“Surrealism is no longer an art movement but an attitude toward art and design,” says Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum, Germany, receptacle for many of the most important Surrealist artworks. That attitude is clearly at work at the exhibition Strange Clay, at London’s Hayward Gallery. Among the contemporary artists using “clay in an unexpected way” are David Zink Yi, whose giant alien squid (2010) sprawls in a glossy pool of ink; Japanese artist Takuro Kuwata’s candy-coloured Yeti-like creatures; and Lindsey Mendick’s kitchen infested with ceramic slugs and cockroaches.
Viewing Klara Kristalova’s botanical scene, Camouflage, that is installed there is like wandering through a Grimm’s fairytale glade. Ceramic figures, often adolescents with exaggerated features, morph into weirder states – such as Wooden Girl, trapped inside a tree stump, with twiggy hands; or a boy in street gear with a horse’s head. The artwork was inspired by the view behind her house near Stockholm: “It’s a forest full of my abandoned sculptures,” the artist tells BBC Culture. “With time, they change, disappear and seem to grow anew. I find that to be a good metaphor for life.”
Kristalova grew up in an isolated part of Sweden, “with a sense of disquiet intensified when my mother read me scary folk tales,” she says. Her artist parents kept many books on Surrealism, which she devoured, and that “got into my backbone,” she says. “I loved Max Ernst, and I especially loved Meret Oppenheim. I found her work a bit silly and playful, but it came close to being about women’s life.”
Oppenheim is often credited as being the most famous female Surrealist. In the late 1930s she designed Traccia, a whimsical side table sitting on birds’ legs. A few years before, in 1936, when she was 22, she had made a bracelet out of a brass tube, and covered it in fur. It was for Schiaparelli, but she wore it to meet Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at a cafe in Paris. Her friends’ comments on seeing it – that anything could be covered in fur – inspired Object, her cup and saucer coated in gazelle fur that, according to MoMA, is “the single most notorious Surrealist object”.
Today, when 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?