Walk down any high street today and the chances are that the adverts you’ll be bombarded with are heavily influenced by a particular modern art movement that took hold in Europe and the US in the first half of the 20th century – Surrealism.
A new exhibition, Surreal Things at the Victoria & Albert museum in London, traces the influence of Surrealism on the design of consumer goods from furniture to high fashion.
It’s a sobering lesson in how avant-garde art, no matter what it’s radical intentions, can be absorbed by capitalism to sell more products.
Surrealism was founded in the 1920s by the French poet and critic André Breton. It was, as the exhibition’s catalogue tells us, “born of the political ideology of Karl Marx and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud”.
Breton was on the radical left and wanted to transform the world by changing the way we thought about it.
To do this he combined Marx’s theory of ideology – the notion that the ruling class maintains its power by policing the way we perceive other people and the objects around us – with Freud’s new theories of the unconscious mind.
Surrealism was initially a literary movement that called on writers to use “automatic” techniques to produce prose and poetry. By freeing creativity from conscious and rational control, Breton argued, artists could access and liberate the unconscious desires that bourgeois society kept repressed.
Breton’s movement was soon joined by painters, sculptors and designers using Surrealist techniques to produce everything from costumes to chess sets. In the process, Surrealism subtly shifted from being based on a set of techniques to being organised around certain signature themes.
The Surrealists juxtaposed natural and artificial imagery in a deliberately unsettling way, creating tables with birds’ legs or Salvador Dali’s telephone with a lobster instead of a receiver.
Other Surrealist artists undermined our conventional notions of form and function, such as Oscar Dominguez’s velvet-lined wheelbarrow or Man Ray’s “daring present” – an iron with spikes.
But far from undermining bourgeois society, Surrealism proved to be a hit with the very world of high consumer culture it had set out to undermine. Unveiling the uncanny eroticism of everyday objects simply made them more desirable to the moneyed classes.
Even as early as 1926, Breton and his fellow Surrealist Louis Aragon protested at the Paris premiere of a ballet that had commissioned Surrealist costumes and set designs. “It is inadmissible that ideas should be at the behest of money,” their leaflets read.
The behest of money prevailed, however. Department store owners commissioned Surrealist shop window displays while Dali designed evening gowns and covers for Vogue magazine.
Even the most startlingly original Surrealist artists, such as the Belgian painter René Magritte, found their imagery being pressed into service in adverts for Shell and Ford.
Breton was not pleased by these developments – for him, Surrealism had a political role that was being ignored. He lampooned Dali’s lust for cash and status by renaming him “Avida Dollars” – an anagram of the artist’s name.
Breton remained true to his original radical vision, however, co-authoring a manifesto for artistic freedom with the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1938.
Surrealism’s influence on the commercial world is still with us – witness the current billboard adverts for Orange mobile phones, for instance. As this show makes clear, the Surrealist notion that fantasy could undermine capitalism proved to be little more than a dream.
Surreal Things is on at the V&A until 22 July. For more information go to www.vam.ac.uk