Surrealism: how our strangest dreams come to life in design

“Surrealism is no longer an art movement, but an attitude towards art and design,” said Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum, Germany, which is home to many of the most important Surrealist works of art. That attitude is clearly at work in the Strange Clay exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery. Among contemporary artists who use “clay in an unexpected way” are David Zink Yi, whose giant alien squid (2010) spreads out in a glossy pool of ink; Japanese artist Takuro Kuwata’s candy-colored Yeti-like creatures; and Lindsey Mendick’s kitchen full of ceramic snails and cockroaches.

Viewing Klara Kristalova’s botanical scene, Camouflage, installed there is like walking through Grimm’s fairytale glade. Ceramic figures, often adolescents with exaggerated facial features, change into stranger states – such as Wooden Girl, trapped in a tree stump, with twig-like hands; or a boy in street clothes with a horse’s head. The artwork was inspired by the view behind her home near Stockholm: “It’s a forest full of my abandoned sculptures,” the artist tells BBC Culture. “Over time they change, disappear and seem to grow again. I think that’s a good metaphor for life.”

Kristalova grew up in an isolated part of Sweden, “with a feeling of unease that grew when my mother read scary folktales to me,” she says. Her artist parents kept many books on surrealism, which she devoured, and that “got my spine,” she says. “I loved Max Ernst, and I especially loved Meret Oppenheim. I thought her work was a bit silly and playful, but it was almost about women’s lives.”

Oppenheim is often regarded as the most famous female surrealist. In the late thirties she designed Traccia, a playful side table on bird legs. A few years earlier, in 1936, when she was 22, she had made a bracelet from a copper tube and covered it with fur. It was for Schiaparelli, but she wore it to meet Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar in a cafe in Paris. Her friends’ comments when they saw it—that anything could be covered in fur—inspired Object, her cup and saucer covered in gazelle fur that MoMA says is “the most infamous surreal object.”

Today, now that we’re so familiar with Oppenheim’s furry cup and saucer, it’s a stretch to imagine the shock and intrigue it caused at the time. It begs the question: can surrealist-inspired art, which relied on its power to disturb, still have shock value?

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