Autumn 2007

Documents of the marvellous

Rick Poynor
Andre Breton
Mark Dion
Surrealism and Design: part two

The authentic spirit of Surrealism lives on – in projects based on curious collections that celebrate the strange and numinous

Surrealism’s assumptions and attitudes, its embrace of individual desire and celebration of the obsessional, fantastic and strange, can now be found in fiction, comic books, TV comedy, advertising and film, as well as three-dimensional design. Eighty years after its inception, Surrealism’s assimilation into everyday life is so complete that characterising something as ‘surreal’ has become a routine, rather obvious way of suggesting its peculiarity. When used this casually, the word no longer bears any fruitful relationship to the artistic and social aims of the movement’s founders. Are there, then, other ways in which Surrealism persists as a meaningful reference for a particular visual sensibility or category of experience?

Central to Surrealism is the idea of le merveilleux – the marvellous – alluded to by the movement’s leader André Breton in the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. ‘Let us not mince words,’ he writes, ‘the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful.’ Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926) concludes with a declaration that: ‘The marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.’ The Surrealists set out in pursuit of the marvellous with the dedication of medieval knights in search of the Holy Grail. Its electrifying essence could be discovered in poems, paintings, photographs and places; in the arcades of old Paris (where Aragon found it in the soon-to-be-demolished Passage de l’Opéra); in the lettering on shop fronts and the displays of merchandise encountered in their windows; in mysterious objects whose purpose was no longer apparent; and in the way several objects or images might combine to suggest another plane of reality – the effect could be accidental or deliberate, as in a Surrealist assemblage such as Breton’s 1941 Poetic Object: A Torn Stocking.

The Surrealists experienced the marvellous as a kind of jolt or shock, an excitingly disorientating sensation, as though a crack had suddenly opened in the world’s carapace of normality and everything was slipping away. Breton’s Nadja (1928), another book about mysterious Parisian chance encounters, this time with a woman, ends with the ringing assertion: ‘Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.’ Beauty is therefore a disturbance of the senses and this frisson became a defining quality of the Surrealists’ approach to life and art. In his study of Surrealism, Compulsive Beauty, art historian Hal Foster argues that the marvellous – ‘a state at once otherworldly, secular, and psychic’ – can also be understood as the phenomenon Freud termed ‘the uncanny’, which Foster regards, from the perspective of Surrealism, as the ‘return of the repressed for disruptive purposes’. By this means, these psychic explorers sought to achieve what Foster calls ‘the re-enchantment of a disenchanted world, of a capitalist society made ruthlessly rational’.

Cabinets of curiosities
In 2005, the grand-sounding Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy opened at the Manchester Museum. The office behind the glass door inscribed with this legend bears no relation to the efficient modern interior one might have expected. It looks more like the rarely visited refuge of a Victorian curator. The shelves behind a monumental roll-top desk are crammed with chests of drawers (contents unknown) and with glass-fronted cabinets haphazardly loaded with curiosities such as botanical teaching models, ethnographic carvings, a stuffed heron and a crab’s claw, while a six-legged hamster reposes on a bed of satin beneath a tall glass jar.

The Bureau, on permanent display, is the work of American artist Mark Dion, who was given the run of the museum’s back rooms, from which he rescued old glass slides, books set aside for disposal and many other overlooked or unwanted objects. The book documenting the project, published by Bookworks, is a strikingly charismatic object in its own right, its cover taking the form and proportions of a door (Breton described Nadja as ‘a book with a banging door’). The pages abound with photographs of objects from the collection: zoological specimens, bone fragments, old buttons and coins, and pictures of Edwardian women practising archery, all deliberately mislabelled by Dion. For instance, catalogue no. 31, a coiled lizard on a straw hat, becomes ‘Metal clip for attaching to ear of cow to number it’. Dion also displays a selection of strange exhibit captions – ‘Breast Plough’, ‘Domestic Bygones’, ‘Necklace of Human Hair’ – plucked at random from a bag.

As art writer David Lomas suggests, the re-emergence of objects that defy classification within the established museological order – the unseen freaks and misfits from the collection’s least visited store rooms – represent a return of the repressed. Dion’s Surrealist tactics have revealed ‘an alternative universe of imaginative and analogical connections’; and analogical thinking is the very basis of Surrealism as Breton and others conceived it.

