Hayward takes an undercover look at surrealism

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The Independent Online

For those who thought surrealism was all about melting watches, signed urinals and eccentric artists with twirly moustaches, it is likely to be a rude awakening.

An exhibition being touted as the most important retrospective in Britain on surrealism for 30 years will present a different face to the artistic and literary movement by concentrating on the influence of Georges Bataille, a failed French priest best known as the writer of a pornographic novel and frequenter of brothels.

The Hayward gallery on London's South Bank has collated more than 230 works, including 11 paintings and drawings by Picasso, which are being shown together for the first time.

It is the first major retrospective at the Hayward since the acclaimed exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed in 1978, which was widely praised for reopening the debate on what the surrealists were trying to achieve.

The new show, Undercover Surrealism, which opens on 11 May, is likely to prove just as popular by juxtaposing works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti and André Masson with African tribal masks, 1930s Hollywood films and close-up photographs of toes.

But it is the focus on Bataille, the self-styled "dissident" of surrealism who fell out with the movement's founder, André Breton, which will provoke most discussion. Bataille, who left the seminary where he was training as a priest at the age of 25, was one of the more remarkable figures of inter-war Paris.

Despite spending much of his time frequenting brothels and strip clubs while drinking copiously, he was a thinker and writer and founded a succession of journals, including a magazine called Documents, which sought to challenge the work of established surrealists and attracted a following among artists including Miro and Masson.

Bataille, a librarian at the French National Library, is probably most renowned for his sexually explicit novel, The Story of the Eye, which presented a debauched picture of sexuality, complete with eye gouging and murder. He once claimed that he had masturbated in front of his mother's corpse while his wife slept in a neighbouring room and boasted that the brothels of Paris were its true churches.

But the curator of the exhibition said that Bataille had a far more influential role as a critic of surrealism and a surrealist thinker in his own right. He once wrote: "Sacrifice is nothing other than the production of sacred things."

Professor Dawn Ades, a specialist on surrealism at the University of Essex, who also co-curated the 1978 show, said: "Bataille was suspicious of surrealism. He thought that its claims to be revealing the true content of human thoughts was presumptuous. He had much darker ideas than many of the established surrealists. He was interested in the taboo and what drove our deepest ideas and motivations. He once said he would challenge any art lover to love a painting as much as a fetishist loves a shoe."

The show will only be seen in London and will run until 30 July. It will feature copies of Documents, published in 1929-30, one edition of which was wholly dedicated to Picasso. Professor Ades said: "Picasso was seen as very much as a star of the moment. The magazine was very interested in his cubist work of the time and his figures that looked like documents."

The exhibition will also seek to show the breadth of influences on surrealists. It will include masks and ritual objects from Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Greece loaned by the British Museum and German Collections as well as jazz and close-up photography.

Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miro, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille, Hayward Gallery, London, 11 May to 30 July