Documenting the Marvelous The Risks and Rewards of Relying on Installation Photographs in the Writing of Exhibition History

Documenting the Marvelous

The Risks and Rewards of Relying on Installation Photographs in the Writing of Exhibition History

by Madeleine Kennedy

Many of the exhibitions which have in recent years been heralded as “exhibitions that made art history,” such as those included in Bruce Altshuler’s two-volume study of the same name,[1] have been recognized as such on the strength of photographic evidence. Among the best-documented exhibitions discussed by Altshuler was the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, organized by Marcel Duchamp, André Breton and Paul éluard for the Galérie Beaux-Arts in Paris. The exhibition showed the work of Surrealist stalwarts including Salvador Dalí and Man Ray, as well as a host of less well-known artists with an affiliation to Surrealism. As shrewd self-publicists, the Surrealists were characteristically savvy in using photography to ensure the legacy of their radical exhibitions. Consequently, there is a wealth of images, which art historians and exhibition studies scholars such as Altshuler, Lewis Kachur and Alyce Mahon have since used to advocate the significance of these exhibitions. In turn, this scholarly attention has reasserted the Surrealists’ canonical status in art history.

However, this paper asks if such reliance on compelling photographs of exhibitions might equally be skewing our understanding of exhibition history, and therefore of art history itself. For arguably, the most interesting and progressive exhibitions—those most deserving of the accolade of “exhibitions that made art history”—are those which took full advantage of their inherently spatial-temporal medium; those which communicated in a way that writing could not. By contrast to exhibitions which consist simply of paintings on the wall and seek to activate no other sensory faculties than merely looking at a procession of isolated images, “exhibitions that made art history” tend to be characterized by highly spatial, involved and affective experiences, very difficult to do justice to in photographs. It seems the Surrealists recognized this failure of the documentary photograph, and in response attempted to correct for it by making extensive efforts to reinsert the marvelous quality of their exhibitions in the images they made of it. Which raises the question, what would have become of the legacy of the Surrealist exhibition if its makers had not recorded it as ingeniously as they did? This in turn highlights the suspicion that for every exhibition proven worthy by photographic evidence, there may be many others that have been lost as a result of the inability of photography to convey their remarkable character. This essay will take the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme as an example of the wider risks and rewards of our reliance on photographic documentation in the writing of exhibition history.

Probably the chief problem, which applies to any project of history writing, is that of bias and partial evidence. We can never know all the facts; some sides of the story are better represented than others; years of existing interpretations can muddy the waters and distract from original sources and the kernels of truth they may contain. In the case of writing a history of exhibitions, this problem is exacerbated by challenges inherent in the medium: most significantly, the inevitability that, through the process of reducing a spatial, inhabited medium into a two-dimensional and static form, a great deal will be lost in translation. More specifically, problems pertaining to the historiography of exhibitions occur at two junctures: firstly, when scholars are undertaking research to uncover interesting subjects for this history, which relies on the study of two-dimensional and static documents; and secondly, when those scholars attempt to represent the significance of such exhibitions both accurately and compellingly through writing and the reproduction of images.

Exhibitions are particularly difficult to represent in writing, because in their original state they contain nuances which only a spatial encounter could yield. The impossibility of capturing this spatial quality of exhibitions is at once intuitively obvious and extensively discussed. Exhibitions are more than the sum of their parts, with objects interacting to create a visual syntax; an argument out of matter. For instance, as writer and designer Frank den Oudsten phrases it, every exhibition “aims at bridging abstract ideas (words) and concrete form (things),”[2] yet in documentation the exhibition loses its concrete quality and is returned to the realm of the purely abstract—words and pictures. Moreover, visiting an exhibition is a personal and lived experience: each visitor brings their own subjective way of seeing and devotes more or less time to each object according to their interest, and in so doing, “the visitor en passant threads the narrative pearls as he goes along and ends up with a unique string.”[3]

