Surreal art: a recipe for success


This is “A la main du diable” (Devil’s Hand) by Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux, a French artist who farms popular culture with the plough of surrealism. In simple kitchen terms, he is a blender of anything pop and everything surreal.

Given the density of crowds this work was drawing at a recent surrealist exhibition in Paris, it might be seen as the ultimate recipe for a successful show. I spent some time in front of it as well. It is impactful, at least when you see it for the first time. A huge red hand, hanging in the darkened air of a gallery can hardly leave anyone indifferent.

So, get your bowls and knives out on the kitchen table: we’ll be cooking some art now!

Four easy steps to fix a tasty successful show:

Step 1. Choose your foundation: find something (a myth, story, or film) that intellectuals believe is an important part of your country’s cultural heritage (doesn’t matter if it is good or bad heritage) to build your own story on

Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux seems to have taken the eponymous French movie of 1942, that featured the left hand of the devil as the talisman that was bringing luck to the main character (until its owner showed up, of course). The movie’s aesthetics was built around huge shadows, dramatised hand symbols, etc. I don’t know why it is the right hand both in the poster and the exhibit.


Step 2. Choose your main ingredients: three or more images from popular culture in such a way that…

  • one of them is provocatively sexy


  • one of them is about violence (sex-related, preferably)
Vincent Sellaer (c 1500 – 1589) Judith with the Head of Holofernes
  • one of them is about evil that lurks behind a cheerful mask (or good that is hidden behind grisly appearance)


Step 3. Throw to the pot a good measure of surrealism (eggs, tails, animal parts growing on human bodies, enlarged organs, etc.).


It is great to bake together something unashamedly pop, semi-intellectual pop, and a bit of really hardcore intellectualism. And do not forget the titties! 

You may want to know how to recognise if something is “intellectual”. When it comes to people we instinctively know who is an intellectual and who’s not (intellectuals use multi-syllable words at least once per sentence, and know that Ed Ruscha is pronounced as “roo-shay”).  The problem is that besides doing or loving intellectual stuff intellectual people also do a lot of down-to-earth things. How do you tell then if something is intellectual?!

Easy. It is usually something that intellectual people find more interesting doing than having sex. 

Step 4. Once you’ve secured a prominent place for the titties, start moralizing!

Add a spoonful of something religious, pious, or considered 100% moral by the society. Piling up symbols together helps to create baffling complexity (highly valued by Dali admirers) that many spectators take for cleverness. This trick is also used by some Swiss watchmakers, who sell you a transparent watch with a zillion moving parts to make you feel an idiot in mechanics each time you look at your own wrist. The only thing these watches are not good at, is actually telling time. It is more efficient to check it on the phone, rather than searching for the minute and hour hands amidst the chaos of moving parts. Dali was often doing the same, by the way, for identical marketing purposes.


The work of art is almost complete. You might want to leave a few open-ends, like introducing the figure of a cowboy, or referencing de Chirico’s mannequins. This can help create some room for spectators’ individual interpretation. Art-house movie directors are called geniuses for doing it (they call it loose ends of the plot).


The last, but not least. Make it larger than life. The larger, the better.

Center Pompidou believes this is art worthy of being shown together with Picasso, Miro, Max Ernst, Duchamp, and Giacometti.

What do YOU think?
I am seriously interested. If you have no time to write a comment, just VOTE!

*) on the toilet issue: it is a shame for the gallery, and a disaster for its visitors. I wrote about it here


  1. It’s very hard for me not to roll my eyes at something that is trying SO HARD to be clever. For the most part I do enjoy Dali, but yesterday walking through the Alexander Borodin retrospective I was rather bored, even though I liked the way he played with (physical) perspectives and angles & planes.

    1. Re: Alex Borodin. Each time an artist invites me to get mentally involved into his or her work, or work out my own interpretation from the stimulus he or she created, my biggest question is, “Is it worth my time?”, As I feel oblidged to take part in this “game” (I came to the exhibition, after all, and even paid money to see it), I spend some time “processing” the work of art. Alas, in 90% of cases the answer to my question is “no, it was not worth it”. It is compensated, of course, by the remaining 10%. Yet, all this experience tells me that when at artist tries to look clever in his works, he rarely, in fact, raises to the challenge )) So, I understand how you feel )

  2. Another great wicked post which I am about to re-read just for the fun of it. As for the piece – it is an incoherent patchwork of second hand ideas – even at first glance it feels disjointed. After a second glance – it is literal and predictable. A garish gimmick. But makes for good PR shots …

  3. Well,
    as you say it is impressive, catching and intriguing at first view. But, then, passing a bit of time in front of it….yes, that’s totally a marketing move! I don’t know this artist, but this work seems to me as visually great (I would put it in a eccentric disco, all designed in black, red and white) as meaningless. As you wrote it is very easy to pick what is hot, what is going to have an immediate effect on the public, creating a mist of possible meaning that is instead just a clever special effect!
    Now I know that this is marketing and not art, but on the other hand an artist has to sell, and sometimes be tricky to do that. I unluckily heard way too many times people, many of them considered intellectuals (what a shock!), saying about work pieces “I wouldn’t put it in my house/hang it on my wall”, and that is frustrating because in my opinion to reduce art to a decoration IS VERY WRONG AND SAD. But this makes me think (even though I have a very clear idea of what art means to me) what is our collective idea of art? I mean, art was used as “decoration” of great buildings in the past, sometimes to convey a message, sometimes just to look glorious on a wall. And even if this didn’t stop some great artists hiding their own messages or philosophical ideas in a canvas, we admire some art pieces just for their beauty, for their impact on us.
    So, as usual I ended up producing more questions than answers and writing a way too long comment, but I am curious: what do you think about it? And what do you think is our collective idea of art?

    1. First, it is a great comment, with great questions – so thank you very much for it.

      I think art is anything an individual believes is art, even if it is art for that particular individual only. And in this, I am following the ideas of John Carey, who wrote an amazing book, “What good are the arts?”

      Defining great art is a bit tricky, and I will try to offer a solution in one of my posts. It requires some charts that I am yet to find a way to draw nicely.

      There are paintings which I consider very good art, but would never put on my wall, for a very simple reason: ideas or emotions those paintings communicate in a very powerful way are not something I would like to entertain myself with on a daily basis. For instance, I remember some great paintings showing isolation of an individual in the modern world. I know this nerve of the society is as taut as a guitar string, but I don’t want to pinch it each time I wake up or sit down to dinner.

      I am not blaming the artist in this post. No. His art, I hope, sells, it entertains people, many whom would be rather disappointed with the exhibition were it absent. Other works and other artists are more difficult to understand and process, so without this kind of art many people would just shut down their minds to art overall.

      1. I have heard of that book, I will read it soon. I totally agree with you when you say that art is an individual experience.
        Being a big fan of pre-Second World War German and Austrian art (so, mainly Expressionism), I really can’t think to art as something to hang on my living room wall. But as you say you need to know the background of some artists to understand them, and a lot of people are not interested enough in art to do that, so, yes, we all need this “entertaining art” to get more people involved. And also because, let’s admit this, it is a guilty pleasure!

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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