Cut lashes, 1929-1930 by Paul Nougé. Image © ADAGP, Paris 2009.
Paris' blockbuster art exhibition last autumn was late Renoir at the Grand Palais - the Renoir of the big rosy nudes and sentimental little girls. Over at the Pompidou Centre La Subversion des Images offered an invigorating riposte to the schmaltz, featuring almost 400 works in a large survey of Surrealist photography and film.
A few years ago the Pompidou mounted an exemplary, brilliantly designed, exhibition on Dada, in which visitors were drawn into a maze and invited to fend for themselves. La Subversion des Images wasn't laid out quite so daringly, but with rooms functioning as cabinets of curiosities hinged around a central space, one was still left to wander and discover in a beguiling way.
Before going I heard complaints that the show was jingoistic, actively promoting the idea that Surrealism was almost totally French, and wholly based in Paris, ignoring hotbeds of Surrealist activity such as Prague. Happily that was not the case, given that the exhibition was drawn mainly from French collections, and - let's face it - Paris was the primary centre of activity.
The tone was set from the outset, with the visitor confronted by a number of fairground distorting mirrors in homage to Andre Kertesz's famous mid-1930s series Distortions. They immediately symbolised what we expect from Surrealist photography - a transformative and unsettling take on common reality, and much of the exhibition demonstrates just how fresh and startling this simple yet-not-so-simple aspect of photography remains. All the main suspects from the movement's principal years are there - Man Ray, Jacques-Andre Boiffard, Roger Parry, Raoul Ubac, Eugene Atget, Bill Brandt, Brassai, Andre Kertesz, Hans Bellmer and Jindriich Styrsky - but the show also offers some wonderful images by lesser-known figures.
Two pictures I hadn't seen before by Pierre Jahan and Miroslav Hak particularly struck me, offering different takes on the popular Surreal theme of mannequins, but there are many such works in the exhibition. Even its title comes from a little-known suite of images made by Paul Nouge in 1929-30, which demonstrates the camera's propensity to render the familiar in a strange way. As Roland Barthes put it (when talking about photography in general) the medium was 'a new form of hallucination ... a mad image, chafed by reality'.
The exhibition includes key modernist photographs, many of which are vintage prints and which range from the baldly documentary to the heavily contrived. They show not only how important Surrealism was in the scheme of 20th century modernist photography, but also how central the transfiguring aspect of Surrealism is to photographic expression. The curators, Quentin Bajac, Clement Cheroux, Guillaume Le Gall, Michel Poivert, and Philippe-Alain Michaud, postulate that the photographic media weren't simply tools for the Surrealists: through photography Surrealism found its ideal means of expression. Every Surrealist took or collected photographs it seems, even those on the literary wing of the movement, and the exhibition has many examples of the Surrealist snapshot. They also certainly loved messing about in the (then) new-fangled photobooths.
The exhibition also shows that, in addition to the heavily contrived work we think of as Surrealist photography, it was the first photographic movement to seriously focus on what we now term 'vernacular' photography. It subverted the distinction between 'high' and 'low' art - although from a French intellectual point of view, which is quite a distinction in itself.
The final part of the exhibition, Surrealism Put to Good Use, focuses on vernacular photography, in this case how sophisticated images by artists such as Man Ray and Dora Maar were absorbed back into mainstream photography when they were used in advertising, fashion, and even industrial contexts. Some of Man Ray's finest Surreal photographs were made for a luxury promotional portfolio, Electricite (1931), for the company supplying electricity to Paris, and many other Surrealist photographs were made not for exhibition but for the printed page, either in the form of artist's photobooks - another first for Surrealism - or the press, including 'house' magazines such as Minotaure and La Revolution Surrealiste.
As is necessary in any Surrealist exhibition, the journals, illustrated albums, photobooks, notebooks, manifestos, and maquettes (including one for Bellmer's Les Jeux de la Poupee) are therefore very much in evidence, and repay careful attention. That, together with the various film screenings throughout, makes this a demanding but rewarding show.
It's also racy - Surrealist expression focused heavily upon the sexual. A cigar was often not just a cigar, and it was not an art movement for the prudish. Even so, the Pompidou felt it necessary to screen Man Ray's 'experimental' film, Two Women, behind a curtain and a warning. The film, featuring two young women going at it hot and heavy (so I was told, the area was so crowded I didn't see it), brings me to the one aspect of the exhibition I could criticise. For all its comprehensiveness there is little discussion of what many feel is a somewhat misogynistic art movement - perhaps not surprising as the curators were all male and there is no catalogue essay by a woman.
That notwithstanding this is a truly inspiring exhibition, and the catalogue has deservedly just won the Prix Nadar. It is in French, unfortunately, but even if you don't speak the language the copious illustrations make it a must-have for anyone with the slightest interest in Surrealism. Or for that matter, for anyone who professes a serious interest in photography and wants to know the source of much contemporary photographic expression, from vernacular to advertising to art photography, from straight documentary to the most heavily manipulated.
La Subversion des Images: Surrealisme, photographie, film moves on to the Fotomuseum Winterthur from 27 February-23 May, and from there to the Mapfre Foundation in Madrid from 16 June-12 September. A catalogue of the show is published by Editions du Centre Pompidou (ISBN: 978-2-84426-390-2), priced EUR45.
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