Depending on the degree to which an exhibition activates the communicative potential of its spatial medium, each will be more or less suitable for being translated into the text and image format of exhibition histories. At one end of the scale are exhibitions that disregard the spatial nature of their medium, most notably the paradigmatic modernist exhibitions discussed in Brian O’Doherty’s 1976 book, Inside the White Cube. These exhibitions are characterized by objects having been isolated for focused contemplation in a neutral environment. To know the sequence in which they were placed is to know what it was like to view the exhibition as a whole. As such, the spectator is treated as an eye and intellect alone; their other senses are repressed.[4] Whilst contemporary exhibition designers such as Herman Kossmann advocate that “what makes the exhibition exciting is the simple realization that… while the visitor is looking at one thing, another thing may happen in his field of vision. This kind of complexity occurs in daily life as well,”[5] the white cube seeks to shut out this complexity in favor of clarity. The visitor may as well be flicking through a book of images and texts; in effect, Malraux’s Museum without Walls would be an adequate simulacrum of the modernist exhibition. Therefore, of all exhibitions, they bear the greatest affinity with the linear structure of writing and so are easiest to do justice to and truthfully represent in documentation.

At the opposite end of the scale are exhibitions that absolutely embrace the spatial-temporal nature of their medium and utilize it to its fullest as a means of affective, almost haptic, communication. As exhibition historian Antony Hudek argued in reference to the radically experimental 1985 exhibition Les Immateriaux, “it is through an exhibition conceived as an immersive theatrical environment that the singularity of the modernist eye could be transcended.”[6] In the Surrealist exhibition discussed here, there was a concerted effort to create such an environment and to destabilize the primacy of the eye. But the problem this created, as will be explained below, was that the exhibition’s resistance to being understood by the eye alone resulted in an equal resistance to the documentary impulse of the camera. The more an exhibition is a work of art in itself, with all the complexity and nuance that comes with that status, the more attempting to document it through photography must fail. As the contemporary proverb goes, “writing about art is like dancing about architecture”; one art form cannot possibly be accurately conveyed in the language of another.[7]

In summary, the more remarkable an exhibition was, the less likely it will be that our documents of it convey its true character. This in turn has a direct impact on the likelihood of misjudging the quality and significance of exhibitions, both seeing some as greater than they deserved because of glorifying images, or failing to recognize an exhibition’s value when documentation is poor or nonexistent. The Surrealist exhibition is an interesting case study for these issues, in that it is impossible to say which issue applies: do the photographs which survive of it, those which have been used to position it in the history of exhibition, under-represent or over-emphasize its quality? It was not the subtle, quasi-philosophical agenda of this exhibition which has ensured that it be remembered, but rather the efforts of the Surrealists themselves, who were highly skilled at both self-publicity and the recording for posterity of the uncommodifiable activity of exhibition-making. The photographs, which ostensibly document the exhibition, were often staged, with scenes made to look more fantastical than the viewers would have encountered in the flesh. Arguably, the collective memory of the exhibition survived because of these spectacular images. This creative treatment of the exhibition by its documenters—which is entirely contingent and unrelated to the value of the exhibition in itself—is what enabled later scholars to reinterpret it in a more nuanced light; had that documentation not existed, the significance of the exhibition would have been lost to history. It is with this awareness of the importance of documentation that I continue my analysis of the veracity and usefulness of the documents, which form the basis of the history of the Surrealist exhibition.

A Marvelous Exhibition?

Fourteen years prior to staging L’Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, its main organizer and the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, had written a manifesto expressing the artists’ intentions to show perception to be fallible and limited, to point to alternate realities, and to overthrow the rationalist agenda that had seen the world go to war in 1914. What made the 1938 Exposition remarkable was that it treated the exhibition as more than simply a space in which to hang individual works imbued with this message. Rather, the Surrealists’ perception-questioning aims were, in the words of Surrealism scholar Elena Filipovic, “thought through the space of art display and the experience within it.”[8] Another expert on the Surrealists and their exhibition practices, Lewis Kachur, affirms that, in the 1938 exhibition, the Surrealists presented “a polemic in the format of display itself.”[9]

