“Undercover Surrealism”

FOR AN INVETERATE FAN of Georges Bataille’s groundbreaking journal Documents, visiting “Undercover Surrealism” was a bit like opening a pop-up album in which black-and-white images suddenly transform not only into three dimensions but also into color. Yet this little gem of an exhibition—curated by Dawn Ades, Simon Baker, and Fiona Bradley—could just as easily be appreciated by the uninitiated, for whom it provided a journey both quaint and fizzy into the late 1920s equivalent of a Mannerist cabinet of curiosities. The show greeted visitors with a potpourri that included an extraordinary Janus-faced, skin-covered helmet mask from late-nineteenth-century Nigeria; a rare surviving example of a mysterious, eighteenth-century French “passion bottle” containing holy water, in which are suspended small colored-glass figures standing for episodes of the Passion; an Abyssinian oil on canvas dating from ca. 1920–30 and depicting the legend of the queen of Sheba in naïve comic-strip form; and Picasso’s Three Dancers of 1925, among other assorted treasures. All this was crowned with a large-screen projection of a hilarious sequence from Charles Reisner’s film The Hollywood Revue of 1929, showing Buster Keaton unexpectedly emerging, in place of the movie’s heroine, from a giant shell.

With the help of the exhibition’s wall labels and excellent catalogue, anyone could soon discover with amusement the common denominator of this miscellanea: All these objects (as well as the vast majority of those included in the show) were reproduced and discussed in Documents, the journal edited by Bataille in 1929–30 in collaboration—and sometimes in conflict—with a battery of editors, among them the legendary Carl Einstein and the curator of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, Georges-Henri Rivière, not to mention Georges Wildenstein, the financial backer and decided odd man out. Scores of private and public collections were scoured and endless leads patiently followed to produce this elaborate scholarly feast. Materializing before our eyes were objects that would have seemed impossible to locate: the Gaul coins discussed by Bataille in his first theoretical essay for the journal, “The Academic Horse,” and the Egyptian amulets reproduced in its pendant a year later, “Base Materialism and Gnosticism”; an eighteenth-century anamorphosis representing Saint Anthony of Padua and the infant Jesus, paired, just as it was in Documents, with Salvador Dalí’s Female Bathers, 1928; and even a drawing made by André Masson’s nine-year-old daughter! The list of esoteric finds goes on and on.

But “Undercover Surrealism” was not just a brilliant gathering of objects and documents related to Bataille’s magazine. It also endeavored to explain the journal’s enterprise and, in particular, to expose the role images played in its war against “civilization.” Thus the exhibition was divided into several thematic chapters visually performing Documents’ deliberate dismantling of taxonomic categories. The first room, for example, whose contents are listed above, was labeled “Places of Pilgrimage” (from the title of a short essay by Bataille devoted to Hollywood and the passion bottle) and underscored the importance of a materialist and anthropological analysis (or debunking) of religion for the journal’s editors. Further chapters, entitled “Salvador Dalí and Crime,” “André Masson and Sacrifice,” and “Joan Miró and Mark Making,” followed Bataille’s concerted effort to skew the interpretation of these artists away from the Surrealist gospel of André Breton. The show made this point through sheer visual juxtaposition: For Bataille, Dalí’s world was not one of dreams but of crime and cruelty; he makes you want to “squeal like a pig before his canvases,” wrote Documents’ editor—so his work was grouped with covers from the Fantômas series of crime thrillers, images of gruesome police photographs, and the eye-slicing sequence from Luis Buñuel’s Chien andalou, 1929. This last work provided a transition into Masson’s sacrificial universe. Here the artist’s paintings and drawings were associated with pre-Columbian codices (one of them, thought by Bataille to depict acts of horrendous violence, is in fact a medical manual concerning the cutting of the umbilical cord!) and Eli Lotar’s unforgettable photographic reportage on the slaughterhouse of La Villette. As for Miró, whose works reproduced in Documents remain the crudest of his vast corpus (shades of ’80s “Bad Painting” avant la lettre), his canvases neighbored prehistoric engravings and all kinds of drawings that the journal’s editors valued as “primitive.” In short, as Bataille would have wanted, the images in the exhibition performed a deconstructive task.

Other chapters were more traditional: “Georges Bataille and the Cabinet of Medals,” which contained mainly textual and photographic documents, along with ancient archaeological objects, reinforced the schizophrenic image of the writer forged by Breton in his diatribes (by day a bookish librarian, by night “the excremental philosopher”), while “Homage to Picasso” simply gathered paintings that were reproduced and commented on in the journal. But these more passive presentations were the exception rather than the rule. As in Documents itself, the images assembled under the rubric “Human Figures” did everything they could to debase the very concept of the human. And as for those objects grouped under the heading “Form and Formless,” well, I can only say here that the tack chosen by Ades and her team—though fundamentally different from that taken by Rosalind Krauss and myself in organizing “Informe: Mode d’emploi” at the Centre Pompidou ten years ago—confirms once more, and this time historically, that Bataille’s negative aesthetic is a very sharp instrument for sabotaging the modernist tradition.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum.