André Kertész, Under the Eiffel Tower, 1929. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Surrealism, Photography,
and The Secret Life of the City

 

by Robert Stalker

Guest curated by Therese Lichtenstein, whose 2001 exhibition Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer at the International Center of Photography in New York won the AICA award for best photography show, the travelling exhibition Twilight Visions, recently on view at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Arts (Sept 10, 2009-January 3, 2010), presents over 150 items to explore the intersections among Surrealist documentary photography, manipulated photography, and film. With individual galleries devoted to such key themes as “Marvelous Encounters,” “Portraits After Hours,” and “Photography’s Transformation of the Monument,” the exhibit couples its ample selection of photographs with the presentation of important Surrealist journals and books, as well as a number of contemporary tabloids, postcards, pamphlets, and related artifacts from which many Surrealists took inspiration. Alongside this array of photographs, documents, and objects run screenings of pioneering surrealist and “poetic realist” films, such as Dalí and Buñuel’s landmark Un Chien andalou(1929), Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia (1926), Jean Renoir and Jean Tedesco’s The Little Match Girl (1928) and excerpts from Jean Vigo’s l’Atalante (1934). (The exhibit’s accompanying film series “Surreal to Real” screened a couple of these films and several others in their entirety.) What emerges from this diverse collection of art works and paraphernalia is a deeper appreciation for the Surrealists’ profound preoccupation with what the movement’s founder André Breton once called “a sort of secret life of the city” and the role that photography played in excavating it.

 

Challenging the popular understanding of Surrealism as preoccupied with the deep, inner recesses of the mind, Walter Benjamin proposed that the Surrealists “were less on the trail of the psyche than on the track of things.” Twilight Visions’ accumulation of Surrealist photographs in conjunction with various things—documents, knick-knacks, souvenirs, and other artifacts—suggests that Surrealism’s primary interest in photography devolved on the medium’s uncanny ability to disclose the obscurity and mystery secreted away inside the otherwise unremarkable commodities that began to flood Paris in the years following World War I. Seeking what Breton called in his “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924) “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality,” Surrealist photographers turned their lenses toward documenting a kind of material history of everyday, urban reality in an effort to unearth, as the movement’s early historian Maurice Nadeau put it, “the unconscious of a city.” 

 

At the time of the 1985 landmark exhibition of Surrealist photography, Amour Fou, the exhibit’s curator, Rosalind Krauss, could still speak of Surrealist photography as “a virtually unexplored intellectual and historical terrain.” And while the years since that exhibit have seen increasing critical attention paid to the importance of photography to the Surrealist movement, the Surrealist exploration of the “straight” photograph has only rather recently begun to receive its due. The photograph as straightforward, documentary record of the real drew its inspiration from the work of Eugène Atget. A former actor who took up photography at the age of 35, Atget spent his life documenting the Parisian buildings, streets, parks, shops, and arcades that were quickly vanishing under the rapid transformation of the city under modernization. Hardly regarding himself an artist, Atget seems to have approached the photograph strictly as a repository of historical information, selling his enormous photographic archives to other artists, designers, cartooninsts, and, especially, antiquarians, architects, and librarians. That he was “discovered” at all by Man Ray, the American expatriate artist and “official” photographer of the Surrealist movement, came about through sheer chance—the two just happened to live on the same street. Championed by Man Ray, Atget’s photographs were quickly taken up by Man Ray’s fellow Surrealists, who found a kind of proto-surrealism in the suspense, melancholy, and uncanniness that emerged from Atget’s unadorned and enigmatic photographs of vacant, urban space, such as Corner Rue Montmorency (1908) and Rue du Figuier (1924), both on display in this exhibit. Significantly, when Man Ray offered to publish Atget’s Eclipse of the Sun on the cover of La revolution surréaliste, Atget replied: “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make,” emphasizing the matter-of-fact, documentary approach to photography that would fascinate Surrealists such as Brassaï, André Kertész, and Ilse Bing, to name a few.

From Left: 

 

Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (The Doll), 1934 © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris Ubu Gallery, New York & Galerie Berinson, Berlin.

 

Ilse Bing, Danseuse-Cancan, Moulin Rouge, Paris, 1931 © Ilse Bing Estate/Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York. Courtesy Zabriskie Gallery, NY.

 

Man Ray, Barbette Applying Makeup, 1926 © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In the section of the exhibit devoted to “Looking at Atget,” we find more properly Surrealist photographers embracing a kind of Atgetian aesthetic, exploiting the spatial and epistemological ambiguities that emerge from what, in a brief article significantly entitled “The Photographic Data”(1929), Salvador Dalí isolates as “the mere photographic transposition” of even the most banal subject matter. Brassaï’s Avenue de l’Observatoire (1934) and Kertész’s Daisy Bar (1934), for example, while informed by the kind of attention to lighting, framing, and composition that rarely concerned Atget, capture a similar eeriness and expectancy in their depictions of empty, urban settings—an automobile’s headlights cutting through a murky and vacant city square; a poorly lit staircase descending to a car parked, door ajar, in front of a tavern. Both of these photos, and others like them, share Atget’s interest in depopulated urban settings, generating a sense anticipation and mystery from the narrative possibilities opened up by what look almost like establishing shots from a contemporary film noir.

