Andr in wonderland

The Guardian 6/16/2004
by Jonathan Jones


In 1928 the first photobooth arrived in Paris - and for Breton and the surrealists, it was a dream come true.

Of all the avant-gardes that sought to revolutionise art and life in the first half of the 20th century, surrealism was the most interested in individuals. "Who am I?" asks the movement's leader, Andr Breton, in the first sentence of his 1928 autobiographical novel, Nadja. One way to discover who you are is to have your photograph taken. In the same year Breton published Nadja, the photomaton came to Paris.

Patented by Anatol Josepho in 1925, this automatic machine produces a strip of photographs without the intervention of a human operator. When it was installed in Paris, Breton was first in the queue - and he brought his friends. He also kept the pictures, which are exhibited this month at the Basel art fair. They are souvenirs of what surrealism meant to its spokesman and grand marshal, born in 1896 and destined to die in 1966, just two years before the Paris student rising that vindicated - for a moment - so many of his ideas about revolution and desire.

Breton was a writer who led a movement most remembered for its art. He was an advocate of the playful who could be unbearably pompous, a priest of love who sometimes seems, in his writings, to have had a purely abstract interest in the subject. He founded surrealism and destroyed it, as his increasingly precise political programme led him to expel almost everyone, in the end.

But all that was in the future when the first photomaton booth in Paris was installed in 1928. In The Manifesto of Surrealism he issued in 1924, Breton defines surrealism as "pure psychic automatism". Automatism and the automatic: the photomaton was a readymade surrealist photography that removed the conscious, controlling mind of the photographer and took a stream of images too quickly for the sitter to compose her or himself in any but the most basic ways. The close range of the portraits and the flat background add to the sense of being surprised, taken aback, even abused, that we feel after sitting for a strip of passport pictures. The brutality that makes photomaton portraits uncomfortable makes them, for the surrealists, insightful.

Here they all are: Breton, Max Ernst, Luis Buuel, Ren Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon and Suzanne Muzard, the former prostitute for whom Breton had recently conceived a grand passion. This is a portrait gallery of surrealism at its zenith. Buuel is about to collaborate with his eccentric Catalan friend Salvador Dal to film Un Chien Andalou, Magritte to paint The Treason of Images - a blandly realistic pipe beneath which is written in a neat hand: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." Breton is about to commit the movement to revolution while courageously defying the Stalinist demands of the French Communist party: "With all due respect to certain narrow-minded revolutionaries, I really do not see why we should abstain from raising problems of love, dream, madness, art and religion..."

These are, at first glance, rather matter-of-fact and predictable photo-booth portraits: the subjects, as people will in front of a mechanical camera, grin, gurn, muck about. But as you look at one strip after another, the same motif recurs. Why do so many have their eyes closed?

"Who am I?" The question Breton asks in Nadja does not have a satisfying answer. He thinks he may be a ghost, his existence defined by whom he haunts. Or he may be on a quest to discover what makes him unique: "I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my difference from them." This is a striking thing for a modernist to say - especially one who claimed to be a Marxist revolutionary.

Modernism effaced the 19th-century individual: portraits became unrecognisable in the 1900s, and abstraction abolished even the broken pieces of the self that survived in cubist and futurist portraits. Yet the surrealist movement was, above all, a congregation of striking selves. The surrealists were such characters, so charismatic, so attractive - and so aware of this. Books about surrealism usually degenerate into diaries of who slept with whom, and exhibitions feel they must exhibit as much biographical ephemera as actual works.

All of the people in these pictures were forceful personalities. Max Ernst, arch seducer and bird-archetype Loplop, whose marriage to Peggy Guggenheim made him a king in New York; Luis Buuel, whose acerbic wit and saturnine gossip make it unlikely that his autobiography, My Last Breath, will ever go out of print; Suzanne Muzard, who inspired and provoked Breton to declare: "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all."

Portraiture, and self-portraiture, came naturally to the surrealists. Breton does it in words in Nadja. In art, the most ruthless surrealist self-portraiture was that undertaken by Dal, who happily diagnosed himself with a messy variety of Freudian complaints and had no reservations about owning up to them in his paintings. In 1929 Dal paid tribute to himself as The Great Masturbator, and in the same year painted Dismal Sport, with its young man holding out a shamefully inflated hand while the bearded figure in the foreground pleasurably soils himself.

Surrealism was fascinated by the self - but not, it insisted, the conscious, rational self. That is why the surrealists subject themselves to the photomaton with their eyes closed. Surrealism will make us recognise "the omnipotence of the dream", as Breton's 1924 Manifesto declares; these are photographs of dreamers.

Ernst appears drugged or hypnotised, his head moving somnambulistically into various slumberous poses; eyes concealed under oval lids, he seems genuinely to be asleep, and dreaming. Breton's reverie is more intense, like that of a seer: mid-strip, he dramatically opens his eyes. Buuel shifts and strains, throws his head back, as if searching for a reverie that does not quite come.

These are such innocent documents of surrealism. They capture a moment when it seemed possible to believe that dreams were the secret road to utopia. Everyone is different, yet the same; eyes closed for the camera, we become a community of automatists.

Yet it was precisely surrealism's fascination with the self that would mock its idyll of revolution by night. When Dal started to confess to his singular political dreams, Breton was outraged. In the early 1930s Dal painted confessional images of Lenin and Hitler, insulting the Bolshevik hero while acknowledging that the Nazi monster fascinated him. A surrealist high court met at Breton's flat to judge Dal, who was accused of "counter-revolutionary actions". Dal claimed that he was being an honest and pure surrealist, recording the unexpurgated contents of his psychic life: "So, Andr Breton, if tonight I dream I am screwing you, tomorrow morning I will paint all of our best fucking positions with the greatest wealth of detail." It was an unforgivable remark; Breton was anxious that he was homosexual, and homoeroticism was firmly forbidden in surrealist dreams. This was the trouble with surrealist self-searching - if it was honest, it was dangerous.

Breton was a romantic. His vision of a new dimension, a "surreality" that fuses dream and waking life, assumed that dreams would always play themselves out in ways conducive to social and political progress. No dreaming about Hitler.

What are the people in these photographs dreaming about? Because we don't know, we can believe the best of them. No wonder Breton liked these pictures so much. Today, these pictures inevitably look like antecedents of Andy Warhol, early exercises in an anti-aesthetic, deliberately banal, photo-based art. I suppose that is why they are being shown at contemporary-minded Basel. But this is to look at them anachronistically. Far from seeking the ordinary and the physical, Breton was in search of the invisible beauty of the dream. Surrealism was as spiritual as a Rembrandt portrait. Like Rembrandt's painting of the blind poet Homer, these meditators with their eyes shut are lost inside themselves.

Photomaton: The Small, Magical Room is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery stand at the Basel art fair until Monday. Details: 020-7352 3649.

Copyright © 2004 The Guardian

Contributed by Brian