Breton, too, was a collector. His apartment at 42 rue Fontaine in Paris was filled with a small museum’s worth of objects and one of its packed walls, consisting of 200 pieces, has been reconstructed, according to the original layout, at the Pompidou Centre. The display includes a statuette from New Guinea, a pendant from the Solomon Islands, Aboriginal bark paintings and an American Indian mask mixed up with works by Kandinsky, Picabia and Miro. What the heterogeneous nature of Breton’s collection of modern art and anthropological marvels recalls more than anything is a seventeenth-century Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, the earliest, pre-modern form of the museum. It was the Surrealists, in their search for the marvellous, who anticipated the revival of interest – manifest in Dion’s Bureau – in the disorderly profusion of objects both natural and artificial presented in the spectacular displays of such renowned seventeenth-century scholars and collectors as Francesco Calzolari in Verona, Ole Worm in Copenhagen and Athanasius Kircher in Rome. At the Surrealist exhibition held at the Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris, in 1936, viewers encountered objects such as Marcel Duchamp’s deadpan industrial bottle-rack exhibited behind glass without explanation alongside strange ethnographic artefacts and pieces of contemporary sculpture.

The most celebrated example of a contemporary Wunderkammer, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles, is the place where all these strands of inquiry connect. As Lawrence Weschler revealed in his gripping account of the enigmatic museum, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (1995), its founder and director, David Wilson, has maintained a remarkable degree of discretion when it comes to the question of whether exhibits such as the ill-fated stink ant of the Cameroon, consumed by a fungus that issues forth from its head in an orange-tipped spike, and the bat reported to pass through solid objects by means of high-frequency emissions, were real phenomena or his own inventions. Wilson sees the museum as offering a public service, an environment in which visitors can change, seemingly in the most profound though tantalisingly unspecified ways. ‘Part of the assigned task,’ he told Weschler, ‘is to reintegrate people to wonder.’ In the museum’s Jubilee Catalogue, an epigram embodies its purpose and mission: ‘The learner must be led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar; guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.’ Wonder, notes Weschler, ‘is its unifying theme’.

If the design of Dion’s Bureau book shows elegant restraint, placing all the emphasis on the allure of the objects, the Jubilee Catalogue designed by Laura Lindgren goes to even greater lengths to maintain an air of scrupulous scientific reliability. Weschler describes Wilson as ‘irony-less’ and the same could be said of the book’s plain pages, designed on the ratio of 1:1.414 and set in Berthold Caslon, with the least decorative of headings – centred, naturally – and broad white margins suitable for copious note-taking. These devices, in concert with small, undramatic photographs and authoritative diagrams, suggest an educational institution that is entirely serious about advancing public knowledge of the Lower Jurassic (whatever that might be).

While Dion’s and Wilson’s projects can both be seen as examples of the artistic practice known as institutional critique, exposing the means by which museums formulate and organise knowledge and use their authority to mark its limits, their power as subjective experience for the willing spectator stems from something less tangible or tractable. They reinstate the discredited idea of mystery, offering glimpses and flashes of the marvellous, in the best tradition of Surrealism, which cannot be rationalised or explained away. The convulsive sensation of wonder, the giddy feeling that the ground is opening at one’s feet, makes buttoned-up detachment impossible.

The numinous object
The idea of the cabinet packed with stupendous wonders now exerts a considerable hold in contemporary visual culture. The more fully optimised and over-determined our Web 2.0 world becomes, the stronger the need, it would seem, to create spaces for the elusive and unknowable, the mysterious and marvellous, the unlikely and opaque, and the Web itself has become a home for these enclaves. The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society website (now suspended), named in honour of the prodigious seventeenth-century polymath, was a portal to museums of the strange devoted to hair, food anomalies, counterfeits, medical meteorology, unworkable devices and other exotica. The BibliOdyssey blog, subject of a new book from designers and publishers Fuel, channels a continuous stream of arcane antiquarian images discovered in the online treasure chests of libraries and institutions around the world.

Cabinet, the most conceptually adventurous visual arts magazine to appear in the past decade, makes the Wunderkammer connection the basis of its editorial policy, and every issue provides a beguiling array of curiosities and wonders. In a recent edition with the theme of ‘Insects’ – an almost totemic Surrealist creature – we turn from a fifteenth-century portrait of a Carthusian monk, to an illustration of Virgil’s funeral for his pet fly taken from Ripley’s Wonder Book of Strange Facts, to an image of spirochaetes attached to a termite gut protozoan that recalls the alien aquatic micro-worlds explored in the 1930s and later by the natural history film-maker Jean Painlevé, long a member of the Surrealist pantheon.

