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The Curatorial Avant-Garde: Surrealism and Exhibition Practice in France, 1925–1941

by Adam Jolles
Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 2013
288 pp., illus. 25 col., 68 b/w. Trade, $89.95
ISBN: 978-0-271-06415-4.

Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth


The problem with this book starts with its title. In the series ‘Refiguring Modernism’, The Curatorial Avant-Garde: Surrealism and Exhibition Practice in France, 1925-1941 “(…) considers surrealism as a historically contingent nexus of critical voices, images, and activities. It offers new insight into those figures who proved most instrumental in giving shape to surrealism’s curatorial vision.” The main problem lies here in the use of the word ‘curatorial’, which is a fairly recent terminology and certainly not used by the Surrealists. Calling them ‘The Curatorial Avant-Garde’ is presumably meant as a form of appreciation; however, simultaneously mentioning the “emergence of an amateur class of curators in France composed of writers and artists who actively sought to contribute to the current curatorial discourse despite possessing no formal training in or substantial exposure to either museum or gallery work” (italics in quotes throughout this review are mine) in my eyes isn’t. Jolles suggests possible other candidates for the celebratory title (“Herbert Bayer, Frederick Kiesler, and El Lissitzsky, amongst others, immediately spring to mind”), but equally dismisses Dada as an important precursor. A more in-depth discussion of the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920, which is only briefly mentioned in the introduction, would surely have solved quite a few of the ‘tenuous’ relations Jolles has with some elements in the Surrealist shows. The hanging pig dressed as a policeman in the Dada Fair that is mentioned and depicted is, for instance, a clear reference to the tradition of hanging crocodiles in churches, apothecaries, and various ‘Wunderkammer’, which were also a well-known reference for the Surrealists.

The bracketing of quite a specific period and place doesn’t help either. With concentrating on France between 1925 and 1941 Jolles misses out on the truly revolutionary Surrealist exhibitions that took place in New York. These have already been thoughtfully analysed in Lewis Kachur’s 2001 book Displaying the Marvelous – Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Surrealist Exhibition Installations that however barely gets mentioned by Jolles. Instead he starts his discourse with Breton’s “first major curatorial endeavour”, the exhibition ‘La Peinture Surréaliste’ in Galerie Pierre, Paris (1925) that meant to acknowledge a possible visual expression of the surrealist ideas. In the way the exhibition was apparently hung the organisers, in my opinion however, also made their Dadaist, cross-disciplinary, and especially literary background clear. When Jolles mentions how Breton has included all of the works titles in a short prose poem accompanying the show, he indicates that this text is qualified by the Surrealists “somewhat confusingly” as a ‘poetic and absurd’ text, ignoring the fact that they observed these as two distinct but happily congruent literary qualities. Further on Jolles comes to the late and rather obvious conclusion to “(…) consider the exhibition to a certain extent as an experimental exercise in the picture-poem itself, a means of reconceptualising the exhibition as the artistic work rather than as simply a vehicle for display.”

It would have been helpful in discussing this so-called curatorial endeavour if there had been some kind of visual reconstruction of the layout of the exhibition besides the verbal description and 15 small black and white images of works shown. Jolles mentions contemporary critiques on ‘La Peinture Surréaliste’ but, unfortunately does, not give any references. More importantly, there are no quotes of Breton or any of the Surrealists to justify the use of the terminology ‘curatorial discourse or practice’. The only allusion Jolles gives in this direction is the Surrealists’ take on museums, which were called ‘museum of horrors’ by Michel Leiris and likened to slaughterhouses by Bataille. [This actually brings to mind Will Self’s recent review of the upcoming extension of Tate Modern – “The new Tate Modern will thus be not an art gallery per se, but a sort of life-size model of what an art gallery might be should our culture have need of one. Since it doesn’t, but rather has requirements for visitor attractions that reify the ever-widening gulf between haves and have-nots, I’m absolutely certain it will prove an outrageous success”, ‘Art Sharks’ in The Guardian, 22 November 2014].

Further chapters in Jolles’ book are dedicated to ‘Denouncing de Chirico’ or “the formulation of a polemical curatorial model, ‘Colonists by Vocation’ on surrealism’s approach to ethnography, “the synonymous transformation of surrealist art in relation to the tide of curatorial activity during the interwar period (…) when the distinction between artwork and exhibition blurred within surrealism”, ‘The Artist as Dealer’, and finally a conclusion related to Adorno’s essay ‘Valery Proust Museum’ from 1953.

In general, the curatorial looms all over the book as an out of place newspeak. That the curatorial profession researches its ancestry is apt and refigures modernism possibly, as well. Kachur’s earlier mentioned book, however, seems to do a far better job as does Elena Filipovic in her recent ‘Artist as Curator’ research for the magazine, Mousse. [Weirdly enough all three publications share an orange cover]. What Jolles, in contrast, painstakingly tries to prove throughout his well designed, well illustrated, and fairly well documented coffee table book is the Surrealists’ factually non-existent curatorial position. Acknowledging that they were in the first place artists who naturally considered a non-institutional, cross- and possibly, even trans-disciplinary way of presenting of their artwork that is informative for a current curatorial practice and discourse would have been more helpful.

Last Updated 4th January 2015

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