Art Review by Steven Litt
It’s dark, wonderful, bizarre and erotic, if not downright kinky at times.
All of those descriptions and more fit the Cleveland Museum of Art’s deeply engrossing current major exhibition, “Forbidden Games,” which explores the Surrealist and modernist photographic collection the institution acquired in 2007 from New York collector and independent film producer David Raymond.
Featuring works by important 20th-century photographers such as Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Bill Brandt, Brassai and Jacques-Henri Lartigue, the show captures the queasy, unsettled mood of Europe between the world wars and just after, like an exotic liqueur.
Witness Brandt’s stunning 1954 image of a young woman’s foot, which looms with strange monumentality in the foreground of a rocky seaside landscape. The woman’s creamy white toes eerily echo the rounded shapes in a nearby rocky cliff, creating a surreal juxtaposition of human and natural forms.
More to the point, consider the Dora Maar photo collage from which the show takes its name. The 1935 image depicts a seminude woman riding atop a bent-over bourgeois gentleman in a business suit.
As the couple plays “Forbidden Games” of dominance and submission in a tidy Victorian interior, a young boy – whose image was cropped from a different photograph by Maar – watches from beneath a nearby desk, adding a frisson of voyeurism and spoiled innocence to the naughty goings-on.
Maar’s troubling yet intriguing hybrid scene exemplifies how artists in the interwar period pursued a cultivated irrationality as the only fitting response to the violent upheavals that had lashed the modern world and unleashed scary new political ideologies.
Science and technology improved the quality of life, but also produced nightmarish destructive capacities that left the globe shattered after the “Great War” of 1914-18.
In his 1924 Surrealist manifesto, French poet Andre Breton advocated an art that sought “to express … the actual functioning of thought … in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Maar would have understood perfectly.
Armed with lightweight cameras such as the new German-made Leica, street photographers and documentarians captured strange, unguarded moments on the streets of Paris, Berlin and New York.
Experimentation continued into the darkroom as photographers used double exposures or sandwiched their negatives to create strange hybrid images.
Examples include Francois Kollar’s eerily lighted 1930 advertisement of the soles of pair of Wood-Milne shoes tramping across a transparent global map.
The bilious disorientation of the era also found expression in John Gutmann’s disturbing montage of a woman’s eye appearing in a swirl of gray clouds, or, especially, in Bellmer’s deeply unsettling still-life scenes made with sections of a cut-up mannequin.
Yet according to the show catalog, co-written by exhibition curator Tom Hinson with author and historian Ian Walker and independent curator Lisa Kurzner, photography was not considered a primary Surrealist medium during the movement’s heyday.
Nevertheless, strands of Surrealism thoroughly entwined works of photographers as diverse as Mexico’s Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Marcel G. Lefrancq of France or Roger Parry of England, all represented handsomely in the show.
A new wave of scholarship and exhibitions in recent decades focused fresh attention on Surrealist photography and profoundly influenced Raymond.
As an art dealer and broker based in San Francisco, and later as a film producer in New York, Raymond built a collection based less on a desire to provide a definitive account of Surrealist photography than to engage in a deeply personal and intensely felt exploration of a still imperfectly understood facet of art history.
In 2007, the Cleveland museum agreed to acquire the bulk of the Raymond collection, now on display for the first time in the museum’s largest temporary-exhibition gallery.
The show is perhaps the last wisp of fallout from David Franklin’s sudden resignation as the museum’s director last year after he had lied to the institution’s trustees to cover up an affair with an employee who later left the museum and committed suicide.
The museum had originally planned to use the big lower special-exhibition galleries this fall to host “Exporting Florence: Donatello to Michelangelo,” a major international loan exhibition on Italian Renaissance art that was to be organized by Franklin.
This is worth mentioning because some observers might have felt disappointed to see an Italian Renaissance exhibition replaced by a 20th-century photography show. The pleasant surprise is that the Raymond collection fully merits its elevated status.
The beautifully installed exhibition, accompanied by an outstanding display of films by the photographers whose work is on display, complicates the myth of the museum as an institution based on singular objects chosen carefully by curators with acquisition funds donated by benefactors.
In the instance of the Raymond collection, as in many examples throughout the history of the institution, the museum has acquired entire bodies of work assembled by collectors – just like many other American art museums.
The irony is that the museum embraced the Raymond collection decades after it apparently decided not to pursue the massive collection of works by Surrealist Salvador Dali assembled in Beachwood by collector A. Reynolds Morse, who later founded the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1989.
What’s especially wonderful about the Raymond collection is that it brings to light wonderful and underappreciated talents including Georges Hugnet, a French photo collagist of the 1930s, whose risque and highly suggestive imagery contrasts scenes of nature and domesticity with volcanic sexuality.
Just one example: Hugnet’s “Two Women” layers several photographs in a way bluntly suggestive of a lesbian couple enjoying oral sex in a grassy field — not the usual fare at the Cleveland Museum of Art, to be sure. The shocking contrast between normally private behavior and the open landscape seems perfectly in line with Breton’s definition of the surreal.
It’s also notable that the exhibition includes a large concentration of works by Maar, better known until now as a mistress of Pablo Picasso and the inspiration for some of the “weeping women” who figured in the anti-war mural “Guernica,” and in a series of hostile-looking, misogynistic portraits.
The Raymond collection gives Maar her due as a photographic artist whose work included street photography in Barcelona, Spain, and other locales that anticipate the psychologically charged portraits of American photographer Diane Arbus in the 1950s and ’60s.
Most important is that the Raymond collection, beautifully presented in the exhibition and handsomely documented in the show’s catalog, expresses an enthusiasm for mid-20th-century modernism that has been rare at the museum ever since modernism was new.
In an interview in 2007, Raymond, who could have sold his collection to any number of institutions, said he chose Cleveland because the museum’s then-curator of photography Hinson, who later retired, expressed such powerful interest.
“I loved his passion,” Raymond said of Hinson at the time. “He spent a lot of time with individual pictures. Pictures reveal themselves if you give them time. We live in a culture that’s so immediate all the time. We want everything to be handed to us. I was impressed that Tom took the time.”
That’s the kind of curatorial initiative it will take for the museum to build true strength in its collection of 20th-century art and to organize exhibitions that explore the past century, in depth, in a way it has generally failed to do in recent years.
The museum held impressive shows on Picasso in 1991 and 2001, and on Diego Rivera in 1999 and on Barcelona modernism in 2006. But those events felt like rare exceptions to the museum’s usual practices. It would be terrific if the Raymond exhibition were a harbinger of a deeper and more lasting commitment to 20th-century art.
For now, however, it’s worth appreciating the Raymond collection for what it is: simply terrific.
Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland, OH 44106