In Advance of The Return of the Cadavre Exquis


Le Cadavre exquis a                                            The Exquisite Corpse has 
l’honneur de vous fair part                                the honor of inviting you
de la réouverture de la                                       to the reopening of
Galerie surréaliste                                               la Galerie surréaliste
16, rue Jacques-Callot                                        at 16, rue Jaques-Callot
qui aura lieu                                                         taking place
le lundi 10 Octobre 1927                                    Monday, October 10, 1927
à 3 heures de l’aprés-midi.                                at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.1

Making one of his first appearances, le cadavre exquis was the subject of the reopening exhibition of la Galerie surréaliste, in Paris in 1927.2 Had we attended this event, we would have experienced the surrealist movement in its heyday and found le cadavre exquis in his prime. An honored guest at any gathering, the Exquisite Corpse was the enfant terrible of surrealist games: a metamorphic being, cropping up not only at exhibitions but at café tables, in hotel rooms, even once strolling the Ramblas in Barcelona, where, artist Marcel Jean recollects, “crowds filled the café terraces until late at night, clapping hands to call the waiters so that we imagined that they were cheering us as we passed by.”3

SURREALISM, n: Pure psychic automatism by whose means it is intended to express verbally, or in writing, or in any other manner, the actual functioning of thought. Dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason and outside of all aesthetic or moral preoccupations. -André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme, 19244

Exquisite Corpse, among the most widely enjoyed of the surrealists’ many games, sought to unleash the unconscious in a merry chase of the imagination. Realized through automatic drawing, a technique–nearly synonymous with surrealism–which charted the irrational, unstoppable flow of words and images that channels through thought without conscious reflection, and assembled by chance, there is not a rational bone in le cadavre exquis. Culled from the minds of more than one individual, he emerged as though from a dream. Indeed the Corpse’s generally grotesque appearances bespoke an alternate beauty, of a harmony in rupture. As a figure of revolt that drew the surrealists together through collaboration, le cadavre exquis provided the common ground upon which these artists waged their assault on sobriety and logic.

Since those youthful salad days, the Exquisite Corpse has retired to a relatively reclusive life amongst artist-friends and children-until April 1991 and “The Return of the Cadavre Exquis.” Opening this current round, The Drawing Center invited artists from all conceptual orientations, at all points in their careers, from all over the world to join in the game. As word the project spread, foundling corpses began to appear on The drawing Center’s doorstep. To date, the initial list of some two hundred participating artists now counts at least twelve hundred players, and their drawings number more than six hundred.

Poetry must be made by all, not one. – compte de Lautréamont, Poesies 5

The cadavre is a single sheet of paper, divided according to the number of players into segments that roughly correspond to the human body, i.e. head/torso/legs for three players, or head/chest/trunk/legs for four players. Many artists introduced their own variations. Ellsworth Kelly (who first played cadavre exquis as a young artists knocking around Paris with the surrealists) and Win Knowlton made a four-part cadavre by playing two rounds each. Another tiny corpse was carved into ten small but satisfying portions. As the game is played, each artists, working in turns, completes a section and conceals the work before passing it on to the next artists. When all the sections are finished, the drawing is unfolded and the Exquisite Corpse is born.

The cords that bind this present-day manifestation to the original Exquisite Corpse are only loosely in the hands of its originator, André Breton. The element of automatism–so critical to the original players and impossible to reproduce in any pure sense–is almost entirely absent today. Equally indistinct are surrealism’s claims to marry everyday reality and dreams, although the imagination still reigns supreme. Exerting their considerable presence on this most recent round are Marcel, Duchamp, with his conceptual approach to game-playing and object-making, and Georges Bataille, with his energetic aberrance for rules and taboos. Add to this skein of historical influences the contemporary threads of psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and anthropology–all closely bound to surrealist practice and worked into the complex analytical fabric of postmodernism.

