If the goal of the surrealists was to connect the conscious and unconscious realms of experience to such an extent that the world of dream and fantasy are incorporated into the everyday rational world, nothing could achieve this goal quite as astonishingly as the “exquisite corpse,” a collaborative form of creating an image or body of text additively by more than one person. By folding the page and passing it on to the next participant, he or she must then contribute without knowledge of what is already on the page. “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine,” a phrase adapted by the Surrealists who first began making exquisite corpses in the 1920s, is adeptly adapted in the exhibition “Exquisite Corpse Drawings: 1925-1935” at the Alan Koppel Gallery. Featuring original work by the most prominent Surrealists of the era, such as Yves Tanguy, Andre Breton, and Valentine Hugo, the unrelated images vividly illustrate the main objectives of Surrealist art.
The works featured in “Exquisite Corpse” largely vary, featuring classic constructions of the figures divided in thirds and fourths and drawn individually, as well as pieces incorporating the deconstructed themes of the exquisite corpse, but widening the scope to include still life and landscape pictures. The first striking work is #4, created by Yves and Jeanette Tanguy and Germaine and Georges Hugnet in February of 1935. Only using pencil and paper, this illustration is more finite and composed than earlier, proto-exquisite corpses that appear crude and rudimentary in construction. Lacking color, the figure in the drawing is not limited to the body. The Tanguys and the Hugnets create a seemingly ever-expanding world for the figure, retooling the idea of traditional “figure” sketching. There is a surprising realistic quality in #4 not normally found in other exquisite corpses. This is not to say that the illustration is devoid of the classic Surrealist qualities; cat-like eyes, in different shapes and sizes, are visible in abundance, the body of the figure is constructed like a peacock with limbs flourishing outward like feathers, and the legs appear to be melting candles. It is a distortion, a grotesque representation of the body and yet, it is still fascinating and familiar.
Illustration #5, created by Max Minise, Andre Breton, Max Ernst, and Marie-Berthe Aurenche, remains current as a potent representation of dichotomous relationships. Industry and nature collide, and the illustration is rife with images of hardware and animals. One of the most eye-catching aspects is a series of belts and coils that turn into a green serpent, reminiscent of the story of Eden. Despite the obvious differences between the industrial world and the natural world, the artists seem to suggest a greater connection between the two. One wonders, is our connection to the mechanical deceiving us like the serpent did Eve?
This play on themes is evident throughout the show. In #6, created by Frederic Megret, Suzanne Muzard, and Georges Sadoul in 1929, the inherent physical attributes of humans are compounded into a beautiful yet abstract transfiguration. Body parts are visible inside of other body parts and figures, such as human eyes in the body of a fish. There is a continuous notion of what it means to be human, or part of the Earth, as parts of the corporeal are illustrated in the dirt of the earth and the body of other animals. In #14, easily the most striking illustration, artists Andre Breton, Valentine Hugo, and others collaborated on a dramatic landscape. It is the final piece in the exhibition and while it is not a “corpse,” exquisite it is. Composed using pencil and colored pencil on paper, the illustration is an overwhelming visual feast and a tangible manifestation of a dream in two-dimensions. Nature is transposed, appearing peculiarly in man-made objects; a kite in the sky for instance. The technique of the “exquisite corpse” and the resulting viual density are the common threads that make the works in this exhibition cohere. True of #14 and the show as a whole, many things are occurring simultaneously, and if one does not take the time to digest this visual overabundance for what it is worth, many curious, captivating facets are likely to be ignored.
“EXQUISITE CORPSE DRAWINGS: 1925-1935”
ALAN KOPPEL GALLERY, CHICAGO
875 North Michigan Avenue
September – December 2009
[Originally published in Artwrit, Volume 1, December 2009.]