Among the many art revolutions of the 20th century, Surrealism is certainly the one appealing the most to our fantasy. Born in Paris in 1924, it soon became an international movement. Because of anti-Semitic laws in Europe and of the outbreak of World War II, several Surrealist artists moved to the United States where they found a safe haven. Two heads by French Surrealist artists now in American public collections are good examples of Surrealist sculpture.
Painting and photography are the usual media associated with this new movement, and we can be thankful to the Centre Pompidou, Paris1 and to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.2, to each having organized important exhibitions about Surrealist sculpture. Valerie Fletcher, senior curator and organizer of the Hirshhorn exhibition, identifies two trends in Surrealist sculpture: objects or assemblages, and organic abstraction, now known as biomorphism. Both share the goal of reaching the marvelous: “A person experiences the marvelous as an instantaneous flash of recognition or revelation triggered unexpectedly by an external stimulus.”3
This “unexpectedly“ brought Surrealists to the streets of Paris and the surroundings, looking for objects that could then be assembled. The Specter of the Gardenia (1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York4) by Marcel Jean (French, 1900-1933) certainly is partially a result of these scavenging expeditions.
Trained at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris, Marcel Jean spent two years in the United States working as a textile designer. Back in Paris in 1926, he became close with the Surrealist movement through its literary aspect, befriending writers André Breton and Paul Éluard among others. He joined officially in 1933. In 1936 he was part of the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects at Galerie Ratton in Paris. The same year he was also part of the seminal Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, a gathering of 700 works from medieval times to the present. He was stranded by the war in Budapest, where he moved to direct a textile design atelier, and he ended up spending seven years in Hungary. Back in Paris in 1945, he was for the rest of his life one of the earliest scholars of the Surrealist movement, publishing in 1959 a Histoire de la peinture surréaliste (History of Surrealist Painting) and in 1978 Autobiographie du Surréalisme, an anthology of Surrealist writings. He frequently visited the U.S., meeting with his friends Kay Sage and Marcel Duchamp and giving lectures about Surrealism.
The piece he showed at both 1936 exhibitions in Paris and New York was the Specter of the Gardenia, the very same object MoMA acquired in 1968 through the Dominique and Jean de Menil Fund. In 1961-62, the Specter of the Gardenia was included in an exhibition, The Art of Assemblage, in New York (MoMA), San Francisco, and at the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts.
The triggering event was when Jean found an old movie reel and a stand covered in red velvet at a flea market in Paris. He then took a plaster head of what he called a portrait of Madame du Barry by Jean-Antoine Houdon (French, 1740-1816) and covered it with black wool flocking, placing two zippers instead of eyes. Different positions given to the zippers could create varying facial expressions. Tiny photographs (a star, a face) inserted behind the zippers could then appear. He first intended to call the object The Secret of the Gardenia, as such was the title of the old movie reel he had found at the flea market. He then changed his mind and wrapped the neck with a movie given to him by Dora Maar when she came to photograph the head. The movie was shot by her then-lover Louis Chavance and represented her. A typo in the Ratton exhibition catalogue changed Secret into Spectre (Specter)5 and so it remained, accordingly to Surrealist principles that chance was to be followed. Chance had added a sinister element and this was also welcome by Surrealists.
Thirty-six years later, in 1972, Marcel Jean decided to reproduce his famous 1936 head in an edition of nine (36 years and 1936, is there a sign there?). Reproducing earlier works was common among Surrealist artists. Marcel Duchamp, for example, reproduced in 1964-65 most of his readymades of 1913-16. From the edition of nine made by Marcel Jean, at least five are in public collections,6 in Bloomington (IN), Jerusalem, Melbourne, Paris, and San Francisco.
Upon checking, Houdon never sculpted a bust of Madame du Barry. The plaster head could be another sitter by Houdon or Madame du Barry by another artist, or just a commercial plaster cast of a woman’s head. The zippers are meant to be a pun explained by Marcel Jean: “The zip fastener (in French fermeture éclair – ‘lightning fastener’) is introduced as a plastic translation of another current expression des yeux qui lancent des éclairs – “eyes flashing like lightning.” Pun or not, the result of a face without gaze is disturbing. But by a mental mirage, we “reconstruct” the gaze, not bearing the blindness. We “see” the gaze, slightly lifted. The contrast of materials, black flocking, celluloid film, and worn velvet, appeals strongly to the sense of touch and herewith to the forbidden. The museum distance prevents us from touching, only increasing our desire.
