By the tacit laws of contemporary curating ‘The Surreal House’ should have failed on several accounts. First off, the large-scale survey show more than overplayed home as a metaphor for psychological fragility: rooms were shadow-cast, walls dank with miscued sexuality, architecture fractured or engulfed in flames. Other examples of this lack of curatorial élan included the mostly obvious selection of artists (Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp, Francesca Woodman) and the conservatively western bias (where were the South American surrealists?), while very little work included was produced within the last decade. ‘The Surreal House’ had the hallmarks of a flatulent summer mega-show, but it wasn’t – in fact it was a real treat. How was it that this exhibition managed to be so surprising?
It was partly due to clever exhibition design by architects Carmody Groarke. On the ground floor, a series of temporary corridors snaked around the late-Brutalist architecture of the gallery space, breaking it into a maze of intimate chambers. One of the first of these, a low-lit space called ‘The House of Freud’ (each room here had a thematic title), contained Robert Longo’s 2003 drawings of Sigmund Freud’s apartment and cast bath by Rachel Whiteread. Both artists have shown widely, and the uncanny theme was hardly thrilling, but I’ve never seen Whiteread look so compelling (her work usually does nothing for me). In this cramped, black-painted space, there was a satisfying chromatic logic to this theatrical installation of these penumbral works.
There were also some canny (or should that be uncanny?) juxtapositions. Room one acted as a sort of porch to the exhibition, and featured works by Donald Rodney and Duchamp, and a video loop of the famous hurricane sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928) – a mixture of the mournfulness, intellectual perversion and black comedy that permeated the show. Another room (titled ‘Who I Am’) contained a 16th-century engraving after Hieronymus Bosch’s Tree Man (c.1505), paintings by Georges Malkine and André Masson, copies of the avant-garde magazines Minotaure (published during the 1930s) and View (from the ’40s) in twin barrel-shaped glass cabinets, as well as a set of engravings by Nicolas de Larmessin from the 1680s in which various tradesmen seem to morph into architectural structures corresponding to their vocation. It was a delightful Wunderkammer.
Eclecticism is undoubtedly crowd-pleasing. One of the most popular rooms on each of my three visits was ‘Theatre of the Domestic’, where a small crowd of gallery goers stood agog, heads upturned, waiting for Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy (1990) – a mechanized grand piano suspended upside-down from the ceiling – to clatter its guts out at regular intervals. Another well-attended room contained Jan Švankmajer’s film Jabberwocky (1971), which veers from an initial reading of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem to a generative outpouring of stop-motion eventfulness: bare buttocks are slapped; a procession of toy soldiers are terrorized by ornate chinaware; a straw-stuffed doll erupts as multiple smaller versions of itself spring forth. It’s dark and weird, and treads that fine line between the childlike and adult, the mawkish and the surreal.
Many works plumbed similar psychic depths, but the Barbican’s Senior Curator, Jane Alison, choreographed individual works in a way that avoided simplistic comparisons. Woodman’s photographic documentations of her own performative interaction with interior space from the 1970s, for instance, had a precedent here in works by Claude Cahun and Paul Nougé from the 1930s. Cahun and Woodman were both teenagers when they began their extraordinary series of self-portraits; indeed, these photographs are so similar that the curators had wisely relegated them to separate exhibition rooms. Another work whose influence threads through the decades is Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925) – the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and much besides. Bourgeois’ No Exit (1989), a staircase and two wooden spheres arranged into a kind of phallic iconography, correlated with Sarah Lucas’ Au Naturel (1994), a mattress decorated with genital-like cucumber, bucket and melons.
Upstairs, ‘The Surreal House’ was adversely affected by the strictures of the Barbican’s balconies and awkward, cellular exhibition spaces. Where the lower floor was largely given over to the influence of architecture on art, the upper storey sought to show the influence of art on architecture. Here, exhibition spaces were arranged into a dialogue between particular works of art and architectural projects, but this dialogue was disappointingly thin. Salvador Dalí’s famous (though rarely exhibited) painting Sleep (1937) was presented alongside video footage of Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s Villa Dall’Ava in Paris (1985–91), but the correlation between the two had little to say about either. Giorgio de Chirico’s The Evil Genius of a King (1914–5) was placed alongside Diller + Scofidio’s plans for both the uncompleted Slow House (1989) and the Modernist oddity Casa Malaparte on the Isle of Capri (1938–40), the latter shown here in a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963); again, the line from individual painting to particular works of architecture seems tenuous. More interesting was the exploration of the artistic afterlife of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy (1928), in a surrealistic painting of a zebra on the building’s roof by Christopher Wood (Zebra and Parachute, 1930).
‘The Surreal House’ succeeded by deploying familiar works in unexpected combinations. Most contemporary curating worth its salt isn’t like this: it might aim to open dialogues between historiography and globalization, provoke or instantiate public debate, present work by new artists, and so on. In the exhibition guide, ‘The Surreal House’ claims to be the first ‘major exhibition to highlight the importance of the house within surrealism and its legacies’. While this may well be true, that’s hardly earth-shaking stuff. If there was something easily consumable about this exhibition, it was because it was like comfort food, but sometimes that’s just what you need. I went back for seconds, then thirds.