Paris was first called the “City of Light” in the 18th century; it was home to many of the great scientific, philosophical and literary minds of the 18th century “Age of Enlightenment.” A later and more literal appellation came as a result of its early deployment of large-scale urban street lighting at a time when many other European capitals were still swathed in nighttime gloom.
There is a certain irony, then, that this radiant city should become the capital of early 20th century Surrealism, a literary and artistic movement that positively wallows in literal and metaphorical darkness and crepuscular ambiguity. And while we most easily associate its tenets with the dream-like twilight of semi-consciousness, automatic writing, and improbable conjunctions of images and objects in painting and sculpture, it is photography that is the subject of a traveling exhibition that closed recently at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. It is now at the International Center for Photography in New York City, from January 29-May 9, 2010, then at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia.
The New York venue is certain to create much interest, as this is the first major exploration of surrealist photography I can think of since the landmark L’Amour Fou show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in autumn of 1985. This exhibition’s catalog by Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, with an essay on surrealist texts by Dawn Ades, has been the go-to book for the last twenty-five years:
Its Corpus Delecti chapter by Ms. Krauss vividly demonstrates that explicit sexual imagery of the female body in the work of controversial figures like Hugnet, Bellmer, Ubac, and Boiffard, were matched by more mainstream artists such as Kertész, Man Ray, Bing, Breitenbach and Brassaï. In a time long before gender and political correctness issues began to contextualize public art, explicit images of the female nude presented one portal into an exploration of the unconscious state that was the male Surrealists’ main pre-occupation. Women photographers like Lee Miller, Nusch Eluard, Dora Maar, and Claude Cahun created self-portraits that at first doubled those of the men but they soon found their personal iconography.
The unique perspective of Twilight Visions: Surrealism and Paris, curated by Therese Lichtenstein, with catalog essays by her, Julia Kelly, Colin Jones, and Whitney Chadwick, is stated in a forward by Susan H. Edwards, Executive Director of the Frist Center:
[The exhibition] offers a fresh perspective, drawing new connections by examining the role of the city as muse and the burgeoning popularity of photography as a democratizing factor in the dissemination of culture.
Getting beyond standard history and museum-speak is exactly what this exhibition does. As soon as you enter the darkened grey/blue quasi-twilight lit galleries you enter a world of unsettled, unstable mood, of images that seem to almost float out of the near darkness, freeing themselves from the walls as they engage your mind. Even the most literal, the most familiarly representational of them, the ones we think we know, the Kertész of Bauhaus-like odd perspective views of daytime Paris, or Brassaï’s foreboding, nighttime, foggy streets with its inviting dens of alcohol and flesh, create a beckoning yet unsettling presence. The photos do not exist here as mere documents to examine, but as entry points into an unpredictable psychic world, mysterious, dangerous, yet irresistible.
Though it provides only a pale approximation of the haunting atmosphere of this exhibition, here is a video that gives some orientation. The intimate, dim lighting in the galleries is overpowered by the recording video camera, losing much of the mystery of the installation:
In the video, relevant books and magazines are shown displayed in vitrines. Most exhibitions about Surrealism generally feature the major literary texts of the movement: its several manifestoes, editions of poetry, and the two major novels of André Breton, Nadja and L’Amour Fou. But several of these cases also display open copies of VU magazine along with the artists’ photos on the walls nearby. VU was a French weekly news magazine, a predecessor of LIFE and LOOK; it was published from March 1928 until May 1940 and covered much the same range of news, sports, social and cultural events as its American counterparts; however, its commitment to photography and photomontage was singular. This went well beyond the American styled photo-essay as we know it, as it covered new and imaginative aspects of layout and design. VU’s pages are chock-a-block with photography, much of it in an overtly experimental style that incorporates elements of Russian Constructivism and of the German Bauhaus, but with a distinctive Gallic tilt toward the surreal and poetically non-literal. VU, and its arts and literary companion, Minotaure, were in every sense avant-garde even when documenting quotidian events.