In recent months, Cabinet has helped to incubate another project undertaken in the same spirit of intellectual playfulness, which is folded into its pages. Implicasphere: An Itinerary of Meandering Thought, edited by Cathy Haynes and Sally O’Reilly, focuses on apparently clear-cut topics – string, mice, folly, the nose, salt and pepper – which prove to have wide-ranging implications. The ‘implicasphere’ refers to the circles of association that surround each theme, and the editors’ method is to present an assortment of curious texts and images on both sides of a folding broadsheet. ‘The Nose’ brings together Gogol, Edward Lear, BBC News, a moose nose recipe, a sixteenth-century engraving of a rhinoplasty, and a slide projection by the British artist Simon Patterson. The design by Fraser Muggeridge gives this museum-on-paper an aspect of rigour and precision, but Implicasphere is more wayward than it first appears, a mixture of ‘doggerel and scientific fact’ that aims, say the editors, to ‘combine often incompatible shards of thought in webs of association that tangle the meaning of those simple words’.

Haynes and O’Reilly point to the Critical Dictionary published in Documents (1929-30), the breakaway Surrealist journal edited by Georges Bataille and others, as a precursor. In one of the dictionary’s most frequently cited entries, Bataille defined the concept of the ‘Formless’. To affirm, he concludes with some relish, ‘that the universe resembles nothing at all and is only formless, amounts to saying that the universe is something akin to a spider or a gob of spittle’. Little is known about how Documents was designed, but its editors seem to have courted the possibility of misrecognition and confusion by presenting images at peculiar scales and placing them where they don’t necessarily belong. Their purpose, art historian Simon Baker suggests in Undercover Surrealism, was to destabilise, undermine and debunk. Similarly, Implicasphere’s creators hope their piratical assemblage of unexpected sources will leave ostensibly straightforward subjects in an unstable condition.

One of the most pointed attempts to explore the idea of the marvellous object comes from Peter Blegvad, artist, musician and author of a cult cartoon strip collected as The Book of Leviathan (see Eye no. 38 vol. 10). Citing the Museum of Jurassic Technology as a project with aims in common, as well as pataphysics, Alfred Jarry’s ‘science of imaginary solutions’ (also admired by the Surrealists), Blegvad wants to locate the source of the fascination that objects exert. According to his website, Amateur Enterprises, most of the artefacts we own are ‘dead husks’ that supply no mental nourishment. Blegvad’s preferred word for the marvellous or wonderful (in the Wunderkammer sense) is ‘numinous’, which can suggest an inner divinity or simply mean ‘awe-inspiring’. ‘A numinous object is charged like a condenser,’ he observes. ‘It distorts induction and resonates ambiguously. In Surrealist parlance, it is “convulsive”, with the power to abrogate definition from its surroundings and become the solitary and radiant focus, the omphalos or navel, of an entire world.’

As he details on his website, Blegvad has a long-standing fixation with milk. ‘The glowing glass of milk is a numinous object,’ he says. In 2003, he was given the chance to exercise (or perhaps that should be exorcise) this compulsion in relation to Sir Henry Wellcome’s famous collection of medical curiosities, an early twentieth-century Wunderkammer that was the subject of an exhibition at the British Museum (see Critique, pp.4-5). The show’s curators, Ken Arnold and Danielle Olsen, drew an explicit comparison with the tradition of the wondrous cabinet, noting how they were ‘by turns interested in and drawn to the beautiful, the weird, the important and the unusual’ and had ‘selected objects which not only help us to tell medical stories but also which simply stopped us in our tracks’.

In a companion book, The Phantom Museum (2003), Blegvad divided his milk exhibition – ‘a history of human development from conception to corruption’ – into four imaginary rooms, each displaying artefacts and pictures with a lactic theme retrieved from Wellcome’s collection. Within these paper walls, the visitor discovers porcelain feeding bottles, silver and celluloid nipple shields, quotations from Blegvad’s ‘spiritual mentors’ Benjamin and Bachelard, a bare-breasted painted demon from Indonesia, and a photo of a man reclining in a bath of milk, with his eyes blanked out to preserve his anonymity. As with the Museum of Jurassic Technology or Implicasphere, the design’s appearance of academic sobriety masks an obsession of surpassing eccentricity that borders, in this case, on the thrillingly perverse.

Clouds are for dreamers
While there is a continuous flow of books about Surrealism, often produced to accompany exhibitions – the latest, in London, is ‘Dalí & Film’ at Tate Modern – only a handful of publishers are still engaged by the Surrealist project in a way that goes beyond detached, scholarly study and seeks the marvellous as a life-transforming personal event. In the US, Exact Change, founded in 1990 in Boston by the musicians Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, publishes classics of Surrealism-related literature by Lautréamont, Jarry, Apollinaire, de Chirico, Raymond Roussel and Leonora Carrington, as well as Aragon’s Paris Peasant. The montage by Dalí chosen for the cover of Oui, a collection of his polemical writings from 1927 to 1933, is a model of the convulsive image.

