On view April 14–July 24, 2016


Left, Katsukawa Shunchō (active 1783–1821), A Picnic Party at Hagidera, late 18th century. Polychrome woodblock print. 14 3/4 x 10 in. Gift of William Green. 1998.17. Right, Paul Binnie (Scottish, b. 1967), A Record of Modern-Day Customs, 2015. Polychrome woodblock print. 14 3/4 x 10 in. Courtesy Paul Binnie. 

In 1925, at 54 rue du Château in Paris, Surrealists André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Jacques Prévert and several others gathered to play a game. Each participant would write a fragment of a sentence that the next person, without seeing the first, would complete. The rules were simple; the results were not.

According to poet Simone Khan, it was Prévert who contributed the phrase “The Exquisite Corpse,” to which another contributed “will drink the new wine.” Soon, someone suggested they play the game with partial drawings instead of words. “From then on,” Khan wrote, “it was delirium.” The drawings that emerged—strange figures with human heads placed atop bodies composed of objects, fused to reptilian legs ending in hooves—were “astonishing amalgams ... opening a door on the unknown.” This game would go on to become incredibly influential, inspiring art and theories now regarded as touchstones of Surrealism, emblematic of explorations of the unconscious and the creative potential of collaboration. The Exquisite Corpse was, in Khan’s words, “unimaginable by one mind alone.”

Perhaps unbeknown to the Surrealists, only three miles away, at 22 rue de Provence, stood a monument to Japanese art, the famed Maison de l’Art Nouveau, where art dealer Siegfried Bing had, only a few decades earlier, sold thousands of ukiyo-e prints. Along with Hayashi Tadamasa, Bing introduced Europeans (and later Americans) to the world of Japanese prints. Initially used as packing materials by Japanese exporters of porcelain and lacquer, they quickly enthralled collectors, poets and painters with their intricate patterns, bold colors and strange compositions — indeed, many appeared cropped and off-center, a result of the connected panels becoming separated as they were crumpled and stuffed into shipping crates full of tea bowls.

Over the next 100 years, these prints continued their westward journey, many ending up in American collections. Several such examples, still bearing the stamp of Hayashi Tadamasa, found their way to New York and into the hands of William T. Green, founder of the Ukiyo-e Society of America (now the Japanese Art Society of America). Mr. Green was a man of modest means but he purchased Japanese prints voraciously, often in combined lots. As a result, nearly 200 prints in the Green Collection are “orphaned,” fragmentary works that, like an incomplete sentence, beg to be made whole.

For this exhibition, the Mead Art Museum commissioned contemporary artists to complete these designs in the spirit of the Exquisite Corpse. Each participant was allowed to select designs from the Mead’s holdings and extend them into full compositions. They were given complete freedom to create anything they could imagine, as long as their creations were connected to the lines of the original print, a guideline taken from the Surrealists themselves. Just like on that “idle, weary night” in Paris, the rules were simple; the results are not.

Participating Artists:

  • Paul Binnie
  • Ely Kim
  • Studio Swine (Azusa Murakami and Alexander Groves)
  • Gregory Vershbow
  • Akira Yamaguchi

This exhibition was organized by Bradley M. Bailey, Associate Curator of Asian Art at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Charles H. Morgan Fine Arts Fund, the Collins Print Room Fund, the Mead Art Acquisitions Fund, the Templeton Photography Fund, the Hall and Kate Peterson Fund, and the Wise Acquisition Fund.

Related Event

Exhibition Opening Reception
Thursday, April 14, 6 p.m.

Celebrate the opening of Unimaginable by One Mind Alone: Exquisite Corpses from the William Green Collection of Japanese Prints, with a gallery talk by exhibition organizer Bradley Bailey, associate curator of Asian art at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Free and open to the public. Light refreshments served.

Press Kit

Members of the press are invited to download the exhibition press release and hi-res images.