L'AMOUR FOU: Photography and Surrealism" is a strange, evocative show put together by the Corcoran. It is the stuff dreams are made of -- fantasies and nightmares, sexually explicit or absurdly funny, full of message and meaning. When in doubt, consult Freudian texts. It was Freud who gave the surrealists their belief in the supremacy of the subconscious.
In these 200 photos from the decades between the two World Wars, we have not so much Freudian slips as accidents. For photographer Jacques-Andr,e Boiffard, even an ordinary looking street in Paris yielded its chance encounters. There, Brassai, another photographer, found primitive graffiti -- medicine-man masks scribbled around random holes in walls. But he didn't take himself too seriously. His eureka! photos include such sculptures involontires as a "found" piece of soap and a "symmetrically rolled bus ticket, a very rare form of morphological automatism with obvious seeds of stereotype."
And the Freudian obsessions: The surrealists were obsessed with the female body. But these naked women shock the senses more than the sensibilities. Andre Kertesz distorted them, like naked images in fun-house mirrors. Raoul Ubac solarized them, re- exposing them during the printing process, so that they appear as fragments emerging from another dimension.
And sexual repressions: Brassai made a nude look like a male organ. In an untitled photo by Man Ray, what seems to be a lesbian scene is at second glance a woman leaning over a mannequin's torso. And Hans Bellmer did this thing with dolls, breaking them up and putting them back together again with the legs where the head should be and the legs where the legs should be, or pregnant, or endowed with two pairs of breasts. In all of these photos, reality is given a tweak -- and so are we.
Fetishes abound in this show -- there's a roomful of hands, a favorite surrealist subject that directly connects to the psyche. Boiffard, a one-time apprentice to Man Ray, showed fingers folded neatly with toes. In keeping with the occasional sadistic overtones, E.L.T. Mesens did a study of brass knuckles.
Everywhere in the show Man Ray appears with something to say. His is a case of an idea -- distortions of reality, the freedom of the subconscious -- meeting a medium, photography, at an experimental stage. Man Ray was originally a painter, but photography lays greater claim to him, for his innovative "rayographs."
Eliminating the middleman (the camera), Man Ray put objects (an eggbeater, a razor) on photographic paper and exposed them to light. Though some of his photos are sadly tea-colored with age -- not what one expects after seeing them reproduced in current publications -- they are still things of genius.
Surrealism being a very literary movement, it required a spokesman: Poet Andre Breton was chief aesthetician, the ringmaster for the circus of the absurd. From him came the name for this show: "L'amour fou" (Mad Love) was one of his fundamental texts on surrealism, published in 1937 and illustrated with a number of photos by Man Ray.
L'AMOUR FOU: PHOTOGRAPHY AND SURREALISM -- At the Corcoran Gallery of Art through November 17.