French classes visit Menil Drawing Institute and Collection


Shelley Stein

The AP French class explores Surrealist exhibits at the Menil Drawing Institute.

Max Beard, Staff Writer

Normally, a black-and-white photograph of a partially unclothed man with a large butterfly covering his face would be strange and unnerving. For a group of French students earlier this month, it was just part of the most recent field trip experience.

The Max Ernst photograph was one of dozens of works by major Surrealist artists on display during a French field trip to the Menil Drawing Institute and adjacent Menil Collection on Tuesday, Feb. 11. Students from the AP French Language and Culture and Seminar in French classes  viewed drawings by artists including Salvador Dalí and René Magritte and learned about the Paris-born artistic and literary movement during a French-language lecture by the Institute’s chief curator. 

The 1920 photograph, titled La Santé par le Sport, is reminiscent of a Surrealist classic: the cadavre exquis or exquisite corpse. In this technique, multiple artists collaborate to create a part of a combined larger drawing without knowing how their contribution fits in, resulting in a nonsensical final version, often involving a human body with randomly placed parts.

Students appreciated the intimate setting of the new Menil Drawing institute and guide Edouard Kopp’s clear explanations and context given in French. 

“It was very enjoyable and educational,” senior Shelby Wilson said. “I appreciated Mr. Kopp’s lesson and being able to see drawings by Magritte, Salvador Dali and Max Ernst that were picked just for us.” 

According to Kopp, the will to go against reason, to exploit unconscious forces and to liberate emotion are three key aspects of surrealism.

He explained that the founder of Surrealism André Breton sought to reveal the “real functioning of the mind” through “pure psychic automatism.” This manifested itself in artists drawing and sketching without a predetermined purpose, changing their art as new thoughts came into their head.

The group, accompanied by French teachers Shelley Stein (‘88) and Elizabeth Hythecker Willcutt,  then headed over to the Menil Collection, where assistant curator and Surrealist expert Natalie Dupêcher gave a guided tour in French of  a temporary exhibit focused on the ways in which Surrealism influences photography, Surrealist Photography and the Surreal Imagination.

“The field trip was very interesting and insightful,” junior William Sanders said. “In class, we have been studying surrealist art and literature for a few weeks, so to see it in person was very constructive and a great learning experience.”