Forbidden Games: Surrealist and Modern Photography presents the collection of David Raymond. Acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2007, the collection includes 167 photographs and illustrated books and works of 68 artists from over 14 countries. Touted as a “major, transformative acquisition” by the CMA, the “judiciously sought out” vintage prints from the 1920s through the 1940s, are now on view (CMA). While the majority of works on view are photographs, Forbidden Games also features several collages, photograms, and photomontages.
Dating from the early 1920s, Erwin Blumenfeld’s Boxers over New York, comprised entirely of mass-produced photographic materials, conveys the exciting immediacy of early pictorial magazine culture. In the collage, Architect of the Magus (L’Architecte du Mage) (1935), writer and artist George Hugnet reappropriated a historic architectural drawing (Chassevent, 1876). Hugnet’s cheeky addition of a nude par derrière and a bright red-lipstick smile to the neo-classical portal anticipate the erotic ironies of Eduardo Paolozzi’s postwar pin-ups and the formidable toothy grin of Willem de Kooning’s Woman series.
A number of images in the show foreground the materiality of photographic media. In some works, artists stressed two-dimensional abstraction. In others, they disrupted the illusion of surface by manipulating or damaging negatives to generate dramatic visual effects, or simply photographed film materials directly. The proliferation of images such as these confirm the popularity of medium-based experimentation among contemporary avant-garde photographers.
American expatriate Man Ray’s photogram Rayograph (1935) traps our attention on the surface of the image. Ray’s Rayograph, like the many other photograms on view, radically flattens the picture plane and interrupts its symbolic penetration. Raoul Ubac’s shredding and rearrangement of negatives in Battle of the Penthesilea (1937) symbolically destroys Amazonian bodies and suggests the heated mythical battle referenced in its title. Similarly, in Double Portrait with Hat (1936-37), Dora Maar radically altered and reconfigured photographic materials to generate an image. In her quietly gripping self-portrait, Maar cut and scraped directly into two negatives to create a heavy and forbidding halo above a torn and divided self. Works such as these, and the photograms discussed above, explore the formal definition and limits of photographic ‘content’ and anticipate the experiments of non-narrative filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps the most straightforward image on view that emphasizes photographic media, is Emmanuel Sougez’s exquisite Film Negative (1928). The delicately transparent print depicts a piece of film that appears to lay almost weightlessly on the page. Curled and fragile, the perforated celluloid strip looks as if it might be disturbed by the breath of a passerby.
Along with photographs, large scale projections of surrealist films, enliven the walls with square light-box lyricism. Man Ray’s enigmatic Emak Bakia (1926) transports us into an era of manically strummed banjos and frenzied Charleston dancers, while Argentine native and Bauhaus trained Horaçio Coppola’s short film Dream (1933) invites us, all too briefly, to witness an oddly black and white, yet, prototypically Magritte-style, parlor game. Indeed, games, secret and illicit, were programmatic for the surrealists; the group adopted the innocuous Victorian entertainment cadavre exquis (exquisite cadaver) to their own exponentially mischievous ends.
The exhibition title, Forbidden Games, was inspired by a Dora Maar collage featured in the show. In true surrealist fashion, Maar’s Jeux interdits (1935) shatters bourgeois decorum. Staged in a well-appointed early twentieth-century domestic interior, a gentleman in a suit and a bare-breasted woman engage in a burlesque sexualized exchange. Whether we ignore the scene, vicariously enter it as erotically adventurous protagonists, or identify with the crouching child observing it secretly from under a table, we are privy to its mystery. Indeed, throughout the exhibition, images such as this one, bizarre and unexplained, startle, fascinate, and challenge the imagination of the viewer.
Often wild and recalcitrant, the images presented in Forbidden Games have been somewhat bridled by the curators who present them in broadly structured theme-based spaces. These categories include Advertising and the Picture Magazine, Collage, City, Natural World, Body, Mannequin, Night Life, and Abstraction. The curatorial rubrics guide the visitor through the exhibition and ease the appreciation of “the eye in its wild state” (l’oeil à l’état sauvage), the museum’s declared leitmotif for the show. Three additional spaces highlight the work of individual artists Marcel Lefranq (1916-1974), Georges Hugnet (1906-1974), and Dora Maar (1907-1997).
The spacious and dusky CMA lower level affords an expansive and appropriately imposing backdrop for the predominantly modestly-scaled photographs on view. The black and white and sepia-toned prints are matted in crisp white and framed in dark brown or black. The uniform presentation underscores the formal austerity of the images and visually bridges the vast gallery walls, which are painted in deeply saturated and seductive hues of green, blue, red, and grey. Seemingly interminable, the framed pictures wind assiduously around the dark gallery walls and command a focused response—soliciting intimacy, even.
