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Audio descriptions for Surrealist Art

This audio descriptive introduction to Surrealist Art | He Toi Pohewa offers a brief introduction to each of the exhibition’s six galleries, and audio descriptions for one or more works in each.

There are seven tracks in total, with seven transcripts. The first track is an overall introduction to the exhibition, followed by a track for each gallery in the order in which you travel through them.

You can use your own device and headset to listen to the recordings, or read the transcripts, while you are in the exhibition. There is no charge to access this recording or the transcripts. 

There are large print exhibition labels available at the exhibition entrance.  

Surrealist Art is open at Te Papa from 12 Jun – 31 Oct 2021. The recordings and transcripts will still be available after the exhibition closes.

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We’re interested in your feedback on this audio descriptive introduction. Please email us with your thoughts, or any questions you have to accessibility@tepapa.govt.nz.

Transcripts

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Introduction

Kia ora. Welcome to this audio-descriptive introduction to Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

I’m Judith Jones, an audio describer at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

This recording offers a brief audio-descriptive introduction to the six exhibition galleries, and audio descriptions for one or more works in each.

Surrealism is one of the most important and influential art movements of the 20th century. This exhibition brings together 179 objects and images from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s world-class collection of surrealist art in Rotterdam, and two from Te Papa’s own collection.

The entrance to the exhibition on Level 4 is set in a white wall. ‘Surrealist Art’ is written in large black capital letters, with a crack ripping each letter in two horizontally.

From here, we travel on through six galleries, which introduce the big ideas of surrealism. There is a separate recording for each of these.

Each gallery has its own title, and a quote near the start speaks to what we’ll encounter. I’ll introduce these, and describe some of the physical elements that contribute to the overall experience in that gallery. I’ll then audio describe one or more artworks in each.

A surrealist revolution

We enter into a dark space. The walls are painted black, and the carpet is not only black but plush, soft, and slightly yielding underfoot.

The gallery title is written in capitals and cut from this thick carpet.

The gallery quote reads, ‘We are on the eve of a revolution – surrealism. You can take part.’ (The Central Bureau of Surrealist Research, 1924)

In this antechamber, a single case displays a small but powerful paperback, the Manifesto of Surrealism, written and published in Paris, 1924, by André Breton.

This brown-orange soft-covered booklet, around 12 centimetres by 19 centimetres and just over 1 centimetre thick, is displayed slightly angled. Its cover is quite worn and discoloured along the spine. In it, poet Breton outlined surrealism as a way of thinking, a way of life. He championed dreams, the irrational, and the marvellous.

A narrow opening leads into the adjoining gallery with the same black walls and plush carpet. The recorded soundscape is slightly offbeat, ethereal piano music by Erik Satie.

Five paintings are displayed around the walls, spotlit from above, demonstrating how differently artists chose to bring the ideas of surrealism to life.

There’s something striking, playful, and surprising brightly lit in a case near the wall at the end of the gallery. It’s a huge pair of red lips, modelled on those of the actor Mae West. Also, it’s a sofa.

Mae West lips sofa, 1938, by Salvador Dalí

The materials are wood, red and pink woollen flannel, cotton, and brass rivets.

This sofa is about 2 metres long and 1 metre high – so, about two-seater size. It has no arms – you could call it a divan.

It’s shaped like a pair of full, curved, softly closed lips formed by the back and the seat, its frame sculpted to follow the mouth’s sensual curves.

The lips are covered in red woollen flannel – not plush, but probably quite soft to feel.

As you’d sit on, perhaps sink a little into, the plumped lower lip, which is quite deep – 75 centimetres back to front – you would feel a slight flattened area behind your knees. You’d lean back against the plump top lip.

The seat is supported by a low, solid base, covered in pink woollen flannel, which follows its curvy contours. The same pink flannel is used across the back, which holds the lines of the upper lip at its top.

This woollen flannel sofa does seem to have been used. One of the dozens of round-headed brass rivets that hold the fabric as it curves around the top and bottom lines of the base is missing. And the flannel has rubbed over time, the surface is worn here and there, and there are some faint surface repairs, and little holes, especially across the back.

Mae West lips sofa is an iconic work by Dalí, and nearby there’s another.

Couple with their heads full of clouds, 1936, by Salvador Dalí

This is an oil painting on two pieces of plywood, set side by side with a small space between them. This diptych is about 1 metre high and a metre and a half across. Dalí paints with technical skill, and the work is at once realistic and puzzling.

