Surrealist Art Form, Exquisite Corpse, Still Fascinates Artists and Collectors

Richard Friswell
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An early cadaver exquis by Andre Breton and others (circ. 1920)

 The Exquisite Corpse has lived many lives! 

But first, a brief explanation is required… 

The early 20th century was an era of experimentation in the visual arts, music, literature, design and architecture—particularly in Europe. The world was swept up in scientific and industrial innovations of the period. Many believed that civilization stood poised on the brink of radical transformation, where the introduction of the automobile, controlled flight, expanded industrial production, scientific discoveries, growth of cities and reorganization of out-moded monarchies into powerful nation-states, could signal the advent of a new, forward-looking social order. 

Portrait of Andre Breton (c.1925), founder of Surrealism, artist unknown

 However, the horrific destruction wreaked by World War I measurably re-defined the visionary expectations of those hoping for an orderly transfer of cultural influence, guided largely by Europe’s intelligentsia. The years following the War-to-End-All-Wars, saw cultural manifestos fall by the wayside, economic hardship befall many of the nations impacted by the conflict, and political opportunism quickly fill the vacuum left by the artistic community’s belief that art, rightly conceived and executed, might change the world. 

Many of these artists, artisans, poets, musicians and writers, understanding that their fragile aesthetic ideals were no match for the volatile political agenda now in evidence around them, retreated to discreet communities, where they could share common artistic values. Their main similarity lay in their shared rejection of traditional methods of creative expression and a new, more purely- emotional approach in their creative endeavors. They disavowed the well-founded, 19th century methods of observational and representational painting methods, rooted in nature and the natural world, in favor of abstracted exploration of pure color and form. 

4-part Corpse drawing; Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro, Max Morise

 In particular, artists from Russia, Germany, Holland and France worked closely as they considered their visual, literary, design and musical possibilities, once finally divested of the objectified world, enabling them to consider the intellectual and emotional realms that lay beyond. Among these groups of dedicated artists were the Bauhaus School in Germany, Der Blau Reiter group, Expressionists of Die Brüker, the Cubists, the Dadists, the Suprematists and Constructivists of Russia, The Neo-Plasticists, who wrote and created under the banner of the arts publication, De Stijl and ultimately, the Surrealists. 

Many artists shared links with these organizational movements, and names like Wassily Kandinsky, Emile Nolde, Max Beckman, Paul Klee, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Kasimir Malevich, László Moholy-Nagy, among others, were found contributing on several different fronts over the period, 1915-1930. What all of these artists (as well as many musicians, poets, writers and architects not mentioned here) had in common was a shared belief in the power of their images to redirect attention away from the past and toward the future: a future that embraced a Utopian, re-constructionist world view. Their individual and collective efforts wrought a new body of work, unlike anything that had preceded it; redefining art for a new century—a modern century in which ‘progress’ was highly valued, and where artistic expression could be a fulcrum to leverage civilization to a higher plain of societal idealism. 

EC- Josephine Meckseper,Laurie Anderson, Olaf Breuning, Nick Mauss

The exciting, creative experimentalism of the period spawned the notion that randomness could play a role in conjuring meaningful art. Based on the Max Ernst view (a variant of the more-recently defined psychological concept of group, or mob, behavior) that a ‘mental contagion,’ or shared consciousness, existed in a room when artists, or others, gathered, the Surrealists sought to exploit randomness and the mystique of ‘accidental art’. They resurrected an old parlor game called, Consequences, to explore creative potential, through random contributions to a single art work by several artists. 

The art form derives its name from a word game exercise played by a small group of artist in 1918 (circ.), in which the phrase, ‘The/ exquisite/ corpse/ will/ drink/ the/ young/ wine,’ was produced. Thus, the exercise was termed the cadaver exquis, or Exquisite Corpse. Proponents of the ‘game’ believed that, in a meaningful way, the finished image reflected the collective personality of the group—becoming a projective exercise of a kind also popularized by Sigmund Freud’s contemporaneous writings on the role of the unconscious in determining behavior. 

EC- Donald Baechler, Richard Serra, Alec Roth

The game comprises 3, 4 or more artists, all using the same sheet of paper and each contributing drawn or written work to a pre-assigned portion. Once the first player creates a panel, he conceals his work by folding it over, passing it along with only an abutting trace of the “installment” evident, thus allowing the next to pick up his part of the design. The process continues to a third and/or fourth participant, with none privy to his predecessor’s creation. Only when the last section is completed, is the final image revealed. Most often, the task is to create a figurative result, with head and shoulders, torso, legs and feet. Instructions remain deliberately open-ended, as are the components of the finished exercise. The Exquisite Corpse process is guided by the Surrealist principle of metaphoric displacement, presuming that the images might only, in the finished version, vaguely resemble a human form. Drawing, painting, collage and even text can be employed to complete the figure, often with startlingly- profound, insightful or humorous results. Surrealist painter, André Breton, the activity’s founder, described the process in 1925 as, ‘initially fun, but became playful and eventually, enriching.’ 

