‘Exquisite Corpse’ is a game that was invented by the Surrealists in 1925 as a means to allow the artist’s mind to roam free and explore the unconscious. It is a pictorial version of the game ‘Consequences’ in which players take turns to draw sections of a body before folding the paper over and passing the paper on to the next player. The Chapman brothers develop the Surrealists’ invention in their set of twenty etchings. To create their version they prepared ten head sections and an assistant covered their contribution before they exchanged plates and worked on the next sections of the body.
The Chapmans’ Exquisite Corpse etchings however markedly differ from the surrealist works created using the same method. Whereas many of the Surrealist works are pastel or pencil drawings, the Chapman brothers revel in the precise detail afforded by the etching technique they adopt and produce a more grotesque and sometimes darkly comical effect. The minute details of the etchings are both repellant and engrossing at the same time. We cannot help but peer more closely at meticulously rendered details which include deformed and mutated human genitalia and dripping blood and wounds.
Georges Bataille effectively describes this idea which is apparent in their work: ‘The painter is condemned to please. By no means can he make a painting an object of aversion. The purpose of a scarecrow is to frighten birds, to keep them away from the field where it stands, but even the most terrifying painting is there to attract visitors.’ (Bataille, Georges “The Cruel Practice of Art”) We can’t help but admire at the same time as being revolted by this series.
There is another disturbing contradiction in the fact that these grotesque monsters are presented as having originated from a playful childlike game. Some of the images are made from childish marks and features which contrast with the more adult scenes. Contradiction and unease is central to the effect and intention of these works. The Chapman brothers have said “We want to slow down acceptance of our work so you can’t just absorb it and move on, and anything you can’t resolve your response to is transfixing.”
As much as they are horrible, these images are also ironic and humorous, their details playing on unlikely juxtapositions and surprising the viewer: one of the monstrous creations is wearing a watch. The Chapman brothers have described laughter “as a convulsive reaction; “convulsion is that inability to make a rational response or where the linguistic response is woefully inadequate”. Here they adopt this approach to laughter making the viewer uncomfortable, we smirk nervously at the details which contrast uneasily with grotesque and violent content.
The series is currently on display in the ‘Poetry and Dream’ section of Tate Modern. Do check their website before you visit as they rotate their collection frequently: www.tate.org.uk/modern/explore