The frames that wrap around these paintings are dull-gold carved wood, following the contours of the head and upper body of two human figures. They’re set on the wall as if they’d be about average height, so it feels like we’re alongside these people.

Their shoulders are rounded, like soft hills in a landscape, and their arms lie close by their sides. Dalí said that the couple represented himself beside his wife Gala.

The figure on our left is slightly more substantial in form – taller and wider – and we may assume this is Dalí. He stands straight on, and inclines his head just a little towards his companion. The frame wraps around an oval head and stick-out ears, and the curves of the figure’s lower jaw.

Gala, on our right, leans in towards him, turning slightly from straight on as if about to rest her head on his shoulder.

There is a real sense of physical connection between the two paintings, in composition and in content.

The couple do indeed have their heads full of clouds – streaked grey and white, floating in a rich blue sky. Those inside Gala’s head angle across in line with the tilt of her head.

The sky lightens, almost fades away to below the shoulders of each form, where it meets a wide, clear plain – perhaps a desert – along a shared horizon line, interrupted briefly by the gap between them.

Low hills lie across the horizon at the outer edges of both frames. The land below the skyline is barren, softly coloured, stretching almost featureless to the front of the paintings.

In front of the hills on the Dalí painting, buildings – possibly hewn from rock – stand among greener, softer slopes at the edge of the plain. 

There are three tiny people out in the desert. One travels from the left, out across the open space, wearing a white apron and veil, towards another who sits with their back towards us, legs stretched out, slightly slumped.

Someone else, so bundled in dark clothes that it’s hard to tell which way up they rest on the sands, sprawls head towards us, in the centre of the Gala painting.

In the foreground of each painting, a rectangular table is set, each covered with a cloth of soft white fabric.

The table on our left has a slightly dishevelled cloth that’s slipped to show a small triangle of its wooden surface on the top left corner. A rectangular brown shape, with a ring lying flat across its top, sits stolidly in the centre of the table – some sort of weight perhaps, to restrain the cloth from further movement.

A single, clear stemmed glass sits nearby, empty of liquid, but with a small silver spoon resting inside it. The base of the glass bowl reflects a building, as if it might be behind us.

The white cloth on the table on our right is relatively smooth across the top, but at the left front, multiple layers of folds bunch up on its surface. A small cluster of shiny, dark, beautifully rounded grapes lies slightly off-centre.

Dalí’s tiny signature features on both paintings, starting with Gala’s name, which he started doing as part of his signature in the early 1930s: ‘Gala Salvador Dalí’.

Mae West lips sofa on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website
Couple with their heads full of clouds on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website

Dada and surrealism

This brightly lit gallery offers us a taste of dada’s fierce energy and chaos. We’re off the lush carpet and onto a floor first of vinyl, then rubber, and then concrete.

The title ‘Dada and surrealism’ is in red capitals, streaked through vertically with thin, irregular, angled white lines.

The gallery quote reads, ‘Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colours … contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE.’ (Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918)

The white walls of the first part zigzag to create erratic display spaces. They’re made of honeycombed cardboard, their edges exposed, giving an air of transience. Dada poetry broadcasts from either side, a jumble of nonsense.

The gallery widens into a room with works around the white walls and in cases. On the gallery wall in this second section, opposite the entrance, there’s a very large projection of Intermission, a black-and-white film from 1924 by René Clair, with a score by Erik Satie.

Sounds of typing, writing, and cutting with scissors accompany an animation showing how to cut words up to make new and unexpected poetry.

Dada and surrealist artists challenged everything about art and art making. I’m going to audio describe two works in the second part of the gallery, by artists who made sculptures from everyday things found in the world around them – artworks that became known as ‘readymades’.

Gift, 1921, remade by the artist in 1974, by Man Ray

The materials are cast iron and copper nails.

This is a flat iron – cast iron, pre-electric – the sort that had to be heated on a stove. It’s 16.5 centimetres high, 10 centimetres across the front, and 10 centimetres from front to back. It weighs around 2 kilos.

As we approach the case it’s displayed in, coming from the entry, the handle is to our left. ‘May Ray’ is signed in white lettering along the flat top of the handle, then ‘cadeau’ (French for ‘gift’) as white capitals in quotation marks, and ‘1921’.

