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Best of April 2020 : Photography and the Surreal Imagination : The Menil Collection


Drawn from the Menil Collection’s renowned holdings of Surrealist art and from extraordinary loans from Houston collections, the exhibition Photography and the Surreal Imagination is on view at the Menil Collection now through June 14, 2020. Presenting 62 works that span the years from Surrealism’s eruption in the 1920s to the present day, the exhibition reveals how photographers during and after the Surrealist movement have explored and distorted the human form, manipulated the photographic surface, and used the camera to transform the familiar into the uncanny. Photography’s inherent tension between documentation and invention emerges in the exhibition as the generative force that has made this medium so productive for artists working in the wake of Surrealism.

Menil Director Rebecca Rabinow said, “As a seemingly objective, mechanical medium, once known as ‘the pencil of nature,’ photography would seem to be ill-suited to the project of André Breton, author of The Surrealist Manifesto, in his desire to reveal the ‘real functioning of the mind’ through ‘pure psychic automatism.’ And yet, while many artists affiliated with the movement cultivated drawing and painting techniques that they believed to be outside their conscious control, photographers created many of Surrealism’s most iconic images. We are thrilled to present an extraordinary selection of these photographs as an expansion of our existing display of Surrealist art, which transform our familiar world by illuminating its eroticism, menace, and mystery.”

Assistant Curator of Modern Art Natalie Dupêcher said, “The Surrealists seized on the camera’s potential to be a tool not merely for reproducing the visible but for reshaping, questioning, and disturbing our perception of reality. This understanding of photography’s potential continues in our own time, when themes such as the exploration of the body, the manipulation of the image, and the transformation of the everyday remain fruitful avenues for contemporary artists. We look forward to sharing these ideas through the works themselves and through the rich series of public programs we are offering in conjunction with the exhibition.”

Photography and the Surreal Imagination begins with an examination of the transformation of the everyday through the lens in a tradition that recasts the world as an enigmatic theater, from Eugène Atget’s views of Old Paris to Allison Janae Hamilton’s haunted, folkloric evocations of the American South. Photographs that foreground the exploration of the body include Hans Bellmer’s images of deconstructed dolls and Cindy Sherman’s cinematographic self-staging, among other depictions of costumed, distorted, or fragmented figures. Photographs that foreground image manipulation include works by artists from Man Ray to Lorna Simpson who have turned the surface of the image into a collision of pictorial fragments that question the nature of representation.

Photography and the Surreal Imagination is curated by Natalie Dupêcher, Assistant Curator of Modern Art. It is installed adjacent to the Menil’s Surrealism galleries.

This exhibition is supported by the City of Houston.


About the Menil Collection

Houston philanthropists and art patrons John and Dominique de Menil established the Menil Foundation in 1954 to foster greater public understanding and appreciation of art, architecture, culture, religion, and philosophy. In 1987, the Menil Collection’s main building opened to the public. Today, thirty-three years later, the Menil Collection consists of a group of five art buildings and greenspaces located within a residential neighborhood. The Menil embodies the ideals and values of its founders, in particular, that art is vital to human life and should be readily accessible to all persons. Access to all museum galleries, greenspaces, and parking is free of charge.


The Menil Collection

1533 Sul Ross Street

Houston, Texas 77006

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