Among Surrealist techniques exploiting the mystique
of accident was a kind of collective collage of words or images
called the "cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse)". Based on an old
parlor game, it was played by several people, each of whom would
write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal
part of it, and pass it on to the next player for his contribution.
The technique got its name from results obtained in an initial
playing, "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau" (The exquisite
corpse will drink the young wine). Other examples are: "The dormitory
of friable little girls puts the odious box right" and "The Senegal
oyster will eat the tricolor bread."
These poetic fragments were felt to reveal what
Nicolas Calas characterized as the "unconscious reality in the
personality of the group" resulting from a process of what Ernst
called "mental contagion." At the same time, they represented
the transposition of Lautreamont's classic verbal collage to a
collective level, in effect fulfilling his injunction-frequently
cited in Surrealist texts-that "poetry must be made by all and
not by one." It was natural that such oracular truths should be
similarly sought through images, and the game was immediately
adapted to drawing, producing a series of hybrids the first reproductions
of which are to be found in No. 9-10 of La Revolution surrealiste
(October, 1927) without identification of their creators.
|The game was adapted to the possibilities of drawing,
and even collage, by assigning a section of a body to each player,
though the Surrealist principle of metaphoric displacement led to
images that only vaguely resembled the human form. One, by three hands,
begins with a spider, which gives way to a man's torso the feet of
which are formed by two jugs. Other, more interesting cadavres exquis
were reproduced in a special issue of Variete's titled "Le Surealisme
en 1929 (fig. 288). One of these begins with a woman's head by Tanguy,
which dissolves into a jungle scene by Max Morise, returning to a
female anatomy schematically indicated by Miro, and terminating in
"legs" in the form of a fishtail and an engineer's triangle by Man
Andre Breton comments on the origination
of the Cadavre Exquis
EXQUISITE CORPSE: Game of folded paper played
by several people, who compose a sentence or drawing without
anyone seeing the preceding collaboration or collaborations.
The now classic example, which gave the game its name, was
drawn from the first sentence obtained this way: The-exquisite-corpse-will-drink-new-wine.
The Exquisite Corpse was born, if we remember
correctly (and if that is the proper expression), around
1925 in the old house at 54 rue du Chateau, since destroyed.
There Marcel Duhamel, long before devoting himself to the
perusal of American literature, made enough from his whimsical
(if grandiose) participation in the hotel industry to lodge
his friends Jacques Prevert and Yves Tanguy, who did not
yet excel at anything except the art of living, while enlivening
everything with their spirited outbursts. For a while Benjamin
Peret also stayed there. Absolute non-conformism and universal
disrespect was the rule, and great good humour reigned.
It was a time for pleasure and nothing else. Almost every
evening we gathered around a table where Chateau Yquem deigned
to mingle its suave note with that of other, equally tonic
When the conversation - on the day's events
or proposals of amusing or scandalous intervention in the
life of the times - began to pall, we would turn to games;
written games at first, contrived so that elements of language
attacked each other in the most paradoxical manner possible,
and so that human communication, misled from the start,
was thrown into the mood most amenable to adventure. From
then on no unfavourable prejudice (in fact, quite the contrary)
was shown against childhood games, for which we were rediscovering
the old enthusiasm, although considerably amplified. Thus,
when later we came to give an account of what had sometimes
seemed upsetting to us about our encounters in this domain,
we had no difficulty in agreeing that the Exquisite Corpse
method did not visibly differ from that of 'consequences'.
Surely nothing was easier than to transpose this method
to drawing, by using the same system of folding and concealing.
Ill-disposed critics in 1925-1930 gave further example of
their ignorance when they reproached us for delighting in
such childish distractions, and at the same time suspected
us of having produced such monsters in broad daylight, individually,
and more or less laboriously. In fact, what excited us about
these productions was the assurance that, for better or worse,
they bore the mark of something which could not be created
by one brain alone, and that they were endowed with a much
greater leeway, which cannot be too highly valued by poetry.
Finally, with the Exquisite Corpse we had at our command
an infallible way of holding the critical intellect in abeyance,
and of fully liberating the mind's metaphorical activity.
All of this is as valid on the graphic as on the verbal plane.
We must add that along the way a considerable enigma arose,
posed by the frequent encounter of elements with similar associational
origins in the course of the collective production of a sentence
or a drawing. This encounter not only provoked a vigorous
play of often extreme discordances, but also supported the
idea of communication between the participants - tacit, but
in waves; this would have to be reduced to its rightful limits
by control of the estimate of probabilities, but in the final
analysis we believe that this communication tends to be confirmed
Because of the predetermined decision to compose a figure,
drawings complying with the Exquisite Corpse technique, by
definition, carry anthropomorphism to its climax, and accentuate
tremendously the life of correspondences that unites the outer
and inner worlds. These drawings represent total negation
of the ridiculous activity of imitation of physical characteristics,
to which a large and most questionable part of contemporary
art is still anachronistically subservient. If only some salutary
precepts of indocility might be opposed to its present array,
take offence at the exclusion of all humour, and bring it
around to a less larval sense of its means.
Andre Breton [From the catalogue of an exhibition
at La Dragonne, Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris, 7-30 October
1948, entitled "Le Cadavre Exquis: Son Exaltation",