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Surreal Objects Three-Dimensional Works From Dali to Man Ray at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

On the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, the Schirn presents an exhibition that focuses exclusively on the Surrealists’ three-dimensional production, which has never been on display in its full range before. Comprising about 180 works by 51 artists, the show with its international loans, on exhibit from February 11 until May 29, 2011, will include items by both very popular artists like Duchamp, Magritte, Dalí, Picasso, and Man Ray, and many others whose astounding and fascinating achievements still wait to be discovered by a wider public. Many of the three-dimensional works from the Surrealist period from 1925 to 1945 do not strike us as historical at all today, but rather present themselves as surprisingly fresh and contemporary.

The common ground of Surrealist objects is not to be found in their provenance, the artists’ working methods, or the materials used, but rather in their psychological impact, the amazement they cause, the shock and change of mind they are meant to trigger. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories, the Surrealists strove to bring forgotten and suppressed things to light and to integrate them into art and life.

The exhibition opens with several objects from the preceding Dada movement, which anticipated the Surrealists’ approach both in regard to their exhibition practices and the understanding of objects. Both movements were intensely concerned with what an art object might actually be. Though “Der wildgewordene Spießer Heartfield” (The middle-class Philistine Heartfield gone wild) by George Grosz and John Heartfield articulates a far more direct political critique than the Surrealists’ generally ironic and poetic objects, its combination of completely disparate things makes it an immediate precursor of Surrealist object art. The Surrealists’ penchant for the deliberately non-artistic, for the everyday world, for trite, borderline, forgotten, repressed, sordid, and remote things made not only artists, but also poets and writers browse the flea markets of Paris in search of suitable finds from the 1930s on. Such acts of “objective chance” resulted in the production of a great number of objects combined of violins, bottles, clocks, cutlery, and other elements of the world of consumerism.

A landmark exhibition in the Ratton Gallery in Paris in 1936 was the first show presenting nothing but objects. It comprised things found and worked on, pieces made from a variety of materials, which we would refer to as assemblages today. Yet considering the plaster sculptures by Max Ernst or Alberto Giacometti presented in the Ratton Gallery show, there can be no doubt that the Surrealists’ idea of an object was a very wide one and also included sculptures. Giacometti was the first artist who explicitly spoke of his works as objects and thus detached himself from the term “sculpture.”

Objects always played a crucial role in Surrealist exhibitions from the 1930s to Breton’s death in 1966 when it came to blurring the boundaries between place of exhibition and place of experience, to leaving the observer in the dark about whether the thing he was confronted with three-dimensionally and physically was a work of art or something to be used, touched, or changed. The negation of traditional aesthetics set in train a process from which the arts still benefit today. This process provided the basic framework for present-day strategies in the arts, as it were.

The great variety of objects as to their material, origin, treatment, and contents also confirms that it is impossible to define a Surrealist style and that the group of artists may rather be described as a circle of friends and kindred spirits with Breton as their theoretical head. The objects address numerous dimensions of the body and, thus, a central theme of Surrealism interpreted in many different contexts. Hans Bellmer’s puppets are probably one of the best-known examples for the fetishization of the object. Mimi Parent’s whip object “Maitresse” made from women’s hair and leather or Valentine Hugo’s red leather glove “Objet à fonctionnement symbolique” (1931) exemplify the Surrealists’ examination of Marquis de Sade’s writings. While Ángel Ferrant’s machine woman “Maniquí” (1946) thematizes the idea of a mechanized body, Dalí’s “Venus de Milo with Drawers” (1936/1964) is clearly indebted to the classical style. Beyond that, black humor, irony, and wit, which always plays with cultural and philosophical contexts, are of essential importance for the Surrealists and particularly their object art. Numerous objects have an everyday origin and were worked on and transformed until their meaning changed into something strange.

The Surrealists’ objects are not only the result of the application of all principles central to the movement’s theory, such as defamiliarization, combinatorics, and metamorphosis. They also pose new questions still reverberating in contemporary art. Until now, art-historical research has never reserved more than a short chapter for these objects, because Surrealist art was mainly seen as comprised of prose, poetry, collages, and paintings. This is why the Schirn regards its exhibition as more than a contribution to the study of Surrealism: the show clearly widens our view of one of the most important chapters of Modernism.

Image: Salvador Dalí, “Aphrodisiac Telephone,” 1936. Mixed media, 18 x 12.5 x 30.5 cm.Photograph: © Museum für Kommunikation Frankfurt. © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dali / VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2010

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