The medium of photography in the post World War I period was almost too deliciously convenient a vehicle for certain proponents of the Dadaists and the Surrealists. Cameras had been, since their invention, been shrinking to a manageable and portable size. The newly graspable medium offered these iconoclastic visionaries a range of possibilities for creating art that were available in no other way.
Through photography, the Dadaists could freely exercise the randomness, transgressiveness, immediacy, and populist tendencies they espoused. The Surrealists could snatch from around them scenes of impossibility and disturbing wonder, while showing bodies and settings with stark reality. Is it any wonder, then, that photography, Paris, Surrealism, and Dadaism are terms which go together?
The ability of photography to capture scenes of the moment allowed for an uncompromising observation of the world as it was, with all its warts, and was thus very appealing to a group which gloried in calling a spade a spade. After all, in the words of Tristan Tzara,“beauty is dead” (Tzara 249).
Photography could catch the unwary subject in the midst of petty deception and hypocrisy. A photographer could make art from the flotsam and jetsam of the streets, whether human or object. A photograph was almost like performance art, involving the subject and the artist in an ephemeral, spontaneous, one-time-only event, very much in line with Tzara’s thinking (Tzara 253).
Additionally, photography avoided entirely the hated tyranny of the art academy (Tzara 250). Further, the cumbersome process of using models, undergoing days or weeks of sittings, was avoidable when using photography. Rather than requiring a studio and years of training in drafting and painting, photography could be undertaken with only a modest closet for atelier. Additionally, in that less litigious age did not even require the consent of the subject to create a portrait.
Furthermore, by placing the relatively inexpensive means of production of art in the hands of almost everyone, photography was enormously egalitarian and could theoretically be adopted by the masses for their own artistic expression, which was a goal of Dadaism (Darwent). What a perfect fit with the philosophy of the Dadaists!
At the same time, photography had the enormous advantage that pictures could be modified from their recording of strict reality. They could, for example, be altered by changing lenses or using mirrors, as in Distortions (1933-1934) by Andre Kertesz, a Hungarian born expatriate who made Paris his home (Andre Kertesz). Photographs may also be modified chemically during processing, by changing the exposure or by retouching, to create entirely fantastic and appealingly dreamlike effects.
Entirely surreal images could be produced out of a darkroom, even at the hands of a person who had no drafting or painting skills . Such dreamlike effects were much valued by the Surrealists. Andre Breton wonders in his Surrealist Manifesto whether dreams are not equal in significance to waking life (Breton 434-437). He also has great respect for madness, and for hallucinations. In fact he regards hallucinations as pleasant enough to seduce the madman to remain in that condition (Breton 433).
All these states of being can distort perception in the same way that a distorted photograph modifies reality. How appealing it must have been to know that one could print on paper the contents of one’s dreams, as Breton could readily have accomplished with his simple but striking personal dream image of a man being cut in two by a window (Breton 436-437)
The exhibit Twilight Visions at the International Center of Photography shows a range of photos from the practitioners of this medium in the 1920’s and 30’s. One notable example, Brassai, the nom de shutter of Hungarian born Gyula Halasz, specialized in images of a very anti-establishment cast of “prostitutes, pimps, madams, transvestites, apaches, and assorted cold-eyed pleasure seekers” (Brassai).
Brassai’s photo of the Angry Couple at the Bal Musette (1932), suspends the quarreling and not terribly elegant couple in suspended animation between moments of blame and insult. The unsparing picture certainly exemplifies the Dadaist view of Tristan Tzara in his Dada Manifesto, 1918; demonstrating “no pity” (Tzara).
This depressing but basically realistic photo contrasts nicely with another Brassai, Bal Musette (1932) that combines the low-life grittiness of two bored prostitutes (or at least ladies of easy virtue) hugging a cheerful young man, with the hallucinatory surprise of finding in the mirror the image of a much older man and his companions.
It is almost as if the viewer were seeing the young man’s dissolute future. Another piece, Girl Playing Snooker (1933), possesses all the dignity of an odalisque or any portrait of John Singer Sargent, but was of course snapped in a dark bistro of an undoubted prostitute. Brassai’s gaze, like that of the young woman in the photo, is “straightforward as a hammer” (Brassai). This portrait of a nameless pool hustler delivers a Dadaist poke in the eye of traditional formal portraiture.
The can-can dancers move blurrily in Ilse Bing’s picture, French Cancan Dancers, Moulin Rouge, Paris (1931). Bing was unusual among this group of photographers, In that she had actually had some art and design-related training (Ilse Bing Biography).
In spite of the blurring of this photo, it is a vivid image, and it is interesting to compare this with the many images of the demi-monde of the dance hall from the Impressionists. No color is in the photo, of course, and we are able to see the faces full on, unlike many backstage views by the previous generation of artists.
How odd it is to confirm that the Impressionists actually were accurate in portraying the cancan performers as entirely composed, disinterested and almost expressionless. The word jaded might have been invented for these faces. Perhaps, as Breton suggests, for these women, “existence is elsewhere” (Breton 439).
Breton would probably have encouraged these dancers to absent themselves as much as they could from the real world, since he affirmed that Surrealism was such a potent way of dealing with daily problems (Breton).
Dadaism and Surrealism embraced photography with enthusiasm, and created some remarkable works in the medium. They recorded the realities of street life and the underclass, and their dreams and nightmares as well. They used all the unique features of the medium to look at grit and turn it into fantasy.
“Andre Kertesz.” 2010. Explore Photography. 24 March 2010
Brassai. 2010. 24 March 2010
Breton, Andre. “The First Manifesto of Surrealism.” Art in Theory: 1900-1999: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Ed. Charles, and Woodll, Paiul Harrison. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. 432-439.
Darwent, Charles. Well-chosen works show how De Stijl – ‘The Style’ – movement led to a revolution in European art that still resonates today: Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde, Tate Modern, London. 2010. 11 March 2010
“Ilse Bing Biography.” 2010. Victoria and Albert Museum. 24 March 2010
Tzara, Tristan. “Dada Manifesto.” Art in Theory: 1900-1999: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Ed. Charles, and Wood, Paul Harrison. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. 248-253.
Tzara expresses it thus: “Dada: absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity” (Tzara).
Along with overturning everything that constituted order, the Dadaists believed that art had the power to uplift the oppressed and demoralized, and to accomplish this the art had to be accessible to them (Darwent).
Kertesz certainly had little professional art training (Andre Kertesz).
Breton contends of Surrealism that “It tends to ruin, once and for all, all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life” (Breton).