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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.


A more ambiguous story emerges, however, in the photographs that reveal the real star of the show, the city of Paris itself. In this, the ICP was wise to include a small show of Eugène Atget’s Paris photography from the early part of the century. Atget’s shots of a largely people-less city in transformation from the 19th to 20th century influenced Man Ray and other Surrealists. They liked the dreamy, otherworldly nature of Atget’s pictures. This aspect of Atget’s work is, indeed, powerful. A photo like “Hôtel de Marquis de Chantosme, 6 rue de Tournon, 1900” sticks in the mind with its eerie emptiness. An empty horse cart sits to the side of a lonely courtyard. Suddenly the city is a person, lonely and melancholic, slowly abandoning the old ways.

In the end, this slowness, this loneliness, is stranger than the absurd and fantastic images beloved by the Surrealists. After all this time, after all the bombast has died down and the Surrealist challenge has been absorbed as just another movement, we can finally look at these photographs with a fresh eye. You don’t immediately think of the Surrealists as a sad bunch. But there it is. Following Atget’s lead, they discovered Paris as a subject for photography, for art, and it made them pensive.

That is something photography can do, perhaps uniquely, as a medium. By grabbing a moment from the flow of experience, it gives it individual meaning. The throbbing life of Paris in the 1920s gets broken down into its bits, its isolated incidents. When you take the moments alone, without their friends from the immediate past and future, they become so fragile. Shot through with ephemerality, we suddenly feel that all experience is just a delicate assemblage of these discreet moments, so impossibly tender when isolated.

The Surrealists discovered this by accident. Their love of contrast, their willingness to throw themselves into the mix, cast them onto the streets of the city, into its bars and nightclubs, its back alleys and forgotten places. They were suddenly eager to take pictures of anything, everything. But the new radical mode of consciousness, dreamed about by Breton and his gang, didn’t come out in the prints. Instead, everything was slowed down. Seeking to shake the world at its foundations, the Surrealist photographers discovered instead a persistence of melancholy at the heart of experience.

Look at Ilse Bing’s “Danseuse-Cancan, Moulin Rouge, Paris, 1931.” Here we are at the Moulin Rouge. Here we are in the midst of the dance. And sure, the dancer’s dress is caught mid-twirl. But that’s not what is striking about the photograph. What I can’t take my eyes off is the line of her neck muscle and the odd shadow of her left ear. Why is Ilse’s neck so haunting? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps it is because her neck muscles attest so viscerally to the fact that she really was in that room, in the midst of a twirl, on that night in 1931. A whole world comes down to that.

Germaine Krull. “La Tour Eiffel” (The Eiffel Tower), ca. 1928.

The scandal in all this is how conservative Surrealism comes off in these photographs. Breton and the others envisaged a social and political radicalism as essential to the Surrealist project. They were going to tear bourgeois society apart from the inside and all that. The liberation of the mind from its rationalist fetters would go hand in hand with the liberation of the working class. It’s a little hard to believe that capitalists all over the world were quaking in their boots every time they realized the revolutionary potential of Max Ernst’s “The Toilet of Bride” and other bourgeois-demolishing works. If so, the fear subsided. The politic ideals that drove the Surrealists don’t have force anymore. Surrealism is an aesthetic phenomenon now, for us. Lament or celebrate that fact as you will. What endures from Surrealism is of a quieter and reflective sort.

This is even true of works like the photographs in André Kertész’s “Distortions” series. Kertész shot a series of nudes reflected in the glass of funhouse mirrors. What could be a more direct portrayal of “the disjunctive and uncanny aspects of modern urban life” (as the press release for the show puts it). And yet, it doesn’t really work out that way. “Distortion #40” shows a woman lying on her side with her hands through her legs. The funhouse mirror plays havoc with the shape and size of her legs. But it is her hands that dominate the picture. The way she tucks them between her legs just so. The crook of her pinky finger against her thigh. Those hands are an impossible sadness. • 2 March 2010