Along with Breton, principal founding artists were Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, Benjamin Peret and Pierre Reverdy. As the exercise gained popularity, musicians, writers, poets and cartoonists used the technique as a meaningful, serious tool for creating new works on a uniquely collaborative scale. Through the decades following its introduction in the 1920’s, Exquisite Corpse has been employed to create short stories –by Henry Miller and others—as well as musical scores by John Cage, Virgil Thompson and Lou Harrison, graphic novels, computer games and experimental films, including a cult film classic, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In fact, numerous examples of computer-enhanced and Internet-supported Exquisite Corpse activities are found on the Web today. 

EC- Paul McCarthy, Jennifer Bartlett, Marc Quinn

Currently, New York City’s dance company, Armitage Gone! Dance has tapped into the unique talents of many contemporary artists, inviting and challenging them to engage in the Exquisite Corpse game to benefit the troupe and its ambitious performance schedule throughout the United States and Europe. Directed by internationally-known dancer and choreographer, Karole Armitage, the organization called on renowned contemporary artist (and occasional Armitage Gone! Dance set designer) David Salle to help initially select 300 artists, worldwide, who would complete one-hundred, 3-part works of art for a 2008 benefit event and gallery exhibition. In conjunction with project manager, Tanja Grunert of Gasser-Grunert Gallery and a team of volunteers, they developed a method to provide the raw materials of an Exquisite Corpse exercise to well-known artists in every corner of the globe–specifically, a single sheet of folded paper, securely taped to a piece of cardboard to preserve secrecy and strict instructions: please complete your third of the project and DON’T PEEK! 

EC- Enoc Perez, Marilyn Minter, Tiffany Pollack

Project packages went out to dozens of artists in many countries. Some works travelled even farther afield with the artist, before their return. The team then undertook the painstaking job of re-aligning and then re-sending the images to the next round of artists on the list. This logistic challenge was labor- intensive, but the reward was well worth it. The result of this long-distance collaborative effort (and a few group sessions in New York each year) was a stack of well-worn, widely-travelled envelopes, from which emerged a collection of images, revealing all of the fascination and appeal of those produced by the great Exquisite Corpse artists of ninety-years ago. Whimsical and profound, expertly rendered and yet seemingly random in their execution, the Exquisite Corpse project, now in year-three for the dance company, continues to amaze both those who contribute to the creative process and those who benefit from viewing the final results. 

EC- David Salle, Enoc Perez, Ryan McGinnis

Project Manager Tanja Grenert, explains to me that the logistics of moving partially-finished pieces from one location in the world to another and having them all end up back in the gallery (and in good shape!) is a challenge. She tells me that the enduring appeal and motivation for the artist lies in anticipating the finished product, of which they are a part. “The artists are into this process and patient with the logistics of it all. It appeals to their curious nature as artists to finally see the finished piece. It may be months before that happens, but it is always worthwhile,” she says. “For reasons we can’t explain, most of the works are totally resolved once the last section is added. No one has the benefit of seeing what the others have done, but, in the end, it works!” She also adds that, “for the collector—even a sophisticated one—there are child-like elements in some works that really appeals. The artists are world-class and sometimes their contribution can be humorous or really imaginative. They can surprise us. The satisfying thing is that this is serious art that anyone can fall in love with.” 

In many ways, the Exquisite Corpse project is a perfect metaphor for Karole Armitage and her dance company. In the same way that she has built a reputation and career on the creative intermingling of dance form, musical idioms and performance motifs that are both lyrical and profoundly moving, the Exquisite Corpse–in all of its lives over the last several decades–has managed to accomplish the same objectives. Time is a true test for the relevance of any art form and, in the case of Exquisite Corpse and Armitage Gone! Dance, both have proven their value as cultural icons through their ability to speak to the essential core of our creative selves. 

by Richard Friswell, Executive Editor 

Read more about the Armitage Gone! Dance, Exquisite Corpse collection at:

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  1. KAP June 23, 2010 8:50 am

    Great article on a topic that is absolutely fascinating…and a unique means of raising funds for a cause! The game also sounds like a fun way to spend an evening with friends and have a few laughs!

  2. Lulu May 8, 2011 10:09 am

    Wow! I have to do an art project based on this and this website has been very useful as well as entertaining 🙂
    I remember playing that game when I was a kid…
    Thank you xxx

  3. Gonzo Bill April 12, 2014 4:56 pm

    Just have a look here this gallery features plenty of Exquisite corpses !

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