“Surrealism is no longer an art movement but an attitude towards art and design,” says Mathieu Kreiss, director of Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, home to many of the most important Surrealist artworks. This approach is clearly at work in the exhibition Strange Clay at the Hayward Gallery in London. Among contemporary artists using “accidental clay” are David Zink, whose Giant Alien Squid (2010) spreads out in a clear pool of paint; Japanese artist Takuro Kuwata’s candy-colored yeti-like creatures; And Lindsey Mendyk’s kitchen is infested with ceramic slugs and cockroaches.
Seeing Klara Kristalova’s botanical scene, Camouflage, installed there turns out to be like a Grimm fairy tale. The ceramic figures, often youthful with exaggerated features, are transformed into grotesque poses – such as a wooden girl, trapped in a tree trunk, with clawed hands; Or a boy in street clothes with a horse’s head. “It’s a forest full of abandoned sculptures,” the artist tells BBC Culture, inspired by the landscape behind her home near Stockholm. “Over time, they change, disappear and seem to grow again. I find it a good metaphor for life.”
Kristalova grew up in an isolated part of Sweden, “when my mother read me scary folk tales, the feeling of unease grew.” Her artist parents kept a lot of books on Surrealism, which she devoured, and it “took a toll on me,” she says. “I loved Max Ernst, and I especially loved Merritt Oppenheim. I found her work a bit silly and playful, but it got close to women’s lives.”
Oppenheim is often recognized as the most famous female surrealist. In the late 1930s she designed Traccia, an elegant side table that sat on bird legs. A few years ago, in 1936, when she was 22 years old, she made a bracelet out of a brass tube and covered it with hair. It was for Schiaparelli, but she wore it to meet Pablo Picasso and Dora Mar in a Paris cafe. Her friends’ comments about seeing her—that anything can be covered in fur—inspired the object, her cup and saucer covered in gazelle fur, which, according to MoMA, “is the single most notorious Surrealist object. is”.
Today, when we are more familiar with Oppenheim’s Furry cup and saucer, it is difficult to imagine the shock and intrigue it caused at the time. This begs the question: Does reality-inspired art, which relies on power to disrupt, still have shock value?