Around 1925, members of the Surrealist group decided to play a game. Known in French as “petits papiers” (“little papers”), it consists in writing a word, hiding it by folding the paper, and passing the sheet to the next participant. In French, you would write the following words in this order: noun, adjective, verb, and so on. Half a century later, Simone Collinet (who at the time was André Breton’s wife) recalled that after a few rounds, poet Jacques Prévert suggested to “[j]ust write whatever comes to your mind.” The sentence thus produced, “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine,” was met with enthusiasm and the opening words came to refer to the game. Collinet recalls that Breton “shouted with joy” recognizing in it “one of the sources . . . of inspiration he loved so much to discover.” Eventually, the game evolved, when

[o]ne evening someone suggested playing the same game with drawings instead of words. The details were quickly worked out. We folded the sheet on a first drawing, allowing three or four lines to show beyond the fold. The following player had to continue them, give them shape, without having seen the beginning.


Then, it was delirium. All night long we gave ourselves a fantastic show, at once recipients of and contributors to the joy of the appearance of unforeseen creatures, but which we had created.


This naïve and collective creation put into question the very nature of artistic creation—as surrealism did many times.

As we learn, the game’s precise guidelines were tweaked to allow for more freedom and the opening three words, penned by Prévert, a master of the charmingly nonsensical, were matched with five more, creating a sentence that ignited the players’ imagination. If André Breton “shouted with joy,” it was because, as his wife explains, the game revealed the kind of inspiration that he keenly sought. In other words, it tapped into the unconscious. Just a few years prior, Breton had explored such avenues when, between May and June 1919, he had written with fellow Parisian Dadaist (and future Surrealist) Philippe Soupault Les Champs magnétiques. The Magnetic Fields was the product of two techniques: collaboration and automatism, which Breton defined in the First Manifesto of Surrealism as taking place “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, free of any aesthetic or moral concern.” According to Breton and Soupault, the text was published uncorrected lest rational seriousness should spoil uninhibited playfulness. Breton, who had worked in a psychiatric ward during World War I, was well-versed in Freudian theory (he even traveled to visit Dr. Freud in Vienna in 1921), and one could say that the literary practice he invented with Soupault emulates Freud’s technique of free association and that their decision to publish the text unedited was grounded on the desire to let their unconscious freely express itself without the censoring control of a literary superego.

Cadavres Exquis from La Révolution surréaliste 9–10 (1 October 1927), pp. 8, 28, 30, and 35 (photo: / Bibliothèque nationale de France).

When the group tried drawing instead of writing, “it was delirium”: the participants couldn’t stop playing a game that kept them entranced all night long, delighting them in the process and in the unexpected results. The game, created and practiced in a communal way that lessened the individual’s importance, became emblematic of the group’s ideals, for, as Collinet put it, it “called into question . . . the very nature of artistic endeavor.” And this is why when several such drawings were interspersed throughout a Surrealist journal, their caption did not identify the authors but instead simply read “Le cadavre exquis.”

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André Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, Paris: Éditions du Sagittaire, 1924.

The movement’s “official birth” can be traced to just over a year earlier, when the Surrealist Manifesto was published on 15 October 1924. Unlike Dada, from which it emerged, Surrealism was a true movement and its leader André Breton had spent the summer of 1924 writing the manifesto as a preface to his “poetic novel” Poisson soluble (Soluble Fish). In the first manifesto (a second one would follow in 1930), Breton celebrates notions such as imagination, freedom, and even madness, which are conjured up to defeat rationalism and logic. Declaring his debt to Sigmund Freud’s discoveries, Breton asks: “can’t the dream . . . be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?” He affirms his belief in “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” The quest to resolve these contradictions involves deploying what Breton calls “objective chance” (“hasard objectif”) and leads to uncovering “the marvelous.” In this quest, play is a key tool and a linchpin to the Surrealist ethos, which was practiced with steady commitment. Artist André Masson reports that during the first years of the movement, seldom would an evening end without playing Exquisite Corpse.

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Man Ray, Max Morise, André Breton, Yves Tanguy (from top to bottom), Cadavre Exquis, colored crayon, pencil, and pen and ink on paper, 12 x 7 7/8 in. (30.5 x 20 cm), 1928, Sotheby’s, Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, 4 May 2011, New York (photo: Sotheby’s).

