Tag Archives: Surrealism

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Following on from a short exploration of Eugène Atget’s Paris in my thesis, I was prompted to learn more and experience more widely the traces captured in the long exposure, and the minuscule breaths of movement given material presence thanks to the slow shutter.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s long-exposures of theatrical cinema-viewing spaces have something very interesting to say about cinema. He describes his process thus:

Dressed up as a tourist, I walked into a cheap cinema in the East Village with a large-format camera. As soon as the movie started, I fixed the shutter at a wide-open aperture, and two hours later when the movie finished, I clicked the shutter closed. That evening, I developed the film, and the vision exploded behind my eyes.

In contrast to the ghostly apparitions passing through Atget’s photographs or the ghoulish animism of Bragaglia’s photodynamism, Sugimoto’s ‘whole movie in a single frame’ leaves a static, shining image of the film,  what in ‘real’ diegetic temporality is a series of flickers. The usually dynamic screen is transformed into an eerily vacant repository of itself, yet the artist finds it ‘explosive’.

Investigate the artist’s work further here: Hiroshi Sugimoto.



Sarah Pucill’s ‘Magic Mirror’ – Claude Cahun, Narcissus, and scattered selves


Last Monday I attended the world premiere screening of British artist filmmaker Sarah Pucill’s feature on the text and images of Surrealist Claude Cahun. While I was fully aware of Pucill’s work, I was drawn to the screening primarily because of my own interest in Surrealism and its legacies. Upon arrival at the Tate Modern cinema, it was very pleasing to see a full house (with a queue for return tickets) because I’ve recently experienced quite empty cinemas at both Tate and the ICA (why so few people at the ICA screening of Post Tenebras Lux a month or so ago? ). So yes, a great turnout.

Pucill Magic Mirror Hands and lenses

Still taken from Magic Mirror, Sarah Pucill, 2013

French artist and writer Claude Cahun, (1894 – 1954, née Lucy Schwob)  is now well known, her work appropriated by art historians, feminist and queer theorists, who have focused on the imagery in her photographs and its positive transgressions of heteronormative discourse. This was not always the case, and she and her work were largely forgotten until  French poet François Leperlier came across Cahun as a somewhat marginal figure in his research for a publication on Surrealism.  By all accounts intimidated by Breton’s circle (hardly surprising), Cahun was nevertheless friends with some of the Paris circle, such as Soupault and Desnos, and eventually met Breton in Paris,, photographing him and Jacqueline Lamba as well as contributing photographs to journals such as Bifur (a journal publishing works by former Surrealists).

Claude Cahun - Jacqueline Lamba & Andre Breton, 1935

 Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton, Claude Cahun , 1935

For Pucill, who spoke before and after the screening, Claude Cahun had been on her radar since being introduced to her work as an undergraduate in the 1990s. Pucill feels an affinity with Cahun’s artistic practice and her use of mirroring and fragmentation to explore sexuality and clichés of identification such as the Narcissus myth and self-portraiture. The majority of Cahun’s visual works are self-portraits in which costume, artifice, superimposition, reversals of gender stereotypes, the interchangeability of animate and inanimate objects, mirrors, closeted space, and collage, prevail. Although Cahun is best known for her images, she was a prolific writer, and Pucill explained how her book Avenue non avenues (1930) (published in English as Disavowals, but translated by Pucill as ‘confessions untold’) with its photomontages and heliogravurs served for her (making the film) as an expansion and  clarification of the photographs.

Cahun opening image Aveux non avenuesClaude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Phontomontage, Plate 1, Aveux non avenus, 1919 -1929

Pucill finds Cahun’s obsession with mirrors and other reflecting surfaces such as window glass and water, intriguing, pointing out that the opening words in Aveux non avenus: ‘Sash Window. Glass sheet. Where shall I put the silvering? On this side or the other; in front of or behind the pane?’ bring to the fore questions of self and of reflecting on the self in her film work.  The text continues: ‘In front. I imprison myself. I blind myself […] Leave the glass clear, and according to chance and the hours see, confused and partially, sometimes fugitives and sometimes my own look. Then, break the glass panes … with the fragments, compose a stained glass. Byzantine work! Transparency, opacity. What a vow of artifice.’ Dawn Ades notes how this is an overt criticism of Narcissus, of his death, deceived by an image. Cahun understands the artifice, dissolving herself ‘into a never-ending series of masks that have no ‘real’ underneath. These are not so much disguises as adoptions of the socially imposed shells of feminine or masculine identities (like the doll-woman) which need first to be displayed inorder then to be stripped.’ (Ades, ‘Surrealism, Male-Female’, in Surrealism. Desire Unbound, Jennifer Mundy (ed.), 2002,  171-201).