Art movements are simply not recursive. These new cadavres were not cultivated through cryogenics. Contemporary artists with their own inventive insights have participated to create a body of work which is vigorous and intuitive precisely because it is not corseted by the past. In lieu of the mainstays of Breton’s game comes an unprecedented expansion of the definition of drawing itself, a practice that now appears to encompass everything from pricking to poetry. What remains essential, because it can be replayed, is the game. Precisely because of its value as play, Exquisite Corpse continues to offer a means of sidestepping reason and foresight to move towards chance and unpredictability. Ultimately, as a collective revelation of artistics imagination, “The Return of the Cadavre Exquis” still answers André Breton’s eternal appeal to artists: “Speak according to the madness that has seduced you.”6

Players of the contemporary game were at liberty to paint, paste, clip, jot, scribble, and sculpt according to their own predilections on paper.The were also encouraged to consider the “body” as a metamorphic point of departure. In Exquisite Landscape, a variation of cadavre exquis the surrealists took similar license.7 Here, players contributed to a horizontal floe of objections and images that unfolded like a map onto psychic space or dream reality. Playing the game in 1975 with colleagues Anna Boetti and Roberto Lupo, Meret Oppenheim adapted the anatomy of the body (head/trunk/legs) to the structure of a chair (back/seat/legs) to create a series of unusual cadavre exquis.8 Nevertheless, most of the contemporary cadavres exquis adhere to the conventional structure of the human body.

As postmodernism’s most prevalent subject and site, the body has been used by contemporary artists to explore issues of identity and gender, public health and private pleasure. It is complicate realm, inscribed with sexual and cultural codes that catalogue human difference as opposed to universal experience. The body can no longer be mirrored in an impervious white model handed down from antiquity, nor in the hirsute primitive archetype called forth by modernity. Sweeping these old ideals aside, the Exquisite Corpse, with his collective and composite physique, flaunts a relevant contemporary image of the body.

The cadavre is also an appealingly social creature. His appearance in the wake of recent political events stands to link members of a cultural community still reeling from battles over censorship and support. The conservative backlash against government aid for the arts–a curious election-time diversion from real moral and economic crisises–has left artists and the public each wary of the other’s capacity to appreciate or simply enjoy art. As he engages the art world at large in constructive creative act, the cadavre is a Pollyanna assembled by Dr. Frankenstein advocating the primacy of visual practice, however conceptual, in art.

…(we studied) Mystery, Ancient and Modern, Seography, and the Drawling–The Drawling Master was an old conger eel that used to come in once a week: he taught us Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in coils. –”The Mock Turtle,” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Participating artists were given the choice of either selecting their own partners or allowing The Drawing Center to choose for them. While the first option more closely matches the surrealist practice of sitting around a table with like-minded colleagues and passing round the cadavre exquis, the latter invites a further element of chance. Apparently some of the more intimate sessions really took off, as we received entire sheaves of cadavre exquis from some self-made groups. A number of artists played with their assistants, casting at least one studio into an uproar of anxiety until the game turned from an employee’s nightmare into an impromptu part. Approximately half of the players allowed The Drawing Center to select their partners for them. In general we aimed to create unified bodies, however discordant the parts.

To facilitate the project, we created a Drawing Kit with a set of rules instructing artists how to play the game. Seemingly antithetical to artistic practice, rules can actually clear the way for chance and liberate the imagination. Playing within prescribed parameters, one surrenders the pull of reason to the pleasure of adhering to (and breaking) rules. Not surprising, we learned from some honestly dishonest players that many of the visual coincidences which occur in these drawings were not the outcome of what Breton divided to be “tacit communication–merely by waves–among the players.”9 The riddles of concurrence are often signs of cheating. However, as Mary Ann Caws and Charles Simic each suggest in the essays which follow, bending the rules of chance is also part of the tradition of surrealist games.

