“A famous British chemist, Dr. Charles Henry Maye, tried to determine exactly what man is made of and what is man’s chemical worth. Here are the results of his scholarly research. The amount fat found in the body of an average human being would be enough to make seven pieces of soap. There is enough iron to make an average nail, enough sugar to sweeten a cup of coffee. The phosphorus would yield 2,200 matches; the magnesium would be enough to take a photograph. There is also some potassium and sulfur, but the amount is too small to be of any use. Those various materials, at the current rate, would be valued at around 25 francs”
The ‘Critical Dictionary’ Definition of Man, Documents, no. 4, 1929
And so to the Hayward for Undercover Surrealism, an exhibition that claims to recapture the subversive climate which surrounded Georges Bataille’s legendary Documents magazine. The Hayward’s on a bit of a roll at the moment, following the sublime glow of the Dan Flavin retrospective and last year’s Eyes, Lies & Illusions and Africa Remix, but Documents‘ blend of extensive essays with carefully chosen, wildly juxtaposed images is a hard one to capture in a gallery space. As the objects themselves take the place of the magazine’s illustrations, the theories which connected them are lost, and the exhibition feels more like a cabinet of curiosities than the theoretical exegeses of Documents. Lucky, then, that the original contributors to Documents were so wildly, deliriously curious.
Picasso’s Three Dancers stand contorted beneath the jiggling chorus girls of a Buster Keaton movie. Dali’s Baigneuses, blancmange-like structures embedded in the sand, hang next to a seventeenth-century anamorphic painting of St Anthony of Padua, as they did in Documents and at the seminal Surrealist arrival at MoMA in 1936, suggesting an art which must be approached from a new direction (Bataille said of Dali that the only appropriate response to his canvases was to “squeal like a pig”). An artfully-cut Brancusi head sits on a plinth beside a stone smoothed even further by natural processes. Giant enlargements of toes, plants and crustaceans adorn one gallery. Giacometti sculptures fuck in the corridors.
Documents was home to many Surrealists denounced by the autocratic Breton. They sought not to explain the movement, but to tease and feed it, and identify its pre-echoes in ethnography, musicology, and the natural world. Bataille himself worked in the Department of Coins and Medals at the Bibliotheque Nationale, many of his collaborators in other departments. Breton denounced him as a ‘staid librarian’. Bataille responded by writing the first draft of Story of the Eye on the back of used library tickets.
One of the last and best parts of the exhibition is the film strand, a 30-minute cycle of scenes from films by Surrealists, or in which they found inspiration. So you get the still gasp-inducing eyeball-slice from Dali and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, alongside early footage of tribal ceremonies from Benin and Marc Connelly and William Keighley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Green Pastures. The latter, made in 1936, dramatises bible stories from the perspective of an African-American child, and the scene included shows turbanned, angel-winged mammies chiding their cloud-riding offspring across the plains of Heaven, before paying homage to a black-suited, deep-voiced God apparently played by Morgan Freeman’s grandfather, providing a neat link back to one of the first exhibits: an Abyssinian church mural where a black Solomon recieves the Queen of Sheba. (The cycle is endless: elsewhere in Documents, an ethnographer describes the charcoal doodles left on the walls of the churches by Ethiopian children bored rigid by day-long services. In a comment that resonates strongly with all radical art practice, he notes that “even though the children are soundly beaten if discovered, the walls of the churches are nevertheless thick with their designs.”)
Another discovery, who pops up in various forms surrounding the exhibition, on film, in paintings (notably Magritte’s Le barbare), and in the writings and philosophy of the Surrealists, is Fantômas. Fantômas was a master criminal, master of disguise, the ‘Lord of Terror’, the ‘Genius of Evil’, and the anti-hero of a series of detective thrillers written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain which appeared in France in the 1910s. Endlessly pursued by the obsessed but helpless Inspector Juve, he appealed to the Surrealists and other avant-garde artists due to his smashing of safe society, including such tricks as releasing plague-infected rats into Paris, and his overturning of the conventions of genre fiction – unlike the known worlds of Wilkie Collins or Agatha Christie (who postdates Fantômas), Juve operated in a miasma, forever outwitted and confused. Guillaume Apollinaire said: “From the imaginative standpoint Fantômas is one of the richest works that exist.” We’ve got a copy on order.