The legendary Surrealist exhibitions of the late 1930s and early 1940s were Surrealist in spirit and secondarily Surrealist in content. In 1942, for example, an exhibition called “The First Papers of Surrealism” was installed at the Whitelaw Reid mansion on Madison Avenue in New York, and those that attended it were far more likely to remember the show itself than any of the works on display. It was designed by Marcel Duchamp, using one mile of string to weave a sort of spider’s web from floor to walls to ceiling, which visitors had to climb through to look at the art hung on temporary display panels. Moreover, they had to put up with a crowd of schoolchildren, boisterously playing ball or skipping rope or chasing one another through the show. The children were instructed to say that Mr. Duchamp said it was OK for them to play there, if anyone raised the question. It was an ideal way to subvert any propensity to seek a rich aesthetic experience in contemplating the art, and by indirection to demonstrate that it was not the point of Surrealist art to be an object of aesthetic contemplation in the first place. Duchamp disdained aesthetic response–“That retinal shudder!” as he dismissed it in a late interview.
Duchamp had also installed the legendary International Exposition of Surrealism at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris four years earlier. There he arranged to have the ceiling hung with 1,200 coal sacks that, though empty, showered residual coal dust on the throngs below, who were supplied with flashlights to see the paintings hung in shadows. Upon entering the show, visitors encountered Rainy Taxi by Salvador Dali–an ancient taxicab on which water poured down from the ceiling. The driver and passenger were both mannequins, the former equipped with a shark’s head and wearing goggles, the latter a frump covered with escargots, and both placed on a bed of lettuce.
These exhibitions achieved the same shock of incongruity that was intended to characterize what one might think of as Surrealist experience in general, as expressed in one of their favorite paradigms from a text by Isidore Ducasse, a k a le Comte de Lautréamont: “The chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” There is a 1920 photograph by Man Ray of a mysterious object, wrapped in a heavy blanket and bound with rope. It was used as the frontispiece of the first issue of a magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, the readers of which would immediately have inferred from its title–“The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse”–that the wrapped object must be a sewing machine. Visitors to non-Surrealist exhibitions of Surrealist art–such as “Surrealism: Desire Unbound,” on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 12–might be let in on the secret by a wall label reading: “sewing machine, wood, fabric, card.” But without knowing the identity of Ducasse or the text alluded to, the point of the work would be lost on them.
Surrealism was essentially a literary movement, whose primary products were books, magazines, poems, letters and manifestoes. These in fact form a considerable part of “Desire Unbound,” which, together with the many aging snapshots of groups of smiling Surrealists, could with equal suitability have made up a show at the Morgan Library or some comparable venue. Art itself was largely peripheral to the movement, serving, like Man Ray’s photograph, to illustrate the essentially philosophical ideas of the writers, who were chiefly poets and what one might term aesthetic ideologists, tirelessly taken up with defining what we might term “Surrealist correctness.” At least in the early stages of the movement, one of their questions was whether painting was even a Surrealist possibility. Ironically, the writers have become the subject of scholarly specialization, while Surrealism itself is widely identified with a body of paintings, pre-eminently those of Dali–desert landscapes in acute perspective, on the floor of which various objects, often teeming with ants, cast sharp shadows. It was Dali who designed the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound–and it is his idiom that has been universally appropriated for the representation of dreams.