With a light touch to its frame, a painting depicting a deep interior gallery space filled with ancient sculptures suddenly and unexpectedly slides up into the wall to reveal a pitch black rectangular void behind its frame. Later on, the painting slides up into the wall again and a hooded figure, lit from behind, appears and leans into the room in front of it, at once breaching the barrier between the two spaces and upending distinctions between reality and illusion. This sequence of events occurs at around halfway through “The Severed Head,” the first installment of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 – 1916 silent film Les Vampires. Les Vampires was one of the serials beloved by the Surrealists, both when many of them first saw it in Paris during their youth and on through the twenties, when its influence can be marked in their early writings and films. In the 1930s, when the film had been largely forgotten, Henri Langlois, the founder of the French Cinémathèque, rescued it from the trash. Later he removed all the intertitles and, in late 1944, began showing all ten of its episodes consecutively in a single screening, which is the form in which New York audiences first saw Les Vampires when it premiered in the United States at the 1965 New York Film Festival in a single, approximately six-hour screening.
Langlois’s textless version of Les Vampires and his screening approach happened to conform to the viewing experiences of New York underground film and performance audiences. Perhaps less predictably, the film became a catalyst for a number of critics’ efforts to define and historicize Surrealism in relation to their own cultural moment. In an essay published about six months after the screening, in Artforum’s special issue on Surrealism, Annette Michelson zeroes in on the physical displacement of Feuillade’s faux painting, describing it as a quintessential Surrealist device,
On a bedroom wall hangs a painted landscape; in the landscape is a Sphinx, painted against a deep, receding (painted) space. The picture is shifted to one side, revealing a deep, dark recess in the screened wall. Musidora, pale and dark-eyed, emerges and the game begins. War—and it was Surrealism’s war—is declared on a world of surfaces!
Michelson misrepresents a number of details in this description, but given the film’s demanding viewing circumstances, forgetting and condensation would have been unavoidable.
Four years later, Lucy Lippard used Michelson’s description of Feuillade’s faux painting as the epigraph to a brief discussion of Surrealist film in her introduction to her anthology, Surrealists on Art—the only sustained description of a Surrealist image in Lippard’s text. Lippard restates several of Michelson’s reasons for the Surrealists’ general affinity for film: its realism, which “offered the possibility of a still more credible (and physically enveloping) disruption of ordinary events, behavior, and time sequence” and the fact that, like the dream, it is “experienced in the dark by an audience detached from itself.” But it is the gesture of revealing in Feuillade’s film that both critics recognize as key to Surrealism’s relevance to the present. The superficial illusion of space rendered on a flat picture plane reverts to its status as an object as it abruptly gives way to another, actual space now occupied by an enigmatic figure that also resembles an object, disrupting and then altering the significance of the film’s mise-en-scène and its narrative in unexpected and menacing ways.
According to Michelson, Surrealism was for André Breton a way of seeing, or more precisely, a way of seeing through superficial appearances. Through an elaborate chain of analogies, Michelson connects this active seeing to the misleadingly transparent surfaces of Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy’s trompe l’oeil paintings; to Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces, its hinged and moveable panel surmounting a row of cast portions of faces; and to Yvonne Rainer’s performance The Mind is a Muscle, “in which,” Michelson claims, “movement and the evocation or figuration of its absence tended to assume the nature and presence of objects.” As Michelson draws the connections, she ultimately lands on Robbe-Grillet’s flat descriptions and the roman objectal. Lippard provides a more categorical list of the types of contemporary art that might be enlisted in Surrealism’s war on surfaces: Pop art, Happenings, Minimalism, and Conceptual art, among others; she quotes Carl Andre on the materiality of sculpture as residue of the dream. For Michelson and Lippard this cinematic moment, when surface concedes pride of place to hidden mysterious content, not only initiates a war on surfaces, but marks the first salvo in the art world’s more inclusive war on formalism.