Important Photographs and Artists of Dada and Surrealist Photography
Progression of Art
Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany
Though one of Höch's earliest works, this ambitious collage is unusual within her canon for being particularly large; it measures 35 x 57 inches. The piece was exhibited in the First International Dada Fair, which took place in Berlin in 1920, and it was reportedly one of the most popular pieces in the show. In the top right corner Höch pasted together images of "anti-Dada" figures of the Weimar government and representatives of the old empire. Elsewhere in the collage, known proponents of Dada, such as Raoul Hausmann, are arranged in contrast to these establishment figures.
The effect is initially one of visual confusion, and yet a kind of nonsense-narrative begins to develop with sustained attention. One figure is transformed into something else by the addition of a de-contextualised newspaper clipping, such as the Kaiser's iconic moustache replaced by a pair of upside-down wrestlers. The work encapsulates the eclecticism and eccentricities of Dadaism, but also makes a pointed political statement against the staid establishment; it is a carefully crafted homage to anarchistic opposition.
The piece expertly illustrates the Surrealist use of photomontage along with the technique of taking words and images from the established press to create a fresh, subversive statement that was highly innovative for the time.
This is an important example of early Surrealist photography, crossing the line between Dada and Surrealism in the early 1920s. It is a photograph taken by Man Ray of Marcel Duchamp's masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923) after it had sat for three years gathering dust in Duchamp's studio. Dust Breeding is an important early example of collaboration in Surrealism; where two artists utilized the combination of imagery to defy literal presentation and concoct an all-together new piece in which one media interrogates and challenges another.
Although Dust Breeding is literally a close-up photograph of a dusty surface where the graphic lines of Duchamp's masterpiece peek through just visible, the resulting effort resembles an aerial photograph. When the work was published for the first time (in the early Surrealist journal Litterature), it was humorously captioned View from an Aeroplane. This points to Man Ray's aim of using photography in combination with language to trick the viewer's eye and to distort the viewer's powers of perception through psychic suggestion. It was one of the few photographs published in a Surrealist journal before 1924, hinting at its importance as an early example of Surrealist photography.
Contemporary photographer Sophie Ristelhueber was strongly influenced by Man Ray's photographs and by this work in particular. She argues that, "the constant shift between the infinitely big and the infinitely small may disorientate the spectator. But it is a good illustration of our relationship to the world: we have at our disposal modern techniques for seeing everything, apprehending everything, yet we see nothing."
Silver gelatin print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin)
Le Violon d'Ingres is one of the best-known images in modern art. To create this work, Man Ray took a photograph of one of his favorite models, Kiki, and made her pose resemble a painting by Ingres. He subsequently painted two "F" symbols copied from the body of a violin onto the print, before re-photographing it. This is a powerful example of post-production manipulation being used to create a Surrealist effect in photography.
Man Ray's manipulation gives the work a number of layers of meaning. By re-photographing the print, Man Ray elides the original image with his manipulation of it, resulting in the woman's body being inseparable from the violin-like figurations on it. This confuses the viewer's understanding of the image: are those black marks painted or tattooed directly onto her skin or are we in fact looking at a woman with holes in her back like the body of a violin? Such confusion points to the inherent instability of the photographic image so often explored by the Surrealist photographers.
Art historian David Bate also argues that this image is a key example of the Surrealist disruption of the photographic issues of mimesis and the signifier/signified: "The signifying plane of the photograph itself has been disrupted [...]. No longer purely mimetic, the photograph confuses the usual status and conventions of a photographic image with respect to reality. It introduces fantasy."
Silver gelatin print - Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Storefront avenue des Gobelins
This is one of Atget's more playful images that he created toward the end of his life, though prototypical of his iconic, continual series of mannequins in storefront windows. Fashion figures pose in a display case like human surrogates, showcasing the trendy fashions of the day. Their exaggerated gestures make for an odd tableau that is further complicated by various reflections in the window. Tree branches, a building opposite the storefront, and Atget's own leg overlap the scene to create new shapes and references. The treatment of light resulted from a masterful technique. The intermingling spaces, objects, and tones of black simultaneously merge and disjoint the photograph. This blend of imagery, between fiction and reality, conjures the dreamy, fragmentary realms in which the viewer's perspective is challenged by that which is true and that which is imagined. Because of this, Atget's work was championed by the Surrealists and adopted as part of the movement.
Matte albumen print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Je ne vois pas la femme cachee dans la foret
This work by René Magritte furthered the ideas of collage and photomontage by combining painting and photography in a unique way to inform a conceptual idea. It features a central painting of a nude woman on a black background, with the words in French, "I do not see the woman hidden in the forest." This is surrounded by a series of photographs of key male members of the Surrealist movement, all wearing suits and ties and all with their eyes closed.
The implication is that, for men (and for the Surrealists in particular), women did not exist as real people, but simply as fantasy objects. Rather than "see" them for their human qualities, men choose to close their eyes and allow them to enter their dreams rather than their waking lives. This is emphasized by the fact that the woman is painted, a creation from the imagination, as opposed to the men who are depicted in their photographic reality.
Art historian Robert James Belton argues that "surrounded there by Surrealists with closed eyes, she signifies precisely that her adorers were indeed blind to any but their own subjective inner realities." This suggests an element of self-reflexive understanding that is very important for appreciating the Surrealist movement.
