How the surrealists sold out
V&A exhibition explores how movement was commercialised - and offers £5 Man Ray tea towels at gift shop
Wednesday March 28, 2007
A visitor scrutinising Rene Magritte's painting The Red Model III at the V&A's Surreal Things exhibition. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
The ghosts of André Breton and Louis Aragon should really turn up and picket the Victoria and Albert museum tomorrow when it opens Surreal Things, the first exhibition devoted to the influence of surrealism on design - the arc of a movement that began by outraging the bourgeoisie and ended in ballgowns for wealthy socialities.
In 1926 Breton and Aragon, probably egged on by Picasso, were affronted that fellow surrealists Max Ernst and Joan Miró were "selling their souls to commerce" by designing sets and costumes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. They disrupted the Paris first night, blowing whistles, jeering, and distributing leaflets of smoking outrage: "It is inadmissible that ideas should be at the behest of money!" Aragon thundered.
"We are really exploring how surrealism was commercialised," the curator, Ghislaine Wood, said.
The exhibition borrows heavily from private collections, and includes many pieces that have not been exhibited since they were first sold in the 1930s.
Despite, or because of, the protest at the Paris ballet, the surrealists were a hit not just with the public but with designers of clothes, furniture, wallpaper, jewellery - designs copied for film and stage, and for advertising Shell and Ford cars.
The surrealists had a flair for publicity. At the first London exhibition Salvador Dalí delivered a lecture from inside a diver's helmet, before collapsing under its weight, and JB Priestley very helpfully denounced the whole thing as perverted.
The 1939 show at a grand gallery on the Place Vendôme, in Paris, was used as a backdrop for a fashion shoot by Harpers Bazaar. Magritte's work Ceci n'est pas une Pipe became a pipe-shaped male scent bottle, and Miró and Jean Cocteau designed headscarves for Schiaparelli, who also produced evening dresses printed with Picasso designs, and a pattern intended to suggest flayed skin.
The movement was stopped in its tracks by the second world war, but never quite died out.
"It grabbed the popular imagination, and is still tremendously powerful today," said Ms Wood.
The exhibition recreates some perhaps mercifully lost surrealist interiors, including Paul and Gala Éluard's bedroom in Paris, with a riot of phallic symbols and a giant woman's hand with crossed fingers and long sharp nails crushing a red ball at the bedhead, painted by Max Ernst. Ernst was Éluard's friend and collaborator, the lover of Gala - later Mrs Salvador Dalí - and shared the house as well as the decorating. The house was sold in 1932, the murals painted over and only rediscovered and sold in 1967. The exhibition recreates the original stunning room, but the panels are scattered in private collections and museums in Dusseldorf and Tehran.
It also does enough to give the flavour of Monkton, a sober Lutyens designed house in Sussex which the millionaire Edward James inherited and transformed into a shrine to surrealism. James's house included padded walls and carpets incorporating the pawprints of his Irish wolfhound, where lounging on the original version of Dalí's sofa modelled on Mae West's lips, he could answer calls on Dalí's lobster telephone.
The connection was perfectly clear to the artist, who explained: "I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone."
Visitors can admire the originals of the phone and sofa, and even try sitting on the hideously uncomfortable plastic replicas in the entrance.
But even James drew the line somewhere. Dalí's cherished project of creating a room that would "pulsate like the stomach of a sick dog" was never realised.
Full coverage: surrealism
05.03.2007: Jonathan Jones on the landscape that inspired Salvador Dalí
05.03.2007: Germaine Greer on surrealism's women