Surrealism: revolutionary or ridiculous?

    Knowing I was going to be reviewing Undercover Surrealism at the Hayward Gallery, I had surrealism lightly on my mind, and was absent-mindedly considering my position on the hideous writings of the chief presence in the show, the surrealistic pornographer Georges Bataille, when one of the women on the film crew noticed a man on a bench in the middle of the square masturbating furiously.

    The place Pigalle is a notably sordid location at any time of day or night. But you would have thought that, first thing on a Sunday morning, you might have been spared most of the worst sights.

    Yet here was this little man pumping away in full view of the early-morning world.

    My question is: was it a horrible sight? Or was it a glorious and liberating one? Were we witnessing a sad and degrading act of self-abasement by a loser on the Place Pigalle? Or were we on hand to share in a liberating moment of abandonment by an anonymous hero of the culture wars? Depending on whether you are an answer-A type or go for answer B, you’ll either appreciate and admire the dynamic thinking of Bataille and his cronies in Undercover Surrealism, or you will find it slimy, weird, unhelpful and falsely apotheosised. I am firmly in the latter camp.

    Masturbation in the Place Pigalle is pertinent to this opening because Bataille’s best known “novel”, The Story of the Eye, is so graphically overstuffed with it. And also because the catalogue for Undercover Surrealism celebrates an admission by another of the writers apotheosised by the show, Michel Leiris, that he spilled his seed on the top of Mount Olympus in 1927, inside the Temple of Zeus. “I had the distinct sense — not at all literary, but truly spontaneous — that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the magical and intoxicating.” Once again, either you agree that shooting your wad in the Temple of Zeus is an act of mystical sacrifice, or you see it as a graceless display of sexual exhibitionism. Either you take this kind of thinking seriously or you don’t. I don’t.

    None of which is to say that Undercover Surrealism is a bad exhibition. It isn’t.

    Actually, it’s a very good one. Providing you retain a healthy degree of scepticism about the final worth of any of the advice passed on here by Bataille and his clowns, or any of the conclusions they reach, the show is a valuable experience. Above all, it succeeds in convincingly evoking the disruptive presence and, yes, the masturbatory violence of the surrealist moment. It brings surrealism back to life, with all the hallucinatory, phallocentric, disgusting, lopsided and misdirected energy that such a resurrection must involve.

    If you assume that surrealism is merely an amusing and cheeky art movement devoted to the unexpected, in which trains chug out from fireplaces and the answer to the question “How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” is “Fish”, then Undercover Surrealism must set you right. The truth is that the creepy chap masturbating in Paris is more apposite to the violent and revolutionary thinking disinterred at this event than any of the cute non sequiturs mistaken for surrealism by the advertising industry or fans of Monty Python.

    The show has as its focus a magazine called Documents, edited by Bataille between 1929 and 1930. Although nominally just another outré art magazine, of the kind that French literary culture was so fond of launching and unlaunching, Documents was probably an important player in the progress of surrealism. I say probably because the organisers of this crusading display are obviously Documents obsessives who long ago lost any reasonable balance they might once have possessed in their view of the magazine’s impact. What appears to you or me to be a mere footnote in the grand scheme of modern art’s progress is accused here of absolute centrality.

    Documents was edited by Bataille in the manner in which he thought — randomly and instinctively. Packed with a bewildering variety of articles and photographs making weird and unlikely connections between artists, artworks, cases and things, it went next wherever the mood took it, an editorial line followed by the show. The opening room, for instance, contains Picasso’s great Three Dancers, from 1925, some Nigerian pike shafts, a painting by De Chirico, a Janus-faced helmet mask made of real human skin, an Ethiopian scroll and a Buster Keaton movie in which he pops out of a giant sea shell and falls over.

    According to the contents list printed on its deceptively prosaic yellow cover, Documents was devoted to Archéologie, Beaux-Arts, Ethnographies and Variétés. But all these categories proved eminently flexible, and a reader opening his new Documents could never predict where he would voyage next, any more than a visitor to this show will ever successfully imagine what the section ahead contains. Over here are grisly photographs of an abattoir displayed alongside some corpse paintings by André Masson; over there is a classic piece of surrealist trompe l’oeil by Salvador Dali, involving ambiguous bits of droopy female body reproduced alongside an 18th-century anamorphic image of a Franciscan saint and the naked infant Jesus, stretched so far out of legible perspective that it has become a landscape.

    Confrontational babblings by Bataille and the others litter the display entertainingly.

    “I challenge any collector to love a painting as much as a fetishist loves a shoe,” trumpets Bataille in the special issue of Documents devoted to Picasso. As a TV set plays us Pathé newsreels of the era examining the underwater antics of crustaceans, Jacques Baron, in an adjacent text, insists that “of all the ridiculous actions men take upon themselves, none is more so than shrimping”. Good point.

    As the provocative claims and unlikely juxtapositions mount up, a few universal truths about the Documents world-view do become discernible. In any comparison between primitive cultures and modern life, it is always the primitive cultures that come off best. Bataille and the rest are determined to criticise the civilisation that spawned them. The grisly abattoir section, with Masson’s paintings of dead horses in it, is trying to splatter the reader in the blood of the animals killed in the Chicago meatpacking district, not because it is wrong to kill this many cows, but because it is wrong to pretend that this many cows are not killed. The arrival of the chateaubriand on the French dinner plate is the result of masses of international violence and relentless animal sacrifice. Bataille and his surrealists were keen to remind us of this.

    However, I’m not at all sure that the celebration of black culture mounted by the anthropologists and ethnographers of Documents is as presciently positive as the organisers imply. Bataille’s interest in black women is surely sexually motivated, and not particularly noble. And the identification of Hollywood as a place of pilgrimage in the modern world — there’s a pint-sized archive cinema in the mix, in which assorted gems from the early days of talkies are showing — is definitely naive, given what we now know about the American film industry.

    But you’d have to be pretty naive yourself actually to trust any of the cultural assessments made by Bataille and his gang of Freudian couch cases. Being right or wrong isn’t really the point here. What matters is the skill with which the energy and waywardness of the surrealists have been resuscitated. Beautifully installed in the rejuvenated Hayward Gallery, this dodgem ride of a display really does manage to do a Lazarus on the Bataille tendency. And the fact that the surrealism that is brought back to life here is altogether cruder and grislier than the mild-mannered and jokey surrealism we are generally used to is an excellent bonus.