to write many more books on both these topics, including a huge Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 30s. He knows his onions.

Main points from the introduction

  • Art Deco was the last really luxurious style – people look back to Art Deco and Art Nouveau with nostalgia because they were florid, indulgent and luxurious – since the Second World War all styles have been variations on plain functionalism.
  • Art Deco is not a reaction against Art Nouveau but a continuation of it, in terms of ‘lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials’.
  • Received opinion has it that Art Deco started after the war, but Duncan asserts that it had begun earlier, with some indisputable Art Deco pieces made before 1914 or during the war. In fact he boldly suggests that, had there been no war, Art Deco might have flourished, peaked and been over by 1920.
  • Art Deco is hard to define because designers and craftsmen had so many disparate sources to draw on by 1920 – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, but also high fashion, motifs from the Orient, tribal Africa, the Ballets Russes, or Egypt, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922.
  • Duncan distinguishes between the decorative styles of the 1920s which were luxurious and ornamented, and of the 1930s, when machine chic became more dominant, lines sleeker, more mechanical. The chapter on metalwork makes this clear with the 1920s work alive with gazelles, flowers and sunbursts, while the 1930s work copies the sleek straight lines of airplanes and steamships. In the architecture chapter he distinguishes between zigzag’ Moderne of the 1920s and the ‘streamline’ Moderne of the 1930s (p.195).
  • There’s also a distinction between the French style (the French continued to lead the field in almost all the decorative art) exuberant and playful, and the style of the rest of Europe and, a little later, America, which was cooler, more functional and intellectual. Throughout the book Duncan refers to the former as Art Deco and the latter as Modernism.
  • To my surprise Duncan asserts that Modernism was born at the moment of Art Deco’s greatest triumph i.e. the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The severe modernist Le Corbusier wrote an article criticising almost all the exhibits for their luxury and foppishness and arguing that true design should be functional, and mass produced so as to be affordable.
  • Duncan contrasts the attenuated flowers and fairy maidens of Art Nouveau with the more severe functionalism of the Munich Werkbund, set up as early as 1907, which sought to integrate design with the reality of machine production. This spartan approach, insistence on modern materials, and mass production to make its objects affordable, underpinned the Bauhaus, established in 1919, whose influence spread slowly, but affected particularly American design during the 1930s, as many Bauhaus teachers fled the Nazis.

So the entire period between the wars can be simplified down to a tension between a French tradition of luxury, embellished and ornamented objects made for rich clients, and a much more severe, modern, functionalist, Bauhaus style intended for mass consumption, with the Bauhaus concern for sleek lines and modern materials gaining ground in the streamlined 1930s.

In reality, the hundreds of designers Duncan mentions hovered between these two poles.

Structure

The book is laid out very logically, indeed with the rather dry logic of an encyclopedia. There are ten chapters:

  1. Furniture
  2. textiles
  3. Ironwork and lighting
  4. Silver, Lacquer and Metalware
  5. Glass
  6. Ceramics
  7. Sculpture
  8. Paintings, Graphics, Posters and Bookbinding
  9. Jewelry
  10. Architecture

Each of the chapters tends to be broken down into a handful of trends or topics. Each of these is then broken down into area or country, so that successive paragraphs begin ‘In America’ or ‘In Belgium’ or ‘In Britain’. And then each of these sections is broken down into a paragraph or so about leading designers or manufacturers. So, for example, the chapter on ceramics is divided into sections on: artist-potters, traditional manufactories, and industrial ceramics; each of these is then sub-divided into countries – France, Germany, America, England; each of these sub-sections then has a paragraph or so about the leading practitioners in each style.

On the up side, the book is encyclopedic in its coverage. On the down side it sometimes feels like reading a glorified list and, particularly when entire paragraphs are made up of lists of the designers who worked for this or that ceramics firm or glass manufacturer, you frequently find your mind going blank and your eye skipping entire paragraphs (one paragraph, on page 51, lists 34 designers of Art Deco rugs).

