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Behind The Scenes of the Legendary International Surrealist Exhibition

  • Invitation card for the Surrealist exhibition in Paris
December 16, 2018
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The peak of the Surrealist production happened in 1938 with the notorious Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, or the International Surrealist Exhibition. The Parisians were exposed to a shocking ephemeral manifestation which was carefully prepared by a team of leading proponents of the movement led by André Breton and Paul Éluard. Marcel Duchamp served as generator and arbitrator, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí were engaged as technical advisers, while Man Ray and Wolfgang Paalen were in charge of head lighting and the exhibition design respectively.

To be more accurate, from 17 January until 24 February the exhibition was on display at Galérie Beaux-Arts, run by Georges Wildenstein, at 140 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré; it was divided into three sections featuring paintings, objects, unusually decorated rooms, and redesigned mannequins.

The house in which exhibition was held
Built in 1860, the house at 140, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, in which exhibition was held. Photo taken in 2011. Image creative commons

The Art Exhibition Context

The first collective Surrealist exhibition took place at Pierre Loeb’s gallery Pierre in Paris in 1925, and the works by Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Giorgio De Chirico, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Man Ray, André Masson, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre Roy were featured. Three years later the gallery Au Sacre du Printemps hosted another collective exhibition titled Le Surréalisme, existe-t-il? (Does Surrealism really exist?), while the first American edition happened in 1931 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Exposition surréaliste d’objets which took place in 1936 at the Parisian gallery Charles Ratton was important since it featured object art and focused on sexual fetishes, mathematical models and Primitivism.

The International Surrealist Exhibition happened the same year in the New Burlington galleries in London; it used the usual form of representation, however, in 1938 André Breton wanted to establish a different framework for displaying the surrealist art by creating the surrealist environment. Himself and Nusch Éluard asked Duchamp to contribute and design the exhibition, although he was not a member of the movement. Their collaboration continued on other projects, such as The First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, which took place in New York in 1942.

Salvador Dali and his mannequin, Surrealist Exhibition
Salvador Dali and his mannequin, Surrealist Exhibition, 1938. Image via suddenchic

The Installment And The Following Activities

The Parisian edition was conducted in three segments.

The first one was the lobby with the installation piece called Taxi pluvieux (Rain cab) created by Salvador Dalí (it was an old automobile covered with ivy, and a female dummy dressed in an evening gown positioned between some lettuce and chicory in the back of the car with a sewing machine next to it and other unusual effects); the second one was Plus belles rues de Paris (The most beautiful streets of Paris) consisting of rearranged surrealist mannequins rented from a French manufacturer (sixteen figures reflected surrealist motives and techniques, and expressed lust, as well as the power of unconscious desire and the breaking of taboos), while the third segment was a central room arranged by Wolfgang Paalen and Marcel Duchamp (in the form of a grotto or womb, with 1200 coal bags hanging from the ceiling, filled with newspapers instead of coal). Initially, Man Ray envisioned the lighting through soffits, but it did not work so the visitors used flashlights handed at the entrance. Man Ray later noted:

Unnecessary to mention that the flashlights were pointed at the faces of the people rather than at the artworks themselves. As at every overcrowded vernissage, everyone wanted to know who else was around.

The works spanning from paintings, over photographs and collages to graphics were hung on the wall, with an artificial pond with real waterlilies covering the floor created by Wolfgang Paalen. Various objects were positioned on pedestals of different size and the whole room was decorated with various items in order to achieve a surreal atmosphere. Two hundred and twenty-nine artworks by sixty exhibitors from fourteen countries were featured at this multimedia exhibition. Along with Dali, Duchamp, Ernst, and others engaged with the organization of the exhibition, artists and writers like Hans Bellmer, Leonora Carrington, Giorgio de Chirico, Joseph Cornell, Óscar Domínguez, Alberto Giacometti, Meret Oppenheim, René Magritte, André Masson, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Rita Kernn-Larsen were present.