Despite their modest scale—most photographs on view are no larger than 10” x 12”— the images are neither benign, nor easily consumed. Indeed, at times they seem to eclipse the towering space. Anchoring our imagination, many of these works are acclaimed icons of surrealism and, along with their art historical significance, evoke a collective and frequently nostalgic vision of the early twentieth-century. Dramatic and wordless signposts, these images dot and define, and, to a degree, represent a backward longing for a bygone era: most notably interwar Paris. Through these photographs, we may, if only for a moment, rediscover the lost and hazy environs of surrealist dreams and perhaps, come closer to our own.
Photographed by Raoul Ubac, André Masson’s Mannequin (1938) was one of sixteen artist-decorated dress-shop dummies on view at the 1938 Paris Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. Probably the most well-known mannequin of the infamous installation, the head of Masson’s dummy is framed in a wicker bird-cage. Nearby, in the same area devoted to the “Mannequin,” a theme addressed ubiquitously in countless surrealist works, Hans Bellmer’s dismembered Poupée (1936) is on view. While both works symbolically objectify and victimize the female ‘body,’ Bellmer’s disturbing Poupée, unlike Masson’s somewhat playful Mannequin, darkly insinuates sexual torture and murder.
Both Ubac’s Mannequin and Bellmer’s Poupée are widely recognized surrealist icons and seeing them in the same space is, in a word, exciting. My delight and sense of wonderment was not, however, limited to the accessibility of these—and many other—critically important works. Familiar with a number of them in published form, I was impressed and somewhat amazed by the sheer quantity of notable photographs on view. In the presence of the originals, slick book page and screen reproductions suddenly seemed bloodless and insipid. Now, these ‘familiar’ images newly exude a sense of clarity and disarming authenticity.
It is not difficult to engage in a personal way with a number of photographs in this exhibition. In sharp contrast to the monumental scale of many late twentieth-century and millennial museum photographs, which often seem designed to engulf and visually overwhelm the viewer, these comparatively ‘small scale’ works radiate a quiet integrity often lacking in the former. The photographs on view are powerful, yet neither dominate the room nor repel the viewer. Instead, and refreshingly so, they are the whispered testimonial of artists who practiced unhurried looking and seeing. These images must be approached without haste; only then, do they yield their subtle beauty and secrets. Similarly, ‘unhurried looking and seeing’ describes collector David Raymond’s relationship to these photographs.
As Raymond remarked when I met him by chance in the museum, “All the images emanate a buzz or a frequency—and if I feel there’s magic, I try to bring them into my life.” He continued, “An object speaks to me, or it doesn’t. Sometimes,” he explained, “it’s a slow process, or it happens quickly. I’m always learning new things from these pictures.” Standing in front of a photograph, Raymond, proudly, and with obvious pleasure, recounted the story of his first purchase of that very photograph: André Kertesz’s Clock and Rope (1928). He had seen Clock and Rope in an old Julien Levy catalogue. It fascinated him and a few years later, in 1966, he was delighted to learn it had surfaced at a Paris auction. He bought it, and the purchase compelled him to embark on his journey as a collector.
Raymond smiled and offered me his surprisingly soft hand. Shaking mine, he said quietly, “I’m David.” His approachability and openness is further evident when he describes his relationship to individual images. Raymond talks about pictures in words that hint at dynamism and fluidity. Perhaps his background as a filmmaker has convinced him of the potentially transformative effect of images on our perception. “What does this picture tell me about reality?” Raymond muses somewhat rhetorically. “It gives me an opportunity to see the world differently.” He is grateful for the “new things” photographs reveal and explains the process as ongoing and never-ending: “Last night when I was walking through the exhibition alone,” he said, “I noticed new things about some of the pictures. They speak to me. It was like meeting up with an ex-lover after a long time and discovering new things . . . you separate, and years later you notice new things about them. Maybe I’ve changed? Over time, the pictures reveal something different.” Raymond’s idiosyncratic vision has, on occasion, as he relates, compelled curators to recognize surrealist qualities in images they may have otherwise classified in different terms. Significantly, the presentation of his collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art constellates a rich visual dialogue and will undoubtedly contribute to an expanded appreciation of surrealist imagery. Although some claim we dream in color, the works on view in Forbidden Games have convinced me fully that we only truly dream in black and white.
Dr. Julie Nero is interested in the relationship between textual and visual representation. The Swiss-American artist and art consultant began her career as a filmmaker and divides her time between Zurich and her native Ohio, where she teaches art history at Ursuline College and Cleveland State University. View more articles by Julie Nero.