It’s a shame because whenever Duncan does break out of this encyclopedia structure, whenever he stops to explain something – for example, the background to a particular technique or medium – he is invariably fascinating and authoritative. For example, take his explanation of pâte-de-verre, something I’d never heard of before:

Pâte-de-verre is made of finely crushed pieces of glass ground into a powder mixed with a fluxing agent that facilitates melting. Colouring is achieved by using coloured glass or by adding metallic oxides after the ground glass has been melted into a paste. In paste form, pâte-de-verre is as malleable as clay, and it is modelled by being packed into a mould where it is fused by firing. It can likewise be moulded in several layers or refined by carving after firing. (p.93)

Having myself spent quite a few years being paid to turn a wide variety of information (about medicine, or botany, or VAT) into clear English, I am full of admiration for Duncan’s simple, clear prose. There’s a similar paragraph about silver which, in a short space, brings an entire craft to life.

By virtue of its colour, silver is a ‘dry’ material. To give it life without the use of surface ornament, the 1920s Modernist silversmith had to rely on interplay of light, shadow, and reflection created by contrasting planes and curves. Another way to enrich its monotone colour was by incorporating semiprecious stones, rare woods, ivory and glass. Towards the 1930s, vermeil or gold panels were applied to the surface as an additional means of embellishment. (p.71)

He tells us that the pinnacle of commercial Art Deco sculpture was work done in chryselephantine, combining bronze and ivory, and that the acknowledged master of this genre was Demêtre Chiparus, who made works depicting French ballet and theatre.

Duncan makes the simple but profound point that, in architecture, Art Deco tended to be applied to buildings which had no tradition behind them, to new types of building for the machine age – this explains the prevalence of the Art Deco look in so many power stations, airport buildings, cinemas and swimming pools. Think (in London) Battersea power station (1935), Croydon airport (1928), the Golden Mile of Art Deco factories along the Great West Road at Brentford, Brixton Lido (1937), Charles Holden’s Art Deco Tube stations, and scores of Odeon cinemas across the country.

I liked his wonderfully crisp explanation of costume jewelry.

Costume jewelry differs from fine jewelry in that it is made out of base metals or silver set with marcasite, paste or imitation stones. (p.167)

Now you know. When he’s explaining, he’s wonderful.

Likes and dislikes

To my great surprise I actively disliked most of the objects and art shown in this book. I thought I liked Art Deco, but I didn’t like a lot of this stuff.

Maybe I’m a Bauhaus baby at heart. I consistently preferred the more linear work from the 1930s.

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because Duncan doesn’t include much about Art Deco posters (despite having authored a whole book about them). Indeed the section on posters here was remarkably short and with hardly any illustrations (7 pages, 6 pictures).

Similarly, the section on the scores of fashionable magazines and graphic illustrations from the era (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and countless others) is barely 3 pages long.

There’s nothing at all about movies or photography, either. Maybe this is fair enough since Duncan is an expert in the decorative and applied arts and that’s the focus of the book. Still, Gary Cooper is a masterpiece of Art Deco, with his strong lines ending in beautiful machine-tooled curves (nose and chin), his powerful symmetries – as beautiful as any skyscraper.

Gary Cooper, super duper

Gary Cooper, super duper

French terms

  • animalier – an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals
  • cabochon –  a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted
  • éditeur d’art – publisher of art works
  • nécessaire – vanity case for ladies
  • objet d’art – used in English to describe works of art that are not paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional, of high quality and finish in areas of the decorative arts, such as metalwork items, with or without enamel, small carvings, statuettes and plaquettes in any material, including engraved gems, hardstone carvings, ivory carvings and similar items, non-utilitarian porcelain and glass, and a vast range of objects that would also be classed as antiques (or indeed antiquities), such as small clocks, watches, gold boxes, and sometimes textiles, especially tapestries. Might include books with fine bookbindings.
  • pâte-de-verre – a kiln casting method that literally means ‘paste of glass’
  • pieces uniques – one-off works for rich buyers

Conclusion

In summary, this is an encyclopedic overview of the period with some very useful insights, not least the fundamental distinction between the French ‘high’ Art Deco of the 1920s and the ‘Modernist’ Art Deco of the 1930s (which flourished more in America than Europe). But it is also a rather dry and colourless book, only occasionally coming to life when Duncan gives one of his beautifully lucid technical explanations.

