The Surrealists, Freud, the unconscious and the inspiration of Paris
The Surrealists drew from Freud's concept of the unconscious when making artworks. Here I analyse the relationship between them and the inspiration provided to the Surrealists by Paris, the capital of modernity.
Surrealism is best known for its strange, disturbing paintings from artists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Andre Mason however, from their outset, the young group of writers, poets and artists, fresh from the carnage of the First World War, were striving to be more than a visual art movement. They saw themselves as a social, political and revolutionary movement arguing against the logic, morality and reality that had been prevalent in the last century. Their war experiences had demonstrated that the idolisation of modernity was a bankrupt idea.
The Surrealist were influenced by Sigmund Freud's theories on dreams, the unconscious and the sense of the uncanny. Freud wasn't the first to describe the unconscious however he did bring the discussion to a wider audience and gave the unconscious a framework within which both the scientific and art world could debate, apprehend and explore the working of the inner mind. His initial statement in The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1900, is to prove that it is possible to “interpret dreams” (Freud, 1900, page. 57) and it was this concept which was taken up and explored by the Surrealist.
In brief Freud's theory on dreams is that it comprises two parts; the manifest dream and the latent, concealed, thoughts. The manifest dream is that which is best known and understood by everyone i.e. the visual and verbal representation whilst sleeping. He described it as that “which is retained in my memory” upon waking. Freud would write down his dreams immediately after sleep and also recorded patients recollections of their own dreams. Latent thoughts are the deeper ideas and emotions that are inadmissible to the conscious mind; the instigators and drivers behind the manifest. Freud proposed that latent thoughts are converted into the manifest by what he referred to as “dream-work” and outlined how this could take different forms including condensation (where common elements are superimposed onto each other), dramatisation, displacement, censorship and finally repression.
Freud expanded on the affects of repression in his essay on the “Uncanny”, written in 1919, describing how something familiar could also be foreign and leave the individual with an uncomfortable feeling (Freud, 1919, page 58). David Bate identifies the uncanny as “something repressed which recurs” (Bate, 2004, page 39) and also cites how Freud essay identifies a number of infantile occurrences which prompt an uncanny feeling including the fear of losing eyes, inanimate objects coming to life (e.g. dolls and mannequins), characters who are identical (e.g. 'doubling' in dolls, portraits), repetition of features, actions (e.g. same thing recurring again, numbers etc.) and states of madness and epilepsy (e.g. hysteria, 'convulsive beauty') (Bate, 2004, page 41). As we will see many of these occurrences are adopted in Surrealist photography, often in conjunction with descriptions of their own dreams. There is also a similarity here between the uncanny and the 'punctum' identified by Barthes (Barthes, 1980, page 20). Both “pricking” the viewer and leaving him with an inner sense of disturbance and difficulty in definition.
It was during the First World War that Andre Breton, the founder and leader of the Surrealist Movement, first encountered Freud's theories on the unconscious whilst working at Saint-Dizier psychiatric hospital as a medical nurse and doctor. He also cared for shell shock victims and confronted the symptoms of an unbalanced mind and their ability to detach from reality. He said that, from Saint-Dizier, he had a great respect for the “aberration of the human mind” (Matheson, 2006, page 803). These experiences and the brush with Freud made a great impression on Breton and helped shape his future Surrealist thinking. As Brandon says "Breton realised that here, in Freud's writings, lay the route-map for the great artistic journey of the coming century; the journey to the interior." (Brandon, 2000, page 157)
This “journey to the interior”, through experimentation of dreams, automatic writing, drug induced seances would occupy much of the Surrealists, thinking over the next decade. As Breton states in the first Manifesto of Surrealism written in 1924 “we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud” for bringing the unconscious to light and goes onto to say that “The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself” (Breton, 1924, page. 10).
Following the war Breton and many of his fellow Surrealist tried to unlock the secrets of the unconscious mind. They wanted to free themselves from constraints and, in Freud's writing around dreams and the unconscious, they found a context and language for expressing their views. They were particularly attracted to the unconscious with its implication of unlimited controls and sense of freedom, of free thinking.Manifesto of Surrealism Breton states “The mere word 'Freedom' is the only one that still excites me.” (Breton, 1924, page 4). Following his war experiences he wanted to release the mind from the constraints of morality. The Surrealists also revelled in the ideas of change and difference and, in exploring these concepts, they recognised that the unconscious, as outlined by Freud, could be utilised as a vehicle for releasing the mind from control and moral judgement. They would go on to use it as a source for a large proportion of their imagery. As Steven Poser points out in The Life and Death of the Unconscious in Modern and Contemporary Art the unconscious can be used "as a source of imagery, as a storehouse of repressed thoughts, wishes, memories, and ideas." (Poser, 1990, page 22)
The Surrealist saw the dream as a boundary between reality and the unconscious and as a source of imagery for their poetry and visual art. They recognised in Freud's theory around repressed thoughts that repression was another form of restraint which they wanted to free themselves from.
