A new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art searches for the surrealistic touches in photography of the 1920s through ’40s.
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Art dealer and filmmaker David Raymond began collecting Surrealist and modernist photographs in 1996, when he noticed that many fine examples were readily available on the market. In just 10 years, Raymond had amassed hundreds of rare, high-quality photographs—more than his New York City apartment could hold. Looking to lighten the load yet wanting to keep the majority of the collection intact, Raymond approached a dealer but didn’t end up reaching an agreement. In 2007, Tom E. Hinson, the founding (now emeritus) curator of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s photography department, flew to New York and bought a large selection from Raymond’s cache. The following year, Raymond donated more of his photographs to the museum, increasing Cleveland’s newly extensive collection. “David didn’t think of the collection as something he owned,” says Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography at the museum, “but rather something he was the trustee of.” He wanted the imagery to be enjoyed, preferably in one giant bite, rather than a few little nibbles here and there.
Beginning on October 19, viewers of the exhibition “Forbidden Games: Surrealist and Modernist Photography” will be treated to a hearty forkful of early 20th-century photography. On view (through January 11) will be 165 photographs—snapped by 68 artists from 14 countries in Europe and the Americas—two photobooks, and six short films, which will play on loop. The exhibition is broken up thematically into 14 categories, such as the body, the city, the natural world, abstraction, advertising, nightlife, and the avant-garde portrait; as well as three brief one-artist surveys, dedicated to Marcel Lefrancq, George Hugnet, and a special favorite of Raymond’s, Dora Maar. Other photographers in the exhibition include Man Ray, Brassaï, Maurice Tabard, Roger Parry, El Lissitzky, and László Moholy-Nagy, to name a few.
Raymond chose his prints based on quality and rarity, but also looked for breadth of subject matter. “Within the Surrealist movement, the same figures come up over and over again,” says Tannenbaum. “David wanted to broaden the canon and also show that artists all over Europe were making images that had a surrealist sensibility.” In his Surrealism and Painting (1928), André Breton, the movement’s central theorist, wrote, “L’œil existe à l’état sauvage,” or “The eye exists in the wild state.” Raymond came to use this phrase as a sort of collecting thesis while searching for photographs from the 1920s through ’40s. He wanted to find images that exuded surrealist qualities—whether they were taken by a Breton-ordained Surrealist or not. In fact, in the course of his collecting, Raymond found that any number of different kinds of photographs, whether discovering or documentary or something else, could have surrealist qualities, and discovering these was just as important to him as snapping up works by “name” Surrealists. “He was looking to find oddness,” says Tannebaum, “the surreal in the real.” As a result, Raymond’s collection is an unlikely yet enlightening mix of images.
The Surrealist movement used the camera as a device to pervert reality. Playing with unorthodox angles and perspectives, exaggerating light and shadow, or futzing with prints in the darkroom could create images that mimicked the dreamlike qualities of Surrealist artworks in other media. However ceding control to the camera also simulated the Surrealist practice of automatism, which strove to eliminate the burden of conscious intention during art practice. Raymond’s collection shows an unlikely correlation between this Surrealist practice and the practices of more formalist modernist photographers. Striving to capture objective truth—whether material or socio-political—through the lens, the modernists hoped to abandon emotional or historical prejudice when creating photographs. The images that resulted from their formalism were just as capable of exposing an eerie, unfamiliar sense of place or time as those of their Surrealist counterparts. The French photographer Brassaï, whose work is featured in the Cleveland show, explained that his goal was to show reality, “for there is nothing more surreal than reality itself.”
Some artists featured in “Forbidden Games,” such as Dora Maar, show varying degrees of surrealism within their oeuvres. Cleveland boasts 23 photographs by Maar, which is thought to be the largest institutional holding of the artist in the U.S. Known primarily as Picasso’s lover and muse, Maar was a successful commercial and fine art photographer in Paris, as well as a contributor to various Surrealist journals, prior to her tryst with the artist. She developed a keen eye for oddity and illusion, even in her glamorous fashion shots, such as Fashion Study (1934), which features a woman sitting with her back turned to the camera, draped in a gown and wooly shawl, with uncanny squares of light painting the photo’s background. A trip to Barcelona in 1933 yielded many seemingly straightforward street snaps that often depict the disenfranchised or the blind (blindness and sight were ripe themes among the Surrealists), such as Beggar Woman, Barcelona; Blind Musicians; and Blind Street Peddler, Barcelona. Children Playing (1933), shows its subjects rolling in the street. Maar used a cutout of one of these children in her 1935 photo-collage Forbidden Games (the namesake of the exhibition). An example of her most surrealist work, the collage shows a scantily clad woman in a rather buttoned-up looking parlor, straddling a man’s back while the aforementioned street urchin looks on from under a desk. While living with Picasso, Maar created Double Portrait with Hat (circa 1936–37), another ambitious surrealist image. Using a negative from a fashion shoot, the artist cut, painted, and re-photographed the image of a woman in profile, creating a fractured, nearly Cubist, re-imagination of the glamour shot. By 1938, Picasso had convinced Maar to drop photography and paint instead—she was institutionalized soon after and never made a photograph after 1940.
Other highlights of the exhibition come from unfamiliar artists working far from Surrealism’s epicenter. A photograph by Argentinean-born, Bauhaus-trained artist Horacio Coppola, Royal Wedding (1934), captures some artfully cut scraps of newsprint taken from the daily stock listings of a London paper and layered over an image of the crowd awaiting the Duke of Kent’s marriage to Princess Marina of Greece—an event highly publicized by the British monarchy in order to distract the public from the Great Depression. Another lesser-known artist, Emiel van Moerkerken, became one of the leading surrealist voices in Holland after meeting Man Ray, Dalí, and Brassaï on a trip to Paris in 1934, when he was only 18. Mixing the Freudian themes that interested Dalí and other Surrealists with an inclination toward the performative possibilities of photography, van Moerkerken teamed up with sculptor Chris van Geel to make the series Surrealist Act with Chris van Geel (1938–41). In one of the images, van Geel resembles a proto-Freddy Krueger-esque character. Leaning into some sort of a cage, he wears a menacing grin, dark hat, and rubber gloves while he grabs the neck of a doll head with spiders painted on it.
On the topic of dolls, Hans Bellmer’s freakish and beautiful photobook The Doll (1934, printed in 1936) will be on view. An essay written by the artist—printed on pink paper—accompanies the erotic images of the life-size female doll he created and posed. The book is one of 100 in a French edition that was compiled by Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. A portrait of the photographer Lee Miller, an art crush of Raymond, will also be in the show. Taken by Man Ray in 1930, Miller is seen upside down, with her face placid and eyes closed, while her shimmering hair curls like the capital of a Corinthian column.