Exquisite Corpse: Precursor to Mad Libs

This must be how they created the character from Fat Albert...

When my class finished earlier than expected the other day, I filled the time with my favorite go-to art game, Exquisite Corpse.

The teacher’s aides wrinkled their noses at the sound of that, but it’s a great game to play with any age or level of ability. My students this week have special needs, but I’ve also played with art majors. Hell, the game was invented by some famous artists!

In the 1920s, Surrealist artists like André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Joan Miró and others played this game at salons and cafes in Paris as an exploration of their aesthetic of unconscious connections. It began as wordplay, but later turned into a drawing and collage game.

With the word game, the players randomly construct a sentence by contributing one word each. Like Mad Libs, you’re told what kind of word to contribute (the group might decide to construct a sentence with Noun, then Adverb, Verb, Adjective, Noun–or any other version that will create a grammatically correct sentence). The trick is that players don’t know what’s come before them because each one folds the paper to hide the previous writing before passing it on to the next player. In the drawing version, the paper is usually folded in thirds (head, body, and legs)–all hidden. Each player extends their lines slightly over the fold in order to leave a clue for the next artist in order to make a cohesive result.

The more specific the word, and the more detailed the drawing, the better the overall results because, while the foundation is technically correct, the specificity adds to the randomness of the final result. Which was kind of the point of Surrealism. The fun comes when you unfold the paper and read or see the result. My students were doubled over laughing at what they did. Here are some of my favorites.

A reindeer, Minecraft, and sea animal.

Details like the beard, horns, shoulder pads and see-through skirt are hilarious foils for each other.

Students named this creature The Uniduck Who Wore Shorts.

On another historical note: Not knowing any French, I assumed the phrase was a very literal pronunciation of a French phrase, which, being pronounced differently said something quirky about the body. I was really amused to discover that the phrase is the same non sequitur in French that it is in English because it derives from an actual round of the game that was played in the 1920s. When the paper was eventually unfolded, the sentence read: “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” (“The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.”)

This is a great game for letting loose, for filling extra time, and for sneaking in a little art history. And, unlike some Surrealist ideas, it always feels fresh.