In their desire to expose the hidden meanings in everyday objects, the surrealists blurred the distinction between fine and applied art. Today's curators are doing much the sameby Ben Lewis / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
One day soon, if you haven’t done so already, you will stop talking about “the arts” and just talk about “art.” The distinctions that have been made for two centuries between the fine arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, photography) and the applied arts (design, ceramics, furniture) will appear not only anachronistic but asinine. This change will come about largely because of the growing number of free-thinking curators organising exhibitions that combine the fine and applied arts—and take the latter as seriously as the former. But it will also be a recognition of the fact that artists have long been challenging the fine/applied art distinction themselves.
An example of enlightened curating was provided last winter by the exhibition of Joseph Hoffmann’s domestic interiors at the Neue Galerie in New York. The curators meticulously reconstructed a series of rooms designed by the Austrian architect in the first decade of the 20th century. Hoffmann, a member of the secessionist movement, conceived of these domestic interiors as Gesamtkunstwerke (“total art”). In designing wallpaper, chairs, sideboards, lamps and tableware for particular rooms, his intention was to create one complete spatial and aesthetic experience.
The V&A’s current exhibition, “Surreal Things,” also makes a powerful case for a levelling between the worlds of fine and applied arts. Paintings by Magritte have been hung next to furniture by Isamu Noguchi and dresses by fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who collaborated with better-known surrealist artists like Giacommetti and Dalí. “Until recently,” write the curators, “art history has tended to view these collaborations as insignificant, considering them at best an epiphenomenon or by-product. But this underestimates [their] influence.” Many exhibits in “Surreal Things,” such as the jewels made by Dalí in collaboration with the Argentinian jeweller Carlos B Alemany, bear this out. A mouth brooch, in which the lips are rubies and the teeth pearls, is a mesmerising image of sexual desire, vanity and conspicuous consumption.
Surrealist theory itself linked the world of man-made objects with that of high art. One side of modernist thinking, represented by constructivism, abstraction and functionalism, argued that objects were there to serve a purpose, while works of art did not need to have meanings. Surrealism put forward the opposite view: that the purpose of art was to uncover the hidden meanings in the world and its everyday objects, tools and phenomena—meanings locked up in the unconscious (now accessible through psychoanalysis) and concealed by bourgeois culture (now accessible through Marxism). At first the surrealists explored these hidden meanings through poetry, drawing, collage and painting, but by the mid-1920s Duchamp’s ready-mades (such as his infamous 1917 Fountain urinal) had cross-pollinated with surrealism’s oneiric imagination to create what André Breton called “surrealist objects.” Many such objects are on view at “Surreal Things”: Man Ray’s famous iron with tacks glued into the base; Óscar Domínguez’s satin-upholstered wheelbarrow; and Meret Oppenheim’s ornithological side table, the surface of which is imprinted with little bird footprints and whose long, spindly legs resemble those of a stork.
The exhibition makes clear that the works of surrealist commercial designers could be just as rich as those of the famous surrealist artists. In fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s monkey fur collection, for example, thick tufts of wavy dark hair flow out of the tops of high-heeled shoes, out of sleeves and around the necks of dresses; this produces an uncanny sensation of obscenity and transgression. Today, if just one of these shoes was exhibited in its own vitrine in an art gallery, it would be hailed as sculpture. Schiaparelli’s dresses, one of which uses a pale fabric with a motif of peeling skin, are not simply fashion items influenced by surrealism; they transform the wearer into a mobile surrealist work of art. Also on display are the surreal domestic spaces produced by the overlooked interior designer Jean Michel Frank. Photographs show how he gave his own Parisian apartment a ghostly “too empty” effect by a spartan use of furniture and billowing chiffon drapes in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. In his study he placed only an unmatching desk and chair.
Many artists today are picking up what the surrealists started 80 years ago, and colonising the world of design. I recently visited the studio of the leading German contemporary artist Tobias Rehberger, a professor at Frankfurt’s influential Städelschule. One of his technicians was building a lampshade out of an intricate spaghetti of multicoloured fluorescent velcro. These were lights but they were also works of art, ironically over-colourful. The American sculptor Donald Judd famously transported the aesthetic of furniture to the realm of fine art; now artists are doing the opposite, and making fine art into furniture. Surrealism—the great subversion of authority that become one of the century’s most commercially rampant movements—has come full circle; and it points towards a future in which the pinnacle occupied by “fine” art will be entirely dismantled.