New York

“Surrealism and Photography”

Prakapas Gallery

The authentically Surrealist photographs here, manipulating content to create an effect of contradiction with underlying connection, were few. True Surrealist photography does not depend on gimmicks or novelty, but rather on the fact that straight self-disclosure of content through appearance, when systematically and persistently carried through, leads to the loss of the sense of the content as “real.” The brilliance of authentic Surrealist photographs lies in their demonstration that photography, as a way of pushing to the limit of appearances, does just the opposite of what it is expected to do: it undermines and diminishes our sense of reality rather than enhances and encourages it. Thus, in Luis Bunuel’s 1929 photograph of a thin, young Salvador Dali, the fake white spider on his neck, his shadow on the stone wall behind him, and his posed intensity destroy our expectation that we will learn the exact nature of the creature we are looking at. An effect of strangeness and alienation is induced; Dali dismembers before our eyes, through the very process by which we see him whole. This sense of things falling apart, with no center, is continued in Man Ray’s 1935 photograph of a voluptuous, darkly lit female body, its upper and lower parts separately framed. As in the magic trick, the body is cut in half but remains whole; we realize how widely disparate are its parts—how utterly strange it is, making it all the more seductive, an effect that works against the strangeness. Similarly, in a marvelous little 1937 photograph by René Magritte, a small head separates with understated, barely articulated violence from the sand dune (if such it be) that blocks our view of the body to which it is presumably attached, generating a strangeness beyond seductive overcoming.

Hans Hajek-Halke’s ca. 1930 photograph of a transparent female nude overlaying and enclosing three top-hatted, overcoated gentlemen seen from above—dominating their thoughts—and Jindrich Styrsky’s pornography-inspired photographs from 1931, the first showing a copulating couple watched by giant insect eyes and the second a masturbating woman parachuting along with giant female lips and an upside-down bird, are more conventionally Surrealistic. What is significant in these works is their implication of collage, and, most important, their sense of squeezing an underworld reality into an impossibly microcosmic scale. The de rigeur effect of strangeness is generated more by this excruciating compression than by the juxtaposition of fragments of content. Surrealist photography shows just how powerfully the photograph concentrates appearances, undermining its own sense of reality.

Less interesting works are more concerned with a strange reality than with the strangeness of ordinary reality. Erwin Blumenfeld’s nude female torso on a cloth from the 1930s, Raoul Ubac’s 1935–36 composite of broken doll parts and other emblems of the female (his open box pierced by a corkscrew and with some obscene thing visible in it is more interesting), Hans Bellmer’s 1935 sadistically abused doll, Vilem Reichmann’s 1940 close-up of the loins of a vine-covered statue of a female nude, and Angus McBean’s ca. 1934 female head, the right half of which is from a splintered statue—all have a certain artificially lurid, mock-Surrealist look. All try hard to make the everyday photograph a zone of forbidden content—the female, forever strange to man, is renewed as taboo. Yet one of the things photography did was create the opportunity to easily publicize what had been private. Since photography seeks to enlighten us by eliminating our superstitious belief in the enigmatic, making visible the hidden, these photographs’ attempt to regenerate the enigmatic actually does the opposite. By revealing our last—and so invariably dirty—little secrets, they bludgeon us into simple-mindedness, giving us an easy sense of reality. The authentically Surrealist photograph, however, pushes simple given appearances to the limit, revealing that they have nothing to do with our sense of reality. By turning them into a magnetic field of forceful forms, restoring our awareness of their unreality, Surrealism creates the introspective, self-conscious photograph.

Donald Kuspit