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Forbidden Games: Take a Peek With The Eye in Its Wild State

L'oeil à l’état sauvage (the eye in its wild state) was a key tenet of surrealism, the literary and artistic movement founded in Paris in 1924. The surrealists believed that seeing in a manner untamed by tradition and unshackled from convention and morality could yield a truer (though not necessarily more factual) picture of the external world and the internal workings of the human mind.

Art collector, dealer, and filmmaker David Raymond spent a decade assembling a group of photographs from the 1920s through the 1940s that exemplified for him that raw, unfettered way of seeing. Acquired by the museum in 2007–08, this important collection of surrealist and modernist photography makes its public debut in Forbidden Games. Especially remarkablefor its breadth, this set of 175 rare photographic works demonstrates the widespread, international impact of the surrealist impulse by representing 68 artists from 14 countries in the Americas and across Europe.

The photographic world between the two world wars was fertile, complex, and chaotic. Three movements— surrealism, modernism, and documentary photography—competed for center stage, yet the boundaries between them were porous and blurred, with many photographers employing all of the styles. Raymond found stellar examples of “the wild eye” in work from all three movements.

Chance encounters with the bizarre in everyday life could be captured and preserved through the documentary approach, in which unmanipulated images objectively record the external world. A “wild eye” could discover the surreal during an amble down a Paris street or a glance through a microscope. The Hungarian-born Brassaï, a photojournalist championed by the surrealists, produced a survey of the underground subcultures of nocturnal Paris. One of his best known images was taken at a large drag ball held regularly in Paris and attended by people of every class, race, and age. There he glimpsed “two young men wrapped in each other’s arms [who] had to demonstrate the perfect union of their souls, their bodies—dressed in a single suit: one was wearing the jacket, with his legs and buttocks naked; the other wore the pants, his torso and feet bare, since he had given his boyfriend the only pair of shoes.” His only aim as a photographer, Brassaï said, was “to express reality, for there is nothing more surreal than reality itself.”

Photography’s supposedly unbreakable ties to reality were happily severed by surrealist and modernist photographers. These movements shared a desire to experiment with radical subject matter, viewpoints, processes, and techniques. Among the photographers’ploys were staging scenes and extensively manipulating images in the camera or in the darkroom. An exquisite example of darkroom manipulation is Dora Maar’s haunting Double Portrait with Hat from about 1936–37 (pictured below).

The Raymond collection includes 23 of Maar’s photographs, giving Cleveland the largest institutional holdings of her work in this country and the second largest in the world. 

From the 1940s until the 2000s, Maar was known primarily as one of Picasso’s lovers and muses. Before she met him, she had been a respected, successful Parisian commercial and fine art photographer. In 1936 she became his paramour and helpmate. She documented the creation of Picasso’s masterwork Guernica and was teaching him a photographic print process when she began work on Double Portrait. To make this complex montage, Maar cut out and sandwiched frontal and profile negatives of the same model scavenged from her commercial work—a magazine assignment on spring hats. She painted onto the negative and scraped off patches of its emulsion, suggesting disintegration. Although the face is not hers, it is tempting to see the image as a self-portrait depicting a woman torn between her career and independence and her lover’s demands and potent personality. By 1938, Picasso had convinced her to abandon photography in favor of painting, a medium in which she could never outshine him. When Picasso ended their affair, Maar had a mental breakdown. She never returned to photography. 

Instead of taking their own photographs, a number of the artists in Forbidden Games cut “readymade” photographs from books and magazines and pasted them onto a backing sheet to create collages. The technique was a favored surrealist gambit because it was ideal for free association: jarring juxtapositions and impossible variations in scale could be achieved without concern for the constraints of the physical world. The Russian avant-garde turned to collage to promote radical cultural, political, and social agendas. In Film Design from the mid-1920s, Vasilij Komardenkov has Freud (whose theories inadvertently spawned surrealism) inspecting a young woman’s breast while she playfully tickles a younger gentleman. The collage, which advertises the Worker’s House movie theater, would have been reproduced in print and posted around town. How appropriate to employ collage, a technique brought into fine art in the 1910s, to promote a cinema, since film itself was a relatively new medium. Several photographers in the Raymond collection also experimented with motion pictures. Three screens in the exhibition galleries present rotating selections of their short films. The Cleveland Museum of Art made a major, transformative acquisition by procuring the Raymond collection, one of the most important holdings of 20th-century surrealist photography that remained in private hands. Forbidden Games offers the public its first chance to view these works and vicariously experience an exhilarating, sometimes harrowing period of revolutionary social and cultural change.

See Forbidden Games: Surrealist and Modernist Photography, free at the Cleveland Museum of Art beginning Sunday, October 19!

(Pictured above: Double Portrait with Hat, c. 1936-1937Dora Maar (French, 1907-1997). Gelatin silver print, montage, Image - h:29.80 w:23.80 cm (h:11 11/16 w:9 5/16 inches). Gift of David Raymond 2008.172 © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP)

 *Members See It First: This article also appears in the October/November issue of the CMA Member Magazine.

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