The technique was invented by Surrealists in 1925, and is similar to an old parlour game called Consequences in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution. Henry Miller often partook of the game to pass time in French cafes during the 1930s.
In a variant now known as picture consequences, instead of sentences, portions of a person were drawn.
Later the game was adapted to drawing and collage, producing a result similar to children's books in which the pages were cut into thirds, the top third pages showing the head of a person or animal, the middle third the torso, and the bottom third the legs, with children having the ability to "mix and match" by turning pages. It has also been played by mailing a drawing or collage — in progressive stages of completion — to the players, and this variation is known as "exquisite corpse by airmail", or "mail art," depending on whether the game travels by airmail or not.
The name is derived from a phrase that resulted when Surrealists first played the game, "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau." ("The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.")
Some have played the graphic game with a more or less vague or general prior agreement about what the resulting picture will be (though such application of reason makes the exercise not strictly a surrealist one).
Mysterious Object at Noon, an experimental 2000 Thai feature film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul was inspired by the exquisite corpse game. The film, shot on 16 mm over 3 years in varied locations in Thailand, featured Weerasethakul (or assistants) soliciting improvised extensions to a scenario improvised by a woman appearing early in the film. Weerasethakul then assembled the results into a 'feature film'.
In the Montreal World Film Festival of 2006, from an original idea by Adrien Lorion, David Etienne and Michel Laroche, a group of ten film directors, scriptwriters and professional musicians took the concept to a new level with the fusion of the art of film-making and song-writing: Cadavre Exquis première édition.
The stage production Hedwig and the Angry Inch and its film adaptation heavily utilize the exquisite corpse format as a symbol. Near the end of the play/film, as the already bizarre story reaches its most surreal point, Hedwig begins reminiscing about all the relationships and events in her life that have made her feel "cut...up into parts", with pieces going to various important people. The following song asserts that now, however, she has "sewn up" or reconstructed herself, recovered, and become whole, though as a patchwork of sorts ("tornado body and a hand grenade head, and the legs are two lovers entwined"). The lyrics actually contain the term "exquisite corpse", which is also its title.
The 1984 movie Anijam by Marv Newland featured the work of 22 animators. Each successive animator received the last frame of the previous animator's sequence. None of the animators had any idea of the action in the preceding sequences or the order of their sequence within the completed film.
In 2008, Ahmed Foula curated the Breaking Boredom project, based on the idea of The Exquisite Corpse, in Cairo, Egypt, in which Six Egyptian graphic designers were involved. The inauguration of the exhibition took place in the Townhouse Gallery, downtown Cairo, on Sunday, 6 July, 2008.