Behind a theatrical curtain in the Menil’s Surrealism galleries, A Surrealist Wunderkammer is an idiosyncratic and culturally heterogeneous display of objects identified with brass number tags. The exhibition opened in 1999 with the title Witnesses—A Surrealist Wunderkammer, which changed to Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision with a revised display in 2001. Anthropologist Edmund S. Carpenter (1922–2011) originally conceived both of these installations in relation to the exceptional collection of Surrealism assembled by John and Dominique de Menil, his in-laws. The single-gallery installation presents more than 300 works from the museum’s collection or on long-term loan from the de Menil family and Rock Foundation.
Wunderkammern (“wonder rooms”), also known as cabinets of curiosities, developed in Europe during the 16th century as royal treasuries and storehouses for collections of art, curiosities, and natural marvels. They were the precursors to 19th-century museums of natural history and ethnography, which became central repositories for objects collected by European and American missionaries, colonial administrators, and ethnologists in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Even though their politics were anti-colonial, Surrealists regularly visited these museums and were closely associated with the burgeoning market for “Primitive Art” fueled by colonialism, military conflict, and looting.
A Surrealist Wunderkammer presents an interpretive matrix for understanding the nature and psychology of humanity from the perspective of Surrealism. Artists associated with the movement were avid collectors of ethnographic objects, natural ephemera, and other items that demonstrated visual puns, raw sensuality, and conceptual dualisms such as silent music and static dance. They expropriated and invented new meanings for the objects they collected, sometimes with a limited understanding of their original use or cultural history. Found objects, tourist curios, and fakes, along with 19th-century European astrolabes, anamorphoscopes, and other visual technologies included in the exhibition underscore the multitude of sources Surrealists used to pursue their interests in accessing the authenticity of dreams, the power of the unconscious, and a universal structure of mythology.