A new book by James Birch draws on his collection of bizarre baby postcards made between 1900 and 1920. It’s not hard to see how these decidely odd constructions were also to become an influence on the Surrealists…
In the various tinted postcards featured in Babylon: Surreal Babies a plethora of little ones are rendered bubbling from cauldrons, tethered to farm animals, or even hatching from flower pots, cabbage patches and child-sized eggs.
Birch first encountered the cards while visiting a flea market in Aix-en-Provence as a student. It was only after seeing an exhibition on Surrealism at the Pompidou in Paris in the 1980s, with a series of the cards displayed among the exhibits, that he decided to collect them in earnest.
During the 1920s and 30s the cards were also collected by the likes of Paul Éluard, Hannah Höch, Herbert Bayer, Man Ray, Salvador Dali and André Breton.
In his introduction to the book, the late George Melly – a self-titled Surrealist – recounts the time he visited Breton in Paris, presenting the artist with a postcard he had purchased by the Seine as a gift. It featured “a nanny goat on a green lawn,” he writes. “Its many teats, as in a milking parlour, were cupped and attached to long rubber tubes. At the end of each, sucking vigorously on the nipples of baby-bottles, were a comparatively large number of infants wearing nappies and smocks. The effect was quite disturbing.”
Breton’s response, Melly recalls, was a deadpan “Très intéressant”.
Predominantly made in Germany, the largely anonymous designs were available throughout Europe at the beginning of the 20th century but have never been published before in a single edition. They range from the quite disturbing (a collage of 40 crying baby faces) to the amusing (babies travelling up river, neatly stashed in flower pots) and, as in Melly’s gift to Breton, an intriguing combination of the two.
Babylon: Surreal Babies is published by Dewi Lewis; £16.99. See dewilewispublishing.com.