Undercover Surrealism At The Hayward Gallery London

By Olivia Laing | 26 May 2006
painting of a simple blue head with a white moustache and two skittle or bottles shapes

Hans Arp, Moustache-Head and Bottles (Tête-moustache et bouteilles), 1929. Centre Pompidou, Paris. © DACS 2006 Photo: CNAC/MNAM

Juxtaposing herself with a female anthropomorphic arched harp, Olivia Laing melts like a Dali clock into an exhibition of Surrealism and ethnographic art at the Hayward.

Running at the Hayward Gallery until 30 July 2006, Undercover Surrealism is a celebration of the idiosyncratic vision of Georges Bataille.

In 1929, the Parisian philosopher and writer launched Documents, a magazine designed to radically question, if not actually destroy, notions of high art.

The magazine dashed together work by Surrealist artists from Picasso to Masson to Giacometti with writing and images drawn from such diverse arenas as ethnography, architecture and popular culture. So subversive was Bataille’s vision that the magazine was pulled by financial backer Georges Wildenstein after only one year.

photo of an African mask

Anon, Ivory Coast or Liberia, Mask, late 19th - early 20th C. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia. Photo: James Austin

It is an inspired decision on the part of the Hayward Gallery to recreate Bataille’s two-dimensional and monochromatic vision in glorious Technicolor. The show brings together much of Document’s original material in order to create a three-dimensional vision of Surrealism that is genuinely unsettling.

This meticulously well curated show brings together an extraordinary range of material to recreate Bataille’s strange world, where Picasso canvases hang next to giant Nigerian ceremonial helmets and Parisian slaughterhouses are compared to Andean sacrificial rites.

Surrealism was never short of shock tactics, and plenty of famous works are on show here, including Luis Buñuel’s short film Un Chien Andalou, which, with its notoriously graphic image of an eye being slashed, was banned for many years. But it is the way that artworks have been contrasted that really make the show.

Surreal painting of a beach

Salvador Dalí, Female Bathers (Baigneuses), 1928. Salvador Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida. © Salvador Dalí, Gala - Salvador Dalí Foundation, DACS, London 2006

Bataille’s genius lay in juxtaposition, drawing together entirely disparate imagery that ricochets with unexpected sympathies. The result is something like a cabinet of curiosities, with wonders from all eras of human existence tossed together without any sense of hierarchy.

The effect is curiously liberating, and certainly encourages the viewer to really look. There is no possibility of the lulling effect so often experienced in galleries. Instead, expect a full-frontal assault on the senses.

The parallels Bataille draws are disturbing, clever and genuinely funny. Opposite a wall of Dali canvases, with their images of violent sexuality, are hung a row of lurid covers from pulp-fiction crime novels. Another juxtaposition, of a stretched Dali head next to a 17th century anamorphic painting (a trick style, where a distorted image rights itself if viewed at an angle), seems to suggest rather less originality in Dali's work than he is usually credited with. There is no room here at all for artistic pomposity.

Surreal painting of three dancers

Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers (La Danse), 1925. Tate, London. © Succession Picasso, DACS 2006

Amongst such Surrealist big hitters, a special place is reserved for Picasso. Documents generally roamed at will between different media and artists, and only Picasso achieved the honour of being the sole subject of an issue.

The Picassos on display tend toward the Cubist, and in particular focus on the distorted and dismembered human image. Hung alongside medical drawings, freak-show photography, and an absurdist poem in praise of Picasso (“Our pal Picasso / Long live his brush-oh”) are images of quite staggering vision.

Unsurprisingly, considering its origins, the show is also unashamedly intellectual. Bataille’s ideas about art, culture and society can be obscure; they are also absurd, challenging and wildly irreverent. Declarations from Documents have been neatly lettered high on the French-grey walls. 'I challenge any collector to love a Picasso as a shoe fetishist loves a shoe' reads one mocking statement.

sculpture of a stringed instrument with legs and a bowed neck

Anon, Central Africa, Female Anthropomorphic Arched Harp with Five Strings, 19th C. © Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

Bataille himself appears more than once. A photograph shows him as a bull-headed, somewhat sinister figure. Innately subversive, Bataille’s personal life reflected the juxtapositions he so reveled in. He combined an academic career as a curator at the Department of Coins and Medals of the prestigious Bibliotheque Nationale with an intellectual life as philosopher, literary pornographer (including the perverse Story of the Eye) and writer.

Describing himself as the 'enemy within' of Surrealism, his aim was to debase the high priest of Surrealism Andre Breton’s high-minded vision of mental liberation. But while many of the images are hair-raisingly unpleasant, the overall effect is uplifting. Piling diversity upon diversity, Bataille created a world at once grotesque, disturbing and thrillingly creative. It is an inspiring place to be.

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