In the early years of the Surrealist movement, a typical evening spent among its poets and artists might include a game of "exquisite corpse." Based on an old parlor game, Exquisite Corpse was played by several people, each of whom would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal part of it, and pass it on to the next player for his contribution.
The technique got its name from results obtained in initial playing, "Le cadavre / exquis / boira / le vin / nouveau" (The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine). Other examples are: "The dormitory of friable little girls puts the odious box right" and "The Senegal oyster will eat the tricolor bread." These poetic fragments were felt to reveal what Nicolas Calas characterized as the "unconscious reality in the personality of the group" resulting from a process of what Ernst called "mental contagion."
At the same time, they represented the transposition of Lautréamont's classic verbal collage to a collective level, in effect fulfilling his injunction-- frequently cited in Surrealist texts--that "poetry must be made by all and not by one." It was natural that such oracular truths should be similarly sought through images, and the game was immediately adapted to drawing, producing a series of hybrids the first reproductions of which are to be found in No. 9-10 of La Révolution surrealiste (October, 1927) without identification of their creators. The game was adapted to the possibilities of drawing, and even collage, by assigning a section of a body to each player, though the Surrealist principle of metaphoric displacement led to images that only vaguely resembled the human form. (Source: "Dada & Surrealist Art," by William S. Rubin)
In Andre Brétons The Exquisite Corpse: Its Exaltation (1975) the writer Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) described the rules of the drawing game:
Three (or more) of you sit down around a table. Each one of you, hiding from the others, draws on a sheet the upper part of a body, or the attributes able to take its place. Pass on to your neighbor on the left this sheet, folded so as to conceal the drawing, but for three or four of its lines passing beyond the fold. Meanwhile, you get from your neighbor on the right another sheet prepared in the same way (previously folded perpendicular to the axis of the body to be realized)...In the event that colors are used, it is a requirement to pass, along with the sheet, the colors, limited to the number of those used.
The exquisite corpse appeared for the first time in print in the journal La Revolution Surréaliste (October 1917). This publication reproduced five drawings and several poems without identifying their creators, which underscored the importance of the games collaborative intent. Bréton summarized this importance as follows:
What exalted us in these productions was indeed the conviction that, come what might, they bore the mark of something that could not be begotten by one mind alone and that they were endowed, in a much greater measure, with a power of drift that poetry cannot value too highly.