International Center of Photography | January 29 – May 9, 2010
In this exhibit the independent curator Therese Lichtenstein explores the complex connection between popular culture, in the form of prints, books, magazines, and postcards, with the emerging movement of surrealism.
Surrealism attracted photographers to Paris from all over the world, where they turned their recently invented handheld cameras on the apparitions of its twilit streets. André Kertész said in the introduction to his book, I Love Paris (J’Aime Paris, 1974): “I write with light, and the light of Paris is my good friend.” His prints in this exhibition reveal a preference for tangible experience and unaffectedly mysterious composition. Henri Cartier-Bresson concluded, “Each time Kertész’s shutter clicks, I feel his heart beating.”
Eugène Atget, the pioneer of Parisian street photography and a proto-surrealist, is shown with “Fête de Vaugirard” (1913), “Shop Windows at Les Halles” (1925), and “Boulevard de Strasbourg” (1926), among others. His prints are edgy-romantic, quasi-absurd, and deliberately devoid of human presence, contemplating a hidden cornucopia of the senses. His plates, almost lost, were discovered by Man Ray and preserved by Berenice Abbott, who was Man Ray’s assistant at the end of Atget’s life.
Through fragmentation, unusual viewpoints, and technical innovations, photographers exposed the disjunctions of modern Paris. Brassaï recounts how he bribed the night concierge at the Notre Dame Cathedral so that he could climb to its roof and shoot Paris from disorienting angles, with lifelessly staring gargoyles like chimeras encased in stone, against unexpected perspectives of the jagged rooftops of the nocturnal oasis below.
The surrealism lay in the streets’ extreme banality; by photographing street lamps, staircases, and shop windows, the artists lent “floating attention” to everyday details, the incongruous at the heart of ordinary. In “Broken Plate” (1929), Kertész poked a hole through a pane of glass to shoot the daylight cityscape of the street and rooftops through the broken window. The electrification of the city’s buildings and sculptures during the 1920s and 30s illuminated the Paris night, and—coupled with the quasi-impressionistic sights of bridges in fog, splashing fountains, fireworks, and the fairytale Eiffel Tower, where Germaine Krull photographed a dimly lit rhinoceros—created a panoramic movie-set milieu. Brassaï focused on the mystery of artificially lit streets and on the Saint-Jacques Tower—a symbol of Breton’s surreal faux-mysticism. One night Josef Breitenbach stumbled across a statue covered in fabric and foreshadowed the Paris wrappings of Christo and Jeanne-Claude decades later in his print entitled “Veiled Statue” (1933).
Several surrealist film masterpieces are on view, such as the eye-slashing “Un Chien Andalou” (Dalí/Buñuel, 1929), “The Little Match Girl” by Jean Renoir and Jean Tédesco (1928), Man Ray’s “Emak-Bakia” (“Leave Me Alone” in Basque, 1926) and “L’Étoile de mer” (1928, with the poet Robert Desnos sleeping/dreaming), and French director Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” (1934), representing a complex visual revolution—anti-academia, anti-commerce, anti-public taste.
The next great advance was the avant-garde photo-portrait, which documented the surrealist artists and poets and odd café society hangers-on in images like Man Ray’s prints of Lise Deharme (as the Queen of Spades, 1935), “The Marquise Casati with Horses” (1922), and “Barbette Applying Makeup” (1926). The latter, a popular vaudeville performer, bizarre and beautiful, is revealed in a double-mirror image evoking sexual ambiguity and parallels of serenity and anxiety. Other portraits include Bellon’s “Salvador Dalí Holding a Mannequin” (1938), a readymade plaything of artificial desire, Dora Maar’s portrait of Leonor Fini (1936), with a black cat, ripped black stockings, and a provocative stare, Lee Miller’s nude self-portrait mirroring her mentor Man Ray’s nude torso, and Claude Cahun’s self-portrait as Elle in “Barbe bleue” (1929).
Surreal nudes are captured in “Distortions” (1933-34), the magic mirror prints of Kertész. For “Le Sourire” (“The Smile”), he photographed a female nude reflected in an amusement arcade’s distorted mirrors, and in “Distortion # 40,” two hands protrude from the side of a vagina, creating an unexpected optical effect. There is also the reflection of a naked prostitute in “Mirrored Armoire” by Brassaï, Dora Maar’s nude in a Greta Garbo mask, and two female nudes floating underwater with fish, a photomontage by Nusch Éluard called “Wood of the Islands” (1935-36).
The Czech painter Jindrich Styrsky thought of photography as a “mirror with memory,” a substitute for meta-reality, as in “Untitled” (1934), a street scene with a side of a building covered by peeling posters in the glaring afternoon light, and bordered by a vertical line of wine bottles—a mix of convulsive beauty and specific irrationality.
All the works are black and white, except for the colored erotic photomontage-poems “La Septième Face du dé” by Georges Hugnet in his first book of disjunctive word-decoupages. Even for a French speaker they are not easy to comprehend, because he rarely integrated the images or words into a pictorial or poetic unity. Hugnet’s palette is the creativity of chaos mixed with deviant eroticism.
Displayed under glass, among various catalogues, posters, postcards, and magazines, are copies of Minotaure #1, #3, #4, and #5, the surrealist publication that introduced readers to Brassaï’s strange, dark, sometimes ecstatic nudes, Hans Bellmer’s tortured dolls, and the poetry of Paul Éluard.
The exhibition’s scholarly catalogue, with a lead essay by the curator, Therese Lichtenstein, as well as contributions by Julia Kelly, Colin Jones and Whitney Chadwick, provides the critical analysis and historical background needed to back up such a poetic theme, an idea that tries to reconcile the irreconcilable, the accidentally mundane with subconscious fantasy, blurring the boundaries between dream and reality.