Surrealism: The Monstrous Erotic
"Nobody will give you freedom, you have to take it." -- Meret Oppenheim

The international Surrealist Movement was actively opposed to the historical segregation of artists. Ethnic, racial, and gender boundaries were transcended from the very first publication of La Révolution surréaliste and exhibition. The same integration of media and discipline applies, as this movement includes painters, photographers, poets, dancers, collage makers, film makers, and so on. It is the fault of historians and critics that many of these talented artists have been neglected in text books and exhibitions. However, as the art historian Robert Short noted "no comparable movement outside of specifically feminist organizations has had such a high proportion of active women participants."


Marcel Duchamp [MMA]

Conceptual Art and Photography [MMA]

Eugene Atget [MMA]

Henri Cartier-Bresson [MMA]

Photography and Surrealism [MMA]

Surrealism was officially launched as a movement with the publication of poet André Breton's first Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. The Surrealists did not rely on reasoned analysis or sober calculation; on the contrary, they saw the forces of reason blocking the access routes to the imagination. Their efforts to tap the creative powers of the unconscious set Breton and his companions on a path that carried them through the territory of dreams, intoxication, chance, sexual ecstasy, and madness. The images obtained by such means, whether visual or literary, were prized precisely to the degree that they captured these moments of psychic intensity in provocative forms of unrestrained, convulsive beauty.

Photography came to occupy a central role in Surrealist activity. In the works of Man Ray (2005.100.141) and Maurice Tabard (1987.1100.141), the use of such procedures as double exposure, combination printing, montage, and solarization dramatically evoked the union of dream and reality. Other photographers used techniques such as rotation (1987.1100.49) or distortion (1987.1100.321) to render their images uncanny. Hans Bellmer (1987.1100.15) obsessively photographed the mechanical dolls he fabricated himself, creating strangely sexualized images, while the painter René Magritte (1987.1100.157) used the camera to create photographic equivalents of his paintings. In her close-up photograph of a baby armadillo suspended in formaldehyde, Dora Maar performs a typical Surrealist inversion, making an ugly, or even repulsive subject compelling and bizarrely appealing (1987.1100.101).

But the Surrealist understanding of photography turned on more than the medium's facility in fabricating uncanny images. Just as important was another discovery: even the most prosaic photograph, filtered through the prism of Surrealist sensibility, might easily be dislodged from its usual context and irreverently assigned a new role. Anthropological photographs, ordinary snapshots, movie stills, medical and police photographs—all of these appeared in Surrealist journals like La Révolution Surréaliste and Minotaure, radically divorced from their original purposes.

This impulse to uncover latent Surrealist affinities in popular imagery accounts, in part, for the enthusiasm with which Surrealists embraced Eugène Atget's photographs of Paris. Published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1926 at the suggestion of his neighbor, Man Ray, Atget's images of vanished Paris were understood not as the work of a competent professional or a self-conscious artist but as the spontaneous visions of an urban primitive—the Henri Rousseau of the camera. In Atget's photographs of the deserted streets of old Paris and of shop windows haunted by elegant mannequins, the Surrealists recognized their own vision of the city as a "dream capital," an urban labyrinth of memory and desire. [MMA, 11/24/07.]

Marcel Duchamp (July 28, 1887 – October 2, 1968), NYC, c. 1967

"The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."

Marcel Duchamp, The Fountain, 1917/1964

"Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made The Fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view -- he created a new thought for the object." -- Duchamp

The Treachery of Images, 1928. Rene Magritte, 1898-1967.

Ingres' Violin, Man Ray, 1930.

Le Grande Odalisque, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814.

Rayograph - Man Ray, 1922.

Christian Schad, Amourette, 1918.