Probably better to invest in a coffee-table volume which has plenty of large illustrations (particularly of the great posters and magazine illustrations) to get a more accessible and exciting feel for the period.


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Every room in the Victoria and Albert Museum

Cousin Carlos was over from Spain and asked if we could have a go at visiting every room in the (vast) Victoria and Albert Museum. In one full day, from opening time at 10am to chucking out time at 5.30pm, we managed to visit the first 50 rooms, i.e the whole of the ground floor.

The highest-numbered room in the V&A, up on the sixth floor, is 146 – but it quickly becomes obvious that not all the rooms exist, or are accessible, and that entire sets of rooms seem to have gone missing. So maybe there are more like 120 accessible rooms.

The advantage of the ‘every room in XXX’ approach is it makes you visit parts of museums you’ve never visited before, didn’t even know existed, or usually walk past in a hurry to get to the latest exhibition.

Cosimo III de' Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Cosimo III de’ Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Rooms 1 to 7: Europe 1600 to 1815

These are next to the tunnel entrance and are relatively new. They show objects from Europe – mainly France – between 1600 and 1815. A gallery attendant was keen to show us the latest digital innovation, which is you can look up some of the objects on a smartphone app and listen to commentary about them.

But the most striking thing about these seven big rooms is the question – Why are they in reverse chronological order? Why don’t the rooms start in 1600 and proceed through to 1815, showing you the development of various styles of furniture, metalwork, silverware and cutlery etc?

Instead, you begin with busts of Napoleon and Josephine and some striking ‘First Empire’ furniture from 1805 or so, and then move slowly back in time through the neo-classicism of the late 18th century with elaborate clothes and enormous dinner services (1770), past attractive rococo paintings (1750) and on into the heavy, elaborate and melodramatic statuary, painting and metalwork of the Baroque (1600 to 1700).

Of the wealth of impressive objects on display I most liked the rococo paintings. I liked their delicacy and humour, especially so close to the heavy, grinding Baroque mirrors and furniture and the architect’s plans and paintings of the vast palaces designed to squash the viewer with their power and wealth.

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 - 1752)

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 to 1752)

The galleries include several spaces entirely recreating the inside of a rococo or Baroque room of the time. There’s also a fancy interactive video built around the characters of the commedia dell’arte, popular across Europe in the 18th century.

Towards the end was a space devoted to 17th century guns with an informative video showing how they were loaded and fired. Beautifully made with plenty of fancy scrollwork and decorative metal work, these are, nonetheless, instruments designed to blind, eviscerate and kill people. As I get older I find it harder to ‘enjoy’ the sight of such things.

Case of 17th century muskets

Case of 17th century muskets

Rooms 8 to 10: Medieval and Renaissance 300 to 1500

I’ve reviewed these rooms elsewhere.

Not enough late antique/Dark Age/early medieval stuff, for my taste. More Vikings, please! In line with the confusing room number policy, although the numbers indicate three rooms there are in fact six, numbers 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c. I like the pagan motifs, the Dark Age animals, the hieratic postures of these pre-Conquest figures, and the strange forest animals and foliage woven into the capitals of the wooden columns on display.

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

I liked this 12th century Madonna and child because it is so modern. It looks like an Eric Gill.

12th century Madonna and child

12th century Madonna and child

I love the enormously solid but beautifully carved wellhead from 900. Although a Christian artefact it is decorated with classic ‘Celtic’ interwoven knots and is redolent of a strange dark time, full of pagan secrets and mysteries.

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy (c.900)

Room 10c is dominated by an enormous work – the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt (1425 to 1430). The tapestry is impressive in itself but benefits enormously from a stylish touch-screen guide. This lets you select particular themes or parts of the image and then zooms in to give extra information about them, giving you time to really absorb the details and let the impression of this huge work really sink in.

