Elements of Chance
Level 2: Room 4
Tate Modern: Display
Open every day
  • Max Ernst, 'The Entire City' 1934

    Max Ernst
    The Entire City 1934
    Oil on paper laid on canvas
    support: 502 x 613 mm frame: 696 x 798 x 47 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Knapping Fund 1941 ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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Chance was a crucial creative strategy for a wide number of artists associated with surrealism. It represented a release from the constraints of the rational world that had parallels with their interest in dreams.

The nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé took on the structures of chance with his extended poem ‘Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard’ (A Throw of the dice will never abolish chance). Setting out his poem typographically, he appeared to embrace the random. Such a position became explicitly political when Jean Arp began to experiment with collages and reliefs during the First World War. Seeking solace in the randomly occurring structures of nature, he set these works against the rational order that had unleashed the war: mechanisation, organisation, nationalism.

While Arp would engage with surrealism in the 1920s, the attraction of chance to the surrealists was primarily creative rather than political – a new way of liberating imagery from convention. By developing new and individual ‘automatic’ processes they sought to reconcile opposing parts of human experience: the rational and the irrational, the conscious and the unconscious, reality and dream. Although they sometimes made claims for a complete ‘uncensored’ reliance upon chance, it is clear that many surrealists used their automatic techniques mainly as a way of releasing unforeseen imagery.

Another nineteenth-century poet, the Comte de Lautréamont (the pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse), was a continual inspiration to the surrealists. His extraordinary juxtapositions of unrelated imagery became a point of departure: ‘as beautiful as the chance encounter between a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.’

Curated by Matthew Gale.

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