Spring 2002

Surrealists with string

Displaying the Marvelous: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Surrealist Exhibition Installations

Lewis Kachur
MIT Press, £23.95, $34.95

Here, (in the spirit of automatic writing) goes. I do not rashly invoke those last inheritors of the Bretonnic mantle, the Pythons. It was when trying to find a feminine name with which to sign their portrait that I scrambled the letters of my own and came up with Lilith Mopps. But no one will ever beat André Breton’s anagrammatic torpedo (which finally blew Salvador Dali off the map of artistic probity) Avida Dollars.

St André de Breton was the founder of the Church of Surrealism, mentor and tormentor of its acolytes both loyal (few) and lapsing (many). As guardian of the sinuous flame he alone was the arbiter of membership, blackballing and yellowcarding those who stepped out of line (a line he constantly redrew). With two exceptions.

Picasso, of course, had merely to signal a fickle moment of allegiance and Breton would be filling in a new certificate of honorary membership. But the éminence grise of Surrealism’s climatic triumphs was the century’s finest cultural strategist and art’s most versatile player since Jacques-Louis David. It is no accident that the front cover of this superb book shows the enigmatic face of that solemn jester, the Houdini of Modernism, Marcel Duchamp, who was not a Surrealist at all.

Kachur deftly chronicles Duchamp’s strangely industrious role in the late manifestations of the movement, notably the Paris exhibition of 1938 and its New York sequel of 1942, both of which he virtually stage-managed. Even in the dim surviving photographs his coal-sack ceiling in the former and the brilliant metaphor of, literally, holding the latter exhibition together with string, make most current installations look sluggishly old-fashioned.

Where Duchamp was the lodestar Dali was the comet of Surrealism who, in an early group of still haunting images, threw a bridge across the chasm that separated the dream from quotidian life. His pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair represented the meltdown of his vision. With the abominable Gala he fades out of the story in fulfilment of Breton’s prophetic anagram.

Not only is Kachur’s book a searching document of art history but it is beautifully made, organised and designed (by Jean Wilcox) and impeccably edited. Virtually every page is enlivened by a typographic or tiny illustrative intervention. The exhaustive photographic evidence (much of it new to me) always appears on cue. The writing itself is elegant, scholarly and rich in hidden humour. MIT Press has responded handsomely to the challenge with old-fashioned production values.

Every good story has a moral dimension. For all adherents of the current New this book serves as a sharp corrective. Let us not speak again either sensationally or apocalyptically of beds or mangled mannequins, or pharmacies and bits of breasts, or trickeries of light and the presence in art of living creatures and sexual tableaux, without a proper sense of precedent.

Let us rename the Turner Prize the Sheila Legge award. Sheila Legge? It was she who, inspired by Dali, directed by David Gascoigne and dressed by Motley, stood in Trafalgar Square in 1936 clutching a seemingly dismembered leg, her own head transformed into a giant rose, to herald the Surrealists’ assault on London. Her picture, like so many in Displaying the Marvelous, says to me not ‘I have been here before’ but ‘I have been here since’.

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