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Behind the Lens: 20th Century Surrealist Photography and Cinema

28 Dec 2017

By Amanda Sheppard


It wouldn’t be correct to call photography a “new” concept by the 1920s. It had been around for over a century, as a niche medium that was useful for documentation purposes. By the time the surrealism movement started to emerge, photography had evolved technologically – especially in film and mobility – and was fast emerging from the niche into the broader public consciousness. Far from being accepted as a medium by the art market, for the surrealists, keen to challenge convention and accepted norms of reality, the emerging mediums of photography and film provided an avenue to further their experimentation with the “real”.


Like other surrealist art channels, this meant exploring the relationship between the real and the imagined, and making the expected appear as unexpected, by playing with the context of objects. Artists associated with surrealism benefited from the birth of cinema. When working as filmmakers, they at times created humorous, anarchic, shocking, or unpleasant images, which trod the line between dream and reality, presenting a filmic experience to cinema audiences, that was now no longer a passive a one.


The significance of photography to surrealism was twofold: it served both as a record of the social movement and a way to convey the movement’s message. Images and film stills appeared in surrealist journals including Minotaure and La Revolution Surrealiste. Filled with self-produced photographs as well as medical images, police photographs and more, these journals proved that those involved in the movement were, above all, collators and documentarians.


To surrealists, photography was an artistic playground

To surrealists, photography was an artistic playground. Techniques such as double exposure, montage and solarisation were used to manipulate the final image. Some artists, such as notable surrealist photographer Man Ray, went even further with their creative processes. His photogram technique was a pivotal demonstration of outside-the-box thinking, involving the production of a photograph without a camera, created by placing objects directly onto photographic paper.


Nowadays, the effects created by surrealist photographers can be replicated with modern technology – layering images and creating montages is now achievable with the simple click of a mouse. During the time of their creation, however, these techniques and images were painstakingly rendered, either while composing the frame or during the developing process in the darkroom. Man Ray’s work serves as yet another good example: in his 1924 image Le Violon d’Ingres, model Kiki de Montparnasse’s figure takes on an entirely new meaning with the sound holes of a violin projected onto her back. Meanwhile, Man Ray’s friend and fashion photographer Maurice Tabard later adopted the same surrealist techniques of solarisation (reversing the tone of an image) and double exposure to create ethereal, otherworldly images.


Another one of the most talked-about surrealist photographs is the Portrait of Ubu by French artist Dora Maar, though its subject (thought to be an armadillo foetus) has never been confirmed. While surrealist photographers achieved varying levels of success and acclaim, some also experimented with the medium both for documenting and for artmaking. In part, René Magritte was one such artist, using film and photography in conjunction with his paintings, and to record his own life and times. What distinguishes René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films, as a subtle and complex exhibition, is that it provides a rare glimpse into Magritte’s exploration of photography (and film) as document and art, an exploration which includes his love of literature, cinema, philosophy and references his complex attitudes to the act and status of the (surrealist) painter and (his) painting.


Surrealism, photography and cinema: a timeline

1922 – Man Ray’s photograms (“Rayographs”) are published in Les Champs Delicieux

1924 – The publication of the arts journal, La Revolution Surrealiste

1924 – The first surrealist film, Entr’acte, by René Clair and Francis Picabia, was released

1938 – Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme took place in Paris, featuring over 300 photographs, paintings, and sculptures by surrealist artists


Things to ponder as you’re exploring The Revealing Image at the new ArtisTree:

1.    How do Magritte’s photographs break with mainstream (Breton-esque) surrealism?

2.    Magritte's approach to photography placed little emphasis on experimentation. How is this conveyed in the images displayed in the exhibition?

The new ArtisTree and Ludion, in collaboration with The Magritte Foundation Belgium, presents René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films from 19 January to 19 February 2018.

See the programme page for more details.

Follow @artistreehk on Instagram for all the #Magritte_Artistree action


René Magritte painting Clairvoyance, 1936, Jacqueline Nonkels (photographer)

Collection Charly Herscovici, Europe



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