On the whole, I prefer medieval art because I find it full of touching and humorous details, to Renaissance art which I find too austere and coldly perfect. Hence I liked the three wooden statues in this room, depicting a knight and squire and man at arms, quirkily thin and cartoon-like, missing bits of their arms and equipment.

Three standing English wooden figures (1450)

Three standing English wooden figures (around 1450)

Rooms 11 to 15

Missing, as far as I can tell.

Room 16a

A corner room between 27 and the café which contains one statue, probably by Tilman Riemenschneider of Wurzburg, Germany, made around 1510.

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Along with the north European statuary in rooms 26 and 27, this makes me wonder if there is a distinctive northern Renaissance ‘look’ i.e. the faces seem longer and narrower, the figures slightly gaunter, than the smooth perfections of the Italy Renaissance. I find them more characterful, in their strange remote medieval way.

Rooms 17 to 19

Don’t appear to exist.

Rooms 20 to 24: The sculpture gallery

Room 20 appears to be closed off. You could be mistaken for not realising numbers 21 to 24 were rooms at all since they in fact constitute the long narrow corridor you cross when you step down from the shop and walk across a narrow space to get to the swing doors into the John Madejski garden in the centre of the museum.

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

The corridor is lined with, and has a long central row of, a great array of statues of all shapes and sizes. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped and read the wall panels here and so I realised for the first time that this is the V&A’s European statue collection. As I’ve sauntered through it towards the exhibition rooms, I never suspected that it was divided into categories – funerary statuary, portrait statuary, garden statuary. Nor that it is arranged chronologically.

In the usual V&A manner, the rooms are in reverse chronological order i.e. the oldest statues – Jacobean funeral images and wall monuments from churches – are in ‘room’ 24, while ‘room 21’ contains a surprising array of 20th century sculpture. So, as so often, if you start at the lowest number and go through them in order, you are travelling back in time.

I had no idea that the far left of the corridor, room 21, contained such brilliant highlights of 20th century Modernist sculpture.

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

By taking the time to stop and read the many wall panels, I learned that most of the statuary belongs to the neo-classical i.e. hyper-real style which dominated from 1700 to around the 1850s. Master of this style appears to be have been Antonio Canova, who was one of several European sculptors who immigrated here and made a living supplying tasteful classical statuary for the homes and gardens of members of the aristocracy who had learned about this sort of thing on their Grand Tours of the Continent.

The cut-off date of 1850 coincides with the rise of ‘Romantic’ sculpture, which for practical purposes is dominated by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Apparently, eighteen or so of his works were being shown in a London exhibition of modern art in the summer of 1914 just as the Great War broke out. As the British found themselves fighting the Hun alongside the French, Rodin made the magnanimous gesture of donating all the works to the British nation. And so here they are, the Rodin Bequest, on permanent display in room 21a.

Rooms 26 to 27

These form the corridor running between the exhibition shop with windows to the left onto the Garden, which you walk down to get to the café. They are statues, so sort of related to the earlier preceding rooms, but statues of the north European (German, Dutch) Renaissance, almost all figures of Christ, the Crucifixion, Mary, saints, from around 1500, so in fact more closely related to the medieval and Renaissance galleries. And mostly in wood, often cracked perished wood, compared with the impossibly smooth white marble of Canova’s 18th century creations.

Rooms 28, 29, 30, 31

Missing.

Rooms 32 and 33

These are the numbers of the corridor outside the main exhibition rooms. They have half a dozen huge mosaics commissioned by an early director of the museum from contemporary artists. The one that stood out for me was the figure of Pisano as created by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Rooms 34, 35, 36, 37

Missing.

Rooms 38a, 38b, 38c

The main exhibition rooms. 38b and 38c are closed while the curators take down the big Botticelli exhibition and prepare the 1960s Revolution show, which is due to open in September.

38a is hosting a temporary exhibition of photographs from the past century, which take the camera itself as their subject. Oooh, the self-referentiality! From kids in New York slums taking pics of themselves holding Kodak brownies to paparazzi shots of glamour models or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being hounded by press photographers, none of these really interested me.

