07-06-06 Adrian Searle
* Jesse Bransford, Head (Georges Bataille), 2004, 9.5x12.5
Undercover Surrealism is a cabinet of curiosities that shows the art movement at its darkest. The works are electrifying, says Adrian Searle, but can they still rankle?
Anyone who visits Undercover Surrealism expecting melting watches, a furry teacup and a steam-train-in-the-fireplace version of the art movement may well be confused and surprised by this tightly curated, densely installed oddity of an exhibition. Even its subtitle - Picasso, Miró, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille - is odd. Bataille was a strange, difficult thinker, a dissident and a transgressor. And Documents, the small magazine he edited in 1929 and 1930, which ran for only 15 issues, was stranger still. Documents seems an unlikely subject for a major exhibition. But if the magazine was influential at the time it was published, it is perhaps even more so now.
According to Michel Leiris, writer, art critic and ethnographer, he and Bataille fantasised during the 1920s of starting a magazine, whose offices they dreamed of setting up in a particularly decrepit Paris brothel they both frequented; the "female personnel" of the bordello would be enlisted in their editorial team. Leiris described Documents as a "Janus publication, turning one of its faces towards the higher spheres of culture, and the other towards a wild place into which one ventured without any sort of geographical map or passport".
Documents' major themes and preoccupations were announced on the cover of the first issue as "Doctrines, Archeologie, Beaux-Arts, Ethnographie". As much as these subheadings were adhered to throughout its history, however, the magazine was never the worthy, arcane publication it may have promoted itself as being. It mixed the elevated with the debased, the worthy with the salacious. A discussion of the work of Paul Klee appeared in the same issue as gruesome, racy images from the 1912 book jackets for the Fantômas crime and mystery novels, consideration of the conventions of Sumerian statuary and a discussion of Picasso's recent work. All this, in itself, might be regarded as surreal.
Documents' purported academicism was its disguise, just as its editor, by day a numismatist at the Cabinet des Médailles in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, was far more than a mere cataloguer of coins and medals. If Bataille is known today to a general audience, it is as a pornographer, the author of The Story of the Eye, the novel he pseudonymously published in 1928. Surrealism's godfather, André Breton, called him "an obsessive" and an "excremental philosopher", lambasting his rival in the second Surrealist Manifesto.
Like Documents, Undercover Surrealism celebrates the perverse, the contrary, the deliberately incongruous and arcane. The show is a cabinet of curiosities, and at times a chamber of horrors, of things that were once, and sometimes still are, memorable and disturbing. Catholic kitsch "Passion Bottles" are displayed in the same section as Picasso's Three Dancers, on loan from the Tate, and a Nigerian "Janus-faced, Skin-covered Helmet Mask", with its paired male and female faces. Elsewhere in the same room are a metaphysical painting by Giorgio de Chirico and a row of ceremonial Benin iron staffs, all ranged beneath a hanging screen on which is projected footage from the Hollywood Review of 1929, a piece of hokum featuring leggy dancing blondes and an impassive Buster Keaton emerging, not quite like Venus, from a giant shell. It's a lot to take in, and as bewildering as Documents itself.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Dawn Ades, who was part of the team who mounted the enormous survey exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, which filled the Hayward in 1978, and included a small section devoted to Bataille. The curators show as much care towards the 15,000-year-old neolithic carvings, close-up photos of "the rostrum on a shrimp's nose" and a victim's eye-view of a lobster claw as they do to the Picassos that fill an entire room - just as Picasso was the only artist to have an entire issue of Documents devoted to him. It turns out that Bataille's famous remark, "who could love a canvas as much as a fetishist loves a shoe?", was originally rendered not to a canvas but to a Picasso. Nowadays, given Picasso's unbelievable auction prices, one might say there are those who fetishise Picasso with an ardour never directed at mere footware.
Bataille said of himself that, since 1914 (when he was 17), he had been working on the formulation of a "paradoxical philosophy", or rather, what has been described as an unreasonable anti-philosophy, founded in the belief that thought cannot illuminate human existence. Undercover Surrealism presents a view of art, and of culture, that is both related to surrealism and the "official" surrealist movement, and antagonistic to it, or at least antagonistic to Breton's version of it.