In London, Atlas Press, founded in 1983 by Alastair Brotchie and Malcolm Green, unearths and restores ‘emissions of the anti-tradition’, including works by Breton and Philippe Soupault (The Magnetic Fields), Jarry, Roussel, Benjamin Péret, Michel Leiris and Hans Bellmer. Encyclopedia Acephalica (1995), in the Documents of the Avant-Garde series, includes the Critical Dictionary edited by Bataille. Atlas stays small and independent to resist the homogenising tendencies of contemporary publishing and bookselling, and to preserve the integrity of its project. The press has also published two artist’s books by Blegvad, Headcheese – ‘milk’s great leap for immortality’ – and Stones in my Passway.

Strains of a Surrealist manner of perception, if not of an outright allegiance to the movement’s tenets and aims, can sometimes be detected in even the most mainstream publishing projects. The Cloudspotter’s Guide (2006) by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, co-founder and creative director of The Idler magazine and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, is a charmingly obsessive quest, sometimes to the far corners of the Earth, to marvel at spectacular agglomerations of water vapour. ‘Clouds are for dreamers,’ he notes. ‘They are the Rorschach images of the sky.’ (Blegvad, too, savours what he calls the ‘numinosity’ of clouds.) There can be a fine line between a routine work of non-fiction and an authentic work of wonder. Pretor-Pinney’s unlikely bestseller errs towards the wondrous in its use of meticulous, archly humorous, self-drawn diagrams (c.f. the Jurassic Technology Catalogue), small, delicately placed reference photos, and a flair for type selection that unites functional Garamond, nerdily emphatic Base Serif and the antique flourishes of Dalliance. The same unwavering focus on a single subject, presented with quirky design details that hint, in this case, at the fantastic, macabre and melancholy can be found in Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die (2006), a book positively embalmed with Surrealist black humour.

Both volumes are, in a real sense, cabinets of curiosities. Even information about strange forms of death – latex sensitivity, geographic tongue (a disease), spontaneous combustion – can be treated, and admired, as a kind of collection. The ‘exhibits’, whether altocumulus lenticularis clouds hovering above mountains, or skull-piercing lawn darts once manufactured as a children’s game, become objects of peculiar fascination, if not necessarily desire.

For an even more telling example of the book as container for a contemporary cabinet of marvels we turn again to Laurence Weschler. Although Weschler’s Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences (2006) makes no claim to be a Surrealist text, fundamental Surrealist concerns such as chance encounter and ‘objective chance’, whereby dreamers attract the objects of their desire, lie at its heart. In his introduction, Weschler reports that he has increasingly found himself visited by ‘uncanny moments of convergence, bizarre associations, eerie rhymes, whispered recollections – sometimes in the weirdest places’. The book takes the form of a series of illustrated essays in which he dilates on the networks of association – we might say the implicasphere – that arise from images that resemble each other in form and content. Magritte makes several appearances, and Weschler considers the floating red lips in Man Ray’s A l’Heure de l’Observatoire: les Amoureux in relation to the curved back of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, before moving on to a series of pictures of elongated, lip-like clouds – ‘pink and languorous, bulbous and surreal’ (an altocumulus lenticularis, as it happens) – photographed above Los Angeles in the course of a single day in 1976 at the suggestion of art director Lloyd Ziff.

Everything that Rises is published by McSweeney’s and one of its pleasures as a volume of essays is the unusually generous expanse of its square pages. There is room for two text columns, divided by a narrow rule and held in position by a box. Essay titles, page numbers and pictures are all centred. One might see this as an ironic use of an outmoded classical page structure, if not for the fact that, as Weschler suggests on the McSweeney’s website, the publisher has gone beyond irony. This kind of finicky typographic reserve is more or less a house style and, as with other page designs considered here, we are invited to take the layout straight. The almost scientific detachment becomes an efficacious mechanism for recording the results of Weschler’s compulsion to follow his nose and make unexpected connections. ‘It’s a kind of zone of wonder,’ he says of McSweeney’s. ‘Admittedly a knowing wonder, not a naïve wonder, but a wonder nonetheless.’

Much the same could be said of Everything that Rises. Like all of the projects featured here, Weschler’s absorbingly idiosyncratic collection offers a zone of re-enchantment for a disenchanted world. Although Surrealism’s protest was always political in essence, its ambitions went far beyond a practical improvement of our social and economic arrangements that merely supplants one kind of rationalist system with another. The Surrealists hoped to bring about a poetic re-animation of the way we conduct our lives. In whatever setting the Wunderkammer reappears – within the museum, on the printed page, or on the Web – it provides a door leading to a domain of marvels where the unadulterated spirit of Surrealism lives on.

First published in Eye no. 65 vol. 17 2008

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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