IN 1937 VOGUE ATTEMPTED TO EXPLAIN to its readers what Surrealism was. It told them that the man pictured was 'Mr Salvador Dali', sporting his signature moustache, a fencing mask and an epee. It clarified, though, that this man was not a fencer, but was dressed as such because he was a 'Surrealist', and proceeded to define a Surrealist as 'a man who likes to dress as a fencer, but does not fence; a Surrealist is also a man who likes to wear a diving suit but does not dive', (a reference to an incident earlier that year in which had attempted to give a speech wearing a diving suit and had barely escaped asphyxiation).
Perhaps Vogue's was one of the definitions used by the curators of the V&A's new exhibition 'Surreal Things', for Dali plays a large part in this show. Not only are his famous Mae West lips sofa and 'Lobster Telephone' (Telephone-Homard, 1938), featured, but also jewellery he designed, and his sequence for Alfred Hitchcock's film, Spellbound (1945).
Curator Ghislaine Wood intends 'Surreal Things' to 'emphasize the tensions that arose from the increasing commercialization of Surrealism's visual aesthetic'. But, the lushness, exclusivity and frivolity of many of the objects make it difficult to imagine how far such tensions can be represented. A majority of the displays are from the late 1930s through to the 1950s, a period when, many scholars argue, Surrealism had lost its political edge and become overwhelmingly commercialized. Thus Andre Breton, a founder of Surrealism believed that he remained true to its radical vision always referred to Salvador Dali by an anagram of his name: 'Avida Dollars'.
Surrealism is a broad church, yet one that can have very narrow pews. The definition of Surrealism and the perimeters of its membership were heavily contested in the 1920s and 1930s, and continue be so today. The political dimensions of Surrealism cannot be ignored: indeed, for many of its historians, the movement was first and foremost a political one, or at least one in which the relationship between art and politics was central.
The original group of Surrealists in interwar Paris numbered about a hundred and included writers and artists such as Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara, Pierre Neville, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti. Andre Breton proclaimed that: '... human emancipation ... remains the only cause worth serving.' Robert Short, writing in 1966, explained that the Surrealists 'participated collectively in many of the organizations of the revolutionary left' and that 'the interest in the movement's political history lies in its tenacious efforts ... to associate its intellectual, artistic and moral preoccupations with the aims and methods of international Communism'. Surrealism sought to bring together Rimband's 'derangement of the senses', Marx's 'emancipation of the senses', Hegel's dialectical method and Freud's theories of the unconscious to form a revolutionary challenge to bourgeois society and capitalism. A 1925 Surrealist Document announced that the 'immediate sense and purpose of the Surrealist revolution' is 'to create an agitation in men's minds.'
Such sentiments seem rather far from the one attributed to Salvador Dali (undated) and used by the the V&A as publicity for the exhibition: 'I try to create magical things, things like in a dream, the world needs more fantasy'.
This underscores the contrasts between various …