Heart of darkness

Given their devotion to the subconscious, it is not surprising that the surrealists spent a lot of time contemplating love: painting it, discussing it, even filling in questionnaires about it. A new exhibition in Paris guides us through their violent and ever-changing emotional landscapes. By Matthew J Reisz
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The Independent Culture
"If you love love," went the slogan, "you'll love surrealism." Few other literary and artistic schools have been so fascinated by desire, sexual fantasies and anxieties, perversion, psychoanalysis and theorising about love. In January 1928, Andre Breton, the guiding spirit of the movement, assembled a group of male friends and got the ball rolling with the questions: "A man and woman make love. To what extent is the man aware of the woman's orgasm? Do you have any objective ways of telling?" "Yes," said painter Yves Tanguy (although, as the editor of the published version dryly comments, "we are not told what these are"). "There are no ways," says a second respondent; "It depends on the woman," says a third...

The composition of the group changed, came to include the photographer Man Ray, the painter Max Ernst, a Jesuit abbe who had fallen in love with an actress, and eventually a few women. There were fierce disagreements about homosexuality, rape, prostitution and "libertinism" as well as some weird digressions about succubi (or malevolent female spirits, said to haunt men in dreams). Yet, over a period of four and half years, there were 12 such discussions, covering the whole range of erotic experience, orgasms multiple, faked and simultaneous, and a good deal about how many times who had done what to whom at what age and in which positions.

Breton was asked if he enjoyed licking women's eyeballs, the poet Paul Eluard how he would react to an anonymous letter containing a pair of knickers and the words "I love you", although there were also some rather more serious questions about morality and the importance of love in life. All this can be read today in a book called Investigating Sex (published by Verso in 1992). At a distance of almost 70 years, much of it seems naive, sexist, pompous, boastful and self-consciously shocking. But it is also astonishingly frank, brave and amusing. These meetings took place, after all, in a France still deeply under the sway of traditional Catholic "family values" - and decades before the invention of the Cosmopolitan quiz.

Drawing on this rich and colourful background, the Pavillon des Arts in Paris is now hosting a splendid exhibition on "Le surrealisme et l'amour" (every day except Mondays and public holidays until 18 June). This brings together magazines, books of poetry and about 150 works by Ernst, Tanguy and Man Ray as well as artists from Dali to Duchamp, Magritte to Miro, and Penrose to Picasso.

Some, admittedly, are a bit like the doodlings of naughty schoolboys or the most tiresome sexist fantasies, such as Victor Brauner's wheeled, rocking-horse-shaped "ideal woman" Andrianopole, specially designed to combine the attractions of "a tray of food and an infinitely docile instrument of pleasure". Even more bizarre is his Surrealist Woman, whose nose, chin, breasts, arms and shoes are all fitted with taps gushing water. Yet there are also many more tender images, many more interestingly disturbing or enigmatic images, and many which reveal the strange ballet of the surrealists' private lives.

The show starts with chance encounters and kisses and then proceeds to coupling. Even the kissing tends to be pretty savage. Magritte depicts a girl on a mountain ledge kissing a decapitated head floating in the sky; Picasso's Kiss is positively cannibalistic; while Georges Malkine's consists of a mysterious throne room, knee-deep in water, with two chairs facing in different directions.

A section on Le Couple takes us to the heart of surrealist entanglements. The most famous tangle concerned Gala, the wife of Eluard, who first formed part of a threesome with Max Ernst and later wed Dali. ("Every good painter who aspires to the creation of genuine masterpieces," he once explained helpfully, "should first of all marry my wife.") There are great photos of the couples and trios, Ernst's obsessive sketches of Gala and a contemptuous drawing showing sketches of her and her husband pinned up on a wall. Picasso painted Dora Maar in purple, greens and blue, while she in turn portrayed him with piercing voyeur's eyes leaping out of a face shaped like a figure nine. Roland Penrose shows us the pale blue face of his wife Valentine, with a necklace of thorns, birds alighting on her hair, and shells and butterflies slowly taking over her mouth and eyes. Equally unsettling is the menacing memorial portrait which Wilhelm Freddie painted for Emmy Hirsch: as half her body floats out to sea in a basket, a mysterious arm emerges from the waves, die in hand, while a little girl melts upon a nearby balcony.

