La Subversion Des Images, a surrealist show at Centre Pompidou

La Subversion Des Images tells us a lot more about the state of official culture in Europe than it does about surrealism. This is an expansive show of surrealist film and photography, but it is also incredibly lazily curated. The good news first, there are examples of Man Ray’s hardcore pornography that I’d not seen before, and I assume are rarely shown. His undated stag film Two Women, featuring both oral sex and strap-on penetration is very curious; and for me it made my trip to surrealist show worthwhile.
Overall I’ve never been impressed by surrealist film. Bunuel is obviously the exception who proves the rule that there weren’t any good surrealist film-makers. Hans Richter’s abstract films hold some interest for me,  but it is the tedious Ghosts Before Breakfast that is featured yet again in the current Pompidou show. Richter’s film is shown on one three screens lined-up beside each other, with the result that the shorts on the other two distract the viewer’s attention from whichever movie they try to watch. With the exception of the four works shown on rotation in the temporary cinema at the end of the exhibition – Bunuel’s first two films are included, of course – the movies in this show are abysmally displayed.
The surrealist photography fares little better than the films in terms of inadequate display and it is equally variable in quality. There are many now iconic pieces from Man Ray, Hans Bellmer and Claude Cahun, but these are shown alongside mediocre works by minor surrealist photographers and pictures taken by the movement’s major literary figures who happened to own a camera (but weren’t necessarily over-endowed with a sense of visual flair).
Those unfamiliar with the surrealist movement may be left with the impression that the exhibition is comprehensive; it isn’t, as I’ve said, it is badly curated. Ida Kar may have played only a small role in the surrealist movement but she was a major – albeit for now largely forgotten – twentieth century photographer. There is nothing by Kar in this exhibition, not even her extraordinary portraits of Andre Breton (although pictures of him that are considerably less striking are included).
For me the omission of Ida Kar  is indicative of what is wrong not only with this show, but curation in general. Given that Kar was an amazingly talented photographer, I can only conclude she is missing because the curators are unaware of her. This would not be surprising since on the whole contemporary curators know next to nothing about visual culture. They tend to avoid serious reading (and rarely do archival research), preferring instead to ‘learn’ about art more or less solely by going to each other’s exhibitions. This leads to a situation in which the same names are featured in show after show.
Claude Cahun was ‘rediscovered’ not so much by the art world as by those engaged in gender studies. Kar needs ‘rediscovering’ too, and perhaps by making the poverty of contemporary curatorship more shameful by publicising it via the omission of Kar from shows such as this, I can assist in the process of her rehabilitation.
I also really hated the way La Subversion Des Images was organised by theme. I’d have much rather had rooms dedicated to individual artists, with a mixed room or two for the amateur photographers in the surrealist movement and its minor figures. Nonetheless, despite being at best half-cocked, there remains just enough in this exhibition to make it worth visiting. It didn’t thrill me but I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed it.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Dave Kelso-Mitchell on 2009-11-09 09:36:45 +0000

I’ve only ever visited the Pompidou twice, both times back in the early 80s. I cant really remember much about the first visit as I was pretty zonked out of my skull. I have no idea what was being exhibited, but I was very taken with the building itself. Maybe it was the drugs.
The second time was on my honeymoon in 83, so I was all cleaned up and was lucky enough to see a very extensive exhibition of collage works by Toyen, Stysrky and Heisler, which blew me away at the time. They went far and beyond what Ernst had done with Une Semaine de Bonte and similar works – but then Ernst never really focused on his medium particularly, being a bit of a stylistic butterfly.
Styrsky is another of those forgotten surrealists whose work is far better, and more genuinely ‘surreal’ (in the sense the word was originally coined by Breton et al) than the more famous painters and photographers associated with the group. His pictures don’t attempt to plumb a fantastic metaphorical ‘other world’, but focuses on simple everyday ‘found’ scenarios and reveals the strangeness and wonder that is constantly overlooked in the here and now, mainly because people’s perceptions are culturally filtered.
Surrealism has rarely been presented in an intelligent way by anyone outside the actual movement and hardly ever by anyone from an English speaking culture. Witness Jonathan Meades’s idiotic programme on surrealism several years ago. Even the term ‘surrealism’ is taken as being something to do with fantasy, conscious grotesquerie, the ‘subconscious’ (whatever the fuck that is), or a number of other things that have nothing to do with it. Thanks mainly to … what was his name? (The Spanish one)
Strangely the term ‘surreal’ has entered the world of mathematical terms, in a way that is surprisingly close to what Breton was groping at in the Manifestoes. Unfortunately he wasnt mathematically gifted, so his language inclined to abstraction, sophistry and vagueness.
The above is an exhibition, though, that I would like to see. Thanks for blogging this.

Comment by fi on 2009-11-09 10:36:09 +0000

If that has given you a taste for idling the hours away with tedious artists films, try the Central St Martins Archive of artists’ film & video when you get back.

Comment by Far Out Fred on 2009-11-09 15:13:31 +0000

to experience just how surreal this world really is, I always say you can’t go wrong if you take a shed-load of drugs!

Comment by Psychedelic Sid on 2009-11-09 16:48:02 +0000

too much is not enough when it comes to mushrooms and acid!

