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May 08, 2007

Go and see Surreal Things, says Christie Davies. You will not be shocked but you will be surprised. You will not be amazed but you will be amused: Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design at the V&A

Posted by Christie Davies

Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
29th March - 22nd July 2007
Daily 10am - 5.45pm (Fridays until 10pm)

It was bound to be just a question of time before the high ideals of the early surrealists succumbed to the pressures of the cash nexus and commodity fetishism and surreal art was incorporated into design and the decorative arts. Founded by idealists like Louis Aragon who wanted a Bolshevik revolution and the "necessary murder" of a hundred million people or so, it degenerated into the design of the wedding dress of that great whore, the Duchess of Windsor.

What would Georges Bataille the surrealists' neighbour, groupie and taunter have had to say about that? Since his sideline was pornography, it is difficult to say. We can see which way things were going from the reconstructed bedroom of the house of Paul Eluard in the Parisian suburb of Eaubonne. Max Ernst, the famous frotteur and painter of SM fantasies - who designed the room and painted the murals in 1923 - lived there in a ménage a trois with Eluard and his wife Gala (later the wife of Dali). Ernst's wife Luise was excluded. In France three's company, four's a crowd.

Such arrangements have been common in Paris since the time of Feydeau but they were usually furtive and apt to collapse into farce. Here this Frankish arrangement is frankly displayed, indeed celebrated, in the design of a room with three doors, two real and one false. The wonderful brightly coloured murals with a bright blue sky shining above ochre walls are filled with mad plants, animals and insects and everywhere there are enticing red fruit. Above the bed a long fingered woman's hand sneaks through a false window to catch one of the round objects between two of her fingers.

The exhibition leads on to Elsa Schiaparelli's Fabric with Lobster motif, 1937 which was seized upon by Wallis Simpson and worn as a dress with the large red lobster strategically placed to tempt Edward VIII into her claws. Salvador Dali, the originator of the lobster, said it should be worn with a large dab of mayonnaise. I have to admit that I can not work out how the dates fit the Wallis Simpson theory - perhaps she wore it after 1937 to retain a grip on the by now jaded Windsor.

Dali also incorporated his lobster into White Aphrodisiac Telephone, 1938 and Téléphone - Homard (Lobster Telephone), 1938, old style phones, where you poked your finger into a series of numbered apertures on a little wheel and turned it round. According to the old "Post Office engineers", many punters never worked out how to do this and vandalised the old red phone boxes out of sheer frustration when they failed to get through. If the hand-set had been a Dali crustacean whose colour matched the box, they might have felt inspired to work it out or soothed into leaving quietly.

For Dali the connection was obvious: lobsters were telephones. He said he would not be in any way surprised if he ordered a lobster in a restaurant and was served a telephone. I would be far more impressed if I knew he had eaten one, wires, Bakelite and all. But on his visit to Australia after eating lobster he often followed through with a talk to the great white telephone.

Georges Bataille in his journal Documents used regularly to denounce Salvador Dali's links to crime and perversion and the violence and cruelty of Picasso to the human body. Why on earth should this bother us in the slightest?

More seriously, George Orwell was shocked when he read surrealist Dali's surreal claim that as a child he had kicked his little sister's head because it was a football. Yet in a surreal world where everything means something else, why is it shocking? For one child wantonly to kick another child in the head is horrifying but to play with images in the way Dali does is merely bizarre. His lobster-phone has within it a transmitter and a receiver and no doubt his sister wore a padded crash-helmet.

As I left the V and A, I was far more shocked to read of the cruel antics of the flabby-busted Zara Care and her hard-faced middle-aged mother Carole Olver, who encouraged Zara's two year old son and his three year old sister to hit and punch each other in a "dog-fight" and then filmed it for laughs. Even by the depraved standards of the slums of Plymouth where they live, it was outrageous and their neighbours may well have told them so with words and boots. The Judge, Francis Gilber Q.C., called them "cruel" and "callous", particularly since they:

were quite clearly causing the children to hurt each other for [their] own pleasure.
In his anger he imposed on them the savage sentence of 100 hours community service. He was no doubt inflamed by their calling the little boy a "faggot", which makes it a homophobically-aggravated offence. The grand-mother, hard-hearted old cow, remains unrepentant. I doubt if any of the four monstrous women, far worse for youngsters than any groping curate, who set the fight up, know who Dali is. Dali's fantasies have had no consequences and had no reality. They are not in any way shocking or deplorable.