The eye plays an important role in Surrealist mythology. One of the most famous images associated with Surrealism is the opening scene of Un chien andalou, the 1929 movie by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí: when a cloud passes through the moon as a woman’s eye is being slit by a razor held by a man’s hand. Claude Cahun’s Object (1936, Art Institute of Chicago7) has several of the same ingredients: the cloud, the eye, the cloud slitting the eye/moon, the hand, assembled in a tiny composition.
Claude Cahun (French, 1894-1954) is best known as a photographer. She was born Lucy Schwob and changed her name for a gender-neutral one around 1919. Her lifelong partner, step-sibling, and art collaborator, Suzanne Malherbe (French, 1892-1972) changed her name to Marcel Moore. Gender identity was an important component of their life and art. A precursor to Cindy Sherman, Claude Cahun multiplied self-portraits in various attires and attitudes, including impersonating male figures, and she also created many photomontages. She grew close to the Surrealist movement, and took part in its radical political branch. Marcel Jean met Malherbe and Cahun at a meeting. Similarly to Jean, Cahun was at the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition of Objects at the Galerie Ratton.8 Because of growing anti-Semitism, Cahun and Moore moved to Saint Helier, Jersey in 1937. When the island was occupied by German troops, they devoted themselves to anti-Nazi activism, printing fliers and distributing them around in actions both political and artistic. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, they were sentenced to death. Most of their house’s contents were destroyed, but the end of the war occurred before the sentence was carried out. Cahun never fully recovered from her time in prison and died in 1954. Malherbe died in 1972. They are buried together in Jersey. Cahun’s art was rediscovered only in the 1990s and she is now recognized as one of the important Surrealist artists in a mainly male-centered movement.
The Art Institute’s Object is the only remaining object created by Cahun. The others are known only by the photographs Cahun made of them. But maybe their sole purpose was to be photographed? With a less refined rendering than most of Cahun’s objects, Object is not listed in the 1936 Ratton exhibition catalogue, and not visible in the photographs of the installation by Man Ray. It did belong to Charles Ratton from 1936 to at least 1978 when he lent it to a Dada and Surrealism exhibition in London.9 The entry lists it as Anonymous, and mentions it was part of the 1936 Ratton exhibition, information probably provided by the lender. It is only in a 1978 exhibition10 at Zabriskie Gallery, New York, that it was attributed to Cahun.11 Virginia Zabriskie recounts: “I bought an object from the Charles Ratton sale. It was in my copy of the 1936 catalogue and I showed it as possibly being by Claude Cahun. François Leperlier, an author who was working on a book12 on Cahun, phoned and said it was definitely by her. He took me on a harrowing trip to the isle of Jersey with the plane bumping its way over the Channel…”. 13
The inscription on the base may be from Suzanne Malherbe’s hand. It reads: “La Marseillaise est un chant révolutionnaire. La loi punit le contrefacteur des Travaux forcés.” (« The Marseillaise is a revolutionary song. The law punishes the counterfeiter of/with hard labour. »). Steven Harris, in his book Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s, explains the origin of the two sentences. The first one was “a very well-known slogan at the time of the object’s making, since one of the Parti Communiste Français’ leaders, Jacques Duclos, had used it at the giant rally consecrating the Popular Front just the year before, on July 14, 1935.”14 The second phrase “has a quite precise source as well, which is the text inscribed on paper money that warns against the counterfeiting of legal tender15.” Cahun chose the text from Belgian money rather than French.
Cahun’s Object leaves multiple interpretations open. As Valerie Fletcher writes: “On a very basic level we cannot understand why the Surrealists created works of art, nor how we perceive them today, unless we accept the premise that the subconscious permeates our thoughts and actions. Conscious reality is limited; exploring the hidden mysteries of our unconscious enriches our lives and expands our minds.”16 No one interpretation is better than the other. Let us all follow our fantasy on its unpredictable path.
