The Paris of the surrealists in photos and words

September 08, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse


George Melly; photographs

by Michael Woods.

Thames and Hudson.

160 pages. $35.

Surrealism, born in Paris in the early 1920s, was envisaged as a systematic exploration of the irrational: the unconscious, the marvelous, madness, hallucination and dreams. Although the young men who founded surrealism were artists, writers and poets, the ambitions of the surrealists were not essentially aesthetic. The movement was a response to the profound despair following World War I and, from the beginning, was intended as a mode of thought, a mode of feeling and a way of living.

Distrustful of the scientific method, the surrealists used the means traditionally employed by poets -- intuition and inspiration expressed in images -- in their investigations. They elevated desire and the search for love, relying on "perpetual correspondences" and "subjective chance." To these mythologizing young men, Paris, the setting of their momentous wanderings, represented the eternal feminine.

This exquisite photography book celebrating the surrealists' Paris is the joint creation of two Englishmen, writer George Melly and photographer Michael Woods. In keeping with the surrealist spirit, its scale is personal and intimate rather than public and grandiose.

Mr. Woods' 104 sepia-tinted, black-and-white photographs evoke the Paris immortalized in such surrealist literary works as Louis Aragon's "Paris Peasant" (1926), Andre Breton's "Nadja" (1928) and "Mad Love" (1937). Here are the 19th century parks with their artificial re-creations of the picturesque and the sentimental statuary that the surrealists both mocked and adored.

Mr. Woods records with a surrealist eye intricate shop-window displays, architectural ornamentation, mysterious and melancholy views of streets, the 19th century covered arcades with their shops, small hotels, and shabby theaters that so appealed to the surrealists' imagination. Here are the patriotic monuments they abhorred, the cafes where they held court, the nightclubs and flea markets, quays and boulevards where they sought portents and pursued the marvelous.

The surrealists combined sardonic humor with solemn self-aggrandizement. They were connoisseurs of the street, celebrators of the ephemeral and enigmatic, of incongruity and surprise. Mr. Woods' photographs reveal these qualities without tricks or special effects.

In addition to documenting the "elective places" of the surrealists, he has included images of contemporary Paris in which he has found "evidence of the Surrealist spirit after the event," such as Arman's column of clock-faces outside the Gare St. Lazare. "In consequence," Mr. Melly contends, "what could ,, have been mere archaeology has become evidence that, although historic Surrealism is entombed in libraries and museums, its marvellous phantom still haunts the city of its birth."

Mr. Melly has contributed a "parallel text (rather than a descriptive one)," which offers a sensitive appreciation and critique of surrealism. His suggestions are thoughtful and convincing as to why surrealism flourished in Paris and not else

where, such as London and New York, despite the popularity of exhibitions in those cities. One senses his deep sympathy and familiarity with his subject. He makes a persuasive case that the earliest years of surrealism were the greatest, when its brilliance was astonishing and unpredictable.

Surrealism is considered a modernist movement that wielded its greatest influence between the wars. Yet, as Mr. Melly perceptively notes, "It is in fact surprising how little modern life impinged on the Surrealist imagination. Science and technology were alien to it. . . . Surrealism . . . is rooted in the nineteenth century. It is the child, however rebellious, of Victorian romanticism. . . . It was exactly those corners of Paris that defied progress which caught the Surrealists' imagination."

This book is both a reappraisal and an homage to surrealism more than 60 years after its greatest flowering. Seen from the tired end of our century, the surrealists' iconoclasm, their inspirations, even their nostalgia retail a youthful freshness. It is interesting that while many works of impressionist, fauvist and cubist artists resemble one another, the works of individual surrealist artists are instantly distinguishable.

Even those readers who know nothing about surrealism can appreciate the suggestive charms of Mr. Woods' photographs and Mr. Melly's prose. Those who have felt the surrealists' influence will find more than "a dutiful pilgrimage to 'sights' described in books." In words and images are portrayals of the surrealists' Paris "as a living entity where desire is paramount and dream and reality indistinguishable."

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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