Yet it is surprising how little remains genuinely shocking. Mostly, the frisson of the transgressive has died away, if only because we have seen so much. As with so much that was once deemed beyond the pale, the thrill has gone, or, at least, has found its market niche, gone mainstream, and in doing so been cauterised. The most abject pornography imaginable is now but a few clicks away on the internet, while surrealism has been thoroughly co-opted by the advertising game.
It takes an effort, today, to see an early Giacometti as a paroxysm of sexual violence, or the plant photographs of Karl Blossfeldt as having at their centre obscenely hairy sexual organs, as Bataille described. And it is difficult, looking at Miró's paintings here, to see how they were in any way the result of a desire to "assassinate painting", as the artist and his apologists claimed. They look, instead, incredibly fresh, lighthearted, even joyous. Although the section of the exhibition entitled André Masson and Sacrifice promises much in its title, Masson's paintings themselves, titled The Abattoir, The Horse Butcher, and The Drop of Blood, now appear bland, evasive and timid.
Yet, there are works here that are still capable of provoking a recoil, a double-take and a shiver. Eli Lotar's slaughterhouse photographs, for instance, with their severed animal limbs, swipes of coagulating blood and glistening coils of guts on the abattoir floor, and Jacques-André Boiffard's consciously undignified close-up photos of the human big toe, with its gnarly corns and roughly hacked nail, presented as though it were a repugnant phallic creature. The central figure in Salvador Dali's 1925 Female Bathers is itself less a body than a big toe, stranded on a beach, as incongruous and sensual as a slug. Dali was later to defect to the Breton camp, just as Boiffard, who had interrupted his medical studies to work as assistant to Man Ray during the 1920s, later resumed his medical career to become an obscure radiographer - where, doubtless, he encountered images even more vexing and unsettling than any he had taken.
Among the circle of writers, photographers and artists whose cause Bataille championed, or whose work he included in Documents, were minor characters as troubling as William Seabrook: adventurer, amateur ethnographer, author, self-confessed cannibal, alcoholic and sado-masochist. He was also, to boot, a friend of both Man Ray and Aleister Crowley. Seabrook's images of heads enclosed in eyeless leather masks appear alongside human heads and skulls, and portraits of a sitter wearing an incongruously hilarious and cartoonish carnival mask. Documents revelled in such electrifying jolts - this is why the magazine is still interesting now. It's not so much the material that found its way on to its pages, but the juxtapositions and collisions that happened there.
Even if the material is not as volatile as it once must have appeared, this exhibition is long overdue. Interest in Bataille, and in the "dissident surrealists" - including Giacometti, Masson and Boiffard - has, over the past 25 years, grown enormously, in no small part owing to the championing and analysis of Bataille and his ideas by the critics Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, who in 1997 organised an exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris called Formless, devoted to a reading of modern and contemporary art based on the persistence of Bataille's ideas in a diverse range of postwar art. In fact, so thoroughly has Bataille himself, and Documents, been studied, analysed and interpreted by academics, that it is difficult to understand why, exactly, the man and the magazine can still rankle.
Bataille and Documents remain a great corrective to poetic, mainstream surrealism. Bataille's first wife, Sylvia, went on to marry the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the philosopher Jacques Derrida also regarded himself to some extent as working through Bataille's thought. The reputations of these two difficult figures inevitably rubs off on Bataille, who in some ways had as much in common with the Paris-based Romanian "philosopher" and aphorist EM Cioran. Both were concerned with the idea of thinking against themselves, and against received opinion, and in overturning the ideas they were busy constructing.
Leiris said Bataille "placed himself under the sign of the impossible". In his own "impossible" book about Bataille, The Thirst for Annihilation, Nick Land wrote that the crucial themes traversing Bataille's writing were laughter, excrement and death. They are all here. Lunging as it does from Duke Ellington to Aztec sacrifice, from Brancusi to Boiffard, clips from The Broadway Melody to Le Chien Andalou, from an analysis of the befouled breeches in Dali's The Lugubrious Game to the raw and beautiful deformations of Picasso's late-1920s women, Undercover Surrealism is as all-encompassing, as indigestible, irreconcilable and irreducible as Bataille himself, and the version of surrealism he invented.
Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille
is at the Hayward Gallery
London SE1, until July 30.
Details: 0870 169 1000
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