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The Menil Collection presents 'Photography and the Surreal Imagination'
Max Ernst, Health through Sport (La santé par le sport), ca. 1920. Gelatin silver print mounted on board, 39 3/8 × 23 5/8 in. (100 × 60 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

HOUSTON, TX.- 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.

A series of free public events, many scheduled to coincide with Houston’s FotoFest Biennial 2020, will accompany the exhibition. These include an artist talk by Allison Janae Hamilton about her works in the exhibition, a talk by exhibition curator Natalie Dupêcher, a lecture by noted author and photography curator David Campany, and a musical performance by the Da Camera Young Artists in response to the artworks. The Menil Collection will also present a free outdoor screening of short films inspired by Surrealism in May, after Fotofest Biennial 2020 has ended.

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.

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