Earlier this year it was announced that ‘The world’s largest and finest collection on the art of photography is to be created in London when more than 400,000 objects transfer from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the Victoria and Albert Museum.’

Just from a few hours’ exploration I’d realised that the V&A is really pressed for space. Its collection is vast and the rooms and corridors and galleries which currently exist can only show a fraction of its artefacts.

So where on earth is it going to display an additional 400,000 photographs? A purpose-built photography museum would be a much better idea.

Room 40

This is a big stand-alone room in the west wing, just up the stairs from room 21 of the statue gallery. In the centre of the room is a big circular construction which you need a ticket to enter and which hosts clothes-related exhibitions. This is where they had the stimulating show of fashion shoes earlier in the year. Now it’s hosting the exhibition of underwear through the ages, which I whistled through a few weeks ago and found surprisingly boring.

Lining the walls of the room which surrounds it are big cases displaying historic European clothes.

Rooms 41 to 45: The Asian galleries

These four rooms are each a world unto themselves, focusing on, respectively the art and culture of:

Room 43 is the central main V&A shop

  • China (44)
  • Japan (45) ‘The V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in 1852 and now holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and dress, prints, paintings, sculpture and modern & contemporary studio crafts.’

These rooms are so large and so packed with stuff that they have their own diagrams showing how the displays are organised into themes and subjects. Whole worlds, thousands of years of tradition, can be sampled and enjoyed in each one and they are related to specialist rooms tucked away elsewhere in the Museum. From these rooms I liked the geometric woodwork of the Islamic galleries, like this 19th century window panel.

Islamic wooden carved screen

Islamic wooden carved screen

  • the numerous small 18th century watercolours from India, such as this depiction of Nawab Sikander Jah (1810) artist unknown
  • almost any of the lovely Japanese prints:
19th century Japanese print

19th century Japanese print

Rooms 47a to 47g: The Asian corridor

As with the sculpture galleries, I’d always thought of this as a corridor – architecturally it is the long corridor which runs to either side of the main entrance (47d). I’d never really realised that each division of the corridor counts as a ‘room’ and that these are arranged to showcase artefacts from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on. There were no end of golden Buddhas from all these countries and a space dedicated solely to Buddhas. Among all these the delicate puppet figures from Indonesia stood out, for me.

Rooms 46a and 46b: The cast courts

At the east end of this long corridor is an entrance into the famous Cast Courts. There are usually two of these but room 46a is closed for refurbishment.

46b is an enormous room, well-lit by a glass roof, which contains monstrously enormous plaster casts of some of the great classics of the Italian Renaissance. The casts were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition and were an education for the great majority of the population, and the many artists, who couldn’t afford to go on the Grand Tour to Italy themselves. Obvious highlights include:

although many of the best things are the tiny details to be found among the vast friezes and reliefs copied from towns and cities across Renaissance Italy.

Room 48a: The Raphael Cartoons

This is entered from the South-East Asia corridor – from room 47a to be precise – and is a vast darkened room containing half a dozen enormous ‘cartoons’ by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. These are ‘full-scale designs for tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The tapestries depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church.’

Subsequently, they were bought by King Charles I and transported to Britain, to the royal tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, where they were used as templates to make tapestries, before eventually passing onto the V&A.

In this shrouded room we are intended to reverence the genius of the Renaissance in hushed tones. You can see the characteristic soft-focus outline of the angelic faces, and the bold physical gestures of the figures in a totally achieved three-dimensional space. All of this must have seemed like magic to its earliest viewers.

Room 49 Exhibition space

I’m guessing room 49 is the exhibition room to the left of the main entrance hall. This is currently displaying an exhibition of the life and work of Ove Arup, the engineering company.

Rooms 50a to 50d

50a and 50b are enormous rooms, big wide and very tall, containing original Renaissance statuary and entire stone pulpits and the entire facade of an enormous Italian church.

