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26th November 2015

Top 5: Surrealist Sculptures

With Alexander Calder’s kinetic sculptures now on show at Tate Modern, we take a look at other iconic surrealist pieces

5) Alexander Calder, Mercury Fountain (1937)

Dangling above a pool of mercury, Calder’s collection of thin arches and tipping tiers was originally exhibited, opposite Picasso’s Guernica, at the 1937 World’s Fair. It was intended as a political protest over General Franco’s siege of the mercury mines in Almaden during the Civil War. Like all of Calder’s mobile works, they really resemble renaissance scientific instruments; they are avant garde astrolables or the dismantled insides of an astrological clock awkwardly put back together—his motorised sculpture, A Universe (1934), in the Tate’s exhibition, turns every 45 minutes to represent planetary movement. Part political gesture, part alchemical interplay of metals, the piece hangs above a small pool of poisonous quicksilver and is far too dangerous for anyone to take a dip or even get up close to.

4) Meret Oppenheim, Object – Le Dejeuner en fourrure (1933)

Modernist apocrypha tells us that the idea behind the famous bowl and spoon wrapped cosily in Chinese gazelle fur was the result of a quip over lunch. Picasso joked to the young Oppenheim, who went around Paris wearing homemade furry wristbands, that she could wrap anything up in pelt, and so she did. It’s been the subject of much interpretation over the years. A feminist platter symbolising the greedy style in which male artists were tucking into aspiring female artists? A satire on the macho nostalgia for primitive objects that was rife throughout period? This iconic tableware offers a host of possible meanings to feast on.

3) Max Ernst, Capricorn (1947 – 1964)

Excited by the arrival of piped water to his house in Sedona in 1949, Max Ernst began to mix the newly-arrived element with cement, car springs and milk cartons to create a hulking portrait of man, woman and child. His wife Dorothea Tanning treated this totemic group of square-shouldered king, thin queen, and baby prince like a protective grotto sculpture, a stiff assembly of “benign deities that consecrated our ‘garden’.” As regards it’s zodiac title, astrologers believe that being born under the transit of Capricorn means that you will turn out to be very ambitious, philosophical and highly suited to government. No wonder Capricorn looks so stately.

2) Giorgio de Chirico, The Archaeologists (1969)

A male and female—a pair that have the polished, featureless faces of his well-known mannequins—sit on a couch with their insides crudely on show. However, rather than coiled intestines, we see fragments of ruins, temple facades, idols and some other antique finds. The pair seem to have ingested the ancient world.

1) Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone (1936)

Lobsters make a wonderful and rewarding sexual fetish, except of course for the crabs. Bad jokes aside, Dali does seem to have been genuinely aroused by the blushing pinks and hot reds of the steamed crustacean. At the 1939 World’s Fair, Salvador Dali staged The Dream of Venus, in which he dressed models up in a seafood fashion range, the lobster providing a erotic, surreal cover for the models’ modesty. His strange fetishisms didn’t stop there. His autobiography contains a passage on ideas for using telephones in a more creative way, including strapping them to a live turtle and ‘Edgar Allan Poe telephones with a dead rat concealed within.’


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