Narcissus Pucill

Sarah Pucill, Magic Mirror, 2013

Pucill’s film re-enacts the figures and mise en scene in Cahun’s photographs, creating further uncanny reflections and expansions of the original self that ultimately, for me, seem most akin to the photomontages in Aveux non avenus. More significant to my mind, is the dissemination of the self into a mise en abîme of self-reflexivity, a kaleidoscopic, polymorphous self that travels back and forth between Pucill and Cahun, refusing, unlike Narcissus, to die. Pucill terms this effect, the scattered self.

Self Portrait Claude

Self Portrait, Claude Cahun, 1928

It has oft been noted that Cahun’s work anticipated the work of Cindy Sherman, or the critical writing of Judith Butler on the ‘troubling’ parameters of socially ordained ‘gender identities’. Gender and self is, of course, at the centre of her work, and the play of feminine and masculine masquerades, yet Cahun’s work is much more than self portraiture and ‘gender-bending’. Although not a fully ‘signed-up’ member of the Surrealist group, her work exemplifies both Bretonian ideas of convulsive beauty, chance and merveilleux, but also the more abject, ‘primitive’, visceral power of Bataillean philosophy. There is a sinister, abject body that exceeds the images of women manifested in Breton or Soupault’s writing, or Man Ray’s photographs of the female form (for example), and offers alternative female bodies that tell of much deeper, experiential view of reality, and of the horrors of modern life.


The Black Dahlia Murder: A Night at Barts Pathology Museum, London.

 I’m a bit of a geek for the Black Dahlia Case, and can’t wait to go to this next Tuesday: The Venetian Vase, a night of talks on dismemberment and the unfading interest in the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short (1924-1947). The shocking photographs of the crime scene and the failure of the LAPD to ever catch the murderer have become part of Hollywood myth and folklore.

In case you haven’t read up on this gruesome, unsolved murder in ’40s California, you can find a perfunctory account in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywod Babylon IIor read James Ellroy’s novel based on the case –  The Black Dahlia, a book doubly chilling due to the similarity between Short’s murder and that of Ellroy’s own mother (recorded rather brilliantly in his memoir My Dark Places ). There is absolutely no need to watch the dreadful translation of Ellroy’s novel to screen in Brian de Palma’s film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett, it is truly terrible. 

My ultimate favourite, however, has to be the Surrealist take on the murder case argued in Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss’s Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder in which the authors draw links between certain Surrealist paintings and the arrangement of the victim’s body:

Foremost, our book asserts that this gruesome but precisely executed murder may have been a deranged attempt to imitate motifs in surrealist art. That said, we do not believe that Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, or any other surrealist artist was directly responsible for the murder, or that the killer himself was an artist.

Thrilling! And yet no more bonkers than any JFK conspiracy. I have a copy of the book should you feel compelled to read it.

Max Ernst, ‘Anatomie als Braut’ [Anatomy of a Bride], 1921, Photographic enlargement of collage on paperboard, Private Collection.

Marcel Duchamp, Given: 1) The Waterfall, 2) The Illuminating Gas (Etant Donnés: 
1) La Chute D’eau, 2) Le Gaz d’Éclairage), 1946–66. Interior view. 
Courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of the Cassandra Foundation.

And for the squeamish look away, a photo from the original crime scene.

Tuesday’s event organised by Queen Mary’s and the Pathology Musuem looks set to be a night to haunt.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Portrait Dans un Miroir

I really love the effect of the what I shall call the ‘decaying’ mirror in Raul Ubac’s photo portrait. Daido Moriyama applies a similar technique in his self-portraits using reflective surfaces. The erasure/disclosure of the image plays with the solidity of ‘identity’ as a knowable concept. Here, the woman’s head seems to emerge from water, the neck visible below a filmy surface. The bright dots suggest astronomical constellations. The eyes closed, or cast downwards, the face withdraws from the viewer; the filmy, cracked ‘overlay’ removes the subject further accentuating the construction process of the print. The distancing plays with the ‘present’ moment of the photograph, wrapping the female face in a temporal indeterminacy, the patina suggestive of damaged nostalgic snapshot keepsakes from the turn of the nineteenth century. The woman herself, is positioned indeterminately, submerged in the dreamy water of sleep, or imaginative revelry. Significantly, Ubac’s portrait is the image used for the cover of Rosalind Krauss’s The Optical Unconscious, a book which proposes an alternative history of modernist art. Krauss’s book discusses art (such as that by Ubac and Ernst) as the unconscious ‘side’ of modernism, of art detached from the socio- economic, of more radical, fantastic works representing a shifting reality.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Portrait Dans un Miroir

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Portrait Dans un Miroir.