Exquisite Corpse (Cadavre Exquis) was a Victorian-era parlor game favored by the avant-garde Surreal artists in early 20th century France. It began as a game of poetry where a player wrote a word or phrase on a piece of paper, covered his entry by folding the paper, and passed it on to the next player who did the same. This resulted in bizarre phrases or poems such as, “Le cadavre – exquis – boira — le vin — nouveau” (“The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine,” after which the game was named). The Surrealists were drawn to it for visual art as well; as the black sheep of the period’s art world, they fancied it because it reflected their infatuation with the spontaneous, the erotic, the Freudian (just becoming popular at the time) and the…well…bizarre. And really, who doesn’t love erotic, Freudian black sheep?
My son and I enjoyed this game when he was young and I was repeatedly hospitalized. As I was frequently in bed recovering, it was one of the creative games we could play together. With a sense of excitement, anticipation and abandonment of rules, we’d unfold the finished product to see what obscure image we’d created. It also worked well to prove that narcotic painkillers do, indeed, increase one’s creative juices.
I suppose my work is an attempt to emulate this bohemian, playful and daring art form both literally and figuratively, bringing life back to discarded carcasses in an inventive, surreal and, hopefully, exquisite manner.
Please, tell us more about the SURREALISTS.
As a lifelong Art History student, my personal Fuck It! Code and yelp for freedom (probably from Freudian childhood restraints) were first answered and thrilled by the Surrealist artists, especially Man Ray and Marcel DuChamp.
Man Ray was exposed to the European avant-garde artists at 291, the gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City opened in 1905 by another modern art trailblazer, Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz pioneered the movement to elevate photography’s status to that of “fine art” when, at the time, it was not considered equal to painting and sculpture; he was also a pioneering promoter of modern art in the United States. Beginning in 1908, he used his space at 291 Gallery to introduce America to the most avant-garde European artists of the time in groundbreaking exhibits. These were the biggies, including Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia, Édouard Manet and Marcel Duchamp.
Aside from their wild and unbridled disregard for the rules, the Surrealists (specifically Duchamp) established the idea of calling regular, everyday junk “Art.” These plain, cheap and ordinary objects, or Readymades (a term borrowed from the Jewish garment industry in New York), were the beginning of what we know and love today as “Found Object” Art. An ordinary item, most famously, a urinal was stuck in a gallery as Art, simply because the artist designated it as such. The Surrealists were the Shock Radio hosts of their day, and naturally, as a black sheep myself, I am allured by their work and ideas.
OK, but where does the TAXIDERMY fit in?
Love him or hate him, speaking of shock artists…
Damien Hirst may be considered a modern day Surrealist with his insect electrocutor (bug zapper), maggots and flies, floating shark, and rotting cow and bull, but it is his extraordinary partner in production, the British taxidermist, Emily Mayer, who gives his work its…ummm…life. With her novel techniques, edgy and macabre unconventionality, and penchant for the gross, it was her decomposing models that helped launch the Hirst Dynasty. She is one of very few taxidermists who might first be considered artists —master craftsmen who do not mount traditional hunting trophies, instead employing their precision, obscure creativity and cast-iron stomachs to create art that is abstract and funky.
Another Surrealist (and model for Man Ray), Meret Oppenheim, combined female eroticism with taxidermy by covering a teacup, saucer and spoon in Chinese gazelle fur. Not only was it a bizarre Readymade or Found Object placed in a museum as art, but it was disturbingly suggestive and erotic at the time. How was one to use these traditionally feminine items without caressing the fur with one’s lips? And who doesn’t love Oppenheim’s Cannibal Feast (Le Festin), where banquet attendees are “invited” to fondle and feast on the dismembered nude female cadaver?
The Surrealists used obscure photographic techniques like extreme close-ups, solarization, and double exposure to create a whacky, dream-like reality. In her close-up photograph of a baby armadillo suspended in formaldehyde, Dora Maar makes an ugly, even repulsive subject, bizarrely appealing (in a creepy sort of way).
Finally, it’s not taxidermy, but it’s an awful lot like what I do at work: The Surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou , is an erotic, Freudian, dream-like series (are you sold already?) of somewhat unrelated scenes that, with a stretch, have some relationship to taxidermy. Along with the dead and rotting donkeys, a severed hand, and a sliced thumb (this is very much what I see at work), one scene famously shows (supposedly) a woman’s eye being sliced open with a razor. (In the close-up, it’s actually the eyeball of a dead calf. So there’s that.)
So…is taxidermy ART or NATURAL HISTORY? Hey, don’t all those cool CABINETS OF CURIOSITY have taxidermy in them?
Yep. They do, indeed.
The Renaissance (roughly 15th and 16th centuries), Peter the Great, and the Age of Enlightenment (roughly 17th and 18th centuries) were no strangers to taxidermy. The vast personal collections of utterly cool stuff were the early ancestors to the modern museum. Remember your grandmother’s curio cabinet overflowing with tacky china, Precious Moments, imitation Lladro and Holly Hobbie figurines? She did not invent that idea, though the tacky kitsch-factor certainly belonged to the 1970s. In 16th century Italy, the room was called a studiolo, museo or galleria. North of the Alps, this precursor to modern museums was Kunst- and Wunderkammer, cabinet of art and marvels or room of curiosities or wonders.
The concept of these cabinets or rooms was to show off the Enlightened collector’s worldly and humanist education and wealth, to amaze and impress, in one place. Not unlike your beer bottle collection. Sometimes the elaborate cabinets, themselves, were as impressive as the collections, replete with secret drawers and compartments. These displays of art (Kunst) and marvels (Wunder) combined a wildly diverse collection of objects, natural and man-made, that reflected the vast and wild Universe just being discovered (and desperately feared and punished by the Inquisition). Taxidermy was used to crudely preserve the acquired animal specimens. The taste was for the abnormal (such as the unusually large or small) and the exotic (often animals), so cabinets and rooms were stuffed to the gills with extravagantly bizarre examples, in stark juxtaposition, from the three most important new discoveries/studies of the time: naturalia (products of nature), artefacta (products of man), and scientifica (scientific instruments) proving man’s ability to understand and dominate nature—a concept which never goes out of style. (MMA Heilbrunn Timeline???)
These private collections were later donated or purchased to create the first natural history museums. In fact, my beloved Field Museum in Chicago (where I once dreamed of living) was born in a day, when Marshall Field purchased an entire taxidermy display for $100,000 at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. . Thus, was mainstreamed the fascination and popularity of taxidermied critters.
So is my own work ART or NATURAL HISTORY? Hmmm.
Well, the 19th century was the golden age of taxidermy as Victorian hunters and adventurers sought to strut their stuff, so to speak, and with superior scientific methods, taxidermists were newly considered “artists.” In the early 20th century, as the Surrealists suggested, the artist and the public, together, decided what Art was. So now, with the modern, hipster resurgence of Wunderkammer and taxidermy in swanky museums and galleries, it would seem the two, artist and public, have decided.