New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography and Paris

Although more than a dozen photographers are represented in the new ICP exhibit, Twilight Visions, Surrealism, Photography, and Paris, Brassai is the hero of the show. Despite its subtitle this is not a show that explores surrealist work as much as surrealist venues, with their darkness, their mystery, their lingering criminality. The few truly surrealist pieces in the show, notably the collages by Georges Hugnet, are second rate at best; it is the documentation of Paris by night done in a dramatic but essentially realistic style that forms the core of this exhibit, and specifically the nocturnal Paris of Brassai, that theater par excellence of surrealist desire.

Beginning with Atget, whose work Andre Breton and his friends discovered – and Bernice Abbott saved – the Parisian street was seen as inherently odd. Shop windows, statues and parks, ornate interiors all possessed an invisible, unsettling human presence which entranced the Surrealists with its suggestive power. But it was the Parisian night, with its connection to the underworld of society and the underworld of the psyche, they loved most. The gloom, menace and strange beauty of that night was Brassai’s great subject, one that resonated deeply with surrealist love of dream and the irrational.

Very possibly it was Louis Aragon in his book Paris Peasant who initiated the surrealist practice of taking long, aimless strolls through the city in search of the marvelous, a practice the young Henri Cartier-Bresson adopted as his modus operandi for the rest of his life. And of course it can be argued that walking is the photographers’ favorite form of locomotion, that all street photography is a photography of walking. Most fittingly therefore is the virtual walkabout ICP offers of a l930’s Paris etched in the rich, somber, black and white tones of the time.

But the show offers other pleasures as well.

Along with their Dada predecessors, the Surrealists could be said to have discovered popular culture and were avid admirers of comics, cinema, circuses and erotic postcards. Anything, in fact that was not established and respectable. Twilight Visions includes a good cross section of books, magazines, postcards and paraphernalia, ranging from surrealist texts by Eluard and Breton to tabloids like Scandale and rare editions of VU, as well as clips from popular movies.

There are also some wonderful if familiar works by Kertesz (who taught Brassai night photography) along with some not so familiar ones by Man Ray, Claude Cahun, Dora Maar, and Ilse Bing, to mention a few. But the Atgets and the Brassais best capture this vision of a twilight city, of a Paris suspended between two wars and heading inescapably into a veritable surrealist night.

Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography and Paris

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Friday, January 29 to
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