The iron’s face is a wide-based triangle of metal flattened for smoothing out crumpled fabric. It has quite an angular tip. You’d use the iron by grasping the soft-edged, rectangular bar handle – attached at the back with a rod to the tip and one to the base of the body.

The rounded heads of 14 sharp-pointed, shiny copper tacks have been glued in a vertical line down the centre of the face of the iron. The tacks’ angular edges and ends contrast with the smooth, flat surface.

The light shining on the work casts a shadow of some of these tacks, like a little black fringe of tiny skewers.

A quote on the label, from May Ray in 1977, says, ‘You can tear a dress to ribbons with it.’

The box in a valise, 1961, from or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (his alter ego)

This work is from Te Papa’s art collection, a bequest of Judge Julius Isaacs, New York, 1983.

The materials are a cloth-covered box, almost square, at 40 centimetres high by 37 centimetres wide when closed up, containing mixed media.

A green, cloth-covered, rectangular, heavy card box is wide open. Its top and bottom are even volume and lie with their backs on the display base. It’s deep, almost 9 centimetres, and it has a wide spine.

Sixty-nine miniature replicas and reproductions – in various media – of works by Duchamp are displayed in, on, and around the box, which acts like a mini museum, or a greatest hits compilation album.

A 1954 quote from Duchamp on the label notes, ‘My whole life’s work fits into one suitcase.’

A small wooden display wall that will fold back down into the box, sits up from the flattened spine – supporting a display frame that stands out to the left, and another frame on the right. These frames have narrow wooden struts to hold them upright, and will slide in and out of the central base wall. These little exhibition walls have works displayed on both sides.

One frame holds a reproduction of Duchamp’s early cubist painting Nude descending a staircase (no. 2), painted in 1912. A body form created with brown, fragmented, linear shapes is replicated over and over to give the impression of a nude – not posed formally, not even lying down, but in almost mechanical, dynamic movement down a staircase.

The central frame has three small shelves on its left, each holding a miniature version of an artwork. At the top there is a tiny replica of a glass chemist’s vial, with a twisted top: the 1919 work 50 cc of Paris air. And at the bottom, a tiny urinal: the 1917 work Fountain, one of Duchamp’s most famous ‘readymade’ works.

There are loose prints mounted on paper displayed around the box, about A4 size. There’s not room for all of them to be shown here, so some are stacked in piles. One on display is the 1919 work L.H.O.O.Q, in which Duchamp took a readymade print of the Mona Lisa and added a moustache, and a goatee beard, and the letters of the title.

Gift on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website
The box in a valise on Collections Online
See a picture of The box in a valise on the MoMA website

The dreaming mind

The gallery title is in white capitals. The words ‘Dreaming mind’ are slightly blurred by clear, textured panels of glass.

The gallery quote is ‘We are all at the mercy of the dream, and we must submit to its power in a waking state.’ (The Surrealist Revolution, no 1, 1924)

This gallery has rich, deep-blue walls. Works are displayed around these, with some in cases. The floor is concrete.

In the centre, there is a circular enclosed area, with spaces in its fabric sides to walk in and out.

At the gallery entrance, there’s a case holding a replica of the classical Venus de Milo statue, about a metre high and 30 centimetres across. This is:

Venus de Milo with drawers, 1936, remade in 1964, by Salvador Dalí

This full-length statue of a woman seems to be made of sleek white plaster, but the materials are painted cast bronze and fur.

She inclines her shoulders and gazes slightly to her left. Her hair is parted in the centre and pulled to the back of her head.

She’s draped – only from low on the hips – with a cloth that falls in soft folds to her ankles.

Her left arm ends abruptly at the shoulder, the right about mid bicep. Her left leg is slightly forward, bending at the knee.

And the fur? A tuft of it – like a little jaunty fur pompom – forms the handle knob of each of six drawers, set in various places across the front of her.

A narrow drawer lies horizontally across her brow. There’s a broader one through each breast. Two more slide out from her mid torso and belly. The sixth drawer emerges from her left kneecap, set vertically down her leg.

The drawers do work. They’re all displayed just a little bit ajar, revealing something of the dark spaces within. Are they opening – or closing?

In a case nearby there is:

The witness, 1941, remade in 1971, by Man Ray

The materials are wood, cardboard, paper, paint, chalk, pencil, tape.

