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  • Alvin Chong

Surrealism and the Cartier Crash

A brief history of the avant-garde Surrealist movement and the watch that best embodies it.


Bizarro World

The term “Surrealism” conjures up images of the uncanny, the absurd, the abstract, the supernatural, the eccentric and anything that fundamentally breaks the conventional moulds of aesthetics to create a sense of bewilderment.

Surrealism was an artistic and cultural movement that originated from Europe in 1924. Believing in the creative fertility and the boundless potential of the human mind, it plunges the practitioner into the subconscious (and often irrational) mind as the arbiter for artistic and aesthetic creations. Regarded to be the founder of Surrealism, French poet and writer André Breton succinctly penned it in his Manifesto of Surrealism as “Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” Acclaimed Belgian Surrealist artist, René Magritte, also remarked that “The surreal is but reality that has not been disconnected from its mystery.”

André Breton

At its core, Surrealism strives to liberate creativity from the oppressiveness of the rational human mind. Surrealism was at once a highly malleable and attractive movement that was extended to many forms of art such as paintings, drawings, poetry, novels, photography and more. It sparked an unprecedented creative renaissance that exposed the deepest inner workings of artists, often showcasing astonishing, mythical and provocative imagery.

Philosopher’s Lamp (1936), René Magritte. Image: Wikiart.
Le Grand Van Gogh (2013), Bruno Catalano. Image: Bruno Catalano.

The Seeds of Controlled Chaos

To better understand and appreciate this momentous movement, some historical context is in order.

Surrealism was the artistic heir to the Dada movement which flourished from 1916 to the 1920s. The daring mindsets of Dada works reflected the tumultuous period as the world witnessed events such as World War 1, the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism. As social structures appeared to be on the verge of collapsing, artists and intellectuals were understandably furious by the brutality and disruptions caused by modern society.

The Dada movement arose as a reaction to the inanity of the conflicts and undertook a political undertone, one that rejected fervent ideals such as unbridled capitalism, nationalism and bourgeoise attitudes. Dadaists believed that these were the superfluous outcomes of conformity to culture and societies’ embrace of rationality, and thus decided to not conform instead. This was expressed through artworks which started to become more unconventional and non sequitur as artists rejected tiresome established notions of art, since there was a prevailing sense that art was becoming meaningless in an increasingly disorderly society. Dadaist works became seen as anti-art and anti-aesthetic, reflecting the practitioners’ protests of establishments and institutions.

An example is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a factory-made urinal that was submitted as a sculpture to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917. It attempted to pass as art with just a signing of the pseudonym “R. Mutt” on its side, provoking what it even means to be an artistic creation.

Fountain (1917), Marcel Duchamp. Image: Alfred Stieglitz.

While Dada was chaotic and almost nonsensical in nature, Surrealism aimed to make sense of the chaos and to control, focus and programme it. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was particularly inspired by the psychoanalytical theories of Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud

Freud was preoccupied with the belief that dreams could be analysed to provide insights into a patient to facilitate their healings and therapies. Along the same vein, Breton believed that the unconscious dreams were omnipotent reservoirs of artistic inspirations in of themselves. Writing in his manifesto, Breton declares imagination as his beloved, and what he loves most in it is its “unsparing quality.” Using techniques such as automatism, frottage and collage, Surrealists are able to create sublime and unfathomable artworks that seem to belong to alternate realms, undefiled by social mores. Surrealism continues to be profoundly influential in contemporary art. As new societal norms and technologies develop, so too do the inner workings of the human mind transform, allowing for the boundless exploration of the bizarre.

Masterpieces of Surrealism

To better depict Surrealism, here are three masterpieces of the movement.

The Tilled Field (1924), Joan Miró. Image: Guggenheim.

A popular Spanish artist, Joan Miró surrealistically depicts and expresses his childhood farm in The Tilled Field. Featuring an array of farm animals, the brightly-coloured painting and scattered inscrutable elements provide an element of abstraction - a key characteristic of Surrealism.

The Persistence of Memory (1931), Salvador Dalí. Image: MoMA.

No article of Surrealism is complete without a mention of The Persistence of Memory, perhaps what many considers as the defining artwork of the movement.

Named as one of Salvador Dalí’s masterpieces, the dreamy landscape of The Persistence of Memory in which hard objects turn limp and droopy systematises confusion which, according to Dalí, achieves the Surrealist goal of “discredit(ing) the world of reality.”

