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.]
"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 (July 28, 1887 – October 2, 1968), NYC, c. 1967
"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
Marcel Duchamp, The Fountain, 1917/1964
Edward James was an eccentric poet, collector, and patron of both Dalí and Magritte. In 1937, when Magritte visited James in London, he painted a vertical version of his 1929 canvas On the Threshold of Liberty to install in the stairwell; he also photographed his host and patron in front of the painting. The photographic description is so close to the painter's realistic style, and James is so close to the painting, that he seems to stand on the threshold—evidently unaware that the potential liberty before him is threatened by the heavy artillery at his side. [MMA, 11/24/07.]
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919
"Painting is washed up," Duchamp said in 1912. "I want something where the eye and the hand count for nothing."
The Treason/Treachery of Images, 1928. Rene Magritte, 1898-1967.
Edward James in Front of On the Threshold of Liberty, 1937, Réné Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967).
The son of a wealthy textile merchant, Henri Cartier-Bresson studied painting at André Lhote's academy in Montparnasse in 1927, and soon thereafter entered the bohemian world of the Parisian avant-garde. In 1931, he began to use a camera and to make photographs that reveal the influence of both Cubism and Surrealism—bold, flat planes, collagelike compositions, and spatial ambiguity—as well as an affinity for society's outcasts and the back alleys where they lived and worked. Within a year, he had mastered the miniature 35mm Leica camera and had begun traveling in Italy, Spain, Morocco, and Mexico, developing what would become one of the hallmarks of twentieth-century photographic style. Although he was influenced by such photographers as Eugène Atget and André Kertész (1894–1985), his photographic fusion of form and content was groundbreaking. In his 1952 landmark monograph The Decisive Moment, he defined his philosophy: "To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which gave that event its proper expression."
The Rape, Magritte, 1934.
Son of Man, Magritte, 1964.
Garden of France, 1962. Max Ernst, 1909-1976.
The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child in Front of Witnesses, Ernst, 1926.
Cartier-Bresson was drafted into the French army in 1940. He was taken prisoner by the Germans but escaped on his third attempt and joined the French Resistance. In 1946, he assisted in the preparation of a "posthumous" show of his work organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the mistaken belief that he had been killed in the war. The following year he founded the Magnum photo agency with Robert Capa (1913–1954), David "Chim" Seymour (1911–1956), and others, and spent the next twenty years on assignment, documenting the great upheavals in India and China, and also traveling to the Soviet Union, Cuba, Canada, Japan, and Mexico. He left Magnum in 1966 and devoted himself primarily to painting and drawing. [MMA, 11/24/07.]
The relationship of the sleeping fruit vendor to the graffito on the wall above him is a conundrum with several possible interpretations. Whatever private speculations Cartier-Bresson had about its meaning, he saw at once that the resemblance of the drawn head to the real one was remarkable and that any explanation of their juxtaposition would be less interesting than the continuing enigma. [MMA, 11/24/07.]
Barrio Chino, Barcelona, Cartier-Bresson, 1933.
The advent of small, fast, hand-held cameras allowed photographers to work with spontaneity, intuition, and accuracy. It also encouraged access to locations previously too dangerous or too difficult to enter with larger, slower cameras. The bullring was one such environment, from which even the most adventurous and athletic photographers had steered clear.
Valencia, Spain, Cartier-Bresson, 1933.
This photograph shows the inside doors of the Valencia arena from the vantage point of the bull; to make this picture of an attendant watching the action from a small rectangular window, Cartier-Bresson entered the ring. The complex composition reflects the influence of Cubism on the artist's work. All the major structural elements are fragmented: the arena doors are ajar, splitting the concentric rings into arcs and the number 7 into two abstract forms; the foreground figure is, in effect, beheaded by the door, his body linked to a faceless counterpart wearing identical clothing; even the attendant's circular glasses are awry, one lens catching the light, the other remaining transparent. The picture as a whole illustrates the avant-garde theory of simultaneous multiple vision and is a sophisticated critique of the bull's-eye school of photographic composition.
Through photographs such as this one, Cartier-Bresson forces the viewer to accept the disjunctive and mysterious as part of the modern experience of the world; we can never close the door, align the rings, reconstruct the numeral, or clear the attendant's vision. [MMA, 11/24/07.]
Marilyn is one of the most revered icons of our age. She's become more popular than The Mona Lisa for many artists. Cartier-Bresson, Warhol, Avedon, and the like have captured and expressed her likeness and energy in countless compositions.
Madrid, Cartier-Bresson, 1933.
Marilyn Monroe During the Making of The Misfits, Cartier-Bresson, 1962.
One of Duchamp's close friends and a member of the New York Dada scene, the American photographer and painter Man Ray was also one of Duchamp's collaborators. His photograph Dust Breeding from 1920 is a document of The Large Glass after it had collected a year's worth of dust while Duchamp was in New York. The photograph was taken with a two-hour-long exposure that beautifully captures the complex texture and diversity of materials that lay atop the glass surface. Dust Breeding marks a pivotal phase in the development of Duchamp's masterpiece. After the photograph was taken, Duchamp wiped The Large Glass almost entirely clean, leaving a section of the cones covered with dust, which he permanently affixed to the glass plate with a diluted cement. [MMA, 11/24/07.]
Self-Portrait with Camera, Man Ray (1890-1976), 1930.
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.]
Dust Breeding, 1920, printed c. 1967 May Ray.
Portrait of Salvador Dali, Man Ray, c. 1936.
Persistence of Memory, Dali, 1931.
Lobster Phone, Dali, 1936. [MoMA]
Noire et Blanche, Man Ray, 1926.
Violin d'Ingres (Ingres' Violin), Man Ray, 1930.
Le Grande Odalisque, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814.
Rayograph - Man Ray, 1922.
Meret Oppenheim, Man Ray, 1933.
Object (Luncheon in Fur), 1933. Meret Oppenheim, 1913-1985. [MoMA]
Untitled (Exploding Hand), c. 1930. Elizabeth "Lee" Miller, 1907–1977.
Click here for The Philadelphia Museum of Art's pages on Lee Miller.
Self-Portrait (Solarized), Miller, c. 1929.
The Suicided Burgermeister’s Daughter, Miller, 1945.
Lee Miller in Hitler's Bathtub, April 30, 1945.
Lee Miller and Pablo Picasso, Liberation of Paris, 1944.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Miller, c. 1944.
Broken Column, 1944. Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954.
Saint Sebastian, Perugino, 1494.
Père Ubu, 1936. Dora Maar (French, born Great Britain, 1909–1997).
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.]
Avenue des Goeblins, 1921-1926. Eugène Atget, 1857-1927.
Corsets, Atget, 1921.
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).
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.]
Distortion, 1933. André Kertész.
Satiric Dancer, André Kertész, 1926.
The Doll, 1934-35. Hans Bellmer (French, born Silesia, 1902–1975).
For more information, check out the following links:
Games of the Doll, 1949. Hans Bellmer.
Games of the Doll, 1949. Hans Bellmer.
Beautiful Doll, Bellmer, c. 1930s.
The Doll, Bellmer, 1936.
The Doll, Bellmer, 1936.
Marcel Duchamp [MMA]
Conceptual Art and Photography [MMA]
The New Vision of Photography [MMA]
NY Times Review of a Surrealist Photo Show at MoMA (1994)