A lightweight cardboard box both shaped – and decorated on one side – like an open eye, lies on its edge along a black, shiny square base. This witness eye is about 30 centimetres across and 15 centimetres high.

The oval box used to hold sweets. The eye’s been painted on the underside of the box, which curves slightly inwards, and faces to the front of the case.

The rim of the box top slides over the bottom, and to hold them together more firmly, someone once set a small piece of adhesive tape across the join. It’s now aging, yellowy and dry, and has been slit, so the box does open.

White paint covers the original colours, a bit patchy in places. A small, printed museum label is attached to the top of the box, now the back of the work. Man Ray has signed his name along the top right of the side of the box.

The eye has neither lid nor lashes. Thin red lines snake across the white, as if it’s a little bloodshot.  

There’s a large, deep-blue iris. A shiny black pupil made of card is stuck on, not exactly in the centre of this. Thin white lines, alternately long and straight, and short and squiggly, fan out across the iris from around the pupil. A thin, white, oblong bar stretches from the centre to the edge of the pupil at about 2 on an analogue clock face.

The surface of the glossy black base reflects this ever-open eye.

Inside the circular mini gallery set within ‘The dreaming mind’, there are five paintings by Salvador Dalí. I’ll audio describe:

Impressions of Africa, 1938, by Salvador Dalí

This is an oil painting on canvas – about a metre high and almost 120 centimetres wide. It’s set inside a mat board that’s grey-blue short-cut velvet, within a wide, heavy, golden, wooden frame.

It seems to be an African landscape where people are living – the natural, architectural, and human elements all painted with Dalí’s meticulous technical skill.

But ‘impressions of’ is a bit of a clue as to what’s here. It’s as if Dalí offers us a doorway into a dream, capturing in paint enigmatic visions, snatches of memory, and stories from the depths of his subconscious. 

This painting is rich with images that can both stand alone, and combine in various ways to offer new ideas – as words can suggest double meanings, and musical notes can layer and combine to produce new sounds.

Let’s start with the big picture: a sandscape stretches from the foreground to the back, and from edge to edge of the scene. Warm colours almost pulse a sense of heat and sunshine.

At the front, on the rich orangey sand, a few small rocks are strewn about. Around a third of the way from the back, there’s a semicircle of softly curved dunes that frame a sandy basin extending to the distant horizon. A ridge of low, contoured hills runs along the top right skyline.

Although … there is also a sense of seascape here and there, as the surface ripples at times in dunes or in waves, which can seem to be present simultaneously.

A self-portrait of Dalí, seated behind his wooden painter’s easel, holds the centre left of the painting. His head’s almost three-quarters of the way to the top. He reaches his right hand, fingers outstretched, towards us – so forcefully it almost seems to break through the surface of the work. One eye stares out between his thumb and forefinger.

The artist’s white shirt is open to the waist. He’s wearing shorts. A piece of vivid, sunlit red fabric drapes across his right leg. It’s the brightest thing in the painting. It’s distracting, but without clear meaning.

Somebody sits near Dalí – just behind the right of the easel – and slouches forward into view, head down. They wear a red, loose shirt and grey trousers. A bare hand flops down beside one knee, and bare feet curl their toes into the sand. A narrow, jaggedy shadow falls towards Dalí.

I’m going to describe just some of the complex, layered images that appear in this work – mostly around the edges, around that central, bare-expanse landscape impression of Africa.

Above Dalí’s head, there’s the black-and-white image of the head of Gala, his wife. Her eyes, cast in shadow, perhaps just sockets, are formed as semicircles on a flat base, like – in fact, exactly like and in a line with – the arched windows of a building that surrounds her.

There’s a treed cliff above Gala – way back in the distance. Odd winged creatures seem to be emerging. And two tiny figures below the cliff face cast a very long shadow behind them on the sand.

On the far left, there is the outline of a cloaked body, with what could be a two-branched tree looming up behind it. The same forms can be interpreted as the head of a donkey, the branches morphing into ears. Women with donkeys move nearby, with other figures – perhaps it’s a market – alongside openings that may be caverns.

To the right of the painting, people, rocks, and organic shapes merge and connect to offer a range of possible interpretations. The blade of a scythe seems to be also the opening to a cave. A human outline brims with bluey-green shapes while its fleshed hand drapes a scrap of red cloth.