The exhibition opening was scheduled at 10 pm, the evening dress was mandatory and sensations such as hysteria, a sky full of flying dogs and the presence of Enigmarelle, a humanoid automaton, a descendant of Frankenstein were promised. Ernst, Dalí and Paalen invited the actress Hélène Vanel to do a performance (she was jumping out of pillows lying on the floor with chains wrapped around her naked body; acting as if she had a hysterical attack).

The International Surrealist Exhibition was accompanied by eight-page catalog featuring the names of artists in huge capital letters as well as the names of the organizers. An extensive Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme under the direction of Breton and Éluard was published by the gallery of Beaux-Arts in addition to the catalog. As the title suggests, it was a dictionary of Surrealism with introductory text written by Raymond Congniat the French art critic and artistic director of the gallery, along with cover artwork by Yves Tanguy and illustrations. This publication is of great importance since it summarized the movement’s crucial concepts, motifs, techniques, and influences spanning from the medieval alchemist Nicolas Flamel, the proponents of French Romanticism street Gérard de Nerval and Comte de Lautréamont, fetish practices, etc.

The International Surrealist Exhibition

The Significance of The International Surrealist Exhibition

Shortly after the opening, the Exposition Internationale du Surréalism became a major cultural event in Paris which attracted a huge number of visitors. Just during the opening night, more than 3,000 people came to see it, and even the police had to take action in order to control the masses.

The exhibition was apparently a mere spectacle according to the reactions of the press which characterized it as a collection of sad jokes. Most critics were completely oblivious in regards to the high level of innovation in the conceptual sense.

Numerous photographs by Raoul Ubac, Josef Breitenbach, Man Ray, and few other authors show how the installment looked like, yet the book by Man Ray titled Résurrection des mannequins in Paris published by Jean Petithory in 1966 describes the best the exhibition with an explanatory essay and fifteen silver-gelatine photograph prints.

In 1995 a New York-based Ubu gallery organized an homage to the ground-breaking 1938 show, and it featured the exhibits, photographs and Duchamp’s installation. Another retrospective titled Gegen jede Vernunft. Surrealismus Paris-Prag im Jahr 2009/10 (Against all reason. Surrealism Paris-Prague in 2009/10) at the Wilhelm-Hack museum in Ludwigshafen featured a partial reenactment of the original 1938 installment (the main room as it was decorated by Marcel Duchamp featured sacks of coal mounted on the ceiling, leaves on the floor, and paintings on the wall followed by an audio track with the sounds of marching soldiers and hysterical laughter. The visitors explored the room with a flashlight). The comprehensive exhibition Dalí, Magritte, Miró – Surrealismus in Paris (Dalí, Magritte, Miró – Surrealism in Paris) which took place at The Fondation Beyeler in Riehen near Basel in 2012 also showed the parts of International Surrealist Exhibition.

Shortly after the vernissage, it turned out that this event was the grandiose closure of the surrealist movement. The leading proponents took different political positions in the wake of WW II, so their differences became apparent more than ever. However, years after the domains of the International Surrealist Exhibition reflected on a later production. Therefore, it can be said that it was a milestone for the development of post-war avant-garde practices present within the phenomena of Neo-Dadaism in America and Nouveau Realism in France, and then Fluxus and Conceptual Art, and can be regarded as one of the most important exhibitions of the first half of the 20th century.

Editors’ Tip: Displaying the Marvelous: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, and Surrealist Exhibition Installations

Surrealism in its late phase often abandoned neutral exhibition spaces in favor of environments that embodied subjective ideologies. These exhibitions offered startled viewers an early version of installation art before the form existed as such. In Displaying the Marvelous, Lewis Kachur explores this development by analyzing three elaborate Surrealist installations created between 1938 and 1942. The first two, the “Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme” (1938) and the “Dream of Venus” at the New York World’s Fair (1939), dealt with the fetishization of the female body. The third, “First Papers of Surrealism” (1942), focused not on the figure but on the entire expanse of the exhibition space, thus contributing to the development of nonfigurative art in New York.

Featured image: Invitation card for Surrealist Exhibition. Images via creative commons.