Surrealism: the enduring appeal of convulsive beauty

Rick Poynor reports back from a ‘must-see’ show on how film and photography shaped Surrealism

It’s night. The moon in the dark sky is much closer than it should be. We seem to be in the desert or maybe it’s a beach. A group of peculiar beings has assembled for some kind of gathering. They are slender and upright with bristly faces. At second glance, the scene resolves itself into nothing more than a collection of toothbrushes.

Robert Bresson, later to make his name as one of France’s finest film directors, shot the picture in 1931 for an ad. The image sounds absurd, when described, and we have no way of knowing what effect this flight of fancy may have had on sales. Still, it is an extraordinary photograph that retains the power, decades later, to activate some part of the brain that thirsts for enigmas, mysteries and subversions of the ordinary. In it, an unremarkable object used for personal hygiene becomes a poetic device for delivering a jolt of electrifying strangeness, a mental shiver that words cannot adequately explain.

The Surrealists called it convulsive beauty and Bresson’s picture is one of more than 350 images, many of them ground-breaking, on show in La Subversion des Images: Surrealism, Photography, Film at the Centre Pompidou (and published in an accompanying book from Editions du Centre Pompidou). This isn’t the first ambitious exhibition about the subject. In 1986, the Hayward Gallery opened up the territory with L’Amour Fou: Photo­graphy & Surrealism, which defini­tively established both the importance of photography within Surrealism and the importance of Surrealism to the development of photography. La Subversion des Images builds on this scholarship by uncovering a wealth of material by lesser known figures that will be unfamiliar even to viewers with a knowledge of the subject.

Surrealism is now widely regarded as the most significant art movement of the 20th century. Since the publication of the first Surrealist manifesto in 1924, its influence has penetrated every area of visual culture to the point where we no longer need to invoke the source by name to under­stand where new art is coming from. We have plumbed the unconscious, liberated our desires and surrendered to our fantasies. In Surrealism, the world in our heads merges with the external world of appearances and things. Never again will an audience be scandalised by a Surrealist provo­cation in the way that people were outraged, in 1929, by the eyeball-slicing and other disturbing images in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou – one of 12 films presented in the exhibition. This super-reality of shock, revelation, wonder and enchantment is second nature to us now.

There is no single type of Surrealist photograph. That Surrealism was a state of mind rather than a subject matter or style can be seen most clearly in a room devoted to ‘The real, the fortu­itous and the marvellous’. Photo­graphy was once assumed to be an inherently realistic medium – we know better now – and these are the Surrealist images most like ordinary snapshots: shop windows, street corners, a hotel, an abattoir, and graffiti scratched, like tribal markings, into stone walls.

A decade or more before Surrealism found a name, the Parisian street photographer Eugène Atget – much admired by Man Ray and the Surrealists – took bizarre pictures of surgical stockings and corsets displayed on anatomical models of disembodied torsos and legs. The fascination with the strange tableaux found in shop windows was inex­haustible and there are fine examples from the 1930s by Brassaï and Jindrich Styrský. A 1928 cover of La Révolution Surréaliste shows a photo of two men peering into the dark ellipse of a man­hole. Dora Maar captures a similarly unfathomable image of a man leaning down into a hole, while another passer-by, whose head we are also unable to see, looks on. Chance encounters in the street could open a hatch onto a zone of mysterious possibility. “I was only attempting to convey reality,” explained Brassaï, “for nothing is more surreal.”

These images of the marvellous, representing the Surrealist sensibility in its purest form, have lost none of their potency. The matter-of-fact method worked equally well when applied to the natural world. Scientific film-maker Jean Painlevé’s shots of a lobster claw and a sea horse, seen in unfamiliar close-up, delight in their otherworldly presence. The dislocation of scale in Jacques-André Boiffard’s picture of dying flies pinioned on a strip of flypaper produces an image of startling grandeur and terror.

Elsewhere, Surrealist photo­graphers actively intervened to create their images. Artists and writers experi­­menting with Surrealist procedures staged pictures, juxtaposed incongruous images to create a new kind of poetic reality, and transformed people – usually their female lovers and muses – into fantastical entities in the darkroom, using techniques such as solarisation. Man Ray’s theatrically posed portraits of Meret Oppenheim, naked with an ink-covered arm, next to a printing press, and Hans Bellmer’s enduringly creepy psycho­sexual games with his life-sized doll are landmarks in the history of Surrealism and could hardly be left out. But the exhibition also has many less renowned oddities, such as the Belgian poet Paul Nougé’s series of enigmatic bourgeois interiors, Subversion des Images, which gives the show its title.

The section devoted to montage is especially rewarding, gathering word-based photomontages by Georges Hugnet and albums by the poet Paul Eluard full of postcards collected for their inadvertent strangeness. In a 1933 photomontage by Max Servais, also Belgian, a crowd scene fills the flowing hair of a woman with eyes formed by targets. A real eye, an omni­present motif in Surrealism, found throughout the exhibition, floats away across the pale green background. I had never seen this elegantly designed and curiously ageless image before – it feels almost Pop – and it is a good example of the way creative people were drawn towards the intense heat of Surrealism, sharing its concerns and imagery for a time without neces­sarily joining or staying wedded to the movement. In the 1940s, Servais turned to crime writing.

Occasionally, the selection could have been better. I would have liked to see more by Hugnet, an artist not well known outside France. There are superior images by Styrský and Ubac, though Ubac’s La Nébuleuse (1939), made by melting the negative, is ravishing. These are minor details. The only section that doesn’t come off is the final room devoted to the use artists made of Surrealism in advert­ising in the 1930s. Bresson’s uncanny toothbrushes make their appearance here, but this is a highlight of a theme that seems to have received less curatorial attention than the rest of the exhibition. Questions about the legiti­macy of commercial appropri­ation by both the Surrealists and their imitators, and the implications of this for Surrealism as art, aren’t addressed. It’s a shame because there is a huge story to tell about Surrealist photo­graphy’s many influences, commercial and otherwise, stretching off through the 20th century.

But this is certainly no reason to miss La Subversion des Images. The level of imaginative invention in these photographs is stunning. These pictures permanently transformed the way we see and think about the medium. This is an essential show (and book) for anyone interested in the closely intertwined histories of photography and Surrealism.

La Subversion des Images is at the Centre Pompidou, Paris until January 11. The accompanying book, edited by Quentin Bajac and Clément Chéroux, is published by Editions du Centre Pompidou; €44.90. Rick Poynor is curating an exhibition about Surrealism and graphic design for the Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic, which opens in June 2010.

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