Much of this is reflected in Manifesto of Surrealism, which compares the waking state, reality, with the dream and concludes that the former is an “interference”. Breton poses many questions about the capabilities of dreams and, echoing Freud's idea of “interpreting dreams”, specifically questions the possibility of “recording the content of dreams in there entirety”. He goes onto state that he wants to “resolve these two states, dream and reality, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may speak”. (Breton, 1924, page 14)
To illustrate how dreams and the unconscious were reflected and used by the Surrealist I have focused on photographs from two different photographers, Brassai and Atget, who had very opposing objectives and backgrounds. This underlines the Surrealist's desire for difference and emphasises the difficulty in pinning down any type of photograph as “surreal”. It is worth noting that many of the photographs used in Surrealist literature are neither Surreal, in the common sense the word is now used, or produced by Surrealist artists; it is there use and setting which provide them with the label of 'Surreal'.
Brassai's came to Paris in 1924 and knew members of the Surrealist group, he did not however consider himself a Surrealist commenting "My images were surreal simply in the sense that my vision brought out the fantastic dimension of reality. My only aim was to express reality, for there is nothing more surreal than reality itself. If reality fails to fill us with wonder, it is because we have fallen into the habit of seeing it as ordinary.” (Gautrand, 2008, page 20).
However his comment that “nothing is more surreal than reality” was closer to Surrealist thinking than he would care to admit. Perhaps, in a similar way that Cartier-Bresson was subsequently advised by Robert Capa to not “keep the label of a Surrealist”, (ref Cartier Bresson Book) Brassai wanted to distance himself from the Surrealist movement for more practical and, possibly, political reasons.
Brassai's photographs of night time Paris were especially admired by the Surrealists since night is a time of dreams and release from reality. They were used extensively by the Surrealist in the magazine Minotaure, a Surrealist magazine issued between 1933 and 1939, and a vehicle for articles on their thinking including cultural revolution and dreams. Brassai's most noticeable contribution came in issue no. 7 which contained a double page spread of eight pictures, Nuits Parisiennes, and accompanied various essays on the night by Breton and others.
Many of his pictures, set in the Paris fog of the 1930s, have a ghostly unreal property like Figure 1 of the Statue of Marshall Ney, which was used in issue no. 6 of Minotaure gives the impression of being in two worlds, reflecting the reality of modern Paris (in this example through the neon Hotel sign) and yet at the same time in another world full of ghosts detached from the tangible and concrete. It also echoes the sense of the uncanny with the inanimate object coming to life through the night fog; positioning the statue in the same world as the living creating a confusion between living and dead places. Georgio de Chirico, who inspired many of the later Surrealist artists, also wrote of how statues can share the same world “becoming a ghost that appears before us and surprises us”. (Matheson, 2006, Furniture and Generals, page 188). The photograph must have also particularly pleased the Surrealist since they would have seen the statue as a metaphor of their revolutionary ideals (Ney was a revolutionary figure in the Napoleonic Wars) through the juxtaposition of the revolutionary's statue railing against modern Paris.
Another night picture by Brassai of a station buttress, in the same issue of Minotaure, has an uncanny emptiness and underlines the city as a place of dreams. The picture, given the dramatic title by Brassai, From the great shadow will surge forth destiny, shows the buttress shadow imitating the profile of a face. The city in the night is dreaming yet in the morning the shadow and the dreaming face will disappear and the city will awake.
These photographs, like many Brassai photographs, have an aesthetic and feel which is not generally associated with Surrealism. However in aligning these images in Minotaure with their writing they were emphasising the place that dreams had in the city.
In a similar manner to Brassai, Eugene Atget photographs were a great source of inspiration for the Surrealists. Atget died before the Surrealist movement was established and never considered his photographs anything more than “documents” and certainly would not have defined them as “surreal”. His office sign Documents pour Artist underlined his intention. Like Brassai, Atget photographed the streets of Paris spending the best part of thirty years documenting the everyday and the normal with the clear objective of recording what he saw and selling the photographs to artists, libraries, government and similar organisations. His photographs were realistic reflections of Paris; he did not attempt to imitate painting, as the earlier pictorialist had done, they were as he described them to Man Ray simply “documents”.
