Objects and aura

Home is the most real place there is. It is our sanctum, the place we feel comfortable, surrounded by familiar things, where we know the spaces, can find our way round in the dark because we have an image of it in our heads, in our imaginations. That is why for Sigmund Freud the home symbolised far more than the dwelling; it stood for our subconscious, for our selves.

Wander around the rooms of Sir John Soane’s House in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields or even Freud’s own study in Hampstead and, surrounded by the artefacts and the fetishes, the art and the furniture of these visionary men, you can feel their presence. Perhaps more than that, you feel you are walking about in the recesses of their minds. The homes of many other historical figures have been preserved precisely because they seem to give us an umbilical link to their imaginations, to their genius. It is this intimate closeness to consciousness that gives the home such an emotional and physical charge.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger famously associated being with dwelling, that in the act of making our home we realise our existence, while Freud associated the home indelibly with the mother. The familiarity of the domestic, though, is open to abuse. It is only necessary to think of the almost physical feeling of violation when a home is burgled to begin to understand this relationship of the physical to the psychological. If the house is the most real space in our lives, what happens when it is disturbed? What happens when we see something out of place, something strange, when we dream but the house is transformed? That is the moment when the real is made surreal, and that is the theme of a new exhibition at London’s Barbican centre.

Surrealism has been perhaps the most successful movement in modern art. The word itself has passed into cliché, a throwaway description of the unusual. Dalí’s melted clocks and Magritte’s apple-faced businessmen are among the most memorable and recognised images in a contemporary art that can seem to strive for impenetrability. They are memorable because they employ the language of the familiar but make it wrong.

That strangeness, that feeling of the uncanny, Freud’s German Unheimliche, literally the “unhomely”, both distresses and reveals and that is what has made it such a consistent and enduring trope in the otherwise fast-changing field of art, architecture and design. But there is a paradox. Once the surreal is represented outside art, in the realm of the real, can it remain surreal? Surreal design is always dangling precipitously on the edge of kitsch. It is only necessary to think of Philippe Starck’s theatrical hotel lobbies and bars with their self-conscious cocktails of Dalí furniture, gnome-shaped side-tables and Fornasetti-inspired eyes and you get the idea.

The strange legacy of the surreal in design is oblique and, in a manner, this makes it more enduring than if it were a style that could bob in and out of fashion. Perhaps the most notable and sustained appearance of the surreal has been in film, the medium that seemed to bring us closest to the subconscious. From the shocking scenes of Luis Buñuel’s Le Chien Andalou and Dalí’s stunning, proto-psychedelic dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the surreal remained a movie staple. The most affecting interior, though, was undoubtedly the enchanted castle in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. The arms supporting the candelabras follow the beauty as she floats down the dark corridor but also point the way. This idea of the disembodied limb as furniture keeps popping up, whether it is in the weird photos of Francesca Woodman or Paul Nougé, and indeed the strange anthropomorphism is absolutely central to the surreal.

Dalí’s extraordinary “Face of Mae West” uses velvet curtains to replace the peroxide locks, a scarlet sofa in place of lips and shadowy cityscapes for languid eyes. The painting inspired English surreal enthusiast Edward James to commission a physical version of the sexualised sofa and it has since become the symbol of surreal design as well as a pop classic. The interior has been turned into a kitsch tableau at Dalí’s house museum in Figueres. But Dalí also designed a golden chair with shapely legs segueing into stiletto feet and frankly phallic door handles, unsettling, flaccid forms reminiscent of his saggy watches.

It is odd that Freud’s own beautiful consulting chair (its arms stretching out to embrace the viewer), which is being shown at the exhibition, through its irreproducible aura of the original, seems a far stranger fetish than any of Dalí’s unsubtly eroticised images or Starck’s self-conscious strangeness. In fact there’s no escaping the similarity of Freud’s chair to Antoni Gaudi’s sensual furniture designs – they are roughly contemporary – and, although Gaudi might have come before the codification of surrealist manifestos, he is an obvious precursor.

One of the select few realised spaces of the surreal was the roof terrace of the Beistegui Apartment in Paris by arch-modernist Le Corbusier. This is a space that makes the ordinary extraordinary through a simple transition from inside to out. In furnishing an open-air terrace with the archetypes of the domestic interior, the space is suffused with the surreal. A fireplace is set into one white wall; there is a window; the carpet is of green grass; the ceiling is sky (French, ciel). The apartment is on the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe pokes up cheekily above it, its formal monumentalism juxtaposed with the archetypal domesticity of the fireplace, also recalling the eternal flame that sits below the grand arch.

More recently Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture have been accused of surrealism, although it is arguably the paintings of his wife and one-time collaborator Madelon Vriesendorp that infused so much of his practice with the spirit of the surreal. Her painting “Flagrant Delit”, depicting a post-coital Empire State and Chrysler Buildings discovered in bed by the Rockefeller Building is a wonderful return to surrealist ideas – even in the Cocteau-inspired bedside light in the shape of an arm (which happens to belong to the Statue of Liberty, looking forlornly on from outside, now armless à la “Venus de Milo”). Koolhaas’s buildings do owe something to the surreal, particularly in their presentation and in the architect’s fascination with the strange hybrids of the 19th century exhibition and funfair, most notably Coney Island, itself a breeding ground of the surreal. The architects’ extraordinary Villa dall’Ava in St Cloud, featured in the exhibition, brings with it echoes of Le Corbusier’s roof terrace.

The other staple of the strange is the collection of objects, the museumification of the interior. Soane’s astonishing collection of things and the domestic wunderkammer are the soul of the surreal. The objects themselves might be random antiquities, ephemera or junk but in their collection and curation they begin to form a key to the subconscious, a collection that defines the collector. Magritte’s “Le Dormeur téméraire”, a sleeping figure contained within a box and a series of objects (including, of course, the painter’s bowler hat) are ingrained in a plasticised stone tablet below, the ephemeral and psychological made permanent and put on display. It is a fantastically influential piece and also very much a part of the same world as the boxes of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, eccentrically filled cabinets that appear like the disparate elements of a pre-packaged dream. These remind us of our fetishisation of objects, the making sacred of secular objects through the ascription of sentimental value.

In attempting to bring the surreal home, the theme of the Barbican exhibition (wonderfully designed by London architects Carmody Groarke) reminds us of the centrality of the surreal to contemporary culture. The museum, the successor to the domestic Cabinet of Curiosities, is itself a place of strange juxtapositions, a cipher for the surreal and this superb collection of things demonstrates just how pervasive the influence of the surreal has been and how, after a century of influence, it just won’t go away.

‘The Surreal House’, June 10-September 12, Barbican, London, tel: +44 (0)20-7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk

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