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UK museum explores surrealism

art-and-culture Updated: Mar 28, 2007 19:56 IST

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There's a lobster-shaped telephone receiver, a furry teacup, a table with bird-claw legs. Anyone feel like shopping? A new exhibition opening Thursday at London's Victoria and Albert Museum explores the link between surrealism and commerce.

The "Surreal Things" show charts the way surrealism evolved, in short order, from cutting-edge art movement to design element to advertising tool, used to sell everything from perfume to cars.

Curator Ghislaine Wood said the show focuses "on the key period in the 1930s when surrealism spread from being an avant-garde art movement to being a much wider cultural phenomenon" one whose influence we still feel today.

The V&A is Britain's leading design museum, and the exhibition traces surrealism's influence in fashion, film, architecture, theater, interior design and advertising. Surrealism emerged in the 1920s as a subversive artistic movement out to challenge accepted ideas and influenced by Sigmund Freud liberate the unconscious.

The result was a series of paintings, photographs and objects full of bizarre juxtapositions, a fondness for fetishes and an unnerving obsession with female anatomy.

Designers and artists in a wide range of genres soon saw surrealism's potential. In 1926, surrealist artists Joan Miro and Max Ernst designed sets for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and were promptly accused of selling out by fellow surrealists, who declared it "indefensible that ideas should be at the behest of money."

Wood said that while "surrealism is not known as a movement in design and the decorative arts," she was struck by how many objects in the museum's collection were made by surrealist artists or by designers influenced by them.

The show's 300 exhibits some displayed publicly for the first time since the 1930s include many of the most famous objects and images from surrealism's 1930s heyday, from Oscar Dominguez's satin-lined wheelbarrow to Salvador Dali's shocking-pink sofa in the shape of Mae West's lips.

The best retain their power to shock. Meret Oppenheim's bird-claw table and her fur-covered cup and saucer _ the latter included as a photograph in the exhibition _ remain deeply unsettling. But while the surrealists set out to shock the mainstream consumer world, their imagery proved highly adaptable to commercialization.

The memorably incongruous juxtapositions, the sense of humor and irony, were immediately attractive to advertisers. "In some ways surrealism carries the seeds of its own commercialization, because its themes are very easily absorbed by the commercial world," Wood said. Dali grasped this.

He could be the most outrageous of artists the show recalls how he hoped to create for the home of his patron Edward Jones a room that pulsated "like the stomach of a sick dog."

But Dali also saw the commercial potential of his art. His iconic lobster phone 10 were made in all was made to be used, and potentially sold. Later, Dali designed perfume bottles eventually licensing Dali-inspired scents and items of jewelry, including the much-imitated "ruby lips" brooch. By the late 1930s, Harper's Bazaar was staging a fashion photo shoot at a surrealist exhibition in Paris, and advertisers had realised the power of the incongruous image.

The exhibition contains a series of surrealist-influenced late-'30s ads for Shell oil and a poster for Ford cars "Watch the Fords go by" that with its image of a giant eye and Big Brotherish overtones is heavily indebted to surrealist painter Rene Magritte. In recent years, surrealism has been used to sell everything from Absolut vodka to Guinness beer, which built a series of ads around the image of a bicycling fish.

The lesson has not been lost on the V&A. At the huge gift shop accompanying the exhibition, visitors can stock up on everything from surrealist jewelry and stationery to Magritte-inspired espresso cups and naturally rubber lobsters.

"Surreal Things" is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until July 22, then at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningan in Rotterdam, Netherlands Sept. 29-Jan. 6 and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain .

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