on Twilight Visions: Surrealism and Paris, edited by Therese Lichtenstein (University of California Press)

In the First World War, France lost one-third of her male population between the ages of 18 and 27. Despite having won the war, the French psyche suffered thereafter from a crise de tristesse sombre, a long siege of black sorrow that ultimately enabled Hitler to occupy Paris virtually unopposed in 1940. Nevertheless, in the early 1920s the French put semblances of themselves back together, and Paris was the epicenter of a dual dynamic: the irrepressible City of Light flaring against a dark and hidden yet detectable otherness. This tension drew artists and writers to the city, but the photographers were most obsessed with – and successful at -- capturing the disturbed sense of the other side of reality.

BrassaiSnooker.jpgAlthough we reflexively conjure the period’s images of Brassaï, Eugène Atget, Germaine Krull or Andre Kertész, a young person then considering a vocation in the arts may not have regarded photography as a legitimate option. “Photography then had no prestige as a glorious profession of high respectability or cultural prominence,” wrote David Travis in At the Edge of the Light (Godine, 2003). Portrait, architectural, product, and press photographers followed conventional techniques and styles. “Photography is unreal,” complained Jean Cocteau in 1922. “It alters value and perspective. Its cowlike eye stupidly registers everything that our eye first has to correct and distribute according to the needs of the case.”

So it was up to a new generation of photographers, born between 1890 and 1910, to invent new eyes for cows. To the names above, add Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Georges Hugnet, Ilse Bing, Max Ernst, Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, Hans Bellmer, Josef Breitenbach, and André Breton.

KerteszEiffel.jpgTherese Lichtenstein says in her introduction, “Through an examination of Surrealist photographs, objects, exhibitions, activities, and writings, the essays in Twilight Visions portray the French capital as a city in the process of metamorphosis – in a kind of twilight state … Juxtaposing the strange with the familiar, they seek to break down repressive hierarchies. At the same time, they represent a desire to change the world through experimental activities.” In her opening essay “Darkly Lit Streets,” Lichtenstein considers nocturnal photography and the use of street lighting and solarization, the writings of Mac Orlan, the appearance of popular weekly magazines, the photographer’s treatment of Paris monuments (especially the Eiffel Tower), the influence of Brassaï and Atget, the rise of exhibitions, and the clash of modernity and tradition.

TwilightCover.jpgThe modernization of Paris between the wars included the leveling of working-class neighborhoods and the construction of new social spaces to boost tourism and support rising sectors of the economy. Sensing the speed of change, some photographers were less concerned at times with establishing the “modern” in art than in paying attention to the vanishing. In 1976, Brassaï reminisced, “Maybe my fascination with the underworld in those days was inspired by my infatuation with outcasts I had derived from some of my favorite writers – Stendahl, and above all Dostoevsky and Nietzsche.”

Krull_Eiffel.jpgTwilight Visions was created as an illustrated text to accompany the exhibit of the same name (see the end of this review for details). But the essays avoid jamming the diverse images, texts and events they examine into a few thematically generalized categories and historical concepts. Julia Kelly’s essay on “The Bureau of Surrealist Research” focuses on October 1924 to April 1925 when the Bureau folded. “The task of the Bureau, as it was set out in press releases and published statements, was harnessing and compiling instances of the subconscious in action.” Louis Aragon suggested that the Bureau act as “a kind of patent office for new inventions.” The production of Surrealist objects became the business of the Bureau.

Colin Jones writes on “Surrealist Exhibitions, Parisian Expositions.” He notes that most of the Surrealists lived most of their lives in the confines of Paris and were deeply attached to the city, “yet their Paris was emphatically not the ville lumière that exhibition culture had so artfully constructed. Paris itself was becoming an exhibition. In Le Paysan de Paris (1925), “Aragon pours scorn on how ‘the great American instinct, imported to our capital … has ruled the map of Paris in rectangles.” The first Surrealist exhibition was held in 1925 and continued until the outset of the next war.

BrassaiMusette.jpgFinally, in “Mythic Woman, Real Women: Embodying Desire in 1938,” Whitney Chadwick begins by looking at the work of 59 artists from 14 countries who participated in the 1938 “Exposition internationale du surréalisme.” Here he finds a surprisingly large number of “images of caged female bodies, or of female bodies bound in net or wire mesh,” forming a leitmotif. This fine essay illuminates “the history of women artists and the place of the feminine in Surrealism … marked by resistance, collusion, ambivalence, success, and, in some instances, failure on all sides.”

In a letter dated 12 February 1925, Brassaï wrote to his parents, “I have been drawn too deeply into the magnetic atmosphere of the cafes and, whether I wanted it or not, I would always stumble into someone and end up spending my nights in the cafes instead of doing my work.” Broad in its perspective but acute in its examinations, Twilight Visions shows us not only how hard the Surrealists worked but how their love for the city necessitated their psychic separation from the tragic course it was taking.

[Co-published September 30, 2009 with the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. 224 pages, 134 b/w photos, 9”x9” trim, $45.00]

Photos shown above:
1 -- Brassai, "Girl Playing Snooker," 1933
2 -- Kertesz, "Eiffel Tower," 1929
3 -- Krull, "La Tour Eiffel," 1928
4 -- Brassai, "Bal Musette," 1932

“Twilight Visions” Exhibition Schedule:
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN – 9/10/09-1/3/10
International Center of Photography, NYC – 1/19/10-5/9/10
Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, GA – 6/9/10-10/10/10


what a wonderful overview. I've sent to my photographer friends.