Beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine & an umbrella …. — Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Lucien Ducasse)
The Infinite arises from chance, which you have denied. — Stéphane Mallarmé
These quotes dealing with chance are from two French poets especially admired by the Surrealists. Perhaps because it was a potent weapon in the Surrealists’ rebellion against order and rationality, chance inspired many of their pictorial and literary works. Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp both developed art-making techniques that relied heavily on chance. The Dadaists, and the Surrealists who followed them, created an aesthetic that regarded the objet trouvé (found object) as an objet d’art. The Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara was credited with inventing the “accidental poem,” which was made by cutting up the words from a newspaper article, shaking them up in a bag, and writing them down in the order that they were drawn out of the bag.
The Surrealists enlarged the role of chance in collage significantly by adapting and playing a version of “Petits Papiers,” an old French parlor game, calling it Exquisite Corpse (after a French sentence arising during an early session of the game: “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” = “The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine.”)
To make an Exquisite Corpse poem, each successive player would write in secret a word or words forming a part of a sentence on paper, and then fold the paper over so that most of the words were invisible, leaving only the last one or two to guide the next player in continuing the sentence (an alternative was to assign each player to write a word or words according to their function as parts of speech in a sentence). The resulting poetry was surprising, amusing, and sometimes shocking.
Exquisite Corpse was well-suited to creating collages in visual art as well as writing. The next post will discuss how Exquisite Corpse helped shape Surrealist collage.