A figure lolls on the bow of a wooden boat, playing a guitar – though the boat is oddly angled and juts out across a surface that could be rock, swirling sand, or foaming water. Another figure sits nearby – well, just their long, flowing green skirt and their hands in the folds of their lap are showing. The rest of their body is cut off at the edge of the painting.

Far away in the top right, there’s a glimpse of a whole other, greener landscape.

Sounds like water and a marketplace, music, and the voice of Dalí spill from a small gallery nearby that offers an immersive experience of this painting, with a large projection across three walls, zooming in on details.

Venus de Milo with drawers on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website
The witness on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website
Impressions of Africa on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website

Chance and the irrational

The black-and-white capital letters of this gallery title jut out from the wall on about a 45-degree angle – not quite how you might expect wall labels to behave.

The gallery quote is ‘We lived in a state of euphoria, almost in the intoxication of discovery.’ (André Breton, 1952)

This space is lustrously white and bright, with works displayed around the walls and in some glass-topped table cases. The floor is mainly concrete.

Through the middle, set on a rectangle of carpet, there’s a long wooden desk with stools on either side and a set of drawers running down the middle, with low, opaque glass panels above. It’s our modern, Te Papa version of the Bureau of Surrealist Research. And, like the original – set up in Paris in 1924 – here you’re invited to help us create an archive of the unconscious.

You can write or draw your dreams, or record something in the small booth at one end. The booth transforms your voice into words on paper. The drawers each have a dream category on them – like ‘Flying, falling’, ‘Animals’, or ‘Being chased’ – and you can leave your dream record behind in one of these, or take it with you.

The artists in this gallery explore using the unconscious mind and embracing chance to create their works. I’m going to audio describe two works which use collage.

A Week of Kindness or The Seven Deadly Elements, 1934, by Max Ernst

This is a five-volume book with a cardboard sleeve, with open and closed volumes displayed in one of the table cases. They’re about 28 centimetres high by 22.5 centimetres wide, similar to an A4 sheet.

Ernst collaged images chopped out of publications like Victorian encyclopaedias, scientific journals, and pulp novels. He had the collages printed, so the edges are smoothed over, making it seem as if the people and things in the images were actually in the same place at the same time. The books are compilations of the images, with no text narrative.

The illustrations are black and white, and overall have something of what we might now think of as a steampunk look and feel – people wear Victorian-style clothing, and may be in Victorian scenes, with heavy furniture and steam trains. They can be surrounded by bits of complex machinery, technical and medical instruments, and mythical and transforming creatures. There’s hints and evidence of past violence and violence to come throughout, and a lot of bodies.

Some of the volumes lie open, showing two pages each. I’ll describe the spread from the fourth book – its day is Wednesday, its element is blood.

Left page:

The scene is in an office. There’s a large wooden cupboard on the back wall, wood panelling along the lower half of the wall, and an unframed picture of irregular shapes that could be cells under a microscope.

Two men sit opposite each other at a large desk to the right. The closest sits with his back to us, on a solid chair. Drawers separate the men across the top, so just the top of the far man’s head shows as he faces us. It’s a little reminiscent of the bureau in the centre of this gallery.

Next to him, to the right, the head of a water bird – atop a long, twisty neck – pokes above the drawers and peers across the room.

The man sitting closest to us, bearded and wearing a jacket, looks to our left as if talking with a woman who stands nearby. She’s side on, facing the men. She wears a long gown, and a hat that’s at least twice as large as her head and covered with soft, round shapes. It’s tied on with a strap under her neck. The hand by her side nearest us seems to be clenched.

Across the floor, in front of the desk, there’s a human body lying on its back, forming a slight curve from its shins on the left to the top of its muscular chest in the lower right corner. It’s clothed just in fabric wrapped around its lower body, and its head is out of the frame.

Right page:

This scene is set as if we are at one end of a train compartment, perhaps standing in the corridor. Someone with the head of a bird, wearing a suit and bowler hat, sits on the padded seat on the left. They’re looking our way.

The head of a huge sphinx stares in through the window, which has a raised blind covered in a pattern of what may be plant or human veins. The side of the sphinx head, and its shoulder, loom behind the carriage door opening opposite us onto the platform.

Rat-like creatures with long, sharp, pointy tails clamber up the sphinx’s neck and the ear to our right, and tail tips sticking out from behind its cheek to the left indicate they’re scrabbling on that side too. Nose to tail tip, these creatures would be as long as the seated figure’s arm.

