Photo Surrealism

Tom E. Hinson Curator of Photography

In June 2007 a major acquisition of 168 photographs—135 individual prints, one book, and a portfolio—significantly strengthened the museum’s holdings of European photography. These remarkable images, created primarily by European photographers from the 1920s through the 1940s, represent the height of the Surrealist photographic movement. The addition of works by such innovative photographers as George Hugnet, Dora Maar, and Roger Parry increases the breadth and depth of the museum’s collection of Surrealist photography.

This rare trove was acquired from David Raymond, an avid art collector, independent filmmaker, and producer from New York. Originally an art dealer in San Francisco, Raymond became involved in fine art photography in 1992, and since then has cultivated a knowledgeable passion for Surrealist and Modernist photography. He describes himself as “always drawn to works of art that challenge the way that we see the world. Whether it was dreamscapes, distortions, or skewed angles, I searched for works that gave me pause and revealed themselves to me over time.” In 2005 he was named one of the world’s top 100 private art collectors by Art & Antiques. Raymond’s collection was obtained through his agent, private photography dealer Charles Isaacs of New York.

Anton Stankowski (German, 1906–1998). Eye, 1927. Gelatin silver print, montage; image 10.9 x 14.5 cm, mount 35.6 x 31.9 cm. John L. Severance Fund 2007.122

Originally a European literary movement influenced by psychoanalytic thinking, Surrealism helped popularize Freudian notions about dreams, sex, the unconscious, and free association through such methods as automatic writing, which liberated one from conscious reason and convention. In the visual arts Surrealism emerged from symbolism and Dadaism, emphasizing a state of mind over a specific style. It provided a conceptual framework for photography to escape its role as the literal depicter of nature, to abandon Renaissance perspective, and to introduce chance and irrationality. Surrealists were attracted to photography; it could distort time, space, and scale so that images appeared to emerge from a dream. 

Photography was especially apt for expressing intuitive states of being and chance effects. Through the camera or darkroom manipulation, startling juxtapositions could quickly be made permanent. Photograms, solarization, collage, montage, and multiple exposures were just some of the photographic techniques put to innovative use. The range of visualization spanned radically manipulated, violent disintegrations of reality to highly realistic renderings that were often cropped and shown from unusual angles. For the Surrealists, photography confirmed that the world was not what it appeared to be, but could be viewed through conflicting approaches—one loyal to the facts and the other a construct of the mind.

George Hugnet (French, 1906–1974). My Travels Brought Me Here, 1930s. Gelatin silver print with photomechanical collage; image 20.3 x 19.5 cm. John L. Severance Fund 2007.148

Not long after the collection was accessioned, I undertook an extended research project aimed ultimately at exhibition and publication. In August 2007, the noted photography conservator Paul Messier spent an intensive week with members of the museum’s staff examining the condition of the prints, identifying the artists’ techniques, and establishing dates. An expert in the history of photographic papers, Messier was enthralled by the range of materials represented in this collection, citing the 1930s as a unique period in the medium’s history in terms of the diversity and quality of commercially available photographic papers. (In spring 2008, Anne Helmreich, associate professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, and I will teach a graduate seminar on Surrealist photography, using the Raymond collection as a case study to examine this key artistic and cultural period.)

El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890–1941). Mannequin, 1920s. Gelatin silver print from photogram negative; image 29.4 x 23.5 cm, paper 29.5 x 25.6 cm. John L. Severance Fund 2007.147

Reflecting on the sale of his collection, Raymond also expressed the museum’s motivation for its acquisition: “The CMA truly understands and appreciates the uniqueness of this collection and the fact that these photographs are artifacts of the 20th century. By selling this collection—a product of years of study, care, and great affection—to the CMA, I recognize that the works will be well cared for and present a wonderful opportunity for many to see and study at one of the finest institutions in the world.”

Dora Maar (French, 1907–1997). Gypsy Palmist, 1932. Gelatin silver print, ferrotyped; image 26.8 x 24 cm, paper 30.3 x 24 cm. John L. Severance Fund 2007.150

 


Cleveland Art, March 2008