The surrealist enterprise has been absorbed into our sensually overloaded world
From the absurd linguistic jokes of the Goons to Madonna's conical bras, from Monty Python sketches and the animations in The South Bank Show's opening credits to the Chapman brothers' penile-nosed mannequins, surrealism has affected the way we experience the world. "Surreal" has become a woolly and rather debased term, a byword for anything bizarre, odd or uncanny. In the popular imagination it conjures up little more than Salvador Dalí's melting watches or Magritte's oddly discombobulating images. It was, in fact, a complex movement that had its genesis in radical literature and political protest, and which evolved from iconoclastic practice into commodified chic.
The movement for which the term was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 and then taken up by André Breton, the acknowledged leader of the surrealist group, was born out of the political ideology of Karl Marx and the psychoanalytic investigations of Sigmund Freud. After the publication of the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, the group explored the unconscious through automatic writing, drawing and painting techniques. Unconscious desires and drives, closely allied with "the primitive", were seen as an antithesis to the legacies and constraints of 19th-century bourgeois society. The cat of repression, so to speak, was let out of the bag, and the ero ticised, the fetishised and the profane - all of which had previously been taboo - were suddenly made highly visible. Dreams were important currency revealing (or so it was supposed) all that was chthonic and elemental in the land of the Id: heady stuff that stood in opposition to the prevailing tastes and modes of the bourgeoisie.
In many ways, surrealist design stood at the opposite end of the spectrum to the "pure" reductive aesthetics of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier. The modernists sought efficient, rational ways to house large numbers of people and raise quality of life for the lower classes. Surrealist objects, on the other hand, were one-offs, whether it was Dalí's Venus de Milo With Drawers, complete with little compartments carved into her torso and decorated with pompons, or Elsa Schiaparelli's "skeleton" evening dress. Dalí summed up this philosophy by saying: "I try to create fantastic things, magical things, things like in a dream. The world needs more fantasy. Our civilisation is too mechanical. We can make the fantastic real and then it is more real than that which actually exists." Surrealism, it might be argued, was the irrational, dark underbelly of the clean-cut utopian modernist enterprise. "Surreal Things: surrealism and design" - the new blockbuster show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - investigates the surrealist movement's influence on architecture, fashion, jewellery, theatre and interior design. It shows the undeniable effect that these objects had on the contemporary aesthetic landscape.
From the outset, the relationship between surrealism and commerce was tense. Man Ray was left to exploit the commercial opportunities of fashion photography apparently without reprimand. But, for a purist and sometime communist such as Breton or the artist Louis Aragon - who later became a Stalinist - it was anathema that Max Ernst and Joan Miró should sully their hands to produce painted backdrops for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes production of Romeo and Juliet. Breton called Dalí "Avida Dollars" (a piquant acronym of his name) because of his evident delight in engaging with the commercial world. At least Dalí, unlike his rather more hypocritical compatriot Pablo Picasso, made no bones about it, exclaiming flamboyantly: "Picasso is a genius! Me too! Picasso is a Spaniard! Me too! Picasso is a communist! Me neither!"
It was in collaboration with his friend the English eccentric and millionaire Edward James that Dalí set about designing surrealist objects such as his lobster telephones. James's home, originally a shooting lodge designed by Sir Edwin Lut yens, became an idiosyncratic, surreal fantasy covered with purple stucco and filled with an uncanny juxtaposition of objects. It is perhaps a small blessing that Dalí failed in his desire to realise a room that pulsated "like the stomach of a sick dog". One of his most famous pieces, the Mae West Lips Sofa, had appeared in a design for an apartment based on the actress's face: a feminised interior in stark contrast to minimal modernist design. This gradual shift away from text and image towards the constructed object, which was driven by a desire to engage directly with the commercial world, is perfectly exemplified early in the exhibition by Man Ray's photograph of a glamorous blonde model lying in a red-satin-lined wheelbarrow designed by Óscar Domínguez.
The approach to the first room at the V&A, through a pair of voluminous red drapes, feels like entering a dream. The womb-like space is altogether appropriate, because fantasy and sex were big with the surrealists, whether in the fetishised photographs of Hans Bellman's disturbing doll constructs, Leonor Fini's Corset Chair or Meret Oppenheim's infamous 1936 fur-covered teacup, Object: le déjeuner en fourrure. (Sadly this is not in the exhibition, though her original beaver fur-and-metal bracelet, which prompted Picasso to remark that she could cover anything in fur, even a coffee cup, is on display.)
Perhaps the idea that women were closer to "irrational" nature (something later much derided by feminists) led to this obsession with the female body. Paris shop window displays were a favourite source of surrealist imagery. So, too, was the mannequin, which embodied many of the contradictions of modern life, blurring the boundaries between the animate and inanimate, the human and the machine, the male and the female, the sexualised and the androgynous. Mannequins also existed on the interface between the body and fashion, where they could be manipulated and fetishised. The body united the physical and psychological spheres, allowing for sexual explorations of a kind that was considered completely modern. Without the surrealists, there surely would have been no Ziggy Stardust, no Boy George or Madonna.
Among the most disturbing objects on show at the V&A, displayed amid the more desirable fashion items such as Dalí and Schiaparelli's shoe hat or Schiaparelli's black suede gloves with red snakeskin nails, are her pair of suede boots and a coat trimmed with long black tresses of monkey fur that muddy the distinction between the human and the bestial, thinly disguising the (racist?) fascination with miscegenation made so popular through the Tarzan novels, first published in 1912.
A century on, it all looks interesting but oddly dated. Once upon a time, this arena of unfettered dreams and sexual desire must have seemed shocking, but it has been thoroughly absorbed into our sensually overloaded world. Only a couple of decades later, the surreal became available to any Tom, Dick or Harry, in the form of yellow submarines and girls in the sky with diamonds - for the next stop would be the drug culture.
Surreal Things surrealism and design at the V&A Museum, London until 22 July 2007