Perhaps the highlight of the show is a superb selection of Man Ray's photographs. A haughty Nancy Cunard rests her chin on arms colonised by dozens of bracelets. A female torso by a window is dappled with light like a tree trunk. And the naked Meret Oppenheim, with ink up to one elbow, is "veiled" by the huge metal wheel of a printing press. The same artist also took a couple of articulated mannequins, called them "Mr and Mrs Woodman" and cheerfully snapped them in a variety of coital and coyly post-coital poses.

Far more upsetting are the cheap plastic dolls Hans Bellmer pulled apart and reassembled to form fetishised mutant women. Indeed, much of the exhibition consists of more or less anguished portrayals of women mutating into birds or icebergs, panther-headed yet still sexually available or even (in the case of a famous statue by Dali), giraffe-necked but fitted with open desk drawers. Wifredo Lam painted La Fiancee with a tiny Russian doll's head and an axe-like silhouette. There is a feeling of mutilation in some collages made up of photographs of women cut up and reassembled into new patterns. Max Ernst's collage-novels, by contrast, juxtapose pieces of staid Victorian engravings to create a kind of deadpan parallel world, where stuffy bourgeois interiors are full of menacing intruders.

Comparatively few of the works on display are by women, although those that are appear equally suffused with menace and sexual violence. Mimi Parent's Mistress is a Y-shaped whip made out of human hair. Valentine Hugo's Symbolically functioning object is a montage where a blood-red hand grasps a white glove holding a dice, suspended over a section of a roulette table. Meret Oppenheim's terrifying Dream of Barcelona shows a strange nightmare creature like a semi-organic stone megalith slowly taking over the picture space. Far more cheerful is the pseudonymous Toyen's hilarious parody of male anxieties, a pair of panty hose with two huge smiling lips depicted on the crotch...

Throughout the exhibition, one finds people and objects metamorphosing into something else, trees into ejaculating males, hats into genitals, penises into snakes, the wine overflowing from a glass into fragments of a map. A mural of a wolf, covered in fungus, steps down from the wall. A heart unzips to reveal a hairy chest. A male spirit in a grand drawing- room unravels into a ball of wool. Couples merge, become wood sprites or strange pond-side vegetation. Much is extremely uncomfortable, yet one leaves exhilarated by the surrealists' bold explorations of the stranger recesses of human nature.

Along with their private discussions, the group also published in their magazines a series of slightly more respectable questionnaires. The organisers of the exhibition had the ingenious idea of dusting these off, submitting them again today to 60 painters, writers and private individuals and citing the responses in the catalogue. All were asked, for example, what sort of hope they placed in love, if they would sacrifice their freedom for love, and whether they believed the glories of love can triumph over the sordidness of life.

There is a good deal of pretentious twaddle ("I put no hope in love - love is either certitude or neurosis"), but also several interesting and touching replies to the question: "What was the most significant encounter of your life?" This was a particular obsession of the surrealists. Breton would leave the door of his hotel room open at night in the hope of waking up beside someone unexpected. He and his friend, the poet Louis Aragon, were both haunted by a non-rencontre with a young woman "of uncommon beauty and with immense eyes", whom Aragon had wanted to stop in the street - until he realised he had only two francs 20 in his pocket! Another put an ad in a lonely hearts' column: "Poet seeks model for his poems. Posing sessions exclusively when we're both asleep. Rene Char, 8 rue des Saules, Paris (there's no point in coming before it's totally dark - light is fatal to me)."

The most significant encounter for one of today's Frenchmen was when his lungs met his first breath of air. For another, the day when he saw his eight-year-old sister dead. Most tell, however, of romantic encounters with the great love of their lives, or unexpected sudden glimpses of "a grave, fragile young man dancing on the grass, an adolescent with huge dark eyes sparkling in the silence of the day" or "a dazzling young woman in a faraway country, one spring evening by the sea, in a crummy, ill- lit little coffee shop".

The final question concerns the questionnaires themselves: are they still relevant or hopelessly dated? One reply would warm any surrealist's heart: "They are both relevant and striking, like a call to arms: Don't miss out on the chance of a rencontre! Don't miss out on love!"

'Le Surrealisme et l'amour', Pavillon des Arts, Les Halles, Porte Rambuteau (open daily exc Mondays and public holidays). To 18 June