Surrealism


Wednesday, October 7th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Paul Nougé
Paul Nougé, ‘La Jongleuse,’ 1929

This past Sunday I spent quite a few pleasant hours at the Centre Pompidou‘s new show ‘La Subversion des Images.’  It’s a collection and exploration of Surrealism‘s use of photography and film.  And, in a word, it’s really really good.

There are, of course, the usual suspects that one would expect; Hans Bellmer’s doll photos, Un Chien Andalou, lots of Man Ray.  But I was pleasantly surprised how well they were used.  The Bellmer work, which are usually the only representative for photography in broader Surrealism surveys, take up one and a half small walls, covered in various permutations of the doll photos.  It works well this way; they are touched on and acknowledged, but they don’t overwhelm the other work, alot of which I found unknown and alot of which is usually presented alone and not so much in dialogue with other contemporaneous work.

A good example of the latter strategy is the work of Brassaï.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Brassaï work in anything other than solo shows or galleries, which in retrospective is really a shame as it works really really well here, peppered as it is throughout the show in various guises.  Paris by Night, for example, is his masterwork, and is usually presented as a formal leap forward, but in this context seems less radical and more of a logical extension into the picture frame of alot of the Surrealists ideas of the city being an ideal arena to view unexpected juxtapositions and clashes.  One particularly memorable photo is one of a statue taken in the Paris fog with only the words ‘Hotel’ in neon peeping through in the background with no other context.

One unexpected thought I walked away from this show with, is how strikingly modern so much of this work feels – So much work I’ve seen recently would seem to slot so easily into the work seen in this exhibition, and vice versa (for examples, see here, here, and here).  If you strip away some of the postmodern jargon surrounding alot of the work in the ‘techno-spiritualist‘ (my term) strain of contemporary photography and replace it with descriptions of dreams and psychoanalysis, and you’ve got alot of work covering the same grounds…

(I don’t think that last statement is entirely fair, but I do wonder what separates the works then and now? They certainly share some commonalities, so I guess the question is whether the fact that the discourse is different is enough to reset the work for a different era?)

Check out the show, up until January 11th. Definitely worth it.

Related: Hiroshi Sugimoto‘s new lightning field work, Brought to Light (more here and here), Ghost photography, William Hope, these incredibly cool videos of animals breathing, a classic Mrs. Deane post.

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