The game became so closely associated with Surrealism that it makes a cameo appearance in the excellent television miniseries Transatlantic. Set in 1940, many scenes take place at the Villa Air-Bel in Marseille, where members of the group had taken refuge while waiting to board for America. We see Cadavres Exquis pinned to the villa’s walls, for instance during Max Ernst’s birthday (see this clip). In this carnivalesque celebration, the likes of André Breton, Marc Chagall, and Peggy Guggenheim, among others, wear artistically outlandish costumes while the birthday boy himself appears dressed as Loplop, his bird-like alter ego.

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Cadavres Exquis by students in author’s Surrealism course, Colby College, 2019.

To successfully participate and delight in the practice of Cadavre Exquis, you don’t need to be a skilled draftsman. This was the case from the game’s inception, as not all the original players were visual artists. This finds confirmation each time I teach a course on Surrealism and ask my students to produce their own Exquisite Corpses. But of course, and as the examples included in the present issue of MAJ show, the game still holds great potential for artists, even those working beyond Surrealism’s confines. This was driven home thirty years ago, when the Drawing Center in New York organized an exhibition titled The Return of the Cadavre Exquis. The show was the culmination of a two-year project in which, as wrote guest curator Ingrid Schaffner in the catalog, artists “from conceptual orientations, at all points in their careers, from all over the world [were invited] to join in the game.” The response was overwhelmingly positive: more than 600 drawings were created by 1,200 artists. About 100 exquisite corpses were selected and exhibited in New York and in other cities (the show traveled to several US locations and to Paris, the birthplace of the practice, and to Mexico City, a hotbed of Surrealism). Reviewing the show, Michael Kimmelman noted that “[t]he enthusiasm with which the artists embraced the project is not surprising,” listing the issues it involves that are “very much in the air”: the body, Surrealism itself, mixing of media, and a “let’s-work-together 90s mentality that is the yin to a certain ego-driven 80s yang.”

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Installation shot from The Return of the Cadavre Exquis, The Drawing Center, New York, 6 November–18 December 1993 (photo: The Drawing Center website).

About half of the participants, in keeping with the game’s ethos, relinquished control and allowed The Drawing Center to choose their partners. The diverse group of artists, working in many different media, produced a multifarious body of works, which curator Schaffner qualifies as “bizarre, horrifying, overwrought, satiric, disgusting, beautiful, feminist, misogynist, political, precious, and poignant.”

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Dorothea Tanning, Ray Smith, and Francesco Clemente, Untitled (Cadavre Exquis), mixed media on paper, 27 x 17 in., 1993 (photo: Dorothea Tanning Foundation,

The collaborations span generations, geography, and artistic styles. We see Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012), who became part of the group of Surrealists in exile in the US in the early ’40s (and was married for a while to Max Ernst), collaborating with Mexican American Ray Smith (b. 1959), and Italian-born Francesco Clemente (b. 1952). The unexpected encounter among these artists is Surrealist in the best sense of the term as it recalls Lautréamont’s oft-cited statement about the beauty of “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” A true Surrealist motto, this famous quote affirms the importance of fortuitous encounters of distant realities as a key to tapping into the unconscious and unleashing the marvelous.

Cadavres Exquis is the perfect tool for generating such encounters and jolting the unconscious. Play— not limited, by far, to Cadavre Exquis—was a critical tool in the Surrealist project and that shouldn’t surprise us, for freedom is essential to play: if you are forced to play, it is not play anymore! Play allows for experimentation, invention, surprise, and enchantment to occur. Play opens up a special moment and place—it is separate from the tedium of everyday life and for that reason it is transgressive and subversive. It is at once ambiguous (social scientist Brian Sutton-Smith takes the example of dogs biting each other while playing: it is a nip and yet not a “real” one) and paradoxical: it’s about freedom and yet has rules. For all these reasons, it embodies the fundamental qualities celebrated by the avant-gardes and as such possesses a utopian dimension (see my Spring 2022 Musings for the utopian nature of artistic avant-gardes). Not surprisingly, then, play features prominently in many of the 20th-century avant-gardes, not only in Surrealism; one only needs think about the iconoclastically ludic Dadaists and Futurists (in particular in their soirées) and about the celebration of children’s art by Paul Klee and others.

