Undercover Surrealism

The journal Documents, around which this exhibition was based, was published in Paris between 1928 and 1929, running to eight issues. With Georges Bataille as its founder, Documents covered a wide range of themes, ranging from the work of key figures in 20th-century art such as Pablo Picasso and André Masson to aspects of archaeology, ethnography and general philosophy. Michel Leiris, one of its most important contributors, described it as ‘a war-machine against received ideas’. Its very openness regarding the range of material it covered ran counter to conventional views. Articles by Bataille and others on ‘The Big Toe’, the slaughterhouse, Salvador Dalí, jazz, ‘The Language of Flowers’ and many more diverse and wondrous things packed its pages. ‘Undercover Surrealism’ brought together paintings, photographs, texts, films, and objects that appeared, in some form or other, within the journal, staging a three-dimensional rendition of it. On one level this opened it out, revealing its details, putting them into play; yet on another – and this was definitely a problem with the show – it closed it down, flattening out its productive diversity, turning it into a merely documentary rendition of what had been an innovative, critical and transgressive vehicle for writing and research.

‘Undercover Surrealism’ was divided into sections with headings such as ‘Places of Pilgrimage’, ‘Georges Bataille and the Cabinet of Medals’, ‘Cinema and Music’, ‘The Human Figure’ and ‘Heads and Skulls’. This classification may have made the rich plurality of Documents easier to grasp, but it simultaneously smothered the quirky, chaotic chronologies and novel alignments of objects and ideas that were the journal’s essential virtue. From a curatorial point of view one can ‘do’ Documents just as one can do any other issue or theme. Unfortunately, compressing the publication’s evident diversity into easily readable and manageable packages does the journal a disservice, stripping away the potential thrill of strangeness and perhaps shock that such an arrangement of themes and texts encouraged and maintained.

Neverthelesss, the exhibition contained important works by Picasso, Masson, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Giorgio de Chirico and several other mainstays of the Modernist canon, together with visual artefacts from a wide span of cultures and historical periods. There were Ethiopian prayer scrolls, Egyptian amulets, ancient inscribed rocks, sculpted masks from the Ivory Coast, several unorthodox musical instruments, copies of the French crime thriller series Fantômas and various other rare journals and books. There was also a small corner of Voodoo images and sounds, assorted manuscripts (Surrealist and related), copies of letters pertaining to the running of Documents and a large number of photographs of and by the journal’s contributors. In all there were over 200 items to attend to, a fact that rendered this show an important translation of its source publication, albeit one whose presentation took no risks.

Among the most powerful images in the exhibition were the large-scale photographs of slaughterhouse interiors by Eli Lotar, showing bloody piles of intestines and severed animal heads. Although taken in the late 1920s, the works still have the power to disturb, making visible as they do a carefully hidden feature of modern life – the mass processing of animals for human food and general material consumption. They echo Bataille’s observation that modern society has lost its link with the intensity of ritualistic sacrifice or has at least hidden it away behind the locked gates of the slaughterhouse. Such a transformation, Bataille believed, was a form of failure, not progress. In spite of its rather non-committal title, Documents was an attempt to investigate and also to reinvigorate hitherto central actions and beliefs; such a reactivation inevitably triggered hostility, misunderstanding and the severest of criticisms from conformist minds.

In many ways ‘Undercover Surrealism’ was a supplement to an earlier Hayward exhibition, ‘Dada and Surrealism Reviewed’ (1978). Dawn Ades, the co-curator with Simon Baker and Fiona Bradley of the present show, had much involvement with the former, producing a highly respected accompanying publication. ‘Undercover Surrealism’ was similarly privileged with a large scholarly catalogue, and the show itself had a reading-room holding a complete set of English translations of Documents, together with other pertinent literary works. This was an admirable gesture, but since sounds from the several films presented in the exhibition permeated at all times the entire gallery, concentration, scholarly or otherwise, was difficult to achieve.

Issue 101

First published in Issue 101

September 2006