Home Page > Events > The City in Twilight: Surrealism, Photography and Paris

The City in Twilight: Surrealism, Photography and Paris

 Including more than 120 photographs by such artists as Man Ray, Eugène Atget, Brassaï, Hans Bellmer and André Kertész, Twilight Visions will celebrate Paris as the literal and metaphoric foundation of Surrealism. In addition to examining the revolutionary social, aesthetic and political activities of the movement between the world wars, the exhibition will focus on works—predominantly photographs as well as select films, books and period ephemera—that evoke the mystery of the chance encounters experienced by the Surrealists as they wandered through the labyrinthine city streets.


During the 1920s and 30s, Paris was a site of cultural, social, and political transformations. Modern technology collided and combined with elements of an almost outmoded Paris and the city streets became catalysts for artistic creativity. Throughout this period of technological innovation photography played a major role in both avant-garde practice and mass culture. It became an important medium to alter and expand people's consciousness. By using fragmentation, unusual viewpoints, and various technical manipulations, photographers exposed the disjunctive character of modern life. Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris, organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, examines Paris, the real/imaginary Paris constructed through the media—photography, film, and the illustrated press. This was an extremely productive artistic period when Parisian surrealists and immigrant artists collectively, and at times collaboratively, participated in both high art and popular culture, thereby eliding the boundaries and transforming the content between these realms. Approximately 150–200 works, photographs, films, books, and period ephemera have been selected for their power to suggest the mystery, wonder, and anticipation in the chance encounters experienced by surrealist writers and artists as they wandered through the labyrinthine streets of Paris.

Twilight Visions (both the exhibition and exhibition catalogue) offers a unique perspective on Surrealism by examining the intersection of documentary photography, manipulated photography, and film within the broader social, political, philosophical, and cultural contexts. It also looks at the connection between Surrealist avant-garde practice and popular culture. The photographs and films are also examined in the context of the critical writings of the period. For example, the essayist, novelist, journalist, and poet Pierre Mac Orlan frequently wrote about film and photography in Paris, including the photographers André Kertész, Germaine Krull, and Brassaï. His novel Quai des Brumes was the source for Marcel Carne’s 1938 film of the same name, set in Montmartre. Mac Orlan’s commentary on the ability of Kertész’s photographs to capture the "fantastic restlessness of the street" is one example of how representations bear witness to an epoch. His influential concept of a “social fantastic” focuses on the power and importance of photography and film to reveal what reality doesn’t reveal. For Mac Orlan, photography works on the imagination with an emotional power that captures an evocative moment in time.

Photography becomes a model for Surrealist concepts and values, blurring the boundaries between dream and reality, objectivity and subjectivity, and the everyday and extraordinary, where nature and culture, the past and present, and imagination and memory meet in an indeterminate time and space, like daylight falling into twilight. The term twilight operates on multiple levels: it literally represents an indeterminate time and space between day and night when objects and people are strangely illuminated and things are both revealed and concealed; and metaphorically, it erases clear distinctions between dualities such as reality and fantasy, the conscious and unconscious, subjectivity and objectivity, intellect and emotion, nature and culture, and the grotesque and beautiful.

By stimulating thinking and sensory experience through their actions and work, the Surrealists hoped to disrupt familiar expectations and provoke social action and personal and political change. Ultimately, Surrealism was a way of life. The Surrealists employed the technique of juxtaposition to create dynamic vision and understanding. The process of combining chance and intentionality helped produce a revolutionary consciousness whereby memory, imagination, and reality became indistinguishable. Chance encounters and everyday experiences were turned into extraordinary events and representations. Active participation by both the artist and the viewer was critical to Surrealism. The viewer must actively engage in and complete the work, which was open to multiple interpretations. Through an active transformation of perception and conception (that turned the status quo upside down) a world of seemingly endless possibilities was created.

