Hailey Maxwell

Hailey Maxwell


♦ Surrealist Collaborative Play ♦


Having indulged in the joyous nihilism of Dada heavy petting, surrealists Marcel Duhamel, Jacques Prévert and Yves Tanguy embarked upon a full-frontal fornication with chance, and in late 1925 a baby was conceived in Paris, at 54 rue du Château. It began with a popular French parlour game, subject to the same forces of chance as spin the bottle, with each participant in the ménage à trois writing a word each (noun, verb, adjective . . . ) on a single sheet of paper. Each lexical contribution was hidden under concertina folds in the paper until the final reveal, which announced what was to come: ‘Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau!’ or ‘The exquisite corpse drinks the new wine!’ Notorious for reacting to absurdity and dissonance with hysterical delight, the surrealists were overjoyed by the nonsense phrase, which soon fulfilled its prophecy. Shortly after, the logos became flesh and a series of monstrous rug rats were born.


The playful little figures—the kind of progeny only a surrealist could love—were proudly paraded across the pages of the journal La Révolution surréaliste in October 1927. One exquisite corpse rendered by André Breton and Tanguy wore jugs for legs; its spider head nestling in the fur collar of its military jacket.


This was one of the many games played by the surrealists that engaged with chance, the marvellous, the unconscious mind. But this irreverent game, these playful drawings, represent a subversion of ideology and mark a transformative point in collaborative art practice. The figure of the exquisite corpse—disjointed, irrational, nonsensical—is monstrous, connotating a human body whose dignity and rational form has been disfigured and stripped of its ideal figuration. The ideal representation of man has haunted art history since classical sculpture and the birth of Adam, symbolising the principal of the unity of the human body with the universe; from a cosmological understanding of existence as ‘as above so below’ to the Christian notion of the human being created in the image of the divine. The functionality and regular structure of the human body reflects the peaceful workings of the cosmos, a happy God, a healthy body politic. Our deformed exquisite corpse interrupts this happy planetary alignment—sending rupture through preconceived meanings given to the status of man and the world he inhabits.


While considered primarily an irreverent game, the product of playful doodling, the exquisite corpse is the product of accumulative creative practice. Each individual artist with his or her particular signature of authorship (style, favourite motif) contributes part of the figure—a dismembered limb, head or torso—to construct a fantastic beast, whose value as a creative product exceeds the sum of its parts. The resulting figure is the collected corpse of sacrificed individualism; produced by a non-hierarchical group of artists, its totality is causally overdetermined. Like a popular revolution (as Louis Althusser would say) or the features of the unconscious (as Sigmund Freud would say). Considering the practice of forming the single exquisite corpse allows us to consider the revolutionary potential of the social operation of formlessness, whereby Georges Bataille’s ‘accursed share’—the excessive, non-productive energy generated by an economy of consumption and excretion—can have a political, creative function.


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Hailey Maxwell is a postgraduate student at the University of Glasgow, in the MLitt Art:Politics:Transgression programme. She is interested in the politics of artistic production in 1930s Parisian avant-garde circles and the philosophy of Georges Bataille.


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