By: Meredith P. Nelson
Just opened at the International Center of Photography is "Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography and Paris," exhibited in a refreshing reinterpretation of ICP's downstairs space. Complete with photographs, film and ephemera such as magazines and books, the exhibition is an entertaining illustration of the comical, bizarre, beautiful and strange celebrated in Surrealist visual production. As the wall text at the entrance to the show tells us, the photographs reveal the hidden secrets of the commonplace, exposed and highlighted by the Surrealist's use of awkward camera angles, unexpected juxtapositions, experimental lighting techniques and technical manipulations of the image.
Many of the familiar Surrealist elements are present in the works on display. Their bizarre, dream-like settings can be found, for example, in Ilse Bing's Puddle Paris, 1930 where the only recognizable cityscape appears in an isolated, reflective puddle surrounded by a familiar, yet disorienting paved street, gutter and sidewalk. André Kertész' Broken Plate, Paris, 1929 is similarly disconcerting with its unfolding city shattered by a crack and hole in the glass plate through which the scene is viewed.
Fragmentation and strange juxtapositions are also prominent in the works, creating unusual dichotomies of strange/familiar, constructed/organic and erotic/grotesque. Brassaï, whose works feature prominently in the show, presents in Nude 115, Paris, 1936 a woman's nude torso and buttocks, cropped to create a distinctly phallic shape. Hans Bellmer's photographs of his disassembled, erotic and unbelievably creepy dolls also evoke a kind of disturbed, sexualized spirit.
Dada makes an appearance as well, especially through the presence of collages, like that by Georges Hugnet Untitled, 1934 where a phallic Eiffel Tower springs up from between the legs of a smiling girl, spread eagle against a sprawling cityscape. A documentary side is also present, seen in the archival vein running through some of the photographs. Clearly taking their inspiration from the chance encounters with Old Paris, the Surrealist photographers document the random moments experienced while walking through the city's streets. Brassaï's Shop Window, Paris, 1931-32, for example, shows a man who glances into a storefront filled with mannequin bodies. His eyes rest on a life-sized, female mannequin and the two seem to share an odd moment of flirtation as he glances at her and she remains turned away. A number of portraits can also be found in the show, especially of the bohemian crowd that frequented the cafés and dance halls of the Montmartre and Montparnasse neighborhoods. Ilse Bing captures and freezes the frenzied movement of the figures in French Cancan Dancers, 1931 while Brassaï portrays the groups of men and women who frequent the dance halls in his Bal Musette, 1932.
While the individual works displayed are fantastic illustrations of the Surrealist spirit, the ultimate goal of the show is unfortunately, not entirely clear. Given the prominence of the city of Paris in the photographs (and in the accompanying wall and label texts) it would seem that the show is about Paris as a city in transition between tradition and modernity and the wonderful ability of the Surrealist photographers to capture glimpses of this transition. The inclusion of the Surrealist's manipulation and distortion of female forms, however, seems to be an unrelated addition. On the other hand, if the aim of the show is to present the production of Surrealist photographers working in Paris in the 1920's and 1930's, then the material seems off-balance and too focused on Paris as a source of subject matter. Also confusing is the treatment of Eugène Atget, a major source of inspiration for Surrealist photographers in Paris. Atget's work is included in its own section in the exhibition; however, there is also a small exhibition of more of Atget's works right off of the Surrealism exhibition space. Why present two separate treatments of the same material? It would seem to make more sense to either present the Atget material within the exhibition proper, or to leave it out and have the smaller, separate exhibition serve as a convenient illustration of a precursor to the show's main material.
Despite these ambiguities, the material itself stands firmly on its own. The pieces in the exhibition are arresting illustrations of the quotidian, the extraordinary, the erotic, the obscene, the marvelous and the morbidly fascinating. A film on the love life of the octopus- who can resist?! If you approach the exhibition as a chance to look, bit by bit, individual image by individual image, you will find yourself completely absorbed and fascinated by this remarkable material. I most definitely recommend visiting the show, if not to deepen your understanding of Surrealist photography or Paris' inspirational role, then at least to look at some engrossing pieces of art.
“Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography and Paris" at the International Center of Photography runs through May 9th
International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas
Take the B,D,V or F trains to 42nd Street, Bryant Park Station
Museum Hours: Tues-Thurs, 10-6; F, 10-8; Sat-Sun, 10-6
Exhibition Website: http://www.icp.org/site/c.dnJGKJNsFqG/b.5708935/k.AFD1/Twilight_Visions.htm