Comment by Zen Master K on 2009-11-09 17:22:12 +0000

acid is groovy! off the pigs!

Comment by Old Rope on 2009-11-09 17:31:17 +0000

That reminds me, I must finish that post about the surrealist exhibition I swallowed last month. Fanx tRiP

Comment by The Ghost of Andre Breton on 2009-11-09 17:35:41 +0000

Curators are cultural pimps! Attack! Attack! Attack!

Comment by The Ghost of Georges Bataille on 2009-11-09 18:06:02 +0000

Breton is a cultural pimp! Attack! Attack! Attack!

Comment by Dave Kelso-Mitchell on 2009-11-09 18:39:59 +0000

Drugs and booze make you so much more interesting. Whenever I’ve been stone cold sober and straight and in the company of people fucked out of their heads on drugs or booze, I’ve always marvelled at how much more interesting and amusing they are and think, ‘wow! I really hope I was that much fun to be around when I was totally fucked out of my brain!’

Comment by Paul Conneally on 2009-11-09 20:46:36 +0000

curators – especially some of those ‘artist curators’ – look askance if at all at the dedicated auto-didact and those who return time and again to source and the stuff that surrounds source to wander in and out between and across material and time wading through the trash the detritus sifting the dust heap to find hidden gold this treasure often what the art emperors already declare as shit ignoring it except to wipe it off their feet like a dog turd accidentally stood in…
All hail The Flying Dustmen!

Comment by fi on 2009-11-09 22:10:25 +0000

unlikely !

Comment by Dave Kelso-Mitchell on 2009-11-09 22:30:35 +0000

In your case Fi, being fucked out of my mind on booze or drugs could only make you seem more amusing and interesting.

Comment by Antonin Artaud on 2009-11-10 00:11:36 +0000

It’s time to get down like the victims at the stake, signalling thru the flames…..

Comment by Dave Kelso-Mitchell on 2009-11-10 00:16:56 +0000


Comment by Antonin Artaud on 2009-11-10 00:34:36 +0000

Yeah, I wrote that like eighty years ago and I still can’t work out what it means either… actually I much prefer theatre in the buff (nude) to the theatre of cruelty… although I do like the tune Rhythm of Cruelty….

Comment by Dave Kelso-Mitchell on 2009-11-10 00:40:45 +0000

I find I cant watch films anymore – except ‘Yellow Submarine’.

Comment by Simon on 2009-11-10 00:45:39 +0000

Errr… errr… God Fi, you’ve certainly put this bunch in their place, the bunch of self-seeking pretentious ..err.. errr… self-seekers..
God – we’d be perfect for each other, y’know. You, with your face like a wrung dishcloth and a personality and intellect to match…. and me being a total dick, but one that cant get erect or come and can only piss on things…
(Gawd, what a guy will say to get into a girl’s knickers…)

Comment by Paul Conneally on 2009-11-10 06:52:22 +0000

curators – especially some of those ‘artist curators’ – look askance if at all at the dedicated auto-didact and those who return time and again to source and the stuff that surrounds source to wander in and out between and across material and time wading through the trash the detritus sifting the dust heap to find hidden gold this treasure often … Read Morewhat the art emperors already declare as shit ignoring it except to wipe it off their feet like a dog turd accidentally stood in…
All hail The Flying Dustmen!

Comment by fi on 2009-11-10 09:45:43 +0000

I know what I can do to really show this lot and teach them a lesson now that they’ve bklocked me from all their mobile phones and Facebook pages, so I cant send idiotic abusive messages;
I’ll go to my own (fake id) Facebook Profile and first I’ll post a link to their blogs and websites so that people happening on my page can click on the link and be diverted straight to their sites. Yeah? Yeah?
Then I’ll add an insulting comment to attract people’s attention to it and make it more likely that they’ll click on it… you with me Simon?
Then…. to really show them what for, I’ll copy all the insults and nasty things they’ve said about me in private mails (because I love to save things like that and get a weird twisted pleasuire out of obsessing over them – even better than cutting myself with razorblades) and I’ll post all those horrible and remarkably accurate things on my Facebook Profile, so everybody can see how unfairly I’ve been treated when I’m really soooo special. (I dont know why my daddy didnt like me).
There! That’ll teach them a lesson.

Comment by Dave Kelso-Mitchell on 2009-11-10 13:16:51 +0000

Nobody is going to read my comments, as Fi has already proven.

Comment by Simon on 2009-11-30 19:28:22 +0000

Couldn’t disagree more with you. Yes, there were omissions, but lazily curated? The best thing about the show was that it pointed to the fact that surrealism was all about process and ideas, and the actual completed expression was pretty secondary. I thought the sections brilliantly realised, and the films joyful and often hilarious. I haven’t seen a such a stimulating show in years, and it got me thinking about all kind of ideas. In general I’d agree with your sentiments about curators.

Comment by cam on 2009-12-07 23:59:46 +0000

this exhibition was a lot better in my opinion than you gave it credit for. i am pretty inexperienced in exhibitions, never mind surrealist exhibitions. But i felt it gave me a starting point in looking into photography in the movement. sounds like you need to start curating yourself, with all your pent up skill ready to spray all over the walls.

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