During the early years of the Surrealist movement, a typical evening spent among its poets and artists might include a game of "exquisite corpse." The exquisite corpse—the earliest among the many games invented by the Surrealists—was a kind of collective collage of words or images. Invented around 1925, either in the apartment of André Breton (1896-1966) on rue Fontaine or at 54 rue du Chateau, where the Surrealists Jacques Prévert (1900-1977), Yves Tanguy (1900-1955). and Marcel Duhamel (1900-1966) lived, the exquisite corpse was based on an old parlor game that used folded paper. The Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism (written by various Surrealists and published in 1939) defines the exquisite corpse:

Game of folded paper that consists in having a sentence or a drawing composed by several persons ignorant of the preceding collaboration. The example that has become a classic and gave its name to the game is the first sentence obtained by those means: "The exquisite/corpse/will drink/the new/wine."

In Andre Brétons The Exquisite Corpse: Its Exaltation (1975) the writer Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) described the rules of the game:

Three (or more) of you sit down around a table. Each one of you, hiding from the others, draws on a sheet the upper part of a body, or the attributes able to take its place. Pass on to your neighbor on the left this sheet, folded so as to conceal the drawing, but for three or four of its lines passing beyond the fold. Meanwhile, you get from your neighbor on the right another sheet prepared in the same way (previously folded perpendicular to the axis of the body to be realized)...In the event that colors are used, it is a requirement to pass, along with the sheet, the colors, limited to the number of those used.

The exquisite corpse appeared for the first time in print in the journal La Revolution Surréaliste (October 1917). This publication reproduced five drawings and several poems without identifying their creators, which underscored the importance of the games collaborative intent. Bréton summarized this importance as follows:

What exalted us in these productions was indeed the conviction that, come what might, they bore the mark of something that could not be begotten by one mind alone and that they were endowed, in a much greater measure, with a power of drift that poetry cannot value too highly.

The three exquisite corpse drawings from the Bergman collection on display here are extremely rare, and they illustrate the principle of poetic brainstorming so important to Surrealist methodology.

Wikipedia: Exquisite Corpse

Top illustration: Exquisite Corpse, March 18, 1927
André Masson (French, 1896-1987)
Max Ernst (American and French, born Germany, 1891-1976)
Max Morise (French, 1900-1973)
Graphite and colored crayons on ivory wove paper
200 x 155 mm
Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection, 104.1991
©2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Text and images from:
The Art Institute of Chicago