Molly Nesbitt's book Atget's Seven Albums clearly lays out how he presented his extensive collection for use by others, collating his photographs into the different genres he thought would appeal to his customers. (Nesbitt, 1992). Atget's intention was to capture the city in its untampered state; his pictures are largely without the trappings of the modern city e.g. auto-mobiles, commuters, which would have been present in a bustling modern city. From an artistic perspective, his pictures went largely unnoticed during his life however posthumously his photographs have been rightly acclaimed; as Benjamin states his “photos are the forerunner of Surrealist photography” (Benjamin, 1979, page 249). Benjamin could see that in capturing the simple everyday Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century Atget was reflecting the Surrealist vision of the outmoded, old fashioned, Paris.
Atget's collection of approximately 6000 pictures of Paris had a wide fascination and appeal to the Surrealist. In “discovering” his photographs after his death the photographs were themselves, the chance “found objects” they related to the uncanny. His pictures of Vieux Paris (Old Paris) reflected a past time, the narrow streets, alleyways, shop fronts, decaying architecture and everyday people calling up a sense of history and decay. The photographs often documented places that had subsequently been demolished; there was also little room for modern paraphernalia. They captured, as the Surrealist saw it, a bridge between reality and the dream world. Originally intended for various Vieux Paris societies and libraries the Surrealist saw them as documenting the empty streets of Paris; reflecting the revolutionary outmoded space. As Matheson observed "Breton was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the outmoded, in the first iron constructions".....(Matheson, 2006, page 229).
They also saw in his photography a new, different, way of looking at Paris, this was not the Paris of Haussmann's wide boulevards, the tourist attractions like the Eifel Tower or the fashionable artists area like Montmartre; this was the Paris of the working people. His photographs captured the atmosphere of hidden Paris, as Benjamin noted “they pumped the aura out of reality, like water from a sinking ship”. (Benjamin, 1979, page 251)
In 1926 Man Ray, who lived on the same street as Atget,
purchased four prints from the photographer
which were subsequently reproduced in the
seventh issue of the earlier Surrealist magazine, La
Revolution Surrealiste. One of these is of a Corset shop, Figure 3, and
accompanies an account of a dream by Marcell Noll in which he is a
courtier during the revolution. The use of the corset again is a
reflection of the uncanny with the inanimate object being reborn.
The affect is increased by the repetition of corsets. As Walker notes
on the use of the image in La Revolution Surrealiste:
"the corsetted dummies interacts with [Marcell Noll's] dream-recitation to
become dreamlike itself" (Walker, 2002, page 90)
Many of Atget's images centred on shop windows and mannequins reflecting the surrealist interest in the life between the reality of the everyday and an image of a dead object near reality ie the mannequin. Although Atget would not have seen himself as a flaneur his resulting photographs have the feel of someone aimlessly wandering the Paris streets looking for the extraordinary in the mundane. The picture of the Pantheon, Figure 4, depicts the decaying street with the Pantheon barely visible, like a ghost, in the background. It is here where the great men of France are incarcerated, and with them and the Pantheon fading into the background, it is the everyday of the common people that will now be prominent. Atget has reversed the relationship between the prominent subject, the Pantheon, and the surrounding streets and emphasised to the Surrealist the importance of the everyday over the decaying France.
Many have compared Atget's photographs with Jacques-Andre Boiffard's photographs used in Nadja. The use of photographs in Nadja was very precise and deliberate; Breton had asked specifically Boiffard to record the ordinary places he had visited with Nadja. The result, as in Figure 5 of the restaurant in the Place Dauphine, Nadja, Jaques-Andre Boiffard, 'We have dinner served outside by the wine seller' where Nadja and Breton eat, are straight photographs, their mystery and appeal in the placement alongside Breton's text. Atget's photographs however stand by themselves; they have a greater sense of the lost Paris and reflect the value of a place or object. Boiffard went on to make a significant contribution to Surrealist photography however to compare the two does no credit to either.
For the Surrealist photography had an ambiguous position between reality and the unconscious; they recognised that a photograph could be set in the present reality yet could also portrait something closer to, or within, a dream world. It was this that drew them to photographers such as Brassai and Atget. It is clear from the journey that art has taken, with the great impetus given to it by the Surrealist movement, that the unconscious has been a primary driver of art over the last century. As Vicki Goldberg has noted "The true and massive impact of Surrealism was to open our eyes to the absurdity of the modern environment and to begin preparing us for the dream world our reality has become" (Vicki Goldberg, review of exhibition)
However we should also be cautious in these interpretatuions “how we understand Surrealist photography now, half a century after it was made, may be quite different from how it was understood at the time” (Walker, 2002, page 5)
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