Room 50a: The Renaissance City 1350 to 1600

I disliked most of the things in room 50a, the bigger of the two spaces – the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast looming choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at Hertogenbosch which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection. It is a spectacular space, no doubt about it, and individual items are beautifully carved and created – but I recoiled from its overbearing scale.

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the renaissance Gallery

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the Renaissance City Gallery

What I love in Dark Age and Medieval art is the sense of delicacy and mystery, not vague sentimental hints, but the real, solid, dark impenetrable mystery of the northern forests. What I dislike about a lot of Renaissance, especially public Renaissance art, is its oppressive projection of power and control, typified by the equestrian statue above.

50b: The Northern Renaissance

The smaller of the two rooms is still enormous. Its artefacts appear to come more from the Northern Renaissance and feature more painted altars and crucifixes than 50a. Overall, I prefer statuary from the Medieval or Northern Renaissance, as being less superhumanly perfect. It tends to portray the imperfections of the human form, and therefore be more capable of humour. Very roughly speaking, repeat visits to the V&A make it clear to me that I prefer ‘Gothic’ to ‘Classical’.

Gothic North European altar

Gothic North European altar

But also, strolling through these rooms, the 50s, the goal of our challenge to see all the rooms on the ground floor of the V&A – another reservation emerges. Compared to the timeless simplicity of much of the Japanese art, the heavenly serenity of Chinese jade sculptures, the geometric mazes of Islamic design – all these bloody crucified Christs and saints and martyrs being beheaded, crucified, burned, drowned and eviscerated seemed like the quintessence of barbarism. Compare:

with any of the hundreds of serene, unviolent Buddhas from China, India, Thailand and across Asia:

with the dainty paintings of graceful Japanese women, with characterful Chinese jade statues of horses, with the geometric beauty of Islamic design, with the watercolour depictions of life at the Mughal court in India.

It’s difficult not to be appalled at the bloodthirsty images which lie at the core of the Western Christian tradition. But maybe this guy should have the last word…

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)


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The World of Charles and Ray Eames @ the Barbican

Never heard of Charles and Ray Eames before. Didn’t realise Ray (b.1912) was the wife of Charles (b.1907). Didn’t know that, as a team, they are among the most influential (American) designers of the twentieth century.

Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides. © Eames Office LLC.

Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides. © Eames Office LLC.

Potted biography

They met in 1940 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where Charles was head of Industrial Design, married in 1941 and moved to Los Angeles. They were working on the problems of moulding plywood to make chairs and other furniture when war broke out (December 1941) and they quickly got a contract to supply a design of leg splint to the US Navy. They moved their workshop to 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, Los Angeles, which became the Eames office for the next 45 years.

Chairs

Design of chairs and other domestic furniture continued to be a central thread of their work – an entire room is dedicated to sketches, examples and videos of the manufacture of a new style of flexible, lightweight fibre-glass chairs. Their numerous designs for efficient, mass producible, stackable, storeable chairs revolutionised design, changing the feel of meeting rooms, assembly halls, conference centres all around the world.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames - Stacking Chairs, 1957. © Eames Office LLC.

Stacking Chairs, 1957. © Eames Office LLC.

Interiors

Chairs are obviously only one element of interior design and one whole bay of the exhibition is dedicated to a display of the Charles and Ray Eames’ room created for the For Modern Living show, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1949. The commentary emphasises that the house was emblematic of a whole attitude to living. It included the pioneering flat-packed Eames Storage Units, as well Eames folding tables, plywood DCM chairs and other household accessories displayed in a clear uncluttered space. Looking remarkably like the mock-up of a living room in an Ikea superstore.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames. Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Eames Office LLC.

Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Eames Office LLC.

And interiors, of course, occur inside buildings. As early as 1944 Ray (an artist by training) was hired to design the covers of Arts & Architecture magazine, to which the pair contributed articles on prefabricated housing. The magazine then launched the ‘Case Study House’ series, by inviting eight leading designers to design and build their dream homes – think Grand Designs circa 1945.

