If the Surrealists' goal was to manifest the contradictions of the imagination in the physical world, then Paris in the '20s and '30s must have been as close as they ever came to the promised land. In the new Frist exhibit Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris, a wealth of photographs and films from the time between world wars conveys the city's ever-shifting yet iconic identity.
Works from photographers such as Eugène Atget and Brassaï depict a city of waking dreams and mass euphoria. Atget's shop windows are like the glimmering waters of Narcissus, only now, our material desires seem far more corporeal than our own ghostly reflections. As Brassaï documented Parisian nightlife, he captured countless individuals seemingly drifting between introversion and exhibitionism, and you can almost hear the darkening city's uncoordinated clamoring for pleasure.
But the viewer's voyeuristic sensation is turned upside down when struck by Brassaï's portrait "Bijou of Montmartre," an aging woman adorned in a perfect patchwork of style too brazen to be gaudy. Her eyes are the eyes of the city, and her Paris seems to gawk at the viewer's instabilities, while owning all its own idiosyncrasies with effortless grace.
We are invited to look through these eyes in André Kertész's "Clock of the Académie Française." In this view of Paris taken from behind the giant clock's glass face, we see the city reflecting upon itself through the lens of time. The composition of the clock's arms and numbers as they coil around the city and its people seems at first ominous, but the Louvre sprawls proudly in the background and the people march through their lives, ignorant of the second Great War yet to come. It's as though, in this moment, Paris is reconciling itself to live without fear in the shadow of all that it has to lose.
The Surrealists saw Paris not only as a historically timeless city, but also as an altogether alien world. The past and present are somehow evidence of the future. In Raoul Ubac's "Ruin," the photographer uses superimposed stone details to transform the Eiffel Tower into a monstrous artifact, ancient and entombed in living rock, as though the great symmetrical being had been sleeping at the bottom of the ocean for centuries, finally emerging covered in barnacles. By attributing such rot to this most modern symbol of human achievement, Ubac explores the doom inherent in any worthy endeavor.
Elsewhere, the nightmarish dolls of Hans Bellmer further delve into the dark emotions that haunt the city of lights. With their deformed sexuality, these voluptuous monsters prowl the line between lust and revulsion. Though Bellmer's segmented dolls with their interchangeable body parts are obviously not human, they exude such need and evoke the kind of disturbing pity that makes them seem more demonic than inanimate. The Surrealists of the 20's and 30's seem to regard sexual curiosity as a wondrous sickness that sets the stage for all manner of illuminating chance encounters.
Few artists have made more graphic use of this stage than Luis Buñuel. In his classic film Un Chien Andalou, the city is portrayed as a dream world of malcontents and illusions. All the elements are likely to transform into some perversion inspired by sex or death, yet these perversions often seem more honest than their original forms. A lusty young man magically steals the hair from a girl's underarm; the patch of hair suddenly takes the place of his mouth. As the girl rejects him he seems utterly confused, as though the lust itself was working on his behalf like a misguided angel. For purely disturbing visceral effect, there is still no cinematic gore that touches the scene where Buñuel takes a razor to the girl's eyeball.
The Surrealists of Paris were not attempting to transform the waking world into a dream. Rather, they simply believed that the unconscious is omnipresent. And by opening their imaginations to the absurd paradoxes all around them, the dream reveals itself.
Thank you for the write up. We greatly appreciate it! Hope we raise the funds…
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…