Surrealist sculpture: How Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico and Alberto Giacometti still have the power to shock

A new show of Surrealist sculpture in Paris confirms the enduring allure of its masters – and the mighty influence they continue to wield

“Attention,” declares a notice at the beginning of the Centre Pompidou’s major new exhibition of Surrealist sculpture in Paris. “Some works of art presented in this exhibition may hurt the public’s feelings, particularly those of young children.”

The Surrealists, of course, would have been delighted to know that almost a century after their foundation in 1924, they still had the power to shock. For all the intellectualism of its founding father, André Breton, the group had a healthy appetite for upsetting the bourgeoisie and their conventions. Announcing plans for an exhibition of Surrealist objects in 1930, they declared the show would “feature exhaustive exhibitions of a strictly pornographic nature, whose impact will be of particular scandalous significance.”

Thirty years later, the 8th Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (EROS) was dedicated to the theme of eroticism. The main gallery was fitted out as “La Foret du sexe”, with pictures to match. Eager visitors were then invited to file past a living tableau in which a group of men and women dressed in the garbs of high fashion and prominent professions ate a fulsome meal from the naked body of a live young woman. It’s all there in a film from the time, shown as part of the Pompidou exhibition, and it looks fun. Whether it would offend anyone, even children, in this day and age, is rather more difficult to assess. Blasphemy, sexual innuendo and gender ambiguity are pretty old hat these days.

What saved Surrealism from being just another adolescent effort to épater le bourgeois was partly the seriousness with which it took itself. It genuinely sought to shake the foundations of traditional Western culture and its belief in personal authorship and expression. In its stead, it sought an art that was impersonal, based on the found object and the unconscious impulse.

In that, it was immeasurably helped by the three artistic giants who became involved in its early years – Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico and Alberto Giacometti. Dali, of course, is well-known. If he was more playful than most, he was quite serious in purpose – and his assemblages of found objects, such as Buste de Femme Retrospectif, with its mannequin adorned round the neck with corn on  the cob and bearing a baguette across  her head, look surprisingly fresh and witty, even today.

De Chirico and Giacometti are less well-known in the Surrealist connection. One of the real contributions of this comprehensive exhibition, the first major show of Surrealist sculptures, is the space it devotes to these founding influences on the movement.

Giacometti was probably the purest sculptor when he joined the group at the invitation of Breton in 1930. What he showed with his “objects with a symbolic function” was the suggestive power of juxtaposing even the most mundane of objects, each with associations of their own, but together held in a relationship of poised activity. The Pompidou devotes a whole room to a dozen of his works and it is extraordinary just how effective they are. Main Prise, or Caught Hand, places an arm and hand from a wooden doll in a contraption of wheels and wires, suggesting both frozen moment and movement; Boule Suspendue has a sliced wooden ball held just above a concave slice, almost touching, ready to fit in but not quite; while La Table Surrealiste of 1933 puts the half-veiled bust of a woman along with the sculptor’s tools on a table with four legs of entirely contradictory styles. Made especially for the 1933 Exhibition, it is both realistic and imaginary, a meditation on the work of the sculptor and the ambiguity of his work. Two years later he left the movement, abandoning the impersonality of the manufactured or found object in favour of a more figurative and studio-based art.

It was the difficulty Surrealism faced with sculpture as it attracted such creative, but also individualistic talent. How do you produce an art of the human world but without personal intervention? Giorgio De Chirico, represented here by two of his oils, provided an answer not so much in his three-dimensional works (although he was a considerable sculptor in his own right), but in his introduction of the mannequin as the central figurative object in his art, inhuman in its creation but also alive in its presence, something half-way between an automaton and a spirit.

The Surrealists took to the mannequin as a sculptural object with alacrity, making it a mainstay of their exhibitions. The German artist Hans Bellmer produced a whole series of dolls, headless or with twin pairs of legs, to represent childhood imaginings and present reality. Marcel Duchamp, charged with organising the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition, invited all 16 exhibitors to dress a shop window mannequin. Recorded on contemporary film, the Couloir des Mannequins made the most marvellous show of differing flights of fancy.

The astonishing thing about Surrealism as a movement was just how long it lasted. A succession of exhibitions kept its ideals alive right until the 1960s. Even when the Second World War dispersed its members, it reinvented itself in America among those like André Breton, Max Ernst and Andre Masson who sought refuge there. Their secret was an idealism sufficiently broad and radical to keep them inventing over the years.

In the French manner, the Centre Pompidou makes much of the theorising that went on and what it calls a “Second Chapter” from 1927, when many of its leading members joined the French Communist Party. The politics and the philosophising that occurred in order to make their anti-personal art fit in with the Marxist dialectic certainly kept them talking and writing. But the attraction of Surrealism to the artists of the time was essentially an imaginative one, very far from the popular folk art promoted by the communist regimes. Freeing art from the confines of self-expression and realistic observation opened up whole new vistas of creativity.

This was particularly true of three dimensional works. Wandering through the Pompidou’s chronological galleries, you are constantly struck with how much modern and contemporary sculpture owes to the Surrealists. Here they all are: René Magritte with his miniature painting of a cheese slice under a glass entitled Ceci est un Morceau de Fromage; Maurice Henry with his violin wrapped in a bandage on a bed of grass, called Hommage à Paganini; Man Ray’s metronome with an eye on its pendulum, renamed Indestructible Object when the original, Objet à Detruire, was indeed destroyed by a gallery visitor; and Méret Oppenheim’s wonderfully wry Ma Gouvernante – an assemblage of a pair of trussed down shoes upside-down on a metal platter, with their heels crowned with paper hats just as if they were lamb cutlets.

Installations, juxtaposing contradictory objects and materials, the ambiguity of presence and the ordinary materials and found objects – it was all opened up by these artists in the 1930s. Pablo Picasso’s Bull’s Head of 1942, made up of a bicycle saddle and a pair of handle bars, is pure Surrealist in its inspiration. Alexander Calder’s constructions using branches and organic materials directly followed a meeting with Joan Miró in 1932. Miró himself gave up painting for a while in 1929 to make his “Constructions” out of collages and ready-made objects. In a glorious burst of  colour which ends this exhibition, he returned to the theme in the 1960s with a group of assemblies combining everything from umbrellas to painted sewing machines, water taps and mannequin’s legs.

You can make too much of direct descent. Just because she uses mannequins doesn’t make Cindy Sherman a Surrealist as she is presented here. But go and see the latest installations of the Chapman brothers at the Serpentine or Bill Woodrow’s Revelator and Navigator series at the Royal Academy and the connections are there for all to see.

Surrealism wasn’t just the longest-lived movements of the 20th century – it was arguably the most influential. Visit Paris to understand how as well as why.

Le Surrealisme et L’Objet, Centre Pompidou, Paris (centrepompidou.fr/en) to 3 March

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