Between the Covers: Surrealist Erotica

Kirstie Meehan, Archivist at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art tells us about the challenges of curating a show that includes erotic material.

Hans Bellmer, Georges Hugnet, Oeillades ciselëes en branche [Glances cut from the branch], 1939, © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Oeillades ciselees en branche which dates from 1939, is intimate in format - easily hidden in a pocket or passed surreptitiously to a friend - but its exquisite production belies the explicit nature of the content. Images of sex and nudity float through the pages, representing romantic love but also challenging society’s taboos and moral codes. Georges Hugnet’s collages take imagery from pornographic postcards and magazines to create scenes of erotic pleasure, but also erotic transgression. Voyeurism and sadism are rife, with sexual scenarios taking place in ecclesiastical backdrops: they are intended to confront society’s taboos, as much to arouse.

Erotica has a long history of anonymous authorship, clandestine publication and underground circulation. The Surrealists enthusiastically embraced this tradition, and artists such as Man Ray, Salvador Dalí and Hans Bellmer contributed illustrations to erotic texts between the 1920s and 1940s, their works frequently being seized by the authorities due to French censorship laws.

The exhibition Between the Covers: Surrealist Erotica showcases the variety in scale, technique and subject matter that typifies the erotica produced by the movement.

Why exhibit this material? I was eager to show a different facet to Surrealism: the movement’s sense of transgression and boundary-pushing has been diluted through the familiarity of Surrealist imagery in advertising and popular culture – we all recognise Magritte’s bowler-hatted men or Dalí’s melting clocks. For me, Surrealism’s intellectual dangerousness and its refusal to accept society's conventions are encapsulated in the erotic publications they produced. As well as celebrating romantic love and passion, they challenged societal norms and continued the struggle towards individual liberty initiated by precursors such as the Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814). Although challenging to view, they show a side of Surrealism which is often neglected.

There are obviously challenges in displaying books like these. For one thing, they are incredibly sexually explicit! The exhibition requires clear signage, warning visitors of the nature of the material and specifying its unsuitability for under-18s. It’s inevitable too that some of the original effect is lost when books are displayed behind glass, and in a public space: visitors can’t handle them, so the intimacy of holding a book in one’s hands and turning the pages is lost. Despite these issues, I hope the exhibition will get across just how challenging, perplexing and beautiful Surrealist erotica can be.

Between the Covers: Surrealist Erotica was on show at the Keiller Library, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) in 2014. 

Hans Bellmer La Poupée [The Doll] 1933 - 1935 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023
De Sade
By Kirstie Meehan, Archivist, 23 September 2014