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    The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism Essay

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    I open my subject with a comparison. On the one hand, there is Man Ray ‘s Monument to de Sade, a photograph made in 1933 for the magazine Le Surreal isme au sendee de la resolution. On the other, there is a self-portrait by Florence Henri, given wide exposure by its appearance in the 1929 Foto-Auge. a publica tion that catalogued the European avant-garde’s position with regard to photogra phy.1 This comparison involves, then, a slight adulteration of my subject surrealism—by introducing an image deeply associated with the Bauhaus. For Florence Henri had been a student of Moholy-Nagy, although at the time of Foto Auge she had returned to Paris. Of course the purity of Foto-Auge’s statement had already been adulterated by the presence within its covers of certain surrealist associates, like Man Ray, Maurice Tabard, and E. Т. I. Mesens. But by and large Foto-Auge is dominated by German material and can be conceived of as organiz ing a Bauhaus view of photography, a view that we now think of as structured by the Vorkors’s obsession with form. Indeed, one way of eavesdropping on a Bauhaus-derived experience of this photograph is to read its analysis from the introduction to a recent reprint xrtfolio of Henri’s work. Remarking that she is known almost exclusively through this self-portrait, the writer continues. Its concentration and structure are so perfect that its quintessence is at once apparent. The forceful impression it produces derives principally from the subject’s intense gaze at her own reflection. . . .

    Her gaze passes  dispassionately through the mirror and is returned—parallel to the lines made by the joints in the table. . . . The balls—normally symbols of movement—here strengthen the impression of stillness and undis turbed contemplation. . . . They have been assigned a position at the vertex of the picture. . . their exact position at the same time lends stability to the structure and provides the dominant element of the human reflec tion with the necessary contrast.2 In light of the writer’s determination to straightjacket this image within the limits of an abstracting, mechanically formalist discourse, the strategy behind a juxtaM)sition of Man Ray’s photograph with Florence Henri’s becomes apparent. Because the comparison forces attention away from the contents of the Henri whether those contents arc conceived of as psychological (the “intense gaze” and its dispassionate stare) or as formal (the establishment of stillness through structural stability, etc.). And being turned from the photograph’s contents, one’s attention is relocated on the container—on what could be called the character of the frame as sign or emblem. For the Henri and the Man Ray share the same recourse to the definition of a photographic subject through the act of framing it, even as they share the same enframing shape.

    In both cases one is treated to the capture of the photographic subject by the frame, and in both, this capture has a sexual import. In the Man Ray the act of rotation, which transmutes the sign of the cross into the figure of the phallus, juxtaposes an emblem of the Sadean act of sacrilege with an image of the object of its sexual pleasure. And two further aspects of this image bespeak the structural reciprocity between frame and image, container’ and contained. 1’he lighting of the buttocks and thighs of the subject is such that physical density drains off the body as it moves from the center of the image, so that by the time one’s gaze approaches the margins, flesh has become so generalized and flattened as to be assimilated to printed page. Given this threat of dissipation of physical substance, the frame is experienced as shoring up the collapsing structure of corporeality and guaranteeing its density by the rather conceptual gesture of drawing limits, lliis sense of the structural intervention of frame inside contents is further deepened by the morphological consonance—what we could call the visual rhyming—between shape of frame and shape of figure: for the linear intersections set up by the clefts and folds in the photographed anatomy mimic the master sha|>e of the frame. Never could the object of violation have been depicted as more willing. In Florence Henri’s self-portrait there is a similar play between flatness and fullness, as there is a parallel sense of the phallic frame as both maker and captor of the sitter’s image. Within the spell of this comparison, the chromed balls function to project the experience of phallidsm into the center of the image, setting up (as in the Man Ray) a system of reiteration and echo; and this seems far more imperatively their role than that of promoting the formal values of stillness and balance.

    It can. of course, be objected that ibis comparison is tendentious. That it is a false analogy. That it suggests some kind of relationship between these two artists that cannot be there since they operate from across the rift that separates two aesthetic positions: Man Ray being a surrealist and Florence Henri being commit ted to an ideology of formal rigor and abstraction received initially from I.egcr and then from the Bauhaus. It can be argued that if there is a kind of phallicism in Henri’s portrait, it is there inadvertently; she could not really have intended it. As art history becomes increasingly positivist, it holds more and more to the view that “intention is some internal, prior mental event causally connec ted with outward effects, which remain lire evidence for its having occurred,” and thus, to say that works of art are intentional objects is to say that each bit of them is separately intended.5 Bui, sharing neither this positivism nor this view of consciousness. I have no scruples in using the comparative method  wrest this image from the protective hold of Miss Henri’s “intention” and to open it, by analogy, to a whole range of production that was taking place at the same time and in the same locale. Yet with these two images I do not mean to introduce an exercise in comparative iconography.