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Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, oil transfer and watercolor on paper, 12.52 x 9.53 in., 1920, Israel Museum, Jerusalem (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

One of the images we chose for this issue’s theme description is Klee’s Angelus Novus. It is one among many of the Swiss artist’s works that strive to capture the authenticity, freedom, and playfulness of a child’s drawing. What is particularly moving about this work is that Walter Benjamin purchased it in 1921. Echoing the Surrealist notion, Benjamin’s friend (and pioneer sexologist) Charlotte Wolff noted that upon acquiring the work, the philosopher “behaved as if something marvelous had been given to him.” Wolff, who was close to Surrealist circles when she lived in Paris between 1933 and 36, goes on to add that the philosopher “had a personal relationship with this picture, as if it were part of his mind.”

Benjamin dedicated to Klee’s image one of his Theses on the Philosophy of History (# IX):

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

In this text written in 1940, the year of Benjamin’s death, Klee’s “New Angel” becomes the Angel of History and the work’s lighthearted playfulness takes on ominous tones. The angel appears at once turned to the past but with no other choice than to move towards the future, propelled by the storm of progress. In a fascinating coincidence, Benjamin makes a short appearance in Transatlantic before he commits suicide while escaping to Spain. The event is recounted in the series’ second episode, which, not so coincidentally, is titled The Angel of History, alluding to Benjamin’s interpretation of this very picture.

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First issue of La Révolution surréaliste, 1 December 1924 (photo: / Bibliothèque nationale de France).

History, catastrophic events, progress, life and death, hope and despair: we might think we have strayed far from a lighthearted parlor game . . . but as André Masson explains, these were serious games, meant to give way to “an upheaval of thought” (“un bouleversement de la pensée”). We should not forget that Surrealism was never just about art, it was a philosophy, a way of life—and a revolution. This is forcefully expressed in the title of its journal: La Révolution surréaliste (the entire run, from 1924 through 1929, can be found on the site of the Bibliothèque Nationale’s digital library, Gallica; available here). The cover of the first issue, which appeared on 1 December 1924, programmatically declares the need for a new declaration of the rights of man (“il faut aboutir à une nouvelle déclaration des droits de l’homme”).



Benjamin, Walter. “Über den Begriff der Geschichte.” 1940. English: “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. 259–60.

Breton, André and Philippe Soupault, Les Champs magnétiques. Paris: Au sans pareil, 1920. English: The Magnetic Fields by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, translated and introduced by David Gascoyne. London: Atlas Press, 1985.

Brotchie, Alastair and Mel Gooding, ed. A Book of Surrealist Games. Boston & London: Shambhala Redstone Editions, 1995. (You can download a pdf of the book here).

Collinet, Simone. “Les Cadavres exquis.” In André Breton, Le Cadavre exquis, son exaltation, Saint Étienne: Musée d’art et d’industrie. 50–51. (Although the catalogue contains an English translation, I have adapted it for my quote in this essay).

Kern, Anne M. “From One Exquisite Corpse (in)to Another.” In The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game. Ed. Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Davis Schneiderman, and Tom Denlinger. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 3–28.

Kimmelman, Michael. “The Exquisite Corpse Rises From the Dead.” Art View. New York Times 7 November 1993. Section 2, p. 41.

Masson, André. “D’où viens-tu cadavre exquis? Un des jeux (sérieux) des Surréalistes.” In André Breton, Le Cadavre exquis, son exaltation, Saint Étienne: Musée d’art et d’industrie. 28.

Philbrick, Jane, ed. The Return of the Cadavre Exquis. New York City: Drawing Center, 1993.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Wolff, Charlotte. Hindsight. London: Quartet Books, 1980. 68.



My heartfelt thanks to Beth Finch for alerting me to the 1993 exhibition and book from The Drawing Center.


Image at top: Valentine Hugo (Valentine Gross), Nusch Éluard, Paul Éluard, Cadavre exquis, drawing, 31 x 24 cm, 1931, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (work in the public domain; photo: Philippe Migeat – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI / Dist. RMN-GP).