BLOG Category: Public Art


Agents Provocateurs: Ringleaders of the Surrealist Circus
The Power of Public Sculpture

Agents Provocateurs: Ringleaders of the Surrealist Circus

“Without promotion, something terrible happens…. Nothing!” – P.T. Barnum

Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and Salvador Dalí catapulted artists to world fame by whipping up scandal, shock, and subversion. Masterminds of marketing, they fused old style showmanship with modern commercial savvy. Any publicity was good publicity, and their shows were public spectacles – an electrifying theatre of erotic and violent fantasies.

Nothing was taboo at these 10 stunt shows. Ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, it was just as these masters of spin intended.

#1 THE NON EXISTENT DADA SHOWS, 1920 & 1926 Success for the Dada leader Tristan Tzara was nothing less than a crowd riot. He claimed that Charlie Chaplin (the world’s biggest star) was attending their show at the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées. Excited crowds raged when Chaplin failed to show, while the delighted Dadaists threw insults back. In 1926 Tzara advertised a Dada Sex Show at the Salle Gavreu. What the crowd got for their money was a large wooden phallus balanced on balloons. The result? More audience rage and more Dada delight. Hear Tzara in his own words here:

#2 THE BATTLE OF THE BEARDED HEART, 1923

A spat between Tzara’s Dada group and Breton’s Surrealists exploded at the famous evening event entitled: Soirée du Coeur à Barbe (The Evening of the Bearded Heart). While Tzara’s Dada play The Gas Heart was being performed people heckled. Breton leapt on stage waving his cane and shouting, allegedly breaking an actor’s arm. A riot broke out, Tzara called the police and the Dada/Surrealist split was settled. The Gas Heart was meant to confuse with a surreal dialogue between a mouth, ear, eye, nose, neck, and eyebrow. You can see one interpretation of it here:

#3 THE SURREALIST BUREAU OF PUBLIC CONFESSIONS, 1929

Breton published the Surrealist manifesto and wanted to promote the Surrealist way of seeing to the world. To this end he instigated a Paris-wide publicity blitz offering the public visits to the Surrealist headquarters. He invited people to record their dreams, nightmares, secret desires, and fears in a confession booth. This generated a lot of buzz, but would anyone heed his call? Watch more on the beginnings of Surrealism on this BBC program.

#4 THE FURRY TEA CUP, 1936

When advertising Surrealist exhibitions Breton promised the public that they would be of “a strictly pornographic nature, whose impact will be of particular scandalous significance.” He was always ready to up the ante. Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim had created the above work, titled Object but Breton rebranded it as Breakfast in Fur – linking it to Freud, fur-fetishism and Sacher-Masoch’s S&M book Venus in Fur – rocketing the scandal into the stratosphere. Hear some reactions to this work on MOMA’s website.

#5 DEEP-SEA PARANOIA, 1936

At the London Surrealist Show, Dalí lectured on “Paranoia” from inside a deep-sea diving-suit. The helmet was fixed with metal bolts, but he failed to attach an air supply. As his air ran out, he began to struggle, but the crowd merely applauded – thinking it was part of his act. When the helmet was smashed open with a hammer, he emerged, delighted by his “really deathly pallor.” The Daily Mirror reported attendees “came away shocked, amused, scared, or just bored.” Dalí discusses it in a documentary owned by the University of Texas.

#6 THE DEPARTMENT STORE TANTRUM, 1939

Dalí had created a department store display for Bonwit Teller & Co, New York. The theme was “Night and Day.” “Day” was a hideous mannequin in a fur bathtub, “Night” a mannequin and what Dalí called, “the decapitated head and the savage hoofs of a great somnambulist buffalo extenuated by a thousand years of sleep.” Public outrage meant the store modified it, but when he saw it, Dalí was so enraged that he jumped in the display case and sent the bathtub, buffalo and finally himself through the plate glass window. He was arrested but ultimately let off as the Judge accepted his “artistic temperament,” making worldwide headlines. See more about it here.

#7 DROPPING LEAFLETS FROM THE SKY, 1939

Dalí had proposed building a reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus, with her head replaced by a fish, for the World Fair. Unimpressed, the organizers called it “reckless nonsense” because “a woman with the head of a fish is impossible.” Enraged, Dalí created this Manifesto, and, according to his friend and Surrealist art promoter Julien Levy, allegedly dropped hundreds of copies of it over Manhattan from an airplane. Read more about Dali’s Declaration of Independence at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

#8 THE ‘EXPULSION’ OF DALÍ, 1941

By 1941 Dalí’s attention-seeking and mantra “I AM Surrealism” had angered Breton. But Dalí’s adverts for Alka-Seltzer and chocolate, and his practice of signing blank sheets of paper for $10 were the final straw. Breton expelled him from the Paris group and created the derogatory acronym “AVIDA DOLLARS” from Dalí’s name. Completely unruffled, Dalí retorted it was the only “truly brilliant” idea Breton had ever had. See more about their split here:

#9 SEX & CANNIBALISM, 1959

The front cover of Le Surréalisme, Même used this photograph of Unica Zürn by her lover Hans Bellmer – she was bound up with string, recalling meat trussed up for the oven. The same year, the Surrealist show EROS created public delight and critical outrage with a table on which a naked woman lay covered in fruits, nuts and shellfish. It had been Meret Oppenheim’s idea, and originally titled Fertility Feast, it was intended to celebrate the cycle of life. But once more, Breton gave it a shocking rebrand, renaming it Cannibal Feast, creating an unprecedented sensational art tableau that has been copied ever since. See the show for yourself here.

