Tag Archives: surrealism

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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Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist Scenes Find Muse in Hieronymus Bosch’s Christian Fantasies

Where does the real end and the surreal begin? You could spend hours staring at Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, pondering this question. And one modern artist did just that, before her mind went on a strange journey.

The famous fourteenth century painting is full of tiny figures – human, plant, animal, and monster – in a three-panel landscape thought to represent the Bible’s Heaven, the Garden of Eden, and Hell. On close observation, these figures are engaged in lots of strange activities, some definitely sexual, others, just weird.

Hung in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, the Dutch artist’s striking scene intrigued a young Surrealist, 450 years after its creation. Leonora Carrington encountered Bosch’s works here while escaping the 1939 Nazi invasion of France, and her own art found a muse.

Left: The Temptation of St. Anthony, Leonora Carrington, 1947; Right: The Temptation of St. Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch, c 1500-1525





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Carrington’s midcentury Temptation is one of her only works on a Christian theme and very obviously influence by Bosch’s painting of the same Biblical story.

Commenting on it, the artist said: “Naturally, one could ask why the venerable holy man has three heads, to which one could always reply, why not?”

This playful yet cryptic response was typical of Carrington’s character. Inspired by Bosch, her surreal paintings are just as mysterious.

Left: The Giantess, Leonora Carrington, 1947; Right: The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500

Choice of symbolic imagery is key in these two paintings.

Like Bosch, Carrington depicts hunters in an uncertain landscape and winged fish and seafarers floating in an ocean-like sky. Her central giantess holds an egg while birds fly from her cloak.

Figures, animal, man, and object, interacting in a strange way… sound familiar?

Left: Adieu Ammenotep, Leonora Carrington, 1960; Right: The Stone Operation, Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1494

Both artists explore the boundaries of magic and medicine.

A man extracts a “stone of madness” from the head of a patient in Bosch’s The Stone Operation. His funnel-like hat suggests he’s less doctor and more charlatan, and the “stone” is a flower. One previously removed sits on the café-style table.

Carrington’s figures also perform a magical operation over the mummified body of Amenhotep, an Egyptian pharaoh. In a kind of medical operating theater, figures pull red strings through the body, whose insides are a flower.

For this Surrealist, Bosch as muse is clear. But, Carrington’s mind was filled with strange and uncanny thoughts long before she could release them in paint.

She crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and visited the Prado Museum in 1939. However, it was not long before the artist suffered a psychotic break and was mandated to an asylum. She describes the traumatic experience in her memoir, “Down Below,” (1944, revised in 1988). For Carrington, the line between real and surreal is never drawn.

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Learn more about Carrington’s life and career here: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-carrington-leonora.htm

In the documentary film “La Novia del Viento” by Andrea Di Castro, Delmari Romero Keith and Rafael Segovia, the artist gives her final interview in 2010, one year before her death. Watch an excerpt here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBa5Uy9Yl0I

Magic and Mystery, Fantasy and Fashion: Leonora Carrington in Pop Culture

Leonora Carrington might not be as well known as some other Surrealist artists, but her art has been quietly influential in popular culture and fashion.

Left: Madonna in "Bedtime Story," 1995 Right: The Giantess, Leonora Carrington, c. 1947

Left: Madonna in “Bedtime Story,” 1995; Right: The Giantess, Leonora Carrington, c. 1947

In 1995, Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” music video gained fame as an homage to the work of several female Surrealists. Directed by Mark Romanek, a filmmaker of most recent fame for pop singer Taylor’s Swift’s “Shake It Off” video and rapper Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” art film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it includes a scene in which the singer opens her robe to release a flock of birds, much like the central figure in Carrington’s The Giantess (ca. 1947).





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The dialogue between Surrealist art and fashion has a precedent long before Madonna. Artist Salvador Dali collaborated with designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s, and Surrealism continues to inspire contemporary designers. (Visit this Elle slideshow for some recent examples!)

In 2013, W Magazine published a Surrealist-themed fashion editorial photographed at the historical estate Las Pozas in Mexico.

Here are a few photographs from the W feature that echo certain figures and motifs from Leonora Carrington’s art:

Left: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine, 2013; Right: Darvault, Leonora Carrington, c. 1950

Top left: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine, 2013; Top right and bottom: The House Opposite, Leonora Carrington, c. 1945

Left: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine, 2013; Right: Green Tea, or La Dame Ovale, Leonora Carrington, 1945

Left: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine, 2013; Right: Tuesday, Leonora Carrington, 1987

In addition to paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, Carrington created costume designs, stage designs, and playful, esoteric items such as decorative masks over her long career. Surely she would have enjoyed knowing that her work is still a source of ideas for creative artists of all kinds.

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Learn more about Leonora Carringtons life and career here:
www.theartstory.org/artist-carrington-leonora.htm

View the entire W feature here:
www.wmagazine.com/people/celebrities/2013/05/tilda-swinton-tim-walker-las-pozas-cover-story-ss/photos/slide/1

Las Pozas is located near the city of Xilitla in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. It was once owned by Edward James, a major patron of Surrealist art. You can read more about it here: www.xilitla.org

For more analysis of Madonnas Bedtime Story video, see here:
www.wicked-halo.com/2009/05/bedtime-story-deconstructed.html