One of the central functions of this activation of the display environment was what has since been termed “self-othering”: making the visitors look at themselves and what is déjà vu as if strange and unfamiliar. The first method by which the Surrealists sought to achieve this “self-othering” effect was thrust onto visitors even before they made it inside the gallery. Guests to the opening night were greeted outside the Galerie des Beaux Arts by Salvador Dali’s installation Rainy Taxi, a cab inhabited by a driver wearing shark’s jaws on her head and a passenger covered in snails, both mannequins and both being rained on by a pipe concealed in the lining of the taxi’s roof. In her finery, albeit soaked, the character in the passenger seat was intended to mimic the society ladies arriving at the opening night in taxis of their own. There was a sign on the front of the taxi addressed to the “lady snob,” which has been interpreted as signaling to the guests that they were the subject and object of the strange sight that greeted them.[10]

Fig. 1. Mannequin by Sonia Mossé for the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, 1938. Photo: Gaston Paris.

The strategy of making the familiar seem strange continued inside, where the guests encountered the so-called Rue de Mannequins, a corridor featuring a lineup of shop mannequins which had each been co-opted and dressed by one of the Surrealists. Lewis Kachur speculates how “an unexpected, more corporeal interaction thus replaced the usual encounter with pictures on a wall. Instead of the eye taking refuge in a pictorial space, the spectator’s body was confronted by a series of kinesthetic equals, life-sized personages.”[11] The strangeness of this encounter was augmented by the fact that the galleries were not lit; rather, visitors were issued with torches with which to navigate the unpredictable space. The effect was such that, as guests traversed the galleries, there was a heightened sense of being seen as well as seeing; each time the path of light of another’s torch would hit upon the visitor, they would be made to feel like an object of the gaze of others, as well as a viewer themselves. Dramaturgy was thus used to destabilize the visitors’ position as the all-seeing, rational mind and make them feel like caged animals, on view to the voyeuristic society in which they ordinarily participated.

As they continued into the central space of the exhibition, dubbed the Grotto, the guests were confronted by a scene of sensory overload. The Grotto featured many Surrealist works on canvas—freestanding revolving doors recently liberated from a department store were even brought in to increase the hanging surface—but these works were by no means the focus of the show. They were overshadowed (literally and metaphorically) by Duchamp’s imposing 1,200 Coal Sacks, suspended from the ceiling. The floor was covered in leaves, in each corner there was a bed, and in the center, a brazier. Meanwhile, the poet Benjamin Peret was roasting coffee behind a screen and disparate sounds emanated from phonographs concealed along the walls. In these low light conditions, it was noted that the visitors could not see the paintings, even with the torches they had been given, and it is easy to believe that the organizers did not want them to. On the contrary, the oppressive, dark room embodied a Dalían call for “systematic confusion,” harassing the visitor with overwhelming and nonsensical stimuli.

Traces of the Marvelous

In the clearest expression of his philosophy of art, Marcel Duchamp, who was credited by the Surrealists as the curator of the exhibition, argued that it is the attention of the spectator which enables the “transubstantiation” of objects from “inert matter into a work of art,” not just in the case of readymades like Fountain, but in all art objects presented for appreciation.[12] In addition—and in direct contradistinction to the simplified layout of the modernist white cube—the Surrealist exhibition activated the design principle that Herman Kossmann characterizes as “a labyrinthine environment conducive to encounters.”[13] The space, lighting, staging, interpretation, and appeal to all the senses are utilized in the creation of narrative space, which expressly contributes to a phenomenological experience essential to the communication of ideas. According to Kossmann, “the immersive impetus should make the visitor look again at what is being presented, or, in other words, make him or her leave the exhibition as a different person.”[14] The overwhelming spatial treatment is the mode by which thought is altered and insight attained. All in all, then, the exhibition would seem to have been a rather remarkable experience. Moreover, each of the fantastical features of the space was aimed at a higher purpose: to make the viewer feel at odds with his/her everyday reality and see the world afresh. As a result, to a certain extent it is inevitable that any attempt to convey the significance of these features when the exhibition is no longer extant—when the subject’s opportunity to experience to its immersive sensory manifestation is long since passed—should be a futile task.

