Surrealism: A Photography Reconstruction
By Ruth Schilling
L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism.Co-curated by Jane Livingston and Rosalind Krauss. The Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C. Sept. 9- Nov. 17, then travels to San Francisco, Paris, and London.
"Neither pencil marks made at random, nor recaptureddream images, nor the imaginationsfantasies could be acceptedas valid expressionsof surrealism."
Pierre Naville,La Revolution
Surrealiste, April, 1925.
In the article from which this statement is taken, Naville stops short of naming photography as the ideal visual medium for surrealism and opens an argument over the efficacy of painting as a "pure" surrealist activity that was to engender serious ideological splits among the founding fathers of the surrealist movement. That surrealism had its highest "manifestations" in photography1 is the focus of L’Amour Fou.The exhibition is large in scope as well as size (200 photographs). It has as its goal the repositioning of photography within the history of surrealism as well as the re-assessment of the importance of these images both to surrealism and, by implication, to the history of photography. Co-organized by Corcoran associate curator Jane Livingston and art historian Rosalind Krauss, it is accompanied by a film series, a 272-page book, and a symposium.
Instead of isolating photographs that are "surrealist," the curators have reconstructed surrealism via its photographic component. Most instances of photography in surrealism first appeared or were made for the various magazines and books that were the main thrust of its doctrines. The main difficulty in assembling this show according to Livingston was simply the acquiring of these images; never before have we been able to examine so many of these works in such physically close proximity to each other. In fact, Krauss suggests in the brochure accompanying the show that the question is raised "... whether we might not find, within the body of work gathered here, the ‘masterpieces' of surrealist art."
To appreciate this assumption that Dali's melting watches might be toppled in the pantheon of modernism by a Man Ray nude requires some basic understanding of surrealism as it is now being rewritten. That "the history of surrealism has been a mess2" holds some truth. Surrealism itself is somewhat messy and the conventional art history response has been to relegate photography to a marginal status. As a movement, it suffers widely from extreme distortion by over-popularization of its own imagery and from its own internal feuding that often used photography as part of the ammunition. I would not lay all the blame at the doorstep of those much maligned "modernist" art historians who are beng raked over the coals by nouvelle criticism. It is partly due to the surrealists themselves and inthe case of photography its own facility for replication that assured the popularization and perhaps distortion of the "surreal" image.
Surrealism as a movement was born in 1924 with the publication of André Breton's "Manifesto of Surrealism." Breton was a poet and it was his interest in language and the ideas of Sigmund Freud among other things that led him to a definition of surreality. Painters and photographers pined Breton and others in the search for methodology and evidence. Their aim, as Anna Balakian pointed out, was not the manufacture of fantastic or absurd imagery, rather it was an exploration of reality. In the pursuit of this exploration they used many media — writing, film, painting, photography, collage, etc. Proponents of surrealism, those who were attracted to its ideas, and those who appropriated some but not all of the doctrine are many. It never was a cohesive group and members changed sides and fought their ideological battles in the pages of various avant garde magazines. Conventional art history may have overlooked photography, but photo-historians have never examined much of this work or these photographers' relationship to surrealism, since surrealism itself was deemed of little importance to photographic history. It is the aim of this exhibition to change all that.
One of the more successful and striking aspects of the Corcoran exhibition is itsinstallation. Within the marble halls of the museum, designers Alex and Caroline Castro have created a series of rooms that are set on a diagonal orientation. I found the experience maze-like and slightly disorienting. Certainly, it is suitable to photographs taken at extremely oblique angles, that look sometimes almost as if hung upside down, the images falling through space. Wall colors and lighting often change quite dramatically from one room to the next. One room is actually a deep and glowing pink. This is not a silver-frames-all-in-a-row photography exhibition. There are large blow-ups of certain key images and many of the prints are framed quite elaborately. Though I generally don't like "museum panels" for their lack of interest as photographic prints, here they have for the most part been well integrated into the show instead of merely tacked on. It is a risky business to include them in the exhibition, since in most photographic exhibitions they would look tacky compared to the craft of the other prints. It is precisely because most surrealist photographs lack the look of an Ansel Adams that the panels are not out of place and are even appropriate to the exploitation of the photograph that is surrealist in nature.
Conceptually, this exhibition is very tightly organized. There is a deliberate pacing that moves the viewer from the facades of the "real" world to the juxtaposed world of the collage, and finally to the fantasy or obsessive world of images that increasingly use manipulated technique. As the rooms unfold, the content moves inward from the light of day to the dark wellspring of surrealist creativity, the Freudian unconscious. At one point the exhibition literally gets darker and the accompanying imagery deals with what the curators have identified as the "'baser" imagery of surrealism — a Jacques Boiffard close-up photograph of a big toe; Man Ray's "Monument to D.A.F.de Sade;" Raoul Ubac's, "The Battle of the Amazons," a solarized image in which the bodies appear to be melting.
The organization recapitulates the evolution of the various stages of surrealism. The early images are much more "documents" that use the camera's ability to record reality at the same time that it can wrench it from that context, thereby transforming it. Thus we see Brassai's photograph of a rolled bus ticket stub that is entitled "Involuntary Sculpture" and his photographs of graffiti. Also, included in this first room are photographs by Jacques Boiffard done as illustrations for André Breton’s book, Nadja. These are Parisian street scenes and have the odd aspect of being almost Atgets, but without the haunting quality. To surrealism, Boiffard is a central figure. To photography, I think he is an interesting example of a missing link, though his work remains strongest when viewed in the context of this show. It is in this sense that the exhibition can be confusing. If for some misguided reason you think you are going to see a "greatest hits" of surrealist photography show, there is much in the exhibition that is there to illustrate the revised text rather than for art canonization.
