The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2012

All Issues
SEPT 2012 Issue


On View
Ubu Gallery
June 19 – September 29, 2012
New York

Once upon an avant-garde time, three poet-artists collaborated on a one-of-a-kind artists’ book of 33 photomontages done in the spirit of the cadavre exquis. Together they discovered a completely new yet universal language of sexual symbols, radical juxtapositions, the sublime, and the grotesque.

André Breton, Paul Eluard & Suzanne Muzard, “Untitled,” ca. 1931. Collage on notebook paper. 8 1/8 x 6 3/4”. Page numbered 9 on recto. Courtesy of Ubu Gallery.

In 1925, the cadavre exquis began in Paris at the rue du Chateau house occupied by Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, and others. It began as a word game and literary collaboration, and it soon expanded in scope to become a visual game utilizing drawings and collage, where the artists assembled cut-ups according to chance. The structural principle of autonomous additions led to some surreal imagery, and many poets and artists were involved in this exciting activity.

The collages on view at Ubu were discovered in a simple spiral-bound sketchbook at the Breton estate auction in Paris in 2003. The collector split the book into 33 individual collages; they date from 1928 to 1931. We can see them now for the first time in the United States—and only the second time ever. These are the creations of the most radical minds of the 20th century, those who employed darkly inventive narratives, sarcastic puns, hypnotic sexual imagery, and playfully absurd compositions. In his preface to the exhibition catalogue, Czech art historian Karel Srp calls the works “visual poetry.” Breton, Eluard, and Muzard were pioneers in collage techniques, each bringing a mystical element to a surreal background and revealing a resolution between dream and reality.

Breton held that the highest task to which poetry could aspire was “to compare two objects as far distant as possible, one from the other, or, by another method, to confront them in a brusque and striking manner.” These collages attest to Breton’s claim. Here, priests commune with ladies in swimsuits and monks converse with nudes. We see an electric chair, a gas-masked soldier emerging from a sewer hole, hunters shooting a giant eye, an elephant and two women tied up to a tree, the head of a camel in Parliament, the belly of a sperm whale, and a walnut.

Figures float in ambiguous states of existence: disembodied heads are juxtaposed with religious and outer-space imagery, diving swimmers, can-can dancers and multiple legs, hands and eyes protruding from barrels of vines or tied up to a tree in a sadomasochistic manner. One example from 1928 uses as a background a photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge. A crucified Christ is suspended from the steel cables with an exotic dancer to one side; an elderly gentleman with a top hat is courting the dancer.

André Breton, Paul Eluard & Suzanne Muzard, “Untitled,” ca. 1931. Aniline colored collage on notebook paper. 3/8”. Page numbered 8 on recto. Courtesy of Ubu Gallery.

In avant-garde circles today, these montages are called vispo (or visual poetry) collages, and they often serve as visual representations of dreams. These works propose revolutionary Kafkaesque situations—as in the untitled collage numbered 12, in which a young lady holds a black child’s head mounted to an electric contraption, with male hands below serving playing cards protruding from fur. New combinations of elements lead to entirely new narratives: a placid Atget-like scene of a cobblestoned street, with some innocuous Sunday strollers and a grotesque ape-like creature crouched atop a wall, is overseen by a sinister robed figure that reminds one of the Ku Klux Klan. A large hand extends across the scene, punctuating the image with horrific desperation. In another vignette, a circus fat lady stands as if on trial, dwarfed by the religious prelates and militaristic youth that would judge her.

For the most part, these works exist as uninterrupted records, apparitions of the point sublime, at which everything—rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious, abstract and concrete—converges. For students and lovers of avant-garde art, these works are an invaluable discovery.

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2012

All Issues