Mixed media collage
Plate no.1 from Aveux non Avenus
This plate from Claude Cahun's 1930 novel Aveux non Avenus (translated as "Confessions" or "Disavowals") shows several pairs of hands holding an eye, a magnifying glass or mirror, and a globe. The plates in this book are important examples of the use of photomontage in Surrealist photography, where disparate elements are juxtaposed to create an unsettling or uncanny effect. This work is representative of the phase of Cahun's career when she was most engaged in the ideas of Surrealism. Interestingly, the image is signed "Moore," referring to Claude Cahun's lifelong partner Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe). This dual ascribing of authorship points to the importance of collaboration for many Surrealist photographers such as Cahun.
Photographs and photographic images are at the heart of this text, a collection of prose poems, poem-essays and photo-collages, pointing to the key alignment of photography and literature within the Surrealist movement. Cahun's photographs suggest that each element should not be considered in isolation, but as part of a wider interdisciplinary practice that is typical of many Surrealist photographers.
This plate accompanies her opening chapter, which starts as follows with a description of taking a photograph:
"The invisible adventure.
The lens tracks the eyes, the mouth, the wrinkles skin deep... the expression on the face is fierce, sometimes tragic. And then calm - a knowing calm, worked on, flashy. A professional smile - and voilà!
The hand-held mirror reappears, and the rouge and the eye shadow. A beat. Full stop. New paragraph."
In her photographs, and in this quotation in particular, Cahun draws attention to photography's artifice, its ability to trick despite its apparently scientific "honesty." The hand-held mirror has only been held away from the face for a minute, during the moment of capture, before it reappears for the stereotypically feminine task of self-inspection. Cahun, along with other women who take photographic self-portraits, both confirms and undermines stereotypical images of femininity, drawing attention to their prevalence and self-perpetuation while simultaneously highlighting their subjectivity, multiplicity, and artifice.
Although Kertesz had been working with photography since the 1910s, his Distortions series in the 1930s was one of his most significant and effective forays into Surrealist photography. Commissioned by Le Sourire, a risqué magazine, the images combined sexuality and dream-like metamorphosis through Kertesz's capturing of a warped reality.
Kertesz took this photograph using a funhouse mirror in a Paris fairground. The image captures some of the disorienting and out-of-body sensations caused by the house of mirrors, where one's body is reflected in unexpected ways and from strange angles, developing the Surrealist aim of documenting and creating alternative realities and normalities.
Although the images in this series are of nude women, in many examples, such as Distortion #51, the figure's nudity is both sexual and anti-sexual due to deformation. The woman, with her exaggerated screaming mouth, is both erotic and highly disturbing; with a nightmarish quality that connotes the Surrealist interest in dreams. As art historian Christian Bouqueret argues, "Throughout the series, the female model is continually subjected to deformation, hypertrophy and anamorphosis. She may be inflated into a lewd monster, or she may dwindle into a mere palpitation that seeks to reinvent the nature of movement - a grotesque gasp of breath."
Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Hans Bellmer's photographs of dolls are perhaps some of the best-known Surrealist photographs. However, Bellmer was not closely connected with the group until 1938, when the changing political situation in Germany forced him to flee to Paris, where Andre Breton welcomed him. Consequently, he made much of his work in relative artistic isolation, associating with the Surrealists only from a distance.
Nevertheless, his work accords closely with Surrealist principles. Initially, he started to make sexualized sculptures of dolls inspired by Jacques Offenbach's (1819-1880) final opera The Tales of Hoffmann, where the protagonist falls in love with a life-size doll. He soon started to photograph the dolls, and his photographs are now considered artworks in their own right. The doll is a key figuration in Surrealist art, and particularly in Surrealist photography. Thinkers who were to have an important influence on the Surrealists, such as the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, have written extensively about dolls and how they represent the uncanny: uncomfortably similar to a human but also uncomfortably unlike one.
Bellmer complicates this discourse by sexualizing and dismembering his dolls. The dolls are a symbol of erotic desire but also of erotic violence. By committing a violent act on a figure that is already inanimate ("killing" the doll through hanging and dismemberment), Bellmer makes the relationship between person and object even more fraught psychologically. His work points deeply toward the Surrealist impulse to manifest unconscious drives, unapologetically, through artwork.
Silver gelatin print - Tate, London
Dora Maar is often better known for being the muse and lover of Pablo Picasso. However, she was, first and foremost, a talented artist in her own right who took to photography for both artistic and political reasons. Some of her earliest work (before she became associated with the Surrealists) was a series of photographic portraits of the poor and disenfranchised in Barcelona, Paris and London. These depictions of the pitiful condition of many members of society align with her strong leftist political views.
However, Maar became increasingly involved in the Surrealist movement, drawn to their political statements and to their use of the fantastical to propose alternative ways of being and thinking. She shared a studio with Surrealist photographer Brassai and began experimenting with new subjects and techniques. One of her most famous series of works are photographs of an armadillo fetus. Maar's image points to a key facet of Surrealist photography: photographs did not have to be heavily manipulated for the subjects to emerge unrecognizable. Instead, Maar used traditional photography techniques to find something extraordinary in the everyday. She used this photograph to show that the monstrous and the obscene could occupy the ordinary; there is a nightmarish quality to the photograph, compounded by the fact that the viewer is aware of its reality.
Maar's image is titled after the antihero of Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi (1896), a proto-Surrealist work that celebrated the absurd and the psychological. In this way, Maar suggested that the armadillo could be compared to human nature: bestial, compelling, and yet repulsive.
Silver gelatine print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York