Photographs often wore many hats within the context of the surrealist publications where they received their greatest exposure. What the collages, photograms (here, rayo-graphs), solarized images, and straight photographs all have in common is a relationship to the process of surrealism. However, some of these images were made or used to illustrate specific texts and others were used as images in their own right. Also, the dedication of some to a rigorous exploration of the medium of photography seems stronger than others.
In the heart of the exhibition are two rooms whose walls are painted shades of pink. In the first room are more famous images of bodies: torsoes by Man Ray, mirror distortions by Kertesz. Though these images are more familiar and more often reproduced than some others in the exhibition, they are rarely seen together and the effect is to impress upon the viewer the seemingly endless obsession that these photographers had for the female body. But it wasn't just the subject that was an obsession, it was also the variety of ways that they photographed women. Woman became a foil for their various investigations, being transformed through radical framing, double exposure, solarization, etc., until the reality of a particular woman disappeared altogether, as in the case of a Brassai nude that can be (as the curators point out) viewed both as a truncated female body and as a phallus.
This is also apparent in the photographs of dolls by Hans Bellmer that occupy the second room. These rather large (approximately 20"x24") prints tinted in pink, blue, and yellow are from a series Bellmer made called “Les Poupees." These strange dolls with movable body parts were constructed by Bellmer and then photographed in contortive positions. In these images we are often confronted with incomplete anatomy or multiplication of parts such as four legs instead of two. In her essay, "Corpus Delecti," Krauss states that the dolls occupy a dream space and that within this space "... the doll herself is phallus" and that the "doubling" of body parts is akin to what Freud called the "Medusa effect" — where a multiplication of phallic symbols serves as a protection from castration. Citing Barthes, Derrida, and Freud, Krauss concludes that "Surrealism can be said to have explored the possibility of a sexuality that is not grounded in an idea of human nature, or the natural, but instead, woven of fantasy and representation, is fabricated,4" As you can see, this is no coffee table art book. Krauss's analysis is complex and she has lived up to her role as a controversial critic (she is the co-editor of the critical journal October. Whether you agree or not with Krauss as to her analysis, Bellmer’s prints, in particular, are also extremely beautiful objects and, set up as they are in the pink room, worthy of the fetishistic activity that is museum going.
The exhibition is accompanied by a certain amount of wall text that is important to read if you are going to understand the organization of the show. That isnot to say it isn't compelling without the text; it is. However, it is the book published concurrently with the exhibition that answers the questions the exhibition poses. Dawn Ades, an English art historian, provides a very useful essay on the roles of photographs in the various surrealist publications. Jane Livingston's essay concerns the work of Man Ray (who is by far the most-represented photographer in the exhibition) and comes to the conclusion that he is not actually the complete surrealist. It is here that it becomes clear that even the curators are in some slight disagreement over just who played what role in surrealism.5
Krauss has written two essays that, though difficult as I mentioned and stubbornly dense with practically impenetrable semiological terminology, are very provocative and provide a basis for linking the photographs to surrealism and also explore the linkage of the surrealist inquiry, the photographic subject, and most importantly the photographic process or technique employed. It is this rescue of technique from the realm of quirkiness orexperimentation and placing it as integral to the comprehension of the images that does the best service to the field of photography. All in all, I appreciate what Krauss has achieved.
Photography has been too narrowly defined for too long. Ithink in her reaction to modernism Krauss is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and has downplayed in some instances the importance ofthe distinction between acommitment to the photographic process asa method of surrealism and the use of the photograph as a gratuitous illustration. Both Ms. Livingston's and Ms. Ades’ essays help to correct that situation. Also, for me a basic problem lies in the reductive nature of some of the Freudian analyses and to disagree is to wrangle over theory that has been wrangled over more astutely elsewhere.
I could go on and on about the symposium and the wonderful characters involved. Sufficeit to say that: Anna Balakian was charming and a welcome voice, having been involved with the study of surrealism for years; Jack Spector, a professor of art history at Rutgers University, gave a wonderful talk and let slip that Breton's preferred sexual position was "69" — a term Ihadn't heard in public in years; Donald Preziozzi, the semiologist for the day, spoke so quickly and obtusely that I had to go home and deconstruct his talk from my notes to find out that, pompous as its delivery was, it was an interesting talk. I suppose Ishouldn't be so glib with what are serious inquiries by dedicated individuals, but the nature of symposia is such that ideas come forth with their flesh and blood spokespersons intact and therein lies the surreality of those events.
In conclusion, if you can afford the airfare, go to Paris and see the exhibition there. Not only will it look more at home, but when you are finished, you can explore the city that inspired the work. If your budget won't support that, then buy the book for its compelling text and excellent reproductions.
1. This information and other references that follow are from a phone conversation with Jane Livingston, Oct. 16, 1985.
2. p.114, Vanity Fair, Sept. 1985, Rosalind Krauss in an interview by Pepe Karmel.
3. I am not the only one to note this. Dawn Ades in her essay, “Photography and the Surrealist Text" notes that Michel Beaujour also found these photographs "banal" and she notes that it is exactly this "medical observation style" that Breton wanted for his book. p.162, L’Amour Fou.
4. "Corpus Delecti" Rosalind Krauss, pp. 86 and 95, L’Amour Fou. Both Krauss and Livingston readily admit to this disagreement. Kraussrefers to it in a note to her first essay, p. 40 opcit. She finds Man Ray central to the surrealist aesthetic.