The beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of the surrealist movement in art. Disappointed by the modern society, surrealists wanted to change the art world, which would consequently change the society itself. But how did they plan to achieve that in the first place? By eliminating the power of reason altogether and enabling the unconscious to come out freely (automatically), without any censorship. For that purpose they invented a number of new techniques, one of which was Exquisite Corpse (Cadavre Exquis).
The surrealists took a parlor game called Consequences and adjusted its rules to suit their own needs – every player would write down a word, folding the paper afterwards so that the next player couldn’t see the word, and pass it on. The end result was a sequence of loosely related words forming a sentence bordering on the meaningless, or maybe poetic. The words were soon replaced by images. At first, each contributor was given a part of the human body to illustrate, which often resulted in grotesque imagery that had little to do with the initial idea of a body sketch. Various mental faculties – fantasies, dreams, and visions could finally be put onto paper with no premeditation whatsoever. Exquisite Corpse became popular because it proved to be a perfect way to have fun while generating creative content as well. Surrealists regarded the automatic production of content as a kind of objective coincidence (another term surrealists invented). Andre Breton described it as a point where two tracks intersect – the subjective, innate to the human mind, and the objective, representing how the outside world works.
As a mix of what appeared to be unmixable, with both disconcerting and uncanny results, a surrealist piece of art was in general conceived in a way that would eventually trigger fantasies and engage the unconscious of the viewer.
The movement itself was free of moral or aesthetic norms, which were thought to be the greatest enemies of free creation, the ultimate goal of surrealism.
Exhibitions were their principal form of activity, as a means to express their perspectives on political as well as artistic matters. It is no coincidence that surrealists were captivated by the 19th-century writings of the so–called Comte de Lautréamont, whom they saw as the forefather of their own aesthetics.
Lautréamont sublimated the essence of surrealism almost a century before its nascence:
“Beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”
Is it any wonder that such an intriguing form still draws attention within the world of art, almost a century after its birth? Perhaps not. What began as a suitable enough way of having fun, while at the same time creating a work of art, became a legitimate technique for artists outside of surrealism. Today it is an even more prolific artistic platform, considering the entire set of contemporary creative tools that are now on disposal.
Exquisite Corpse has lately been the subject of a number of shows featuring very prominent names – Armitage Gone! at the Armory Show in 2010 and Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration at the Museum of Modern Art in New York earlier this year. The organizers of the Armitage Gone! show commissioned a group of respectable artists to produce together a number of works according to the original rules of Exquisite Corpse. On the other hand, what MoMA did is that they merely put on a retrospective of pieces from the Museum’s own collection. However interesting the art objects might have been, they were also very far off from the initial Exquisite Corpse logic. Most of them were individual works that resembled the original practice only by representing the distorted forms of figuration.
That brings us to the ultimate question – what is Exquisite Corpse today? Is it a game, a safe idea for museum curators, a modernist technique, a surrealist product exported to New York? It could be anything, really. Surrealists were notorious for exhibitions that looked exactly like the form itself – turned upside down, not following any institutional logic in displaying the content, leaving the audience wondering what it's all about... Exquisite Corpse is a way of setting an art exhibition, a manner of directing a movie or a video, as well as composing a musical piece.
It is neither just a game, nor just a form. It has become a kickoff for any kind of creative engagement and artistic experiment, a bond between completely different media and disciplines. In the end, we may as well wait and see what’s next when it comes to Exquisite Corpse...