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Sex at the Pompidou

12 March, 2010

The recent exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris, La Subversion des images (the Subversion of Images) was one of the biggest photo shows I’ve ever seen. There was no official count of pictures on the walls or in the catalogue, but room after room was full of incredible objects – photos, films, magazines, drawings, and collages. The focus was Surrealism in photography and film, and the curators included just about everyone of merit who worked in the 1920s and 30s. All the stars were on display – Man Ray, Lee Miller, René Magritte, André Breton, Max Ernst, Claude Cahun, Luis Buñuel, Paul Elouard, Salvador Dali – in both famous and rarely seen examples. But there were also great pictures by artists who aren’t widely remembered. It was probably the best presentation Germaine Dulac, Eli Lotar, Georges Sadoul, Georges Hugnet (above), Jindrich Styrsky, and Victor Brauner have ever had. The emphasis – understandably – was on artists based in France. Other countries were well represented too, from the United States to Russia.

It’s hard to do the Surrealists justice without showing pictures of naked breasts and bottoms, so it wasn’t at all surprising to see a healthy selection of nudes scattered throughout the galleries. But this was not a show that was content with easy comfort. About half way in, there was a ‘special’ room, separated from the rest by the kind of clear thick vinyl curtain usually used for meat lockers and walk-in refrigerators, with a big red label outside warning adult content within. And when a Parisian museum warns visitors of ‘adult content,’ you know they mean business.

Pushing past the strips of vinyl and elbowing my way into the tiny room it concealed (it was very popular!), my eyes adjusted to a full-on Surrealist celebration (exploration? meditation?) of sex. Here were pictures that curators usually just whisper about. Man Ray’s Seasons, for example, in which the artist and his lover, Kiki of Montparnasse, reveal themselves in four unashamed pornographic poses. (Autumn, apparently, is a very mouthy time of year.) If you ever wondered about the size, shape, or character of Man’s Manhood, or Kiki’s ability to receive it, all questions were answered in the display. Here too was a selection of Hans Bellmer photographs too frank for polite company. The ones made without dolls, such as Je suis Dieu, (I Am God), shot from below, close up and personal between a woman’s legs (and lovingly hand-colored!) referencing Courbet’s celebrated painting l’Origine du monde, but without any of that picture’s romance. Raoul Ubac’s picture of a tear-shaped lump of glass resting on a woman’s pubis was pretty tame by comparison. Lest you think him timid, he was also represented by his notorious Album, a series of seven vignettes of various flavors of coitus, exquisitely gynecological in their detail. For a small room, there was an awful lot to see. As I looked around, visitors were shuffling uneasily from leg to leg, men and women alike, their eyes as big as saucers.

The centerpiece of the section was Man Ray’s ‘cinematic essay’ Two Women. If it had been made in San Fernando – and believe me it could have been – it would have had a much more colorful name. For now I’ll just call it, Two Free-Thinking Nude Women and Their Naughty, Naughty Appliance. I should probably work the word ‘fingers’ in their somewhere too, but you get the idea. I’m not a total letch so I didn’t watch the whole thing (it was pretty long), and besides, there is something weird that happens socially when XXX films are shown in a high-minded museum exhibition. But I saw enough to get the gist of it. There is no plot in the traditional sense. It’s basically just two women going at it – tip to tail, tail to tail, front to bottom, bottom/front, sitting, standing, lying down. Things happen. Vigorously. More than once.

The cynic in me sees this and says, ‘okay, fair play to you Man Ray. You were young and excitable, you convinced two women to “perform” for an “art project” — perfect cover!’ It was Paris, it was the 20s, he was young, they were willing – why not? But the strangest thing happens when you see Man Ray’s film and the other objects in the Pomidou’s Surrealist romper room. It actually starts to make sense.

You might think the pictures would be titillating, erotic, and exciting, but they’re not. Sure, there was bravado involved in breaking social taboos so absolutely, and I don’t doubt they had fun doing it. But there’s a legitimate point too. The stuff really is surreal. There is no sound in Man Ray’s film, the images are in black and white, and the actions are repetitive and more or less mechanical. What could be weirder, more transcendently not-of-this-world, less comprehensible and more unnerving than desensitized images of people engaged in sex acts? It actually works! It’s art.

Re-entering the other galleries after seeing the sex section, everything changed. One of the first things you saw was Jean Painlevé’s fantastic 1927 film of an octopus swimming. It’s just shot after shot of an octopus traveling through water, crawling over rocks, squeezing into crevasses, inching suction cup by sticky suction cup over glass. It’s completely animal – the perfect complement to the sex pictures. Suddenly, everything else felt deeply biological too, humans and other creatures alike, and the show took on a metaphysical dimension. The irrationality of existence, of being, of the bodies we inhabit, of the way we think, feel, behave – everything was thrown into question. It’s not just a matter of tricks of the eye and defeated visual expectations, Surrealism’s calling card. Everything seemed profoundly, deeply strange.

After seeing the sex room, the nudes had a different meaning. They no longer felt like decorative motifs, the way bodies so often do in painting from the Baroque on. They were reductionist, stripped bare, awkward, and liminal. The truth about bodies was clearer. Their silliness, their imperfectness, the way they carry and imprison us.

Not every show needs hardcore porn to make it work, but I can honestly say Subversion des images was better for it. It certainly made me think. I wonder if any of the other folks in the room with me had the same reaction, or if they were aroused by all the ‘erotic’ imagery. If so, that would be pretty surreal too.

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