In addition to providing a wider audience for the artists’ works than any gallery, especially at a time when photography was still considered by many to be only a craft, not an art form, VU assignments were a source of stable income for the photographers. Vu provided a security blanket for the many artist/ flaneur/ foreigners such as Brassaï, Kertész, Bing, and Breitenbach to indulge their passion to capture the ever-changing and unpredictable life on the streets of a still to them "foreign" city, while working under the cover of being accredited photojournalists. Here is Andre Kertész’s VU press card:
The prime position of the American artist Man Ray in this milieu is evident in the exhibition. Not only did he reflect many of the stylistic concerns of the other photographers of the Parisian scene, but he was singular among them on many fronts: his fashion work graced the pages of tony magazines for the idle rich; his portraits using surrealist metaphors were highly sought by celebrities who wanted câchet in the art world; his darkroom experiments in solarization, montage, and camera-less images which he called Rayographs, broadened the parameters of pictorial language; his sexual affairs and his many mistresses like Kiki of Montparnasse and Lee Miller, made him the envy of fellow artists; his paintings, sculptures and composited ready-mades allowed him entry into the inner sanctum of the Surrealists and acceptance as an equal among the prestige painters of the movement; his photo-documentation of Surrealism's poets, novelists, painters and sculptors rendered him the movement’s visual diarist:
A 1934 publication of Man Ray’s photographs from 1920 to 1934 illustrates the wide range of his subject matter.
Man Ray’s introduction to the book reads like a lot of “Surrealist” gibberish extolling some of leader André Breton’s arcane pronouncements, but he does refer to the photographs as “autobiographical.” Perhaps in a certain sense all artistic work is. But here is a sample of his writing:
Seized in moments of visual detachment during periods of emotional contact, these images are oxidized residues, fixed by light and chemical elements, of living organisms. No plastic expression can ever be more than a residue of an experience. The recognition of an image that has tragically an experience, recalling the event more or less clearly, like the undisturbed ashes of an object consumed by flames, the recognition of this object so little representative and so fragile… .
It does go on and on. Maybe it sounds better in French. Or maybe Man Ray had been in France a few years too long. He reads as precursor to the semioticians. In any case, I wonder what Garry Winogrand would have said about his pronouncements on photography.
As much of a revolution that the Surrealists insisted they represented, the truth is that they had numerous antecedents, the most direct of which was the movement’s emergence out of the deaths and ashes of WWI, the Swiss-born, “anti-art,” Dada. The dream-reality qualities of Surrealism harkened back in literature to Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont, and in photography to that most unlikely of men, Eugène Atget, whose photos of an ancient and disappearing Paris, evoked the Surrealists’ fundamental ambivalence toward modernism. Atget’s clochards and street vendors, as well as his studies of shop windows and empty streets, documented a disturbing and uncanny space that seemed ripe for surrealist ir-reality. Here is an Atget daytime shop window and a Brassaï nighttime one:
Among the galleries in “Twilight Visions” LCD TV monitors also hang, flat to the wall like a paintings or photographs. They show films imbued with the Surrealist spirit, such as Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, Man Ray’s L Étoile de Mer, Emak Bakia and Renoir’s Little Match Girl. These films reinforce the intersection between film and photography so vital to Surrealists and that was to increase in the coming decades. This exhibition of film, visually oriented magazines, and photography all together, argues compellingly that there was a cultural shift occurring at this moment that will resonate through the rest of the century: that the visual media will become primary vehicles of cultural expression, usurping the centuries long dominance of the printed word, relegating even painting to the purview of a marginalized elite.
A truly marvelous aspect of the “Twilight Visions” exhibition is the pre-eminent role it gives to photography and to VU Magazine in the realization of these same Surrealist ideas. While much of the literature and manifestos of the movement are today mostly historical referents and footnotes to the ennui and psychic crises of the period between two horrible World Wars, the visual arts gain support here as the key expressions of the epoch. The photographers of Paris in the 20s and 30s are not a stand-alone, navel gazing claque unto themselves, but great artists who are in touch with a larger audience. Their work is not only a window into the entire society, and an engagement with the socio-political reality of an emerging faschism, but haunting testaments of an alternative psychic reality that nibbles at our waking consciousness even today.