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…