#10 ROCK & ROLL MEETS SURREALISM, 1973

At the St Moritz Hotel, Alice Cooper and Salvador Dalí, the two arch showmen and ringmasters of mayhem had their iconic meeting. Announcing, in typical egomaniacal style: “The Dalí is here” the older artist promptly decked the rocker Alice Cooper out in $4 million of diamonds and presented him with an artwork titled The Brain of Alice. It was covered in ants and had a chocolate éclair attached. Could it get any more Surreal? See the video here:

The last word, just as he would demand it, should of course go to “the Dalí.” Reflecting on a lifetime of epic attention-seeking, he concluded: “the one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.” And, as long as there is an audience, there will be art impresarios ready to deliver it, by any means necessary.

Learn about Dada and Surrealism on the Art Story.

And visit the individual artists’ insight pages on Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Hans Bellmer, and Meret Oppenheim.

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The Power of Public Sculpture

From the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt to the streets and piazzas of Florence, sculpture in public places has been fundamental in informing the visual consciousness of a society for millennia. Today, there’s even more on show than ever and – the best part is – it’s all free!

Here are a few of the best sculptural works on public display from around the world, including some lesser-known gems:

  1. Jacob Epstein, Sculptures for the British Medical Association Building (1908)

Location: The Strand, London

[More information: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/gallery-lost-art-jacob-epstein]

Just around the corner from London’s Trafalgar Square are these fantastic figures by Epstein, which are placed in niches high atop a building. When they were first proposed, their nudity caused a controversy and public opinion was divided on their appropriateness for display on the street. Thirty years later, when acid rain had made them unstable, some traditionalists relished taking a chisel to these amazing works and reducing them to mere torsos. Even headless and limbless, however, these sculptures remain incredibly powerful.

  1. Dan Flavin, Untitled (1996)

Location: 548 West 22nd Street, New York

Official Site: https://www.diaart.org/collection/collection/flavin-dan-untitled-1996-1996-002

This site-specific artwork by Dan Flavin is managed by the Dia Foundation and is always open to the public. Featuring Flavin’s signature fluorescent lights, the work was completed just before the artist’s death. Understated and slightly eerie, the piece demonstrates Flavin’s sensitivity to the specifics of the architectural space. Tip: it’s particularly atmospheric if you go at night.

  1. Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate  (2006)

Location: Millennium Park, Chicago

Official site: http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/millennium_park_-artarchitecture.html#cloud

Cloud Gate is hard to miss. This huge sculpture by Anish Kapoor dominates the plaza at Chicago’s Millennium Park, where it has been affectionately nicknamed “the bean”. The highly polished surface reflects distorted images of the cityscape around it and of the crowds of people who can pass around and under it. It’s like a funhouse mirror on steroids. This mirroring visually dissolves the form of the enormous metal structure, simultaneously blending in with its surroundings and asking the viewer to look again.

  1. Joan Miro, Oiseau Lunaire  (1966)

Location: Square Blomet, Paris

This large work by Joan Miro (92 x 82 x 59 inches) stands in a public park in Paris’ Montparnasse area, once home to a plethora of artists living and working there in the 1910s and 20s. Miro’s sculpture, designed as a site-specific work, is intended to be a memorial to those artists who promoted avant-garde forms and theories, and influenced the work of generations of artists to come.

  1. Fernando Botero, The Hand  (1976)

Location: Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid

If you’re looking for public sculpture, Madrid should be high on your list of destinations. It even boasts a little-known (but enormous) Museum of Public Art, which contains sculptures by Miro and Julio Gonzalez. Elsewhere in the city, you’ll find this huge sculpture of a hand by Columbian artist Fernando Botero. The work is characteristic of Botero’s voluminous style and was produced soon after the artist suffered a hand injury in a car accident.

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  1. Jacques Lipchitz, Prometheus Strangling the Vulture  (1943)

Location: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Official site: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/54047.html

This late work by sculptor Jacques Lipchitz is positioned outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a city that boasts more than its fair share of incredible works of art on public display. One of his lesser-known pieces, Lipchitz’ sculpture depicts the myth of Prometheus breaking free of his bonds and strangling the vulture who has been pecking at his entrails for an eternity. Lipchitz saw this as symbolic of the human race fighting against the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

  1. Lynn Chadwick, Couple on Seat  (1986)

Location: Canary Wharf, London

Official site: http://canarywharf.com/artwork/lynn-chadwick-couple-on-seat/

Canary Wharf is home to London’s tallest, shiniest buildings and to crowds of harassed-looking people in suits. It might not sound like an obvious place to go looking for modern art, but Canary Wharf is also home to Lynn Chadwick’s Couple on Seat, positioned with its back to a large fountain. It’s a powerful work, taking inspiration from Henry Moore, and is well worth seeking out.

  1. Jeff Koons, Balloon Flower (Red)  (2006)

Location: 7 World Trade Center, New York

Official site: http://www.jeffkoons.com/exhibitions/solo/balloon-flower-red

Koons created his Balloon Flower (Red) as a memorial to those who survived 9/11. It exhibits the highly polished style that can be found in several of his sculptures. Its bright color and shiny surface make it feel distinctly upbeat, a celebration of moving forwards as well as looking back. Its resemblance to a giant balloon confuses the viewer’s eye; you almost expect it to start floating up into the air.

The Background Info:

Public sculpture in the United States saw a revival under the Federal Art Program in the 1930s, designed by the government to help the country out of the Depression and to promote a connection between art and the public. In the UK, public art was similarly encouraged by the post-War Labour government in the 1950s, who chose sculpture as a tool for promoting socialist values across the country.

This strong tradition continues today, and there is consequently a wealth of fantastic twentieth-century and contemporary sculpture on public view around the world. Unfortunately, these works can become sidelined, missed by pedestrians who don’t stop to think about the work of art that they are hurrying past. Nevertheless, seeking out public sculpture can be highly rewarding; you’ll be surprised what’s just around the corner.

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