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.


Related links

Other Design Museum review

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition. The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904 to 1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937 to 1940, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-a-vis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is modernism about love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works. To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously, always, everywhere
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Other reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Books about artists featured in the exhibition

Other Barbican reviews

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