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This work is one of numerous drawings known as cadavres exquis (the phrase means ‘exquisite corpse’) which were the result of collaborative game-playing among members of the surrealist movement. Unlike many examples of such works, the participants of Tate’s Cadavre exquis of c.1930 are known from an inscription on the reverse of the sheet, in André Breton’s hand, identifying them as Breton himself, the artist Valentine Hugo, the surrealist poet Paul Eluard and Eluard’s partner Nusch.
The technique of the cadavre exquis was discovered by members of the surrealist movement around 1925. Based on a traditional parlour-game, it initially involved passing a piece of paper between a group of people who would each add a word secretly - typically, a noun, an adjective, a verb, an adverb, and an object – before folding the sheet and passing it to the next player. The name ‘cadavre exquis’ derived from one of the first games which had produced the line ‘Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau’ (‘The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine’). The sentences produced in this collective and experimental way were, as the leader of the surrealist movement André Breton noted, ‘designed to provide the most paradoxical confrontation possible between the elements of speech’ and were appreciated by the surrealists for their disruption of everyday logic (Breton p.288). Such unexpected combinations of ideas and images seemed to the surrealists to create fantastic imaginary worlds. Quickly the game was extended to visual imagery, where each of the participants would create a ‘body’ consisting - notionally at least - of head, chest and arms, torso, legs and feet.
Cadavres exquis drawings were typically characterised by a strange hybridity and metamorphosis. ‘Because of their primary function as proposed delineations of personalities’, wrote Breton, the cadavres ‘tend[ed] inevitably to raise anthropomorphism to its highest pitch and to accentuate vividly the continuing relationship uniting the exterior world with the interior world’ (Breton p.289). Tate’s example tests the boundaries of the genre in creating a body image that pays little attention to the normal contours of the human frame. The head section (Nusch Eluard, according to the order of the inscription on the reverse of the drawing) takes the form of a pot out of which snakes appear, curving symmetrically either side, while the neck and arms (Breton) are made up of a musical stave and a treble clef. The torso (Hugo) is a romantic landscape of trees which appears to include a waterfall encompassed by a linked chain. The four folds in the paper - producing five sections - indicate that one of the participants acted twice and it is likely that either or both Paul and Nusch were involved in drawing the bottom section in which their names appear among a succession of ambiguous signs and symbols.
With the participation of André Breton and Paul Eluard, the drawing brings together two of the key figures in the surrealist movement at a key moment in their working relationship, underscoring the importance of the role of writers and a poetic sensibility in the creation of surrealism. It appears probable that this cadavre was made around the time of Eluard’s collaboration with Breton on the seminal surrealist text L’Immaculée conception in the summer of 1930. The involvement of two couples in the making of the drawing also speaks of the distinctive importance of love and friendship within the movement, and in particular of the love affairs of both Eluard and Breton. Following the end of Breton’s relationship with Suzanne Muzard, he embarked on a brief affair with Valentine Hugo who remained in love with him long after it had ended. Indeed, several of her objects and paintings reveal her devotion to Breton. Eluard met the young circus performer Maria Benz, known always as Nusch, in May 1930. The use of conventional romantic motifs in this cadavre exquis may indicate that the work was made in the early phase of their courtship. The couple married in August 1934 and as the muse for some of Eluard’s most beautiful poetry, Nusch has a distinct presence in the surrealist movement. This is most explicit in Eluard’s volume Facile (1935), illustrated with photographs of Nusch by Man Ray.
The conflation of images which make up this drawing not only point to the spirit of communal art-making which incorporated both artists and non-artists, but also to the notions of chance and automatism so fundamental to surrealism. ‘With the Exquisite Corpse’, wrote Breton, ‘we had at our disposal – at last – an infallible means of sending the mind’s critical mechanism away on vacation and fully releasing its metaphorical potentialities’ (Breton p.289). With their juxtaposition of unlikely objects and alliance of disparate words or images, the cadavres were seen by the surrealists as highly significant documents of the workings of the mind.
André Breton, The Exquisite Corpse, Its Exaltation (1948), in André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor), London 1965, pp.288-90.
Vincent Gilles, ‘Lives and Loves’ in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Surrealism: Desire Unbound, London 2001, pp.136-69.
William Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art, London 1969, p.278.