    As I said, the area of interest is far less in the contents of these photographs than it is in their frame. Which is to say that if there is any question of phallicisin here, it is to Ire found within the whole photographic enterprise of framing and thereby capturing a subject. Its conditions can be generalized way beyond the specifics of sexual imagery to a structural logic that subsumes this particular image and accounts for a wide number of decisions made by photographers of this time, both with regard to subject and to form. The name that an entirely different field of critical theory gives to this structural logic is “the economy of the supplement.”* And what I intend to reveal in the relatedness of photographic practice in France and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s is a shared conception of photography as defined by the supplement. But I am getting ahead of my argument. My reason at the outset for introducing my subject by means of comparison is that I wish to invoke the comparative method as such, the comparative method as it was introduced into art-historical practice in order to focus on a wholly different object than that of intention. The comparative method was fashioned to net the illusive historical beast called style, a prey which, because it was transpersonal, was understood as being quite beyond the claims of either individual authorship or intention. This is why Wolfflin believed the lair of style to be the decorative arts rather than the domain of masterpieces, why he looked for it Morelli-fashion in those areas that would Ire the product of inattention, a lack of specific “design” going so far as to claim that the “whole development of world views” was to be found in the history of the relationship of gables. Now it is precisely style that continues to Ire a vexing problem for anyone dealing with surrealist art. Commenting on the formal heterogeneity of a movement that could encompass the abstract liquifaction of Mir6 on the one hand, and the dry tealism of Magritte oi Dali on the other. William Rubin addresses this problem of style, declaring that “we cannot formulate a definition of Surrealist painting comparable in clarity with the meanings of Impressionism and Cubism.

    ”Yet as a scholar who has to think his way into and around the mass of material that is said to be surrealist. Rubin feels in need of what he calls an “intrinsic definition of Surrealist painting.” And so he produces what he claims to be “the first such definition ever proposed.” His definition is that there arc two poles of surrealist endeavor—the automatisi/abstract and the aca demic/illusionist—the two poles corresponding to “the Freudian twin props of Surrealist theory, namely automatism (or free association) and dreams.” Although these two pictorial modes look very unlike indeed. Rubin continues, they can be united around the concept of the irrationally conceived metaphoric image. Now, in 1925 Andre* Breton began to examine the subject surrealism and painting, and from the outset he characterized his material in terms of the very twin poles—automatism and dream—and the subject matter of Rubin’s later definition.6 If forty years afterward Rubin was so unhappy with Breton’s attempt at a synthetic statement that he had to claim to have produced the first such definition ever, it is undoubtedly because Rubin, like everyone else, has been unconvinced that Breton’s was a definition in the first place. If one wishes to produce a synthesis between A and B. it is not enough simply to say. “A plus B.” A synthesis is rather different from a list. And it has long been apparent that a catalogue of subject matter held in common is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce the kind of coherence one is referring to by the notion of style. If Rubin’s nondefinition is a mirror-image of Breton’s earlier one, this relationship is important, because it locates Breton’s own theory as a source for the problem confronting all subsequent discussions. But Breton, as the most central spokesman for surrealism, is an obstacle one must surmount; one cannot avoid him, if the issue is to deal with the movement comprehensivelyas one must if a synthetic notion like style is involved. The same failure to think the formal heterogeneity of Miro and Magritte into something like stylistic unity plagues every effort of Breton as theoretician of the movement. Attempting to define surrealism, Breton produces instead a series of contradictions which, like the one between the linearity of Magritte and the colorism of Miro, strike one as being irreducible.

    Thus, Breton introduces “Surrealism and Painting” with a declaration of the absolute value of vision among the sensory modes. Rejecting the late nineteenth-century die turn, that all art should aspire to the condition of music, an idea very much alive among twentieth-century abstract artists, Breton insists that “visual images attain what music never can,” and he bids this great medium farewell with the words, “so may night continue to descend upon the orchestra.” His hymn of praise to vision had begun, “The eye exists in its savage state. Tire marvels of the earth . . . have as their sole witness the wild eye that traces all its colors back to the rainbow.” And by this statement he is contrasting the immcdi асу of vision—its perceptual automatism, as it were—to the premeditated, reflective gait of thought. The savageness of vision is good. pure, uncontaminatcd by ratiocination; the calculations of reason (which Breton never fails to call “bourgeois reason”) are controlling, degenerate, bad. Besides being untainted by reason, vision’s primacy results from the way its objects are present to it, through an immediacy and transparency that compels belief. Indeed, Breton often presents surreal isin-as-a-whole as defined by visuality. In the First Manifesto he locates the very invention of psychic automatism within the experience of hypnogogic images—that is. of half-waking, half-dreaming,visual experience.

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