The Eames house (1949)

One bay of the show displays architectural plans, photos of the construction and then a film of Case Study House number 8, designed by Eames, completed in 1949, and really striking for both its Mondrian-style, gridlike exterior and the cool, open, relaxed interior. The Eameses were very Californian, right from the start, in their emphasis on fun, play, curiosity.

Eames House Living Room. Photograph: Antonia Mulas. © Eames Office LLC.

Eames House Living Room. Photograph: Antonia Mulas. © Eames Office LLC.

Multimedia

The conjunction of architecture, art, design, photos and film is no accident – if the exhibition demonstrates one thing it is that the Eameses were pioneers of the multimedia presentation of information. The chronology of their achievements shows that each year there were developments on the furniture side (folding tables 1947, storage units 1950, wire chair and sofa 1951, stacking chairs 1955, and so on) and they also made toys and other practical items…

Glimpses of the USA (1959)

… but the exhibition is dominated by the films they made, and the multimedia presentations combining film, slideshows and music which they pioneered and perfected. A good place to start is the multi-screen installation Glimpses of the USA from 1959. It was commissioned by the US government for the first US-USSR cultural exchange. The result is a thirteen-minute film which was projected onto seven twenty-by-thirty foot screens, installed in a 250-foot diameter geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. Must have made a phenomenal impact.

Installation view of Glimpses of the U.S.A., American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 © Eames Office LLC.

Installation view of Glimpses of the U.S.A., American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 © Eames Office LLC.

The narrator is Charles Eames himself who, in rich slow sonorous American tones, describes a day in the life of contemporary America, with its huge freeways and soaring skyscrapers and humming computers and dirty factories and mighty dams. Accompanied by a soundtrack by long-term Eames collaborator, the Hollywood movie composer Elmer Bernstein (think The Magnificent Seven), it is booming propaganda for the American Way of Life.

Altogether the workshop made over 120 short films, you can buy a five-DVD set in the shop (as well as a CD of Bernstein’s scores for them). They are relentlessly educational and pedagogic, with titles like The Expanding AirportMathematica, the House of Science, A Computer Glossary, The World of Franklin and Jefferson.

National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium (1967)

The mid-sixties was a prolific period. One project was a film, slideshow, booklet and design for a new national aquatic museum – the National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium. One of the multimedia elements was a slideshow – playfully titled Tanks – which plays here in a darkened bay of its own, three screens next to each other showing beautiful and relaxing images of countless beautiful sea creatures, jellyfish and so on, with pleasant dopey music.

I can’t find it online, but – characteristically – the Eameses made a 1967 film outlining their plans for the aquatic centre which captures the bright confident tone of the era.

House of Science (1960)

In 1960, the U.S. Department of State asked the Eames Office to create a film for the United States Science Exhibit, which took place at the Century 21 World’s Fair in Seattle, Washington.

‘Think’ (1964)

In 1964 New York hosted a World’s Fair and the Eameses created a huge multiscreen slide show in a large, egg-shaped structure called the ‘Ovoid Theater’. This sat above the canopy and central structure of the pavilion and up to 400 people at a time were brought up to it by means of the ‘People Wall’ built like a grandstand.

The slideshow – shown here in a dedicated room – was titled Think after IBM’s famous corporate motto. Once again narrated by Charles’s rich deep tones, Think explains how design is really only glorified common sense, that it is a systematic way of solving problems, both the technically complex and the ordinary everyday.

As a ‘humorous’ example of the latter it shows a fashionable 1964 hostess planning the perfect dinner party, analysing out the parameters and decision points she needs to take account of. Think projected animated, still and live-action images onto fourteen large and eight small screens of various shapes and sizes. Again, it must have been an extraordinary experience.

IBM at the Fair (1964)

The Eameses had a lifelong partnership with computer giant IBM and, as well as Think, produced this film as a souvenir of the Eames/Saarinen IBM Pavilion at the World’s Fair.

Note the soundtrack by Bernstein again, which – to me – combines a wide range of influences – slapstick film music is in there – with an overarching feel of The Soldier’s Tale-era Stravinsky.

