April 12, 2012  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Marcel Jean, Witness and Sometime Actor

Currently on view in the third-floor drawings galleries, Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration includes five works that belong to this titular category of collaborative creation. The “exquisite corpse” was a parlor game played by Surrealist artists and poets in Paris in the 1920s. Members of the group took turns adding on to compositions, folding over the sheet of paper after each contribution so that the subsequent addition would be arrived at by chance, rather than influence. Most often, the exercise yielded a figure, albeit an incongruous one; in these works, disparate heads, torsos, and limbs, plus foreign elements, animal or machine, add up to create strange new bodies.

Marcel Jean. L’Arbre à mains (Hand tree). 1935. Ink on paper. Saidie A. May Fund. © 2012 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The French artist Marcel Jean added the final collage element to one of these exquisite corpses—a candle resting atop a stack of eyes, alongside a man whose back faces the viewer. While art history has favored Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and Max Ernst (all of whom are also included in the exhibition), Jean has fallen somewhat by the wayside. In a 1975 article “Views on Surrealist Art,” he describes himself humbly as “a witness and sometimes an actor” in the events of “the surrealist adventure.” His published reminiscence The History of Surrealist Painting (1960) and The Autobiography of Surrealism (1980), which he edited, draw on his testimony and involvement.

In the exhibition, Jean is represented by three fantastic drawings, in addition to the coauthored exquisite corpse.  In two ink drawings from 1935, he stretches out the body in inspired ways. Repas dans le Désert (Meal in the Desert) is a little tower of flesh upon flesh. Here a headless, breasted figure holds up a biomorphic appendage resembling a whale or a lima bean, from which a hand and a tuft of hair sprout. In L’Arbre à mains (Hand tree), a tree generates hands—with long fingernails extending into thin shoots that connect to neighboring fingers—instead of branches. Both of these drawings are finely executed, with simple fluid lines and tight hatching.

Marcel Jean. Untitled (Woman’s Profile). 1936. Decalcomania (ink transfer) on paper. Saidie A. May Fund. © 2012 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

But it is Jean’s decalcomania Untitled (Woman’s Profile) that viewers have responded to most enthusiastically. In the introductory essay to a 1971 exhibition of his paintings and drawings, Jean offered a recipe for this transfer technique, first developed for 19th-century ceramic design, and co-opted for Surrealism by Oscar Domínguez: “To make decalcomanias: take a sheet of smooth paper, apply with a brush a thin coat of black gouache, press a similar sheet of paper on top, and separate.” The process yields a bizarre and wonderful texture, part craggy mountain, part aqueous swamp. Jean’s addition of a delicate female profile to this chance-derived topography makes the drawing as much a blend of the premeditated and the serendipitious as it is a hybrid of human and nature.