Another factor, which consolidates the reductive effect of translating complex spaces to static images, is the tendency for one photograph to become the image of an exhibition, in a kind of visual synecdoche whereby a part comes to represent the whole. Kachur recounts one instance of how the appeal of one image inevitably skews the representation and memory of an exhibition wherein the press immediately fixed upon a certain image of Helene Vanel, the dancer commissioned by the Surrealists to give a hysterical performance on the opening night. A huge number of photographs were taken of Vanel—many of them staged for the “greedy cameras” of the press—only for one image to emerge as the favorite and be reproduced over and over again, whilst other photographs from the same shoot were never published.[15] This exemplifies a more general tendency for contingent factors to generate the most trademark image of an exhibition. Few exhibition-makers have the time, resources or incentive to make available any comprehensive compendium of the views of an exhibition. Even if such an effort at full documentation were made, it is likely that the brain’s way of processing memory would mean that one image would come to outlive the rest anyway in people’s recollections of an exhibition. Herman Kossmann incorporates his awareness of this neurological fact when designing the opening vista of an exhibition, noting that this image “will also be the afterimage… that stays with the visitor when he returns home.”[16] The tendency for one image to dominate the collective memory of an exhibition is clearly something that installation artist Daniel Buren is cautious to control, preempting the arbitrary nature by which an image is elected as the stand-in for the exhibition by himself ensuring that only one “photo-souvenir” is ever taken and made public of his stripe installations, such as Travail in situ.

However, given the opportunity to consult a wider variety of photographs, en masse these visual documents can prove very useful. In analyzing photographic documentation of L’Exposition, Kachur notes that, in the case of the Rue de Mannequins, “few photos exist of more distant views down the hall or groups of mannequins.” But Kachur does not lament this lack of objective views of the show; like a sociologist analyses data, he notes that, when studied collectively, patterns emerge in the approach to such photographs which can give an insight into how the exhibition was really seen by viewers: he notes that “the bulk of the photos reinforce the impression of a fascination was with one-to-one, lifelike encounter.”[17] (fig. 1) Knowing that this was the favored way to record the exhibition suggests in turn that it was the dominant way that the visitors experienced the exhibition, providing a valuable glimpse of the first-person encounter visitors had. On this interpretation, the photographers’ failure to produce the distant vistas now the norm in documenting exhibitions provides the raw material for an even greater understanding than any “objective” photograph could provide.

In construing the photographers of the show as “commentators” rather than documenters, and resisting the habit of taking photographs “as gospel,” the more subjective and unorthodox views of L’Exposition can also prove useful to gauge the extent to which visitors gleaned from such exhibitions the messages that its makers intended. This belief in the superior insight offered by the subjective snapshot over the staged installation image has been extensively advocated by Walter Grasskamp. A compelling example in the case of the Surrealist exhibition is an image by Raoul Ubac of Marcel Duchamp’s mannequin. Duchamp expressly intended to create an androgynous figure resistant to Surrealist fetishization, in order to complicate the erotic gaze of the viewer, but the mannequin nonetheless “drew the erotic gaze of Ubac, in a frisson-laden photo shot on his knees, pointed up to her crotch.”[18] In providing evidence of Ubac’s contrary reaction to that intended by Duchamp, the photograph is a useful insight into the potential for viewers to miss or ignore the messages contained in the exhibition medium. Other images such as this would be invaluable to assessing the equivocal issue as to the efficacy of using the medium of the exhibition to convey the Surrealist’s perception-altering agenda.

Fig. 2. Raoul Ubac, The Secret Gathering, 1938. Photographer unknown.

Constructing the Marvelous

However, as much as all these ways of reading photographs slightly ameliorate the issues inherent in the medium, the crucial issue here, and perhaps an insurmountable one, is that it is not enough to piece back together what the exhibition looked like. In the case of an exhibition as sensory and principled as this, what needed to be captured is what the exhibition felt like. In “exhibitions that made art history,” the appearance of things is only meant to serve a greater function—to communicate content, which is expressed through space rather than language. Kachur said of the Surrealist’s exhibition-making practice that “their problem was that of the butterfly collector: how to capture and display the marvelous without diminishing it,”[19] and the same challenge applied in their documentation of the exhibition. The aspect conveyed in photographs often simply does not tally with the experience itself.