 

 

In his now-famous photos of Paris from Notre Dame (1933), included in the exhibit under the rubric “Marvellous Encounters,” Brassaï very deliberately sought out an isolated and vacant location, bribing a concierge for admittance to the normally inaccessible top of the great medieval cathedral. His beautiful photos of the gargoyles set against the Parisian night sky demonstrate the Surrealists’ fascination with the photograph’s ability to transform material objects through straightforward, factual representation, as the stone sculptures appear uncannily both animate and inanimate, at once densely material and fantastically ethereal. Brassaï himself, a gifted writer who published important books of his photos, said that in these photos “Present and Past, history and legend, intermingle,” capturing precisely the Surrealist’s interest in photography’s ambiguous relation to the real. Taking us from the ancient and mythical to the utterly transitory and down-to-earth, Ilse Bing’s similarly matter-of-fact yet marvelous Puddle (1932) aims a street-level camera down at a puddle of water in the gutter of a Parisian avenue. The photo’s composition, framing, and cropping create an ambiguous and disorienting sense of space out of the dizzying reflection of buildings and skyline in the muddy pool. Equipped with little more than an incisive eye and what Dalí once identified as “the unconscious calculations of the machine,” Bing transforms perhaps the most banal of subject matter—a mucky little puddle—into a surprising meditation on representation. Dalí’s own collaboration with Brassaï, Sculptures Involuntaires, an article with accompanying photos that ran in the 1933 issue of the Surrealist journal Minotaure and is included in the exhibit, similarly demonstrates how even the most “positivist” of photographic documentation can, through radical decontextualization of its subject, transform utterly mundane and overly familiar objects and materials—a curled up metro ticket, a blob of toothpaste—into tokens of the marvelous and uncanny.

 

A similar interest in foregrounding the terms of representation finds its way into several other Surrealist photographers’ reflections on the everyday, particularly in their depictions of the everyday as lived in an era of capitalist consumption. Bing’s Greta Garbo Poster, Paris (1932) captures an oversized, ragged poster of the iconic movie star on the wall of a Paris building. The weather-beaten and fraying image of the actress seems to offer a melancholic reflection on not only the commodification of the “star” but also on the acceleration of obsolescence symptomatic of a culture committed to “the new.” In a similar vein, Kertész’s Broken Plate, Paris(1929), a close-up of a cracked souvenir plate with an image of city skyline emblazoned on it, appears, at first blush, to be a photo of cityscape as seen through a broken widow, the lines of what appear to be a cracked pane of glass suggesting fragmentation, perhaps even violence. Only after several seconds do we realize that Kertész has actually photographed a kitschy souvenir plate, his own photograph, a reproduction of a reproduction, subtly bringing the cheap fractured plate into an unexpected reflection on the centrality of photographic reproduction in the production of memory, nostalgia, and tourism.

 

Bing’s Greta Garbo Poster, Kertész’s Broken Plate, Brassaï’s photo of the scaffold-enshrouded Saint-Jacques Tower, Paris (1932-33) (included in Breton’s L’Amour fou (1937)), and Raoul Ubac’s Fossil of the Eiffel Tower(1938-39), a photograph which the artist submitted to a complicated processes of solarization and other manipulations to capture the Eiffel Tour as ossified sand, are all, significantly, variations on the important Surrealist theme of the ruin. Singled out by Breton in his “Surrealist Manifesto” as one of the key emblems of modernity, the modern ruin fascinated the Surrealists, for in it capitalism’s acceleration of obsolescence, its fetishization of new but increasingly short-lived objects, was laid bare. The other important sign of the modern that Breton called attention to in that first manifesto was the mannequin, an object whose “life” is inextricably tied to advertising, consumption, and the fetishization of the body under capital.

 

The mannequin pervades the shop windows of Atget and Brassaï, the dreams and fantasies of Renoir’s The Little Match Girl and the newlywed Juliet of Vigo’s L’Atalante, photographic portraits such as Denise Bellon’s Salvador Dalí Holding a Mannequin (1938), and Dalí’s own haunting installation, Rainy Taxi, exhibited at the Exposition international du surréalisme in 1938 and commemorated by Ubac’s photographs. As an emblem of the uncanny, the mannequin captivated the Surrealists, presenting them with an ideal object through which to explore issues of desire, fantasy, and the body. By far the most enigmatic and disquieting of all the Surrealists’ explorations of the mannequin must surely be Hans Bellmer’s Poupées, photographs of dolls assembled by the artist to resemble pubescent girls, whose interchangeable parts he manipulated into grotesque and extremely unsettling postures. Bellmer’s critics have interpreted the violence projected onto to these dolls as reflective of Bellmer’s fascination with sadistic, infantile fantasies of the “body-in-pieces” as well as a subversive challenge to the Nazi cult of the healthy, athletic body. That Bellmer’s dolls are invariably female and never relinquish their artificial, manufactured status, however, may suggest that Bellmer’s interest in these figures lay in challenging, too, precisely the kind of fetishizations of the body found in the storefront mannequins captured in the photos of Atget, Brassaï, and others. Either way, his photos remain one of the most truly disturbing examples, among many, of the many problematic treatments of the female body in the (primarily male) Surrealist canon. Lichtenstein's insightful inclusion of Disavowed Confessions, however, an autobiographical book written and illustrated by Claude Cahun (née Lucy Schwob), offers, especially through its self-portrait photo-collages of Cahun’s disarticulations and manipulations of her own body, a compelling alternative to Surrealism’s sometimes sexist, if not downright misogynistic, tendencies.

 

In a lecture presented in Brussels in 1934 entitled “What is Surrealism?,” Breton took aim at what he perceived as a “fundamental crisis of the ‘object.’” As Twilight Visions makes clear, photography emerged in the Paris of the thirties as a fundamental means for the Surrealists to scrutinize and dissect the object. Focusing especially on the commonplace, even banal, objects that increasingly began to inhabit the urban everyday, Surrealist photographers repeatedly attest to Louis Aragon’s declaration in his great “mythology of the modern,” Paris Peasant (1926), that “In everything base there is some quality of the marvelous.”

Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris is currently on view at the International Center of Photography in New York City through May 9, 2010. Thereafter, it will be at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, GA from June 11 through October 10, 2010.

Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.