Someone’s bare legs splay out across the carriage floor, from the lower right, as if they’re perhaps propped up on the seat there. One hand lies palm down, loosely, beside fabric wrapped like a loincloth around the lower body, but the rest of the body is out of frame.

The next work is also a collage, from Te Papa’s art collection. It was one of the first surrealist works bought for the then National Gallery, in 1972.

Woman reading, 1936, by Eileen Agar

The materials are pen and ink, printed paper, pressed leaves. The collage is about 32 centimetres high, 23 centimetres wide. It has a wide, creamy-white mat board and frame.

The head and shoulders of the woman are cut out of a blue piece of card as a silhouette, facing towards our left. This frames sections of black and printed paper beneath it.

The black paper forms the base of the woman’s form. She has a high brow and long nose, and seems to wear a rounded, brimmed hat, set back on her crown. Sections of printed paper lie on top of this, draping from her ear to her chin, and across her chest and along the back line of her head and shoulder.

The artist says the text ‘is from a book called The March of Time, relating to history and dates of wars through the ages’.

Dried, brown, serrated leaves and flower heads are arrayed across the woman and the blue card frame. Their central stem is hidden and held in place by a narrow, rectangular strip of pale, patterned paper.

A spiky flower head reaches almost to her forehead, and covers where her ear would be. Two smaller flower heads and angular leaves reach out across her neck as the stem follows a central line down her shoulder. From its base, two wide, heart-shaped leaves splay out across her chest and back. These verbs might make the foliage seem almost active, but it has a flatness and fragility to it. Agar says, ‘the dried leaves symbolise the passing of time, the sense of loss and death’. So perhaps they were already dry when she made the work in 1936.

The blue card is framed by blocks of brown and green paper. They all seem worn, lightly scrawled on in places, nothing intelligible. At the right of the horizontal block of brown paper across the bottom, the artist has signed her name, ‘Agar’, in capitals.

See pictures from A Week of Kindness or The Seven Deadly Elements on the MoMA website (the pages described above are the 11th image)
Woman reading on Collections Online

Desire

The quote on this gallery wall is ‘[Desire is] the only motivating principle in the world, the only master that humans must recognise ...’ (André Breton, 1937)

The capital letters of the title word ‘Desire’ are covered with pinky silicon, lightly textured with organic patterns.

On the outer gallery wall, following an exclamation mark, are the words: ‘Works in this gallery contain nudity and sexual themes’. The gallery has one entry, so people may choose not to visit here.

The ‘Desire’ gallery has a soft, pinkish tone, and the design engages with various senses. The floor is concrete.

You go in and out between curtains made of clear plastic strips hanging from the roof. Each strip is about a hand-length wide. You can choose to move directly through them – they’ve got a bit of weight to them, but they’ll shift apart, and make a light, clattery noise as they fall back together. They have a synthetic scent.

Three display cases have textured side surfaces: one velvet, one leather, one the same patterned silicon used on the title lettering. Visitors are generally not expecting this, often feeling the surfaces by chance as a hand sweeps along a case in passing.

There’s another classical Venus–inspired work near the entrance, this one by Man Ray. It’s:

Venus restored, 1936, remade by the artist in 1971, by Man Ray

Materials are plaster, wood, rope, and paint.

This sculpture, about 75 centimetres high and 40 centimetres across, sits on a low wooden base with a small rectangular label at the front, with the names of the artist and the work, and its dates.

It’s the plaster cast of a headless nude woman from neck to upper thigh, with straight cuts where her head, arms, and legs would be. She leans a little forward. The plaster has been painted shiny white.

This Venus has been wrapped around with rough, light-brown rope. At the front, it’s quite an ordered binding. The rope winds in single threads about her smooth form, taking different paths around and below her breasts – rough, taut fibre against the sleek curving plaster of her body.

One length rises over her left shoulder – crosses directly down over her belly to her base – while the others loop across her on varied angles. The only symmetry is two lines that reach from behind her thighs on matching angles to meet where her legs join at the base and the ropes thread between them.

Across her back, the rope is all a tangle – a chaotic twisting of lengths and loops, interlacing, folding and tucking in and through each other to hold the binding firm. It has no symmetry, and there’s a particularly terrific tangle down the left side of her back.

