Twilight Visions. Surrealism and Paris
by Therese Lichtenstein
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011
224 pages, 134 b & w photographs
Paperback, $29.95, £20.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
A (more than welcome) paperback reprint of the hardcover book that accompanied the eponymous exhibit organized in collaboration the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in 2009, Twilight Visions is an important contribution to our knowledge of Surrealism, both in photography and in its broader relationships with the cultural context of the twenties and the thirties. True, the subject as such is far from original, and moreover the Frist exhibit took place at the same time of the blockbuster exhibit on Surrealism, photography, and cinema in Centre Pompidou-Beaubourg ("La Subversion des Images", itself an update of the seminal show organized by Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingstone two decades earlier, "Explosante-fixe"). Yet despite the very modest objectives of the project, which focuses on French Surrealism exclusively (no word on Belgian Surrealism, despite the key contribution to the photographic medium by an author such as Paul Nougé), while heavily foregrounding an Anglo-Saxon approach of the material (no trace for instance of Michel Poivert, for instance, currently perhaps the best scholar in the field), the results are extremely interesting, from a visual as well as scholarly point of view.
A word of praise, first, for the technical qualities of the book, luxuriously illustrated and presenting a well-chosen overview of what Surrealism in photography stood for during the interwar period in Paris. The print quality is near to perfect, the page layout extremely pleasant and readable, and the selection well-balanced, with a good combination of well-known and less-known pictures, typically Surrealist and more marginally or indirectly Surrealist images, photographs that were original creations and photographs that can be described as documents (although in the case of Surrealism, this distinction can become blurred very rapidly), and above all a very rich overview of photographs made by women (not a detail, given the often shockingly narrow ideas of leading Surrealists on gender issues).
A second major quality of the book is the excellent scholarly and stylistic qualities of the various accompanying essays, which display an exceptional width and depth of viewpoints on the issue of Surrealism and photography. The introductory essay by Therese Lichtenstein rightly focuses on the internal complexity of the Surrealist movement, and nuances several of its revolutionary claims, statements, and ambitions. Lichtenstein stresses the idea of twilight or in-between, which she expands from the mere field of visuality to the larger field of culture and politics. Surrealist photographs was much more than the exploration of night photography or the attempt to reveal the uncanny properties of the allegedly known and labeled everyday life, it was also a cry of protest against the uniformization of modern, bureaucratic, industrial life (Haussmann's interventions in the urban sphere and his radical reshaping of Paris were compared by the Surrealists to the Yankee commercial spirit of these days), and to a certain extent a craving for forms of life that were put in danger by modern times. Lichtenstein's reading of Surrealism has therefore strong connections with the recent interest in the "antimodern" aspects of avant-garde and modernity in general, as elaborated in France by authors such as Antoine Compagnon (also a Columbia Professor), and it would be useful and challenging to read these voices in light of one another. Lichtenstein makes also very clear how Surrealism, despite the sectarian attitude of many of its authors and artists, can only be understood by looking at the broader context, more specifically to the ongoing dialogue between Surrealist and non-Surrealist authors (some of theme typical modernists, such as Paul Morand, others more inclined towards the domain of popular culture, like Francis Carco).
A third great advantage of this collection, is the lack of any overlap between the large introduction by Lichtenstein and the three essays, by Julia Kelly, Colin Jones, and Whitney Chadwik that complete and enrich the opening text. Lichtenstein is a wonderful editor, and one feels an intelligent hand behind the overall gathering of the material in this book. Kelly brings a fascinating essay on the "Bureau of Surrealist Research", a kind of (short-lived) office aimed at promoting, initiating, and documenting the Surrealist projects for a wider audience (which was invited to participate). Kelly does not hide the practical and theoretical difficulties of such an enterprise, whose outcomes were not always very successful and which can be seen in retrospect as an important symptom of the movement's dreams, but also limits, contradictions, and even errors (those interested in the "cuisine" of Surrealism, might reread as well Raymond Queneau's roman à clef on these matters, the sardonic autobiographical fiction Odile). Jones offers a great reading of the Surrealist policy re public exhibits, analyzed against the backdrop of the bourgeois world and other fairs that were one of the decisive devices of capitalist globalization in modern times (the comparison between the 1937 international exposition and the subsequent, extremely radical Surrealist exhibit of 1938 being an excellent synthesis of this policy). Chadwick, finally, focuses on the position of women in Surrealism, more specifically on the often scandalous glorification of the mythical Surrealist Woman (as seen and constructed by male authors and artists) and the presence of despised and underrated Surrealist women in the movement. Chadwick underlines the devastating effects of antifeminist and homophobic stances by many Surrealists as well as the (successful) attempts made by some of these women to define new forms of agency and sexual identify (Claude Cahun, Leonor Fini, Lee Miller, for instance).
In short: this book is a welcome complement to existing scholarship, its contextual reading of Surrealism is tremendously useful and inspiring, and the great writing of all the contributors make it into great reading, not just for specialists but for all those interested in the ambivalences of culture torn between art and the everyday, revolution and entertainment, individual creation and collective strategies.