"Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme" – 1938
Don’t we feel french and hip? The 1938 International Surrealism Exhibiton in Paris was another seminal moment in installation art history. First of all, in light of my last post about “Womanhouse,” I would like to point out that I cannot find record of a single female artist who was shown at the 1938 surrealism exhibition, even though there were plenty of women surrealist artists active during this period. Don’t get me started.
The exhibition was organized by french authors Andre Breton and Paul Eluard. Marcel Duchamp curated. The technical crew included Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Wolfgang Paalen.
Up until then art had been shown primarily in white-walled rooms. Breton and Eluard wanted to up the ante and make the rooms reflect the paintings. They created an exhibit with three main rooms: the entryway, which had an installtion by Salvador Dali, “Rainy Taxi.” The ivy-laced car had a mannequin inside and was sprayed with water throughout the exhibition:
The next room was a large hallway, “The most beautiful streets in Paris,” filled with more mannequins and street signs:
The last room, designed by Duchamp, had hundreds of coal bags, filled with newspaper, hung from the ceiling. On the opening night of the exhibit, the lighting failed and they handed out flashlights to the patrons to view the art on the walls.
The opening was attended by a large contingent of high-society art hangers-on from all over the continent and the United States. Another element that the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition pioneered was the use of performance at an exhibition. Dali was responsible for actor Helene Vanel’s naked mud puddle performance.
This exhibit marked a turning point in the presentation of contemporary art. Nowadays any artist worth their weight in salt gives much thought to how and when their artwork is presented. Furthermore, installation art grew out of the thought behind this exhibition. The artist may create works for sale for a patron to take home, but an artist also can create a site-based sensory experience that cannot be recreated exactly the same way in a different location. Though an installation may travel from location to location, the artist must be present at each venue to install it.
Furthermore, adding an element of performance to the exhibition was way ahead of its time. After attending many, many art openings, I can say that adding an element of performance and surprise is always welcome to the rather one-note feel of a typical exhibition.
The 1938 Surrealist Exhibition paved the way for the performance and installation art the was so prevalent in the 1960s. We still are feeling its pulse in the interactive installations we are creating at WNMU using recently developed technology such as the arduino and IDEs such as Processing and PD. Art is no longer a framed object on a wall, or a sculpture on a pedestal, but a holistic experience.