The artist's "schadographs" are among the earliest intentionally abstract photographs. Using the cameraless photogram technique—in existence since the discovery of photography but previously unused for artistic purposes—Schad covered the surfaces of light-sensitive paper with various objects and then left them to develop by his windowsill. He preferred worn materials, such as scraps of paper and bits of fabric, often searching for these things on the streets and in garbage cans. Schad frequently extended his assault on artistic tradition by cutting a jagged border around the schadographs, "to free them," as he explained, "from the convention of the square." From: MoMA
See also: Glitter and Doom. This group of artists inspired Dada and Surrealism.

Object (Luncheon in Fur), 1933. Meret Oppenheim, 1913-1985. [MoMA]

Thish object was inspired by a conversation between the artist, Pablo Picasso, and the Surrealist Dora Maar. Upon admiring Oppenheim's fur-trimmed bracelets, Picasso commented on how anything could be covered with fur, to which Oppenheim quipped, "even this cup and saucer".

[This is the artist's] most famous work was the fur lined teacup, or Object in Fur produced in 1936, and it remains one of the icons of the Surrealist movement. It provoked the viewer into imagining what the fur lined cup might feel like to drink from and forces the disagreeable sensation on a mixture of the senses. Much of Surrealist work was an echo of everything this piece stands for, a mixture of humour, sexuality and provocation. However, following this piece's creation Oppenheim attended art school in order to try and live up to her new found fame and yet receded into a seventeen year depression."Nobody gives you freedom, you have to take it", she remarked and she came out the other side of her crisis with links to Surrealism and Dada intact. [Source]

Self-Portrait, Skull and Ornament, 1964.

"This night I had a funny idea: I have calculated, that I probably will die before the year 2000. If I am still alive, I should (attain?, reach?) 86 years and 3 months. This is not sure at all. But how Modern it would be to die after in 2000! So I thought – to push the legend – to make a joke and make a little forgery: To print under the X Ray photo: Meret Oppenheim born 1913 died 2000…When people read this now, they must take it as a joke, it just may create a little entanglement. If really I die after 2000 (even perhaps completely sick and gaga – I hope not) that would be great. But if not – dates are soon forgotten, some historians will certainly repeat: died 2000. Of course, the photographs will be signed by me-! Very Mysterious!" -- Meret Oppenheim to Harrison, May 31, 1978

In 1981, Oppenheim did complete an edition of 20 gelatin silver prints. Oppenheim strongly believed that art had no gender and strove to unite her male and female psyches, which are part of every person regardless of gender. Her intrigue with androgyny is apparent in this self-portrait, as all humans' look the same in an x-ray of their skull and hand, neither male nor female. However, she illustrates her feminine psyche by wearing jewelry, most likely created by her. Furthermore, the influence that Man Ray had on her art is evident when one compares this work with his Rayographs, a type of x-ray of objects. The similarities and influences were so great that Oppenheim had often been questioned as to the sitter and idea behind this piece. [Source]

Self-Portrait (Solarized), Elizabeth "Lee" Miller, 1907–1977.
Click here for The Philadelphia Museum of Art's pages on Lee Miller.

American photographer. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1908, died 1977 in Sussex, England. Studied at the Art students League in New York before moving to Paris in 1929. Worked with Man Ray from 1929 to 1932. Opened own photo studio in New York in 1932; first one-woman exhibition the following year at Julien Levy Gallery. Returned to Paris in 1937 after marriage to a wealthy Egyptian; met Roland Penrose at a Surrealist costume party. Moved to England in 1939 and began photographing for Vogue. Grim Glory, her photographs of the London Blitz, published in 1941 in London and New York. Worked as a war correspondent for Conde Nast publications. Gave up photography after the war and turned her attention to cooking. Exhibitions: London (1940), Paris (1947). [Source]

The Suicided Burgermeister’s Daughter, Miller, 1945.

