As an artistic movement, surrealism has never been easy to define. French author André Breton described it in his 1924 "Surrealist Manifesto" as a "pure psychic automatism [intended] to express the real process of thought." Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux called it "a reawakening of the poetic idea in art." Indeed, as practiced by the likes of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, surrealist art gave concrete form to unconscious, dreamlike associations. Perhaps ultimately it can best be defined the way one U.S. Supreme Court justice once explained pornography: we know it when we see it.
Now London's Victoria and Albert Museum is giving the movement a new spin. "Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design" (until July 22) explores the way the genre influenced theater, fashion, film, architecture and design. The exhibit showcases some 300 works—including Dali's "Mae West Lips" couch, Meret Oppenheim's "Table With Bird Legs" and Yves Tanguy's blue and pink earrings—and demonstrates how they came to be regarded as the forebears of much contemporary fashion and design. "Surrealism provided this imagery that was very quickly absorbed by the commercial world," says Ghislaine Wood, the show's curator. "Today we see very much how that is kicking around in things like advertisements or in furniture."
Initially, surrealism was not about the incongruous fusion of witty or ironic images; it was a revolutionary movement against the rational, drawing upon Marxist theory and Freudian psychoanalysis. Europe had just emerged from the traumas of World War I, and surrealism fit its dark, dazed mood. But to Breton's disgust, surrealism became commercialized and was embraced by fashionable society. Artists like Joan Miró and André Masson designed costumes and sets for the ballet, while Pablo Picasso dabbled in surrealist jewelry, making a necklace entitled "Owl" (1948) out of pebbles and bones found on the French Riviera. "Surrealism became very commercialized during the 1930s as artists began to spread out and work in other spheres," Wood says. Surrealists Giorgio de Chirico and Pierre Roy did original covers for Vogue in 1936; de Chirico's shows a close-up of limp gloves and a handbag, with a funky chair in the background, while Roy's uses an elaborate silk scarf behind a window ledge filled with playing cards and a large chess pawn.
Other artists designed surrealist clothes and accessories. Among the striking pieces on display at the V&A is a short, embroidered linen evening jacket (1937) created by Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli and her frequent collaborator, French artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Dali's "Ruby Lips" (1949), which uses 18-karat gold, rubies and pearls, and de Chirico's striking pearl, ruby and platinum bracelet, show how easily surrealists could work with other media.
Artists also designed pieces for the home. The American sculptor Alexander Calder, famous for making intricate mobiles, crafted an elaborate silver headboard (1945-46) for the four-poster bed in Peggy Guggenheim's Venice palazzo. Leonor Fini's "Corset Chair" (1939), made of stained wood, wrought iron and mother of pearl, juxtaposes delicate femininity with cold constriction. This compelling exhibit makes clear how the surrealist's penchant for linking unrelated objects found an irresistible platform in the world of modern design.