Surrealism and (The Return) of The Uncanny Double

Posted: April 16, 2019 in Uncategorized


Much has been written about Surrealist painting and sculpture, but most of the erotic, disorienting and exquisite Surrealist photographs of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Brassai, Salvador Dali, Andre Kertesz and Hans Bellmer have remained all but unknown – until now. Traditional criticism has viewed Surrealist photography as a pale imitation of authentic Surrealist work. The assumption has been that photography, a “realistic” medium, is fundamentally incompatatible with a cause devoted to the wildly subjective, the world of dreams and the unconscious. As a consequence, Surrealist photography, a major body of 20-century art, has remained largely unexplored. L’Amour Fou studies the crucial role photography played in the Surrealist movement. It shows how photographers enlisted into the service of “subjective” Surrealism their medium’s very claim to “objective” reality. Of greatest interest, of course, is the book’s abundant reproductions of the fantastic and distorted photographic creations that must be acknowledged as an important part of the Surrealist oeuvre.

And for lovers of realism at any price, who would tire of these perpetual allusions to secret and unusual attitudes of the mind, there is still the eminently realistic performance of the double who is terrified by these apparitions from the beyond.  These tremblings, this childish yelping, this heel that strikes the ground rhythmically in time to the mechanism of the liberated unconscious, this double who at a certain point hides behind its own reality, offers us a portrayal of fear which is valid in every latitude and which shows us that in the human as well as the superhuman the Orientals have something to teach us in matters of reality.

A kind of terror grips us as we contemplate these mechanized beings, whose joys and sorrows do not really seem to belong to them but rather to obey established rites that were dictated by higher intelligences.  . . . And it is the solemnity of the sacred rite–the hieratic quality of the costumes give each actor something like a double body, a double set of limbs–and the actor stiffly encased in his costume seems only the effigy of himself.

There is something umbilical, something larval in their movements.  At the same time one must note the hieroglyphic aspect of their costumes, whose horizontal lines and segments extend beyond the body in all directions.  They are like huge insects covered with lines and segments designed to connect them to some natural perspective of which they seem to be no more than a detached geometry.

One senses in the Balinese Theater a pre-verbal state, a state which can choose its own language: music, gestures, movements, words.

And beyond the Warrior, bristling from the formidable cosmic tempest, is the Double, who struts about indulging in the childishness of his schoolboy sarcasms, and who, roused by the afteraffects of the surging storm, moves unaware through charms of which he has understood nothing.

–Antonin Artaud, “The Theater and Its Double”

That photography is a function of doubling–not only does it ‘mirror’ its object but, technically, its prints exist as multiples–made it a perfect vehicle for Surrealism, which exploited this aspect in its use of double exposures, sandwich printing, juxtapositions of negative and positive prints of the same image, and montaged doubles to produce this sense of world redoubled as sign.  The first issue of La Révolution surréaliste carried several photographs by Man Ray in which doubling was at work.

But doubling, as was pointed out, has a certain psychoanalytic content, one aspect of which Freud discusses in his essay “The Uncanny” (1919).  Ghosts, the very stuff of uncanniness, are doubles of the living; and it is when live bodies are redoubled by lifeless ones–as in the case of automata or robots, sometimes with dolls, or people in states of seizure–that they take on the uncanniness of ghosts.  That doubles should produce this condition is due, Freud explains, to the return of early states of dread.  One of these derives from infantile feelings of omnipotence, in which the child believes itself able to project its control into the surrounding world only to find, however, these doubles of itself turning round to threaten and attack it.  Another is castration anxiety, in which, similarly, the threat takes the form of ones phallic double.  More generally, Freud says, anything that reminds us of our inner compulsion to repeat will strike us as uncanny.

–Rosalind Krauss, Art Since 1900



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