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Beyond Real at SF MOMA

Surrealist Photography and Sculpture

Andre Breton defined surrealism as, "psychic automatism in its pure state, by which on purposes to express, verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern." It's important to carry a working definition of surrealism around with you while navigating through the seemingly never-ending SFMOMA exhibition, Beyond Real: Surrealist Photography and Sculpture from Bay Area Collections.

The exhibition is an exhaustive attempt to both contextualize the historical movement known as surrealism and historicize contemporary work standing on the movement's shoulders. Beyond Real is a kind of surrealist extravaganza, fiercely dividing the exhibition into three major sections: work employing surrealist media; work confronting surrealist subject matter; and contemporary work influenced by either or both categories.

The surrealists, as a loosely defined group of art makers employed and in fact pioneered much of photography's illusionary tactics in order to represent their philosophies. From Man Ray's stunning "Tears" to "Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Il Perfetto Borghese (The Perfect Bourgeois)" the surrealists created facetious pictures symbolizing the unconscious rising to the surface. Marie Tobard's "Game" is a close aerial shot of a woman lying in the street in a familiar pose of a dead body surrounded by a ring of men, bent at the waist, hands on knees, staring at her as if they know exactly what happened to her. It's a familiar image, almost banal except that Tobard's woman is awake with wide-open eyes staring right back at the camera. It's a brilliant kick in the pants to the traditional objectification of the woman not just as she has been represented in fine art but also within the surrealist movement itself.

This type of 'objectification juxtaposition' was common in the movement and was most notably used by Claude Cahun. In "Claude Cahun (Lucy Renée Matilde Schwob), Self-Portrait", Claude herself is staring back into the camera, usurping the male gaze that so often held women in brazen objectivity. By taking advantage of photography's ability to push an actual image toward an imaging of its symbolic meaning, the surrealists were able to replace bourgeois paradigms with the limitless possibilities of the unconscious mind.

This is one of surrealism's most tragic failures, its treatment of pure desire, and at the same time it is one of its most potent characteristics, specifically as how the photographic image allows us to embody the Other -- giving space to that exotic desire of objectifying that which objectifies us. These subjects were only delicately brushed over in exhibition even as the work gratuitously confronted it. However, BeyondReal was less about the subversive subject matters of individual works than about the potency of photography and how at its most surreal we still believe that it might actually reveal reality
Starting with May Ray's photograms (or Rayograms as they are referred in the SFMOMA wall text) the exhibition snakes viewers through room after room of surrealist samples, also passing by work by Sherrie Levine, Bruce Connnor, Vic Muniz and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, just to name a few, only to arrive in the final gallery which was crammed with a veritable who's who in contemporary photography; I dizzily wandered out of the exhibition wondering what photographer wasn't influenced by surrealism, but after careful consideration, the relationship between the passionate desires of the surrealists and the instantaneity of photography's framing of perception seemed obvious.

It's no wonder the surrealists were so attracted to photography. The medium readily lends itself to optical illusions. It's long been accepted that photography is a trick. Even before the elephantine presence of Photoshop, photography manipulated space and time in ways unique to other media. It's just common knowledge that photographic images do not purely represent the actual, the real or the lived experience. Indeed, it's almost as if we now look to photography to represent these tricks -- to lend imagery to the experience of being wholly disconnected and not just from our unconscious, but from reality. The most cogent photographs (many of which are included in this exhibition) are not historically surreal samples but the contemporary results of the movement. They exist somewhere in a liminal space between the erotic craftiness refined by the surrealists and the hollow circumstance of being implicated in the false images.

Once standing in front of Cindy Sherman's work or Mona Hatoum's delicately corporeal sculpture, the work of the early surrealists seem like parlor trick, like the musings of a child. However, the surrealists would have hardly taken that as criticism. Many of the surrealists talked of a childlike state as the only time one could be so connected with the unconscious.

Andre Breton defined surrealism as a movement belonging to literature, film, photography, painting and sculpture. It had its fingers in politics, publishing, fashion and advertising. Surrealism, at its peak, was a spectacle of physical pleasure and imaginative exploration but its adherents also traversed through dark realizations of global war, fascism, repression and censorship. At its core, surrealist images clawed painfully through pure thought hoping to rest there indefinitely, outside the confines of morality, nationalism, time or space. This is perhaps why SFMOMA has successfully placed surrealism in the cannon of history, only to be unearthed when we are also traversing through dark times, seemingly scraping toward an escapist location of purity.


Museum Hours: Open daily (except Wednesdays) 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; open late Thursdays until 8:45 p.m.

Admission prices (Effective July 1, 2005): Adults, $12.50; seniors, $8; students, $7. SFMOMA members and children twelve and under are admitted free. Thursday evenings, 6 to 8:45 p.m., admission is half price. The first Tuesday of each month admission is free.

Call 415.357.4000 for more information.