The early 20th century was an era of avant-garde experimentation in literature, music and the visual arts. However, the destruction brought on by The Great War in 1914 and the second world war in 1939 re-defined the visionary expectations of those hoping for an orderly transfer of cultural influence. Economic hardship in Europe following the period saw cultural manifestos fall by the wayside and political opportunism filled the vacuum left by the artistic community’s belief that art might somehow change the world. Yet despite the seriousness of wartime the artists still managed to find fun and humorous ways of developing their creativity through certain games and techniques. Of all the games played by the artists of the period The Exquisite Corpse game is probably the most well known and widely practiced throughout the course of art history. From the early days of the Dada movement and up until present day The Exquisite Corpse game has been a source of inspiration for many writers and artists trying to unlock the hidden creative source of the unconscious mind. The person most associated with the development of the game is Andre Breton, an original member of the Dada group who following the demise of the group went on to lead the Surrealist movement in 1924. Their ideas of automatism and intuitive art making revolutionised the way we think about art and culture. By working in various creative media Breton focused on collage and printmaking as well as authoring several books. His innovative use of incorporating text and image together into art and his ideas of chance and the unconscious was a fundamental conceptual building block for future artists. One of his beliefs was art as an anti-war protest which re-gained potency during and after the second world war.
Developed in 1925 by Andre Breton and fellow surrealists following on from the earlier experiments with the Dadaists, The Exquisite Corpse was designed for group participation and involved a collaborative imagination that relied on chance encounter as a disruption of rationality and a product of a collective unconscious. The game actually originated as a word play game known as Consequences in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal the writing and pass it to the next player to write something else. Later it was adapted to drawing and collage by the surrealists at the Paris residence of some friends of Breton’s in an old house at 54 rue du Chateau which sadly no longer exists. The name Exquisite Corpse is taken from the first phrase that was generated by this word game “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” (“The exquisite– corpse–shall drink–the new–wine”), 1918 (circa).
The surrealist movement was interested in the notion that creativity could be a shared experience . Andre Breton spoke of these types of exercises as ” the most fabulous source of unfindable images…”. His notion that images derived from disassociation were the important aspect of these games. Breton defined surrealism as the spontaneous exploitation of ‘pure psychic automatism’ that allowed the production of an abundance of unexpected images. In the periodical La Revolution surrealiste founded in 1924 Breton went on to proclaim that “Surrealism is not a new or easier means of expression, nor is it a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means toward the total liberation of the mind and of everything that resembles it…”. These artists, poets and writers had an understanding that their aesthetic ideals were no match for the political agenda brought on by the barbarity of war that had surrounded them so retreated to discreet communities where they could share common artistic values. Their similarity lay in their shared rejection of traditional methods of creative expression towards a newer and more emotional approach in their creative endeavors.
How to play the drawing version.
To start with a blank piece of paper in Portrait dimensions is folded twice creating 3 equal sections, although can also be done with 4 or more sections depending on the amount of players but usually is played by 3 people. Then each player takes a turn in creating a section with the first player starting with the top section which is regarded as the Head and Neck area. Once player 1 has finished his/her creation the top section of the paper is then folded over to hide the top image usually with a slight mark indicated at the top of the blank middle section as reference to where the lower neck ends. Player 2 then proceeds to draw the mid-section or body part and following the same procedure as player one folds the paper over to only reveal the bottom part for player 3 to create the lower part or Legs and Feet area. Once player 3 is finished then the paper is unfolded to reveal the creation.
Most often the task is to create something figurative although the instructions have remained deliberately open-ended and left to the participants to use a limitless supply of imagination. The Exquisite Corpse process is guided by the surrealist principle of metaphoric displacement, presuming that the finished image might only vaguely resemble a human form. The game has also been played with only two people and the paper being folded widthwise and breadthwise, resulting in quarters. The Surrealists embraced the act of spontaneous creation to unleash their creativity, often using Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis for probing the world of dreams, fantasies and the subconscious in their art, producing often fantastic, meticulously rendered objects, while others combined ordinary objects in strange and startling ways, and sometimes straying from realism to work in abstract styles that incorporated whimsical, organic forms.
A highly stylised couple kissing in profile melts into a biomorphic shape that resolves into a hand holding a gun, leading in turn to an abstract line drawing. The Exquisite Corpse was essentially a high-stakes parlor game played by such artists as Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Andre Breton and Max Morise. A piece of paper would be folded into sections like a fan. One artist would take one of the sections and start drawing, then fold the section over and hand it to the next person. The end result (right) is this four-section drawing that hangs together but isn’t really connected. And below an early cadaver exquis by Andre Breton and others (circ. 1920).
Below are some more examples of how other artists over the years have developed the game to create some inspiring works of art:-
This article is just part of planned series of projects that will look in depth at early 20th century avant-garde experiments in the creative arts, and as part of the Grindhouse therapy Art Group we will be exploring these creative techniques and games further in an online collaborative experiment designed for people interested in art and culture.