âWithout promotion, something terrible happensâŠ. Nothing!â – P.T. Barnum
Tristan Tzara, AndrĂ© Breton, and Salvador DalĂ 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 worldâs biggest star) was attending their show at the GrandÂ PalaisÂ desÂ Champs-ĂlysĂ©es. 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 phallusÂ 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 Tzaraâs Dada group and Bretonâs Surrealists exploded at the famous evening event entitled: SoirĂ©eÂ duÂ Coeur Ă Barbe (The Evening of the Bearded Heart). While Tzaraâs Dada play The Gas Heart was being performed people heckled. Breton leapt on stage waving his cane and shouting, allegedly breaking an actorâs 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 âa strictly pornographic nature, whose impact will be of particular scandalous significance.â 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 â linking it to Freud, fur-fetishism and Sacher-Masochâs S&M book Venus in Fur â 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, DalĂ lectured onÂ âParanoiaâÂ 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 âreally deathly pallor.â The Daily Mirror reported attendees âcame away shocked, amused, scared, or just bored.â DalĂ discusses it in a documentary owned by the University of Texas.
#6 THE DEPARTMENT STORE TANTRUM, 1939
DalĂ had created a department store display for Bonwit Teller & Co, New York. The theme was âNight and Day.â âDayâ was a hideous mannequin in a fur bathtub, âNightâ a mannequin and what DalĂ called, âthe decapitated head and the savage hoofs of a great somnambulist buffalo extenuated by a thousand years of sleep.â Public outrage meant the store modified it, but when he saw it, DalĂ 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 âartistic temperament,â making worldwide headlines. See more about it here.
#7 DROPPING LEAFLETS FROM THE SKY, 1939
DalĂ had proposed building a reproduction of Botticelliâs Venus, with her head replaced by a fish, for the World Fair. Unimpressed, the organizers called it âreckless nonsenseâ because âa woman with the head of a fish is impossible.âÂ Enraged, DalĂ 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 âEXPULSIONâ OF DALĂ, 1941
By 1941 DalĂâs attention-seeking and mantra âI AM Surrealismâ had angered Breton. But DalĂâs 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 âAVIDA DOLLARSâ from DalĂâs name. Completely unruffled, DalĂ 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 LeÂ SurrĂ©alisme, MĂȘme used this photograph of UnicaÂ ZĂŒrn by her lover Hans Bellmer â 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 Oppenheimâs 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 DalĂ, the two arch showmen and ringmasters of mayhem had their iconic meeting. Announcing, in typical egomaniacal style: âThe DalĂ is hereâ 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 Ă©clair 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 âthe DalĂ.â 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.