Surrealism is easy. At its best it manages to combine wit, subversion, visually arresting imagery, desire, sex, psycho-analysis, critiques of consumption, even art itself. At its worst it is pure kitsch. Often it manages to straddle both. And just as surrealism teeters on that slender party wall, the V&A’s latest blockbuster show wobbles precariously between brilliance and uncertainty. It is hugely ambitious and engaging, stuffed with brilliant, familiar and less familiar objects, fashions and paintings but it tries too hard, forcing spurious exhibits into its flabby, generous embrace.
There are Magrittes and Dalis, lips sofas and groping chairs, but also a podium full of organically modern furniture that is organic and modern but not surreal. There are brooches in the shape of starfish and insects, but surely the Victorians were making jewellery in the form of butterflies, dragonflies, frogs and scarabs. There are hip print dresses and scarves by Cocteau and Schiaparelli that are beautiful but not surreal and there are Mirós, Picassos and wallpapers that are very retro-cool but far too abstract to be truly surreal. There is also an inexcusable excision of Dada, the movement Oedipally murdered by the surrealists, which is actually the root of its critical attitude to the object.
Following the huge success of the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modernism shows, the curators have made surrealism into a coherent design style, a movement monumentalised in the obligatory blockbuster. Yet the surrealist object is so engaging precisely because it is dysfunctional. “Surreal design” is an oxymoron; Dalí’s lobster telephone; Duchamp’s urinal and bottle-rack (made art through their exhibition in a gallery, therefore made useless); Man Ray’s spiky iron; these objects are culturally so valuable in their opposition, in the construction of a parallel universe to the emergent functionalism of which they were contemporaries. If there is a design ethos to the surrealist object, it is Uselessism™. The show is lovely nevertheless, seductive, intelligently designed (much of it revolving around the window dressing and mannequins central to surrealist dreams of consumption and desire) and decadent, despite its omissions and fatally flawed subtitle.
Two smaller shows at the Design Museum seem to echo the trend towards functionalist burn-out. Ettore Sottsass is one of the key figures in postmodernism, a pioneer of garishly coloured, awkwardly shaped furniture that consciously rebelled against the functionalist tradition of white, self-effacing minimalism. Cupboards are dressed up for a po-mo passeggiata. But what this exhibition reveals best is his wonderful, less-known work for Olivetti in the 1960s, in which he made the humble typewriter into an object of design and desire culminating in the bright red Valentine. While its pure pop spirit seems a universe away from Apple’s slick restraint, it has often been seen as the iBook’s predecessor in its cute blend of branding, desirability and fine design.
Sottsass’s later work, particularly with the Memphis Group he founded during the explosion of postmodernism in 1980, is familiar from a thousand out-of-date design guides and now extremely desirable at auction. Garish, primitive, tacky, flat and vacuous, it doesn’t even have the depth of allegory, historical narrative or wit that occasionally saved some po-mo from pure kitsch. I can’t stand it and nothing in this otherwise fine show made me want to change my mind.
Luigi Colani, like Sottsass and the surrealists, is a maverick who has become mainstream. The world has caught up with his squid-shaped cars, his adolescent dreams of speed through sleek bodies. Designers from Marc Newson to Future Systems and Zaha Hadid are building forms like those he envisaged for car chassis and fantasy-aircraft nearly half a century ago. It is elegant, prescient stuff but when everything is streamlined, from a camera to a teapot (exactly how fast does a teapot need to go?), this begins to seem little more than the styling used by Art Deco designers or the fins of 1950s Cadillacs, just more prescient. This is a great show for pubescent boys. I would have loved it, but I’ve grown out of it.
I saw all three shows in less than 24 hours and was left a little queasy. The problem with all this design maverickism, it occurred to me, is if everyone is busy subverting orthodoxy and taste, who’s left to do the work?
‘Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design’, until July 22, V&A, London SW7, tel 870 906 3883. ‘Ettore Sottsass: Work in Progress’, until June 10; ‘Luigi Colani: Translating Nature’, until June 17, both Design Museum, London SE1, tel )870 909 9009.