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Tapping the Subconscious: Automatism and Dreams

Discover how Surrealist artists tapped the creative potential of the subconscious mind.


Nude

Cadavre Exquis with Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky)
(French)

1927. Composite drawing of ink, pencil, and colored pencil on paper, 14 1/8 x 9" (35.9 x 22.9 cm)

Surrealist artists played a collaborative, chance-based parlor game, typically involving four players, called Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse). Each participant would draw an image (or, on some occasions, paste an image down) on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal their contribution, and pass it on to the next player for his contribution.

Taking turns adding onto each other’s drawings and collages resulted in fantastic composite figures, such as Nude by Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, and Man Ray. The resulting nude female figure combines a humorous and absurd array of features—from leaf ears to snowshoe feet. For the Surrealists, Exquisite Corpse was a perfect parlor game, involving elements of unpredictability, chance, unseen elements, and group collaboration—all in service of disrupting the waking mind’s penchant for order.

A literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began in Paris in 1924 and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology, Surrealists, led by André Breton, were interested in how the irrational, unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world. Surrealism grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I.

A game in which each participant takes turns writing or drawing on a sheet of paper, folds it to conceal his or her contribution, then passes it to the next player for a further contribution. The game gained popularity in artistic circles during the 1920s, when it was adopted as a technique by artists of the Surrealist movement.

The technique and resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued to a supporting surface.

What’s in a Name?
Exquisite Corpse was originally a parlor game based on words. To play, each participant wrote a word or phrase on a piece of paper then folded it so that the next player could not see the previous contributions. This resulted in nonsensical phrases like “Le cadaver exquis boira le vin nouveau” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”), one enigmatic phrase after which the game was named.