Photography’s surprising impact on the Surrealists

Our own Morgan J. Meis in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_04 Mar. 11 10.36 Surrealism isn't surreal anymore. It doesn't shock or jolt. It isn't confusing or upsetting. If anything, the works of Surrealism have taken on a quaint charm. This would surely have annoyed its practitioners. The great theorist of Surrealism, André Breton, thought of himself as a revolutionary. He once wrote, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.” Like most big talkers, he was wrong. Surrealism didn't ruin anything or solve anything either.

Surrealism did its best, though, to shake things up. Looking out at the madness of modern life in the early 20th century, Surrealism said, “Bring it on.” The show currently on display at the International Center of Photography, “Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris,” makes that patently clear. Paris inspired the Surrealists. There was so much going on. The chaos of traffic and lights and humanity was constantly producing jarring images. Reality seemed to blur into a dream state and then back again. Shit had gotten crazy for everyone.

Man Ray's “Barbette Applying Makeup” from 1926 makes the point as well as any photograph in the show. As Barbette applies her makeup, she is, literally, putting on a mask. Is Barbette even a “she”? It is unclear. Anyway, we see her in two different mirrors as she works. But the images in the two mirrors are amazingly different. The angles change everything. The top mirror gives a clear and straightforward image — Barbette looks hard and clean. The bottom image is blurry and falling apart — she is a leering coquette. Same person, same instant in time, wildly different identities. Here is the shock of juxtaposition, the contradictions that nag at our experience of the world. This is the side of Surrealism with which we've long been acquainted.

More here.