On a final note, a counterpoint to those works would be Nancy Grossman’s Untitled, Head Sculpture (1968), belonging to the Nasher’s collection.17 Avi Varma’s text published in The Nasher magazine, Fall 2016, describes it beautifully:18
“It often took Grossman a year to complete a single bust. After carefully carving them in wood—often reclaimed wood from found objects such as telephone poles—Grossman would cover the visible portions of the heads in gleaming white enamel before adorning their surfaces with leather. She painstakingly took apart and repurposed used leather, in the process yielding odd, striking shapes that she would use like lines in a drawing. Zippers, chains, belt buckles, harness strings, horns, fierce silver teeth all made their way into the busts. A new language took form, evocative of bondage and fetishism, yet more intuitively expressive of an erupting psychic energy. For example, when she first decided to make these images of bound heads into sculpture, Grossman used the symbol of the upraised fist of the Black Power movement as the form for the heads. The leather-and-metal-clad heads also have connections with African tribal art, such as Songye and Congolese Nkisi Nkondi figures. Though they read as male, Nancy Grossman describes the busts as self-portraits. It is hard not to see the work as embodying a moment in which many firm categories of social identity such as gender, race, and sexuality began to become undone and fluid – exactly the condition [Judith] Butler would theorize two decades later.”
1 Le Surréalisme et l’objet, Curated by Didier Ottinger, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, October 30, 2013-March 3, 2014; with exhibition catalogue: Dictionnaire de l’objet surréaliste, Edited by Didier Ottinger, Paris, Gallimard, 2013.
2 Marvelous Objects. Surrealist Sculpture. From Paris to New York, Curated by Valerie Fletcher, Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, October 29, 2015-February 15, 2016.
3 Valerie J Fletcher, « Surrealist Sculpture », in Marvelous Objects, op. cit., p. 14.
4 Marcel Jean (1900-1993), Le spectre du gardénia / The Specter of the Gardenia, 1936, plaster head with painted black cloth, zippers, and strip of film on velvet-covered wood base, 13 7/8 x 7 x 9 7/8”, including base 3” high x 7” diameter, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, D. and J. de Menil Fund, 229.1968.
5 Marcel Jean, Au galop dans le vent, Editions Jean-Pierre de Monza, 1991, p. 55-56.
6 Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Art Museum, acc. no. 72.122, ed. 2/9, acquired 1972; Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, acc. no. B98.0494, The Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection of dada and Surrealist Art in the Israel Museum; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, acc. no. 2013.936, ed. 4/9, Yvonne Pettengell Bequest, 2013; Paris, National Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, acc. no. AM 2009-143, purchased 2009; San Francisco, SFMOMA, 85/101, acquired 1985.
7 Claude Cahun (1894-1954), Objet / Object, 1936, wood, paint, and hair, 5 3/8 x 6 3/8 x 4”, The Art Institute of Chicago, Through prior gift of Mrs. Gilbert W. Chapman, 2007.30.
8 With two objects, Un air de famille, Souris valseuses, both destroyed, the former known through a photograph. See online accessible version of the 1936 catalogue: http://www.andrebreton.fr/work/56600100858821.
9 Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, London, Hayward Gallery, January 11-March 27, 1978, cat. 12.1 p. 294, ill.
10 Surrealism 1936 – Objects, Photographs, Collages and Documents, New York, Zabriskie Gallery, 1986; the purpose of this exhibition was to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1936 Ratton exhibition.
11 Paris, Etude Guy Loudmer, December 10 and 11, 1985, no. 24.
12 François Leperlier, Claude Cahun : l’écart et la métamorphose, Paris, 1992, p. 216-217.
13 Martica Sawin, “Le surréalisme chez Zabriskie”, in Zabriskie: Fifty Years, New York, 2004, p. 62.
14 Steven Harris, Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 168.
15 Harris, op. cit., p. 169.
16 Fletcher, op. cit., p. 15.
17 Nancy Grossman (born 1940), Untitled, Head Sculpture, 1968, leather over wood, overall H. 18”, Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, NC.1969.A.01.
18 Accessible online at http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/learn/research/articles-publications/article?id=52.