Of particular notice is the melted and distorted timepieces, which Dalí cites melting Camembert cheese as the inspiration. These highlight the fleeting and impermanent nature of time. Interestingly, in order to grasp the creative potential of dreams, Dalí would take several brief naps a day in order to enter a hyper-associative state to unlock access to his unconscious mind.

Luncheon in Fur (1936), Meret Oppenheim. Image: MoMA.

One of the central preoccupations of Surrealism is to bring everyday mundane objects into an unlikely alliance. Sparked by a joke by Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar that anything could be covered with fur, Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined metal bracelet, Oppenheim‘s Luncheon in Fur, which features a fur-covered teacup, spoon and saucer, is considered a preeminent Surrealist work.

The unconventional objects stress a physicality which reimagines how we feel when drinking or eating from a fur-covered teacup and spoon. How we activate our subconscious mind to imagine this tactile experience, which is wholly subjective, fulfils one of the tenets of Surrealism.

The Watch that Embodies Surrealism

The Cartier Crash, arguably one of the most hallowed names in horology and first sold in 1967, is very much a wearable piece of Surrealist art. In fact, it closely resembles some of the distorted clocks in the earlier-examined artwork, The Persistence of Memory. Featuring sinuous case lines that do not endear to a conventional form, the Cartier Crash greatly juxtaposes against the archetypal mould of watches. Yet, it is in this very otherworldly nature itself which makes the Cartier Crash surrealist and that sets it apart from its watch brethren, making it futilely irresistible.

As left-field as the Cartier Crash appears to be, it actually has a very distinct and well-balanced sense of volume and proportions, as Pierre Rainero, the Image, Style and Heritage Director of Cartier, would say. In fact, there is a high degree of discerning intelligence that went into its design. Surrealist art is not abstract just for the sake of being abstract.

Cartier Crash circa 1991. Image: Phillips.

A great deal of the mystique of the Cartier Crash, apart from its shape, comes from its creation myth. According to the myth, the idea behind the Cartier Crash was conceived of when a client brought in a Cartier Baignoire Allongée that was caught in a car accident. Melted and deformed by the scorching flames of the accident, the “crashed” Baignoire Allongée served as inspiration for the head of Cartier London then, Jean-Jacques Cartier, to create a similar watch that followed non-conformist and asymmetrical principles. However, as much as this anecdote elevates the mystique of the Cartier Crash, Francesca Cartier Brickell, in her opus The Cartiers, dispels the theory and notes that the Cartier Crash was actually a project between Jean-Jacques Cartier and Cartier artisan Rupert Emmerson. Regardless of how it came to be, it could not be argued that Cartier had given birth to a gem.

Cartier London Baignoire Allongée. Image: Paul Boutros.

Speak to any Cartier enthusiast and most will invariably mention that the Cartier Crash is one of their favourite Cartier shapes. Likewise, the Crash is one of my favourites alongside the Tank Asymétrique and the Tank Cintrée. For everything that we love about Cartier designs - their whimsicality, eccentricity and play on shapes - the Cartier Crash magnifies these aspects and delivers them in spades. It is, perhaps, the greatest embodiment of Cartier’s design ethos when it comes to watches. The fact that it looks straight out from the Surrealist era heightens its appeal for me.

Cartier Privé Tank Cintrée.
Cartier Privé Tank Asymétrique.

Needless to say, the Cartier Crash has obtained a cult following that is ever growing. The desirability for the watch has spearheaded, as reflected by auction results in recent years. For example, a Cartier London Crash, one of the most desirable Crash watches, sold at a record US$225,000 (not including premiums) at Christie’s despite an estimate of US$70,000-$90,000 in December 2020. Cartier Crashes, especially those from its early years, are exceedingly sought after as each one was individually made; close scrutiny of these pieces will reveal that their cases are not totally consistent with each other. This heightens their exclusivity by a notch. Coupled by a recent renewed interest in classical Cartier shapes, it is no surprise that the Cartier Crash is doing so well.

The record-breaking Cartier Crash that sold at Christie’s.

Ultimately, regardless of hype or its surrealist shape, the Cartier Crash is but one of many captivating shapes in Cartier’s repertoire that are thoughtfully designed in their own right. It is a perfect case study that aligns with Cartier’s design philosophies, and can be succinctly summed up by Louis Cartier who famously said to “Never copy, only create.”



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