Venus restored on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website

Strangely familiar

The letters of the title are cut from mirror and reflect the light.

The gallery quote is ‘The world has been altered. There are no longer any ordinary things.’ (Paul Nougé, poet, 1931)

The walls and the vinyl floor of this gallery are a soft blue. The soundtrack is offbeat, ethereal piano music by Erik Satie.

Near the entrance, there’s a mysterious sculpture in a case.

The enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920, remade in 1971, by Man Ray

The materials for this work are wood, fabric, rope, cardboard, metal, offset printing on paper, and invisible object.

This work is something – or some things – bundled up in a brown woollen blanket, tied up with rope. It’s 60 centimetres across, 45.5 centimetres high, and 24 centimetres deep.

A length of rough rope is strapped around the hidden form, cinching the fabric in quite tightly across the boundaries of its shapes, draping a silhouette of what’s underneath. There’s a definable shape of a low, rectangular, solid – I’m guessing wooden – base, and the blanket folds underneath it.

The material forms soft folds despite being bound.

It’s a bit like someone has draped and tied the top of a mountain. From the base, it rises to three soft peaks. The middle one, a little off-centre, is the highest. The binding rope rises from the back and sweeps down between the peaks, accentuating their lines.

Ropes meet across the lower half of the form. Some simply cross over, some twist around each other in passing.

At the back, there’s a tidy line of blanket stitch on one lower stretch of fabric edge, and the ropes are held tight and firm with a small but gnarly, loopy knot.

In the centre, at the front, there’s a brown cardboard label attached to the intersection of two lines of rope. The connecting thread is a twist of red and grey fibres, fraying out at the ends to make a little explosion of fluff.

Words are printed on the label in black upper- and lower-case typed letters. Instructions in three languages, on three lines:

‘Nicht stören,’ it says; ‘Do not disturb’; ‘Ne pas déranger’.

If we were to place a hand on the left side of the work and run it up that edge towards the top, it seems we would encounter something circular against our palm – shrouded under the blanket.

The title of this work maybe gives us a clue as to what this invisible object might be. Ducasse was a 19th-century poet who wrote a phrase that became something of a touchstone for the early surrealists:

‘[A young boy as beautiful as] the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.’

Could this circular object be the turning-wheel part of a sewing machine? Or just another part of the enigma?

‘Strangely familiar’ is the final gallery.

There’s a really large oil painting on canvas, on the wall beside the exit.

Youth illustrated, 1937, by René Magritte

… is around a metre and a half wide and 2 metres high, with a wide, gilded, wooden frame.

It’s a rural landscape – so realistic, we could almost be standing inside it. A country road travels through a green, grassy meadow set beneath puffy white clouds, with a bright blue sky above. It’s a wild field, with a hint here and there of yellow flowers, and grasses hang over the edges of the road like a thin, leafy fringe.

Magritte’s signature, in tiny black letters in the lower left corner, lies across soft blades of grass that seem to have been painted on blade by individual blade.

The road ahead is sandy and stony. Shallow ruts track the wheel marks of others who have passed by. It curves out from the lower right, then makes a straight line towards the horizon, where it turns towards the soft blue shapes of a range of low hills along the right of the skyline.

At the front, in the middle of the road – so we’d have to walk around it – there’s a closed wooden barrel, the top third showing at the bottom of the frame.

A little behind, that a white, sculpted torso of a naked, headless woman – like the classical Venus form – faces forward along the road.

Behind her, a golden, maned lion lies in a regal pose, front paws folded ahead of it, head high, with a slightly grumpy expression – tail tucked around the side nearest us. A wooden billiard table stands further back along the road – solid on rounded legs, balls arrayed on its green top, two cues leaning up against the side.

And so it continues – a parade, a chance meeting of seemingly unrelated objects, each separated by a section of stony road. A golden, brass tuba horn upside down. A birdcage on a stand. A bicycle propped upright on its stand. An armchair, a globe, and a ladder, and then some indecipherable shapes a way down the road in the distance.

This is the last description in the last gallery of Surrealist Art at Te Papa. At the end of this gallery, visitors re-emerge some metres away from the entrance.

The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website offers more information about the works from their collection, and there’s a ‘Read aloud’ option for their collection text.

Thank you for listening to this audio-descriptive introduction to Surrealist Art at Te Papa.

The enigma of Isidore Ducasse on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website
Youth illustrated on the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen website