Ceci n’est pas une exposition – it’s a surrealist triumph at the V&A

    No art movement has been betrayed as often or as enthusiastically as surrealism. The transformation of this heroic attempt to explore the sickest corners of the psyche into a popular decor style, or a wacky type of chess-set design, should be seen as an unforgivable traducement of lofty ideals. The surrealists had revolutionary hopes, which were diluted to homeopathic concentrations. Yet out of this cultural tragedy, the V&A has created a riveting and fabulous show.

    Surreal Things is the latest in a line of unreliable exhibitions in which the V&A has foolishly attempted to sum up the impact on global design of a whopping great art tendency. You may remember Modernism and Art Deco. The idea is to identify the key ambitions of a movement, then reveal how and where they influenced international creativity. All the previous efforts had their moments. But all floundered in trying to pack in too much. I remember wandering from sight to sight through the latter stages of Modernism, exhausted by the onslaught of objects. That doesn’t happen here. The V&A has learnt its lesson.

    The first thing the show does well is to ignore the illusion that it can tell the full story of surrealism. So, what’s rejected from the off is the dense, dark literary dimension, all those spooky texts and stunningly impenetrable verses with which surrealism’s founder, André Breton, and his poetic pals bombarded the notoriously deviant French mind. “Surrealism,” thundered Breton, in his manifestly potty Manifeste du Surréalisme of 1924, “is pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express the real process of thought.” Propelled by Freud, propelled by Marx, Breton founded surrealism because he was on a mission to attack the everyday world and undermine its foundations. But unless I missed him somewhere, he isn’t even mentioned here.

    Instead, we follow a trajectory that ends up on a gorgeous piece of jewellery designed by Salvador Dali for the ballet star Rebecca Harkness, which is shaped like a starfish and which she wore on her chest. If you scrunch up your eyes and hope, you might possibly discern some surreal frisson in the similarity between the large, ruby-encrusted starfish and a grasping human hand feeling Ms Harkness’s breast. But you have to try really hard.

    Thus, this show might honestly be called the taming of surrealism. That is what it traces. But, having waded through plenty of shows devoted to Breton and his interminable texts – there was a fine example at the Hayward last year – I confess to feeling a profound relief at not having to do so again here. Instead, we find a show that merrily admits that its gewgaw-makers and fashion fops were betraying the ideals of surrealism, then proceeds to explore the fascinating ways in which this evident betrayal led to exuberant creativity.

    We enter through a set of red velvet curtains, beyond which we glimpse Giorgio de Chirico’s delightful stage set for a Diaghilev production called Le Bal. Breton had fallen out with de Chirico. I seem to recall he had actually called him “a miracle-faking swindler”. So de Chirico turned instead to Diaghilev for support, who commissioned a Parthenon-era dance for which de Chirico essentially turned one of his mock-classical paintings into a set. The male dancers had doric columns instead of necks. The girls wore carved marble wings. Breton loathed it. I wish I’d seen it.

    I usually find those parts of a show that deal with theatre design eminently skippable, on the grounds that you needed to have been there. But a group of costumes and film fragments from Miro’s glorious think-ups for the Ballets Russes are not only undeniably exciting in their own right, but make you wish that our artists could make contributions of this magnitude to our ballet. The spinning-top costume that Miro envisaged for Jeux d’Enfants, which seems to screw the dancer out of the ground as he pirouettes, is surely as gorgeous as any of his paintings.

    We come in, therefore, not at the start of surrealism, but at the point at which it begins to disintegrate and diffuse. One of the problems with the movement is the sheer familiarity of its key images. But this show has discovered a treasure trove of unfamiliar bits of weirdness. The section dealing with the Surreal Object is particularly rich in discombobulating sights. Marcel Jean may be a very minor surrealist, but his trompe l’oeil wardrobe, painted with mysterious doors opening out onto a cloudy skyscape, is in the big league of strange furniture. Among the eye-benders that manage to be both innovative design and genuinely creepy, high on my list would be Meret Oppenheim’s Table with Bird’s Legs, which reveals the undercarriage of a stork.

    What we are watching is the transformation of surrealism from an investigation of the mind’s darker corners into a catchy design style that depends for its impact on startling juxtapositions. Dali’s Lobster Telephone, or a carpet from Edward James’s house that seems covered in a wolf’s paw prints, are pleasant triumphs of visual cheekiness. And nothing more. While it is, on one level, regrettable that even Royal Crown Derby produced a dinner service covered with hovering pink gloves, it is also fascinating evidence of the surprisingly universal appeal of the surreal disjunction. And the trickle in this direction turns into a cascade in the section celebrating the Surrealist Interior, where we suddenly watch the world getting hooked on weird effects. Another hilarious wardrobe, painted by Leonor Fini, shows the artist as a set of veneered Renaissance inlays. The creepy has become chic.

    That this show has been particularly well selected is also true of the paintings. Magritte and Dali dominate, with their visual puns and obsessive detailing. Ernst disappoints, but then he always does. Miro, who probably became the most repetitive of all the surrealists, has been rescued here by an impeccable selection of good pictures. That said, I found the least interesting stretch was the one dealing with his speciality: the surrealist blob, or biomorph. I understand the attraction of nature’s spooky side as represented by amoeba and plankton and those secret holes you find in coral, but what nature does really well underwater, the surrealist blobsmiths did boringly on a gallery’s walls.

    The display’s final stretch, though, is exceptionally dramatic – a true crescendo. Dominated by fashion designers, it takes as its theme the surrealist interest in the body. What’s good about it is the way it focuses on a properly creepy aspect of surrealism – the whips, zips and fetishes – while revealing how these dark urges infiltrated the sartorial mainstream to end up looking entirely normal. A key figure in this dissemination, Elsa Schiaparelli, is, in my book, a creator to rank with the best surrealists. She gives us black gloves with red fingernails and a pair of shoes out of which protrude clumps of monkey hair.

    What is being proved here is that the proximity of our clothes to our body plunges them into a dangerous liaison. The Schiaparelli dress that had me overheating was a cream number that mimics the patterns of a shrimp’s carapace, so that the ripples of the fabric converge on the wearer’s pubic region. What I wouldn’t do to see Scarlett Johansson in that.

    Art and design, sharing and stealing from each other, walking hand in hand to the exit. The last part of this exhibition is as finely paced as anything I have seen at the V&A.