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Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘ethnographic Surrealism’

30 September 2021

Michael Clegg, University of Birmingham

In the 1950s, Eduardo Paolozzi was a leading figure in the emergence of a distinctive, post-war British modernism in visual art, one characterised by the use of collage and the incorporation of motifs from popular culture. Later, he was to receive multiple public commissions and is known by many through his sculpture Newton (1995) in the British Library forecourt, a reworking of William Blake’s foundational image of Romantic anti-science. This essay looks at another of Paolozzi’s activities from his time as an established artist: his curation of an exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, then Britain’s national museum of ethnography, in 1985. The show, ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl’, was framed by the museum’s staff as a creative response to the inadequacies of their own discipline with its rational and analytic (implicitly scientific) approach to objects from non-European cultures. I argue here that Paolozzi’s curation failed, however, to provide a convincing alternative, its own weakness rooted in his fealty to his particular modernist heritage.

In a book to accompany ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’, Paolozzi describes his curatorial approach to the exhibition as derived from a much earlier experience, a visit he made to Paris in 1947. He proposes that Paris at the time offered two things. First, old-fashioned museums of ‘primitive’ culture where objects were juxtaposed apparently at random. Second, and relatedly, exposure to an intellectual attitude in which ‘a person can look at, and associate, disparate things at the same time’.[1] This style of thinking encouraged not a rational, analytic gaze but rather syncretic associations between disparate objects whether ‘Dogon masks, pre-Columbian stone sculpture […] or modern machines’.[2] Paolozzi sees this cognitive attitude as distinctively French. However, Dawn Ades, writing in the same volume, more convincingly relates it to the ideas of ‘ethnographic Surrealism’, a movement associated in particular with the pre-war magazine Minotaure (1933 – 39) but reinvigorated in the intellectual milieu of post-war Paris.[3]Tracing a heritage to Dada and earlier Surrealisms, ethnographic Surrealism sought to subvert the categories of European thought – in particular those of science and rationality – through juxtapositions that included ethnographic objects, deemed to be at once potent in their meaning yet ultimately mysterious.

There was little overt reference to ethnography in Paolozzi’s work in subsequent decades, though his Collage over African Sculpture (1960), in which a diagrammatic clock mechanism is superimposed over a found-photograph of the African object, bears the stamp of ethnographic Surrealism. However, the influence of his Parisian experiences can be seen to underlie his broader adoption of a collage-based aesthetic. The resulting juxtaposition of shapes and objects in a picture, often unrelated by any thematic or spatial logic, gave a visual vibrancy to his work that was important to its popularity and to his reputation within British Pop Art. However, his writing alongside ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’ makes clear that the intention was not just about visual impact. He was also embodying an epistemology based on chance encounter, ambiguity and speculative affinity, an epistemology drawn from ethnographic Surrealism. Moreover, it was this collage-inspired approach, and its intellectual underpinnings, that he transferred from his art to his curation. The exhibition included ethnographic objects traditionally regarded as important, but set these haphazardly among other curios from the collection (including nineteenth-century papier-mâché architectural moulds), souvenirs made in traditional styles for the tourist trade, and sculptures by Paolozzi himself, given a hasty antique finish, including Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1985, now in the Tate collection).

The main essay in the book published alongside ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’ was by Malcolm McLeod, the British Museum’s Keeper of Ethnography and director at the Museum of Mankind. In it, McLeod is frank about the weaknesses he finds in his own discipline, seeing much of its previous literature as actively ‘destructive’, manifesting a crude and acquisitive empiricism that sought solely to collect and classify objects and dismembered the connections between them and the contexts which gave them meaning.[4] It fragmented the holistic reality of those ‘alien’ societies it sought to study, even as it proposed its own classificatory categories as objective and permanent. As a contrast to these failings, McLeod celebrates Paolozzi’s perceived achievement. The artist’s nostalgic recreation of the uncategorised displays of earlier ethnographic museums is taken to challenge received classificatory systems, weakening their walls. For McLeod, Paolozzi’s playful inclusion of ‘inauthentic’ items such as souvenirs illuminated the contingency of existing European classificatory criteria in both art and science.[5]

Yet McLeod also betrays disquiet at the approach, largely despite himself. He notes – repeatedly – that Paolozzi’s eye for collage takes no interest in where the constituent objects come from, giving a sidelong acknowledgement that this amplifies the ‘destructive’ tendency of past ethnographers to rip object from their context. He also observes how Western writers have given excessive attention to bizarre objects and behaviour in other societies, so that even ‘the logical and rational [is] made mysterious and magical’, but he avoids explicitly conceding that Paolozzi’s curation emphasises just this tendency.[6]

With greater critical distance it is apparent that Paolozzi’s subversion of the structures of knowledge developed within ethnography did not produce a deeper understanding of their objects but rather made them grist to the mill of his pre-existing epistemology, rooted in ethnographic Surrealism. While this modernist intellectual heritage was celebrated in the book accompanying the exhibition, the result was simply to reproduce clichés of the non-European as irrational. Moreover, by foregrounding juxtapositions of objects created by Paolozzi, with no regard for context, ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’ further distanced those perspectives which might legitimately complicate – and develop – the crude empiricism McLeod found in his own discipline: those of the societies under consideration.

Image Credit / Caption: Eduardo Paolozzi, Newton (1985), British Library. Photograph © Loco Steve, 2014.


[1] Eduardo Paolozzi, ‘Primitive Art, Paris and London’, in Malcolm McLeod and others, Eduardo Paolozzi: Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl (London: Museum of Mankind, 1985), 9-11 (p. 10).

[2] Ibid., p. 10.

[3] Dawn Ades, ‘Paolozzi, Surrealism, Ethnography’, Lost Magic Kingdoms, pp. 60-66

[4] Malcolm McLeod, ‘Paolozzi and Identity’, Lost Magic Kingdoms, 15-59 (p. 25).

[5] Ibid., pp. 28, 46.

[6] Ibid., p. 22.


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