The Surreal House


Written by Izzy Elstob
06 Monday 06th September 2010

Surrealism is probably the most misunderstood and oversimplified art movement in the public consciousness. I assumed that The Surreal House at the Barbican Gallery was going to be a rather random exhibition, weakly clinging onto thematic straws that linked the idea of ‘the house’ with some obvious and/or quasi-surrealist objects. I could not have been more wrong. This is the most imaginatively conceived and courageously curated exhibition that I have ever stepped foot into. When confronted immediately with Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Black Bath) it feels like a punch in the stomach, the sarcophagus-like structure feeding the eeriness of the space with a very real intensity. 

Surrealism is remarkably complex as a literary and artistic movement. Melting clocks cannot begin to summarize its depth nor its breadth. Simply by winding through the corridors of the show, confused, disoriented and intrigued, the viewer is being given an emotional sample of what Surrealism was and is. The layout is a literal manifestation of that common dream where the dreamer keeps discovering new, secret rooms within a house that before was so familiar. But in this dream, each new room reveals a sensory surprise – some unexpected artwork, some unexpected sound. 
The Surreal House also treats the viewer to a selection of original copies of Minotaure (the Surrealist publication), with Brassaï, Josef Sudek and Marcel Duchamp all being represented under the flickering gaze of a film of André Breton’s apartment, filled with its African sculptures, looking down upon us, guarding their owner’s legacy in death, as he did in life. 
Seamlessly the ‘house’ enters 1990 with Rebecca Horn’s extraordinary Concert for Anarchy: a piano hanging upside-down above the viewer, straining at its supporting cords, mechanically opening and closing its entire structure to the sound of creaking strings and thumping keys. Downstairs in this house of art and atmosphere the viewer is surrounded on all sides by apparently unrelated artists who have somehow successfully been drawn together as fellow spectres within the dark corridors: Max Ernst collages, Louise Bourgeois sculptures, Francis Bacon paintings, all performing for the viewer in this disconcerting aesthetic circus.
And upstairs it only gets better. We are treated to a classic de Chirico painting, The Evil Genius of a King, an imagined dream world that almost slides into the viewer’s space, so sharp is its impossibly angled perspective. Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venice pavilion, constructed for the 1939 World Trade Fair, is revealed to us through grainy slides, intermittently and noisily exposed by a simple projector. And in Room 14 there lies a very special collection. Joseph Cornell’s Dovecote and Aviary with Parrot sit beautifully with Marcel Duchamp’s magnificent Boîte-en-valise, containing miniatures of The Large Glass, Fountain and 50ce Air de Paris: Miniature Pincher-sized replicas of some of the most important objects of twentieth-century art history, collected and kept together by their creator for posterity – for us.
The Surreal House is not an earnest exhibition. It fully immerses itself in the mentality of Surrealism and in all of its incongruity and madness. And this is why this show – for it is a ‘show’ – can teach the viewer more about what Surrealism is in one hour than many hours of committed reading on the subject. It is a visual injection of Surrealist smack and there’s no comedown. If ever an exhibition induced emotion – fear, laughter, confusion and awe – The Surreal House is that exhibition. And there’s not a melting clock in sight.


Don't Panic attempt to credit photographers and content owners wherever possible, however due to the sheer size and nature of the internet this is sometimes impractical or impossible. If you see any images on our site which you believe belong to yourself or another and we have incorrectly used it please let us know at and we will respond asap.