Education and pedagogy

The partnership seems to have taken a steadily greater interest in education, in teaching people about good design, in trying to spread the word about how to analyse problems and reach elegant solutions. Typical titles from the later 1960s and 1970s include: The Smithsonian Institution, Babbage’s Calculating Machine, Computer Landscape, Design Q&A, Two Laws of Algebra: Distributive and Associative.

From the top of the stairs to the second floor of the exhibition, you can see seven different films all running simultaneously in different bays and rooms, and their sound and imagery tends to swamp the other artefacts, the small black and white photos, the collection of ethnic masks from India, a roomful of pioneering Modernist chairs.

Charles held a number of teaching posts throughout his career and was invited to lecture around the world, including here in London, at the V&A. One arena which combines teaching and design is The Exhibition. It was slightly vertiginous to be wandering around an exhibition about the people who pioneered the modern exhibition, with consistently creative and imaginative use of sounds and visuals anticipating the exhibition’s imaginative use of, er, sound and visuals.

The Eameses organised scores and scores of major exhibition events. Typical titles include: Mathematica: A World of Numbers, Photography and the City, What is Design?, Isaac Newton: Physics For a Moving Earth.

Powers of Ten (1977)

This eight-minute film – to give it its full title, Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero – does what it says on the tin, starting with a family having a picnic in a park by a lake, then moving up 1 metre, 10 metres, 100 metres, 1000 metres and so on up vertically away from the scene so that only a minute into the journey we are leaving the atmosphere before travelling at dizzying speed out to the edge of the universe.

This unashamedly didactic film, based on a Dutch children’s book, is quaint and interesting and innocent. The subject obviously attracted the Eameses because it exists in two distinct versions, one from 1968, one from 1977, comparison between them demonstrating the evolution of film-making technique during that period.

Conclusions

  • The films overwhelm the more traditional static displays.
  • The films give a stunning sense of the size, wealth and dynamism of American society in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • I didn’t realise multimedia, the concept of total immersion in sound and imagery, was so old. Made me realise the projection of imagery onto live bands (Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground 1967) was copying something pioneered by these very staid, sober educationalists over a decade earlier.
  • Quotable quotes. As a lifelong educator, Charles is famous for his quotes: the shop is selling numerous books, notebooks, posters and fridge magnets full of his pithy wisdom (eg ‘The details aren’t details. They make up the product.’)
  • Again and again, the books, lectures, pamphlets, films and slideshows make the same point – that good design is problem solving and that problem solving is based on having the information: we must have the means, the technology, the skills with which to process the exploding amounts of information we are being presented with in order to make the right decisions.

This awareness of information – their close collaboration with IBM and their pioneering ways of communicating and informing – explains why the Eameses are referred to as the godparents of The Information Age. One of their earliest films is the classic The Information Machine, produced for IBM’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

Optimism and pessimism

The IBM at the Fair film features speeded-up footage of Americans going about their daily business. It reminded me of the similar sequences in Koyaanisqatsi or ‘unbalanced life’, (1982), the cult movie directed by Godfrey Reggio and showcasing the music of American minimalist composer Philip Glass. But how much has changed – what a gulf there is – between 1964 and 1982! In the interim, along with the explosion of all sorts of political movements, black power, feminism, the oil crises and revolutionary terrorism, has come environmentalism and the realisation that the planet is finite and we are degrading and despoiling it at a now-measurable and noticeable rate, which cannot continue forever.

No doubt the Eameses would refer us to their umpteen films, books, pamphlets and quotes about the power of information, the ability of modern computing power to process and analyse new worlds of data and – to solve problems! But thinking about this reveals the weakness of their rationalist approach: unlimited amounts of data and the infinite computing power of the internet mean nothing unless people fundamentally change their behaviour. Although their approach can tell you how to plan the perfect dinner party or design a mass-producible chair, it cannot tell you how to wean your entire economy off fossil fuels and your entire culture away from wasteful consumerism.

Nothing can.


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