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Surrealist Ghostliness

by Katharine Conley
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2013
320 pp., illus. 50 b&w. illus. Trade, $55.00
ISBN: 978-0-8032-2659-3.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book is an excellent and detailed exploration of a major feature of the surrealist avant-garde movement, namely – ghostliness and anamorphosis. It concentrates on the specific “double nature of surrealist perception” as it is intimately connected with both conscious and unconscious characteristics.

The interesting Introduction sets the scene for the following eight chapters that focus on eight prominent surrealist practitioners.

Chapter 1
– looks at Man Ray's work, particularly his cinematic creations and ghostly objects.
Chapter 2
– explores Claude Cahun's autobiographical human images - “she questioned the Enlightenment version of the human being in her autobiographical self-representations, a personal archive that blurs the boundaries, categories, and norms of established sexualities and ages” (p. 45).
Chapter 3
– discusses the Ethnographic Automatism of Brassaï and the Involuntary Sculptures of Dali.
Chapter 4
– looks at Lee Miller's Egyptian Landscapes. Her “photography captures the ghost images of human bodies that emerge as visual puns in the paradoxically empty landscapes she shot in Egypt in the mid-1930s” (p. 91).
Chapter 5
– explores the Gothic Ghostliness of Dorothea Tanning's work is explored in detail in this chapter.
Chapter 6
– exposes the Ghostly Interior Maps of Francesca Woodman. Perhaps less well known than Tanning her work is certainly no less stunning. The dust jacket of this publication features one of her artworks – quite mesmerizing.
Chapter 7
– discusses Pierre Alechinsky's Ghostly Palimpsests. These works blur the boundaries between writing and graphical mark making, adding to the anamorphosis of the whole enterprise.
Chapter 8 – presents Susan Hiller's Freudian Ghosts. The works discussed in this final chapter are mainly from Hiller's - From The Freud Museum (1991-97).

The chapters are followed by a brief Conclusion, detailed Notes, a Bibliography and Index. The book has numerous black & white illustrations to support the text and help the reader with some of the lesser-known works of art. Even though the chapters deal with a specific artist many other artists of the surrealist movement generally are discussed and cross-referenced within the chapters.

Conley argues convincingly, “...that the ghostliness that haunted automatism historically, experientially, and poetically remained imprinted on the movement's works throughout its history.” This 'imprint' was so powerful and fundamental to surrealism that it continues to exert an influence, “...for further exploration of psychic realities in the twenty-first century” (p. 19). Conley uses ghostliness, anamorphosis, and ghostly doubles but never uses the word Doppelgänger that seems to me to be an accurate description of many of the surrealists' creations.

Surrealist Ghostliness is a detailed exploration and discussion supporting the importance of anamorphosis in surrealist works; however, it is not a highly critical appraisal per se. There is much evidence to suggest that the early surrealists, especially, did not understand Freud's theories well and simply appropriated the bits that suited their bourgeois artistic activities. I dealt with this specifically in my thesis The Myth of the Freudian Unconscious and Its Relationship To Surrealist Poetry – 2000. [1]

I was quite surprised that Conley did not refer to or cite Matthews' seminal work Surrealism, Insanity, and Poetry, particularly as he was considered to be “clearly the chief scholarly explicator of surrealism today.” [2]

These minor criticisms aside, I believe this book is an important addition to the literature on surrealism and modern art, very well written and an extremely interesting and engaging read.

As Conley suggests, I believe correctly in her conclusion, “Surrealist ghostliness naturalized psychological understanding as part of human knowledge, using vivid imagery that captured the latent haunting that subtends manifest Western culture, exemplifying surrealism's force as the most influential avant-grade movement of the twentieth century” (p. 231).


[1] Harle, Rob. “The Myth Of The Freudian Unconscious And Its Relationship With Surrealist Poetry.” Unpublished. 2000. http://www.robharle.com/pages/thesis.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2013.

[2] J.H. Matthews Surrealism. Insanity, and Poetry. Syracuse, NY:  Syracuse University Press, 1982.

Last Updated 1st September 2013

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