Likewise Dali's lobsters did not cause the lubricity of the Duchess of Windsor, which nearly brought down the British monarchy. Surrealist sex is merely absurd as in Dali's Mae West Lips Sofa, 1937. The sofa could not and did not kiss its owner and co-designer Edward James on the scrotum when he sat down, nor can Leonor Fini's Corset Chair, 1939, enclose even the most fervent fetishist. The surreal is not the for real. It can not shock because reality is always worse than surreality. Think of Louis Aragon's beloved Stalin or cruel grandma Olver and no art - no image, can ever disturb you again.

The surrealists did not achieve anything profound, either, in breaking the link between an object's appearance and its function. When Marcel Duchamp signed his Bottle Rack, 1914, he thought he had done something new in turning a banal object into a work of art. In fact he merely made formal and public something everyone does anyway when they retain rather than throw away an everyday item they no longer need or use, merely because they like its appearance. Holders and collectors of old bottles long preceded Duchamp's Bottle Rack as did those who go down to the sea for odd bits of flotsam.

Man Ray's Cadeau Audace (Daring Present, Hemdkragengift), a flat iron to which he has glued sharp pointed nails - so that it would rip any item on the ironing board - is only daring if we assume the recipient would be foolish enough to use it. But gifts are often not utilitarian anyway. There exist many frivolous jewel-encrusted nineteenth century domestic items and artefacts that would simply have been for display. What Ray has produced is a good, if not very sophisticated, joke, one that we are even better able to appreciate in an era of drip-dry clothing. If it had been labelled "Irish iron" and given to the Taoiseach as a present from Baron Carson of Duncairn in the County of Antrim, it would have been a daring gift but not in the sense Ray had in mind.

Such insulting items do exist. In America you can buy a Polish calculator that consists of a pencil and a rubber attached by a wire to a two-pin plug. The Dillon company of Oklahoma City produces a pretty yellow box decorated with flowers, marked:

Polish, the ultimate room freshener - Everlasting aroma, can be used in any room , appealing appearance, will not affect the ozone layer, overpowers all foul odors.
Inside is a realistic rubber turd labelled:
For best results leave exposed after guests have gone.
Is this joke a surreal artwork or merely a joke-shop product intended for insulting Humpty Dumbrowski? A true surrealist would, of course, deny the distinction but in doing so admits that surrealism is a joke.

The same is true of surreal objects that play with our perceptions, as in Marcel Jean's Armoire Surrealiste, 1941, a wardrobe that is a mass of real doors and fake doors which when open give a view onto a trompe d'oeil landscape of fake fields, hills and sky. It is far more attractive than my own wardrobe, also dating from 1941, which I inherited from my parents. Their original wardrobe had been bombed to bits by the Luftwaffe and the government provided them with a "utility" wardrobe to replace it, in which my father hung his ATC uniform worn when he trained up fighter pilots - to make sure that his wardrobe would one day be inherited by his son.

Meanwhile in Paris in the same year of Our Lord 1941, Marcel Jean was producing this wonderful luxury item. It succeeds as an attractive piece of furniture to be coveted but if I did own it I would enjoy it as a joke, not as a reminder that the appearance of the everyday is relative. Like a joke it has two scripts, one as a wardrobe and one as a view of the hills. Opening the doors is the punchline that switches you from one script to the other.

Surrealism was never in fact novel or surprising. It is very old and elementary mathematics. At school everyone learns at an early age about negative numbers, irrational numbers, imaginary numbers, infinitely small quantities and multi-dimensional spaces and how to manipulate them - and you take them for granted, as presumably Lewis Carroll, a mathematician revered by the Surrealists, did. So what is the big deal about varying the assumptions about how things should appear? The proof of what I say lies in the speed with which surreal notions were incorporated into surreal things for sale and even more so surreal advertising.

Go and see Surreal Things. You will not be shocked but you will be surprised. You will not be amazed but you will be amused.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, an analytical study of humour and of Dewi the Dragon, a collection of surreal short stories.


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