“Under the Surface: Surrealist Photography,” challenges the idea that photography recreates images exactly as the human eye sees them. 

Bowdoin Museum of Art Co-Director Anne Goodyear gave a talk on Thursday that connected the work of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, two central figures in the Surrealist movement highlighted in the museum’s current show. 

Although the featured image, titled “Dust Breeding,” has aesthetic value in itself, the talk provided insight into its background story and significance.

At first glance, the image resembles a dusty, barren plain, but the photo is actually the dusty back of another Man Ray piece. By changing the context of the photo, the meaning of the photo also changes.

“They found ways in which the photograph itself could be manipulated to reveal layers of reality that we might not otherwise be cognizant of,” said Goodyear. “Yet at the same time, we could also think about the fact that it is, of course, literally the back of this with dust on it.”

“You’re partially obscuring something and thereby partially revealing something. You can’t have one without the other,” Bowdoin Museum of Art Curatorial Assistant Andrea Rosen added.
The Surrealist movement began in Paris in the twenties and thirties. Though it started with reactionary World War I literature, it soon spread to visual arts and gained global support. 

“We don’t just have that core group of the Parisians. We see that those artists move to the U.S. following World War II and ripple out to American artists, Latin American artists, Eastern European artists,” said Rosen. “It had this global rippling effect. We have work in the show going until the 1960s but really their influence carries up until today.”

The destruction of World War I reverberated through the arts, and photography responded with a tendency toward a twisted reality. The featured photograph of Goodyear’s talk demonstrates a bleak outlook on life.

“It looks like an apocalyptic landscape, which really gets at the profound destructiveness of World War I,” said Goodyear.

Despite how visually depressing some of the images can be, the artists were not entirely hopeless. There is a story of brilliant new thought in psychology and political science that comes through in Surrealist work.

 “They believed a positive change could be made, not just through a political revolution but through revolution of the mind,” said Rosen. “And that’s where the theories of Sigmund Freud were significant to them. The idea of the unconscious held great appeal—that if they could, through their art and through their writing, make people more aware of the workings of their unconscious, they could change the way people thought, and that that could bring around that change in the world that they sought.”

She noted how radical many of those artists were. “They believe in breaking taboos, breaking with tradition, shocking the viewer. So in that way they seem very iconoclastic, but in fact they’re kind of hopeful. They really kind of believe that through that shock [they can] make a positive change in the world.”

With the advent of communism in the first half of the 20th century, the Surrealists became an active subset of political thinkers.

“The Surrealists have an engaging, interesting, tense relationship with communism,” said Rosen. “They believe in a fundamental political change as do the communists at the time, so they are often aligned with communism but have reservations about officially joining the Communist Party because of some of the restrictions the Communist Party wants to put on what art can be.”
Photographers chose subjects and settings that are inherently strange, but also used new methods to develop the photos. Man Ray, for example, created techniques that resemble what modern digital manipulation does today.