Lee Miller in Hitler's Bathtub, April 30, 1945. (Photographed by David Scherman)

Lee Miller, covering WWII for Vogue teamed up with the American photographer David E. Scherman, a Life magazine correspondent on many assignments. The above photograph by Scherman of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler’s house in Munich is one of the most iconic images from the Miller-Scherman partnership. The New York Times had this to say: “A picture of the Führer balances on the lip of the tub; a classical statue of a woman sits opposite it on a dressing table; Lee, in the tub, inscrutable as ever, scrubs her shoulder. A woman caught between horror and beauty, between being seen and being the seer.”

The night after Miller visited Dachau, on April 30, 1945–earlier that day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin–Miller and Scherman entered Munich with the American 45th Division that was liberating the city. They happened upon a dilapidated and normal-looking apartment building on Prinzenregentplatz 27, and realized, upon entering, that it was Hitler’s Munich apartment. They billeted there for three days. Miller wrote to her Vogue editor Audrey Winters:
“I was living in Hitler’s private apartment when his death was announced, midnight of Mayday. . . Well, alright, he was dead. He’d been an evil-machine-monster all these years, until I visited the places he made famous, talked to people who knew him, dug into backstairs gossip and ate and slept in his house. He became less fabulous and therefore more terrible, along with a little evidence of his having some almost human habits; like an ape who embarrasses and humbles you with his gestures, mirroring yourself in caricature.”

When the photo came out, it was considered an extremely poor judgement. For some, Miller posing nude in the tub of one of the most repulsive men in history was nothing more than a ill-timed reflection of the adage, “To the victor goes the spoils”. For others, it represents the power of life over death, “The living do what they can and the dead suffer what they must”. Lee Miller herself shied away from the controversies but reprouding the image very rarely and noted that she was merely trying to wash the odors of Dachau away.

Source:, 03-22-11.

Lee Miller and Pablo Picasso, Liberation of Paris, 1944.

Père Ubu, 1936. Dora Maar (French, born Great Britain, 1909–1997).

The Surrealist artist Dora Maar is better known as Picasso's dark-haired model and companion in the late 1930s than for her astonishing works. Her incarnation of the bestial nature of man is titled after the infamous and absurd dictatorial antihero of Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi (1896). Maar's imaginative evocation of the pear-shaped, breast-plated Ubu in the monstrous reality of a baby armadillo is one of the most compelling and repellent of Surrealist photographs. [MMA, 11/24/07.]

St. Mark's with Skywriting, 1937. Berenice Abbot, 1898-1991, NYC.

Untitled, 1929. From the Big Toe Series. Jacques-Andre Boiffard, 1903-1961.

Big Toe, 30-Year-Old Male Subject, 1929, Boiffard. From the Big Toe Series.

Distortion No. 6, 1932 André Kertész (American, born Hungary, 1894–1985).

Kertész accentuated the narrow ribcage and long waist of the ideal contemporary woman by photographing his model in a carnival mirror. See the work of Modigliani and Ingres for aesthetic connections. [MMA, 11/24/04.] Check out PBS'' American Masters for more information on Andre Kertesz. Excerpt from PBS link: "Known for his extended study of Washington Square Park and his distorted nudes of the 1930s, Andre Kertesz was a quiet but important influence on the coming of age of photojournalism and the art of photography. For more than seventy years, his subtle and penetrating vision helped to define a medium in its infancy. Though he spent most of his life in the United States, his European modernist sensibility is what made him great, and that is what he is remembered for today."

Distortion, 1933. André Kertész.

The Doll, 1934-35. Hans Bellmer (French, born Silesia, 1902–1975).

Bellmer's obsession with dolls—his endless fabrication, reconstitution, and photographic presentation of them—was an effort to construct objects that would articulate his tortured desires in material form. The bizarre, robotic temptress in this negative print has an eerie electric aura. To love her, one would have to have, as the Surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy wrote, a "short circuit in the heart-system." [MMA, 11/24/07.]

The Doll, 1930s-40s. Hans Bellmer.

The Doll, 1930s-40s. Hans Bellmer.

The Doll, 1930s-40s. Bellmer, c. 1930s.

The Doll, 1930s-40s. Bellmer, c. 1930s.