The first section of the exhibition, “Urban Dreamscapes,” introduces the viewer to the public places of Paris—the cafés, cabarets, cinemas, arcades, and flea markets that were inspirational sources for the Surrealists. Photographs of city streets, signs, found objects, monuments, shop windows, and interiors by Eugène Atget, Brassaï, André Boiffard, Man Ray, Jindrich Štyrský, Maurice Tabard, Roger Parry, Ilse Bing, Germaine Krull, Dora Maar, Josef Breitenbach, and Andre Kertész capture, in different ways, the Surrealists’s search for “the marvelous”—perceptual, experiential, and conceptual contradictions in the “real” world they inhabited. Documentary” photographs of Paris that transform familiar city streets, urban monuments, and interiors into powerful memories, at times mysterious, entrancing, and disturbing, and the more manipulated images are seen in the framework of Surrealist journals, popular magazines, and period postcards.

Many photographers published their work in avant–garde journals and books, as well as in the popular press. Although there was no official group of Surrealist photographers, Brassaï, Man Ray, Germaine Krull, Eli Lotar, Boiffard, Maurice Tabard, Lee Miller, and Roger Parry (to name a few) made photographs for both high and low venues including the avant-garde journals La Révolution surréalist, Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, Documents, Minotaure, and Bifur, and the mass culture magazines Vu (where photographs accompanied articles on historical and political events) and Varietés. In fact, the critical debates of the period often centered on issues of experimental and realist photography. Photographs by Boiffard and Brassaï and other photographers were commissioned by André Breton to illustrate his novels Nadja (l928) and L’ Amour fou (l937). These photographs functioned collaboratively with the texts. The collaborative nature of these photographic projects shows the importance of group activity for the Surrealists. It facilitated what Paul Eluard, the surrealist poet called the “undivided world,” a constant metamorphosis of the individual and the group.

Section two, “Mutable Mirrors,” investigates the celebration of shifting and variable identities that was part of the Surrealists’ desire to alter consciousness and transform concepts of personal, social, and group identity. Issues of gender and sexuality and the roles of play and masquerade are examined in the works of Lee Miller, Nusch Eluard, Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, Raoul Ubac, Hans Bellmer, Georges Hugnet, André Kertész, Man Ray, and Brassaï who experimented with techniques of doubling, distorting, multiplying, and fragmenting the image.

The final section, “Brief Encounters: Surrealist Cinema,” focuses on the relationship between Surrealist cinema and the poetic realist films of the period. It offers a unique selection of films and photographs that reveal the combination of desires, fantasies, anxieties, and realities of the epoch. The avant-garde Surrealist films of Man Ray: Emak-Bakia (1926), L’Etoile de Mer (l928), Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (l929); Germaine Dulac: La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928); Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí: Un Chien Andalou (l928); Buñuel: L’Age Dor (l930) are seen in their relation to the poetic realist films of Marcel Carné: Le Quai des Brumes (l938), Hotel du Nord (l938); Jean Renoir: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (l936), La Grande Illusion (l937); René Clair: Under the Streets of Paris (l930), Á Nous la Liberté (l931); and Jean Vigo: L’Atalante (l934). It also includes the amazing scientific/art films of Paul Painlevé, whose close up investigations of animals and creatures from the sea influenced a number of photographers and surrealist filmmakers.

The poetic realist films of the period are similar in subject and style to the photographs of Brassaï and Kertész. The plight of the underclass, the locales they frequented, and themes of poverty, pleasure, and crime are portrayed as dangerous and adventurous. Imagination and fantasy mix to create a rough, edgy, and mysterious urban documentary realism that produces a sense of nostalgia. The ambivalence towards modernity is revealed in the marginalized areas of Paris shot in dramatic, atmospheric light and shadow.

DatesDu 29 janvier au 9 mai 2010
Current Location
WebsiteThe City in Twilight: Surrealism, Photography and Paris
CategoriesExpositions récentes, 1966 à aujourd'hui