Included in the kit was a paper sleeve (printed with abridged guidelines) that concealed the nascent cadavre while disclosing a slender reveal. This edge, a perceptual point of orientation, served as a prompt or segue into the players’ unconscious. Two differently sized sheets of paper were provided, although artists could and did use their own supports. In one case this was sandpaper and in another a string of nineteenth-century maps. Drawing materials were even more various, including everything from lipstick to operative light-bulbs, from pot holders to x-rays. Likewise, applications coursed from stitchery to photography, from slashiing to burning. Several cadavres were machined with the aid of computers. And still, many unexpected images came by the traditional (graphic) route of pencil on paper.

In New York, all the works generated by the “Cadavre Exquis” were exhibited at The Drawing Center and nearby gallery space. In addition, a selection of historic cadavre exquis were on view at The Drawing Center, including drawings by original players, Valentine Hugo, Marcel Jean, and Yves Tanguy. Latter-day cadavres by Joseph Beuys, Lucienne Bloch, Ted Joans, Frida Kahlo, Konrad Klapheck, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, and Gerhard Richter, among others, attested to continuing vitality of the Exquisite Corpse.10

Certainly, not all collaborations work. Simone Collinet wrote of the literary version of cadavre exquis that: “Some sentences took an aggressive. Let us not forget it.”11 At The Drawing Center, this editorial apparatus did not come into play. Even with overwhelmingly exquisite results, the degrees of and reasons for the success of these collaborations are as diverse as any other aspect of the project. Some drawings are cursive and comic, other are rendered and wry, with the bizarre, horrifying, overwrought, satiric, disgusting, beautiful, fragile, boisterous, delicate, goofy, brutal feminist, misogynist, political, precious, and poignant all putting in appearances. As spectators, may we be ravished by the pleasures of looking at so many ways of seeing. Or, at least, mindful of André Breton’s charge, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.”12


  1. This text was accompanied by the cadavre exquis (p.12); in André Breton, Le cadavre exquis, son exaltation (Milan: Chez Arturo Schwartz, 1975), p.16
  2. The gallery, directed by Jacques Tual, with André Breton as advisor, first opened March 26,1926, with an exhibition of paintings by Man Ray juxtaposed with Oceanic sculpture from the collections of Louis Aragon, Breton, Paul Eluard, and others.
  3. From Marcel Jean's description of his trip to Barcelona in July 1935 and the cadavre exquis he created with artists Oscar Dominquez, Estéban Francès, and Remedios Varo, (pp. 16,74). Quoted in Cynthia Jaffee McCabe, "The Rewards of Leisure," Artistic Collaboration in the Twentieth Century (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984), p.32.
  4. André Breton, quoted in Marcel Jean, ed. The Autobiography of Surrealism (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), p.123
  5. Ibid., p. 52
  6. André Breton, quoted in Franklin Rosemont, ed., What is Surrealism? Selected Writings (Chicago: Monad Press, 1978), p.59
  7. Following the lead of The Drawing Center, The Swiss Institute in New York recently made Exquisite Landscapes teh subject of an exhibition projected called "A Grand Tour," which was on view from March 4 to April 4, 1993.
  8. This same group also experimented with three-dimensional cadavre exquis. Oppenheim describes, "Armed with plastic bags, we walked out of the village and each gathered whatever we saw lying in the fields or woods that caught our eye... In the end, all the nine figures plus titles were brought out one after the other and placed on a shelf. The correspondence between titled and figure was astonishing." Quoted in Bice Curiger, Meret Oppenheim (Zurich: Parkette Publishers, 1989), pp. 207-08
  9. André Breton, Le cadavre exquis, p. 12
  10. Indeed, as we conclude our game, teh world's longest cadavre exquis, the brainchild of American expatriate poet, Ted Joans, continues to unfurl. This drawing titled Long Distance, was "started by chance when I [Jones] found some folded sheets of computer paper in London 1975...The number as of this date March 11 1993 is 120." Participants include Romare Bearden, Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsburg, Dick Higgins, and Micheal Leiris. Joans, quoted from a letter to the author, March 11, 1993.
  11. Simone Collinet, quoted in André Breton, Le cadavre exquis, p 30
  12. André Breton, Nadja, Richard Howard, trans. (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 160; originally published in 1928.