But one solution to this problem is contained within the practices of the Surrealists themselves. As explained above, they neglected to document the exhibition in an “objective” manner, but instead used the exhibition as the raw material for creative responses. This raises the issue of veracity: how reliable the images can be when artists make then as artworks. Man Ray certainly understood his photographs of the exhibition to be artworks in their own right, and they were also less reliable in that he failed to include parts of the Rue de Mannequins which he was ostensibly representing. Raoul Ubac, whose photographs are among the most often reproduced in histories of L’Exposition, was an early pioneer of photo-manipulation and expressly stated, “La photographie objectif ne m’intéresse pas.”[20] (fig. 2)

As such, it is certainly appropriate to question the veracity and neutrality of documents made by such artists, but equally, it is conceivable that where the inadequacies of documentation and the ravages of history have diminished the power of their exhibitions, the Surrealists’ creative, evocative, and mythologizing approach to documentation has gone some way to compensate for this, perhaps even imbuing the exhibitions with artistic resonance not present in the flesh. Indeed, it is poetic that the exhibitionary act from which Surrealism evolved is the most mythical of them all, only ever known through fragments and fables. For it is famous that Duchamp’s Fountain—the readymade that founded the idea that exhibiting could be a philosophically loaded surreal act—was never actually exhibited to the public, and not long after this non-exposure, was lost. All that remained of it, for many years, was a solitary photograph taken by the artist Alfred Stieglitz. Besides this ambiguous witness of the artist’s camera, eyewitness accounts of Fountain have become folkloric. Beatrice Wood, for instance, gave a dozen differing accounts of the event during her lifetime. In reflecting on this state of affairs, philosopher Thierry De Duve argues that the fact that “these words, written by Beatrice Wood a long time after the events, may not describe them with the utmost accuracy” is in fact “just as well considering the legendary character of the whole story they serve to introduce.”[21]

Like the butterfly catcher, it would be tragic to pin down such profound exhibitions with only an eye for accuracy and not an eye for beauty. As we have seen, there are countless ways in which the translation into photography erodes the significance of even the most remarkable exhibitions, and at least these embellished accounts can help lend them the gravitas they need to survive the ravages of history. When the documents are inadequate or incomplete, as they inevitably always are, one “is constrained to develop a convincing myth,”[22] and a certain spectacularization is inevitable in trying to revive the fragments of a long-since-passed event.

Acknowledging Reward; Recognizing Risk

Ultimately, this artificial spectacularization of an exhibition is not such an acute injustice in the effect it has on the writing of art history. Even if the importance of L’Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme has been exaggerated, it has been done so on the strength of another merit worthy aspect of their creative practice: their immense skill as self-publicist. What remains alarming is that, logically, there must be a great many other exhibitions equally progressive and sophisticated but which have not been recorded to the same extent, and so cannot be recovered for this project. To their credit, all of the historians whose histories of L’Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme have been discussed here are transparent about the methodological pitfalls they faced in constructing the history of this exhibition from photographic documents. As Elena Filipovic articulated, “To look today for the critical value of L’Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme is to be placed in front of a work that is fundamentally residual, indeed, nonexistent except as an ensemble of traces (photographs, eye-witness descriptions, press reviews).”[23] Likewise, Brian O’Doherty calls out the assumptions of the archivist, highlighting that “we tend to take old photographs as gospel. They are proof so we don’t grill them as we would any other witness.”[24] Far from taking this fallibility as a reason to give up, however, O’Doherty simply maintains a healthy awareness of this in his analysis of the Surrealist exhibition and its significance. For instance, he precedes his descriptions of a scene with “From the photographs…,”[25] thereby emphasizing that he is not speaking from experience, a proviso so many other historiographers fail to mention. Still, in light of this uncertainty O’Doherty goes on to acknowledge that an exhibition “becomes increasingly fictitious as its afterlives become more concrete.”[26] Given these limitations of the documents used to construct such a history, John Rajchmann, another historian, would argue that such a history can only ever really be a “fable,”[27] perhaps one of many, and each equally valid. It can only be by continuing with this sense of humility about what we cannot know, and making allowances for it when assessing the value of exhibitions, that we can safeguard against failing to recognize some of the most remarkable exhibitions that made art history because their magnificence makes them recalcitrant to documentation.