Sunday, 4 October 2009

La Subversion des Images

On one of the last days in Paris we ventured back into the Centre Pompidou to see a temporary exhibition on surrealist art and photography that had opened. As we discovered, the roots of surrealism can be traced back to André Breton who had begun with Dadaism, movement founded in Zürich that played a prominent role in the art scene from 1916-1922. Dadaism intended explicitly to go against the conventional views on art: Dada was not art, it was anti-art. For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. In 1922 Breton breaks away from Dadaism and forms his own artist group, Le mouvement flou (the flux movement).

André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement.

In 1924 Breton authors the Le Manifeste du Surréalisme by which the surrealist movement is formally defined. In the manifesto, Bretón defines surrealism as "pure psychic automatism whereby one's intention is to express, either verbally or in writing, or in any other way, the real functioning of thought". While Dadaism rejected categories and labels, Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination.

Surrealism can be regarded as the product of the impact of Freud's psychoanalysis on fine art; it emphasised the attempt to access the unconscious. Initially, the movement had been purely literary (with French poet Arthur Rimbaud being regarded as a predecessor to Surrealism), with its field of inquiry being experimentation with language free from conscious control, having examined the Hegelian and Marxist dialectics (method of argument in Western philosophy).

Arthur Rimbaud, the French symbolist poet whose work heavily influenced Surrealism, especially Une Saison en Enfer.

Thus, the movement discarded the conscious production of art and sought towards the unconscious for inspiration. It was believed that art with its roots in the unconscious was more real or true than rationalist art works. Automatic drawing and writing, in which the artist holds a pencil and tries to clear away the thoughts of the conscious mind, then simply allow the pencil to flow, was considered the closest approach to the unconscious. Surrealists following Breton practiced the Automatism form of Surrealist art.

The exhibition was very big and extremely well curated. There were several collages which had never before been exhibited publicly, and the range of media considered included photography and film. The German artist and film-maker Hans Richter became iconic within Surrealist film. His film Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakest) from 1928 incorporates elements of Surrealism when seemingly mundane objects like bowler hats rebel against their owners. The cinematographic techniques employed (such as the reversal of the time sequence of a clip) were avant-garde within film-production at the time. The original sound track to the film was destroyed by the Nazi movement on the grounds of Richter's work being of degenerate nature.

In photography, Man Ray, Maurice Tabard and Jacques-André Boiffard considered strange and unrealistic poses, people and situations. André Breton's wife was a common motif in these photographs.

The city was a primary motif for surrealist photography. Urban themes were common, especially the city as seen during the night. The famous photograph of two men looking into a manhole succintly encapsulates surrealist thought. A manhole allows one to enter the sewer system of the city, and thereby travel within the physical subconscious of the city, if you will. The manhole was thus considered a metaphor for the door separating the conscious from the subconscious.

Within the fine art and sculpture media the exhibition considered Victor Brauner who, like Miró or Dalí, breaches the realist painting by breaking certain laws of logic and incorporating real elements in such ways that the overall composition is surrealist.

Collages were very common, allowing the artists to experiment with thoughts and ideas.

The terms collage and photomontage were not strictly belonging to the domain of the surrealists. Early photomontages dating 30 years prior to the rise of surrealism were well known. Here an early photomontage from 1893, La tète sur un plat. This could, like the poetry of Rimbaud, still be considered a proto-Surrealist work of art.

Ultimately, I consider Surrealism to be a starkly tongue-in-cheek, imaginative and very vivid movement which would go on to influence nascent artistic movements of the post-war era, especially Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dadaism and Pop Art.

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