Review of Surrealism and the Object at Centre Pompidou, Paris

Although the show presents objects that span the 20th century and move onto contemporary works, there is nothing chronological about the display. The curators must have felt that linear chronology would somehow be anti-surrealist in its conception and not conducive to liberating the viewer from rationality.

On entering, one is treated to a series of plaster busts of the early Surrealist masters, a work realised especially for the show. In the darkened first twist of the exhibition maze, a flock of wooden hangers floats within arm’s reach above you, and then all colour breaks loose with photographed objects by Paul McCarthy and Cindy Sherman. A multi-coloured saddle conjoined to the handlebars of a kid’s bike conjures up the ghost of Picasso’s dark iconic bicycle bull, which itself appears in one of the last reaches of the show.

While other exhibits such as Méret Oppenheim’s Luncheon in Fur, Victor Brauner’s Wolf-Table and Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone dazzlingly emphasise Surrealism’s fascination with animality, the exhibition foregrounds anthropomorphism. Evoking Oskar Kokoschka’s wax mannequin reproduction of Alma Mahler after they broke up in the early 1920s, the exhibition places Hans Bellmer’s Doll centre stage, right in front of Grandeur nature (1974), a film in which a man falls in love with an inflatable doll. A little later, after walking down a spacious stretch of labyrinth called Rue aux Lèvres (Lip Street), the viewer is offered a seat next to a fully-dressed inflatable doll, to the euphonic sounds of beautifully orchestrated sexual breathing.

For maximum sensual immersion, interpretative documentation is almost entirely absent from the show itself, but is safely deposited in the exquisite catalogue and Dictionary of Surrealist Objects available in the museum bookshop.

The exhibition takes a commendably broad definitional view of Surrealist objects. Breton’s narrow definition tended to exclude Giacometti’s early wooden sculptures because they were crafted with the traditional tools of his trade rather than assembled using ordinary workaday objects. Breton favoured ready-mades above Giacometti’s deeply-evocative biomorphic forms even though Duchamp’s bottlerack ultimately pays only lip-service to quintessential Surrealist notions such as incongruity, hybridity, metamorphosis, dream, surprise, anxiety, sexuality.

The exhibition is a first-rate, wonderfully refreshing experience. Although it was broad in its reach, I couldn’t help longing for a more expansive display of lesser known contemporary artists. While the notion of clutter is an essential aspect of Surrealism, the exhibition could have done with a little fewer of Théo Mercier’s pornomorphic mugs, and a reduction in the number of Paul McCarthy’s slightly vapid photographs to make way for more variety.

Erik Martiny

Surrealism and the Object, 30 October 2013 until 3 March 2014, Centre Pompidou, Place Georges Pompidou, 75191 Paris.


1. Victor Brauner, loup-table, 1947. Courtesy Centre Pompidou
2. Ed Ruscha, I Can t Not Do That, 2012. Courtesy de l artiste Ed Ruscha Collection