Surrealist photography – convulsive beauty



Surrealist photography was officially born in 1924 with the movement Manifesto by André Breton. The thirst for new experiences which inspired the surrealist oeuvre sustained the exploration of the photographic medium in various forms. Man Ray’s solarization involving exposing the negative to light, Raoul Ubac’s brûlages, Pierre Molinier’s photomontages or André Kertész’s mirror effects are all examples of techniques which de-realise subjects and objects, giving them an element of mystery…Surrealist beauty is irrational and coincidental, marvellous and convulsive.

MAN RAY was a painter and Dadaist alongside Marcel Duchamp before dedicating himself to photography. Initially focused on portraits, in the early 1920s he adopted rayography, a photographic technique without the use of a camera involving objects positioned directly on light-sensitive paper. The prices for his rayographs reach levels unseen by any other photograph: in 2006, for example, six Man Ray photographs were auctioned for more than USD 200,000 a piece …all were rayographs produced between 1926 and 1930. One of them, Rayograph (Electricity) achieved GBP 200,000 (more than EUR 290,000, Christie’s London, on 17 May).
However, such heights are rare and aficionados of surrealist photographs can acquire works in this series for a tenth of this amount like Else Triolet’s Necklace and Bracelet in White Horsehair (1932/33), which changed hands for GBP 20,000 last May at Christie’s London.For less than EUR 5,000, the rayograph lover will need to be content with a later print such as those produced by Pierre Gassmann after the artist’s death.In addition to this type of work, more ‘classical’ subjects, portraits or incongruous juxtapositions of objects, are affordable at under EUR 1,000, even where vintage gelatine silver prints are concerned. For example, L’œuf et le coquillage, a 1931 photograph, was offered for auction by Hampel in Munich in June 2007 at an estimated range of EUR 400-600…but failed to find a following and remained unsold.

Four years after the historic dispersal of the pope of surrealism, André Breton’s, collection (15 April 2003, which set new auction records for Hans BELLMER with La poupée (1936, EUR 185,000), for Manuel ÁLVAREZ BRAVO with Parabola optica (EUR 130,000) or for Raoul UBAC for Le triomphe de la stérilité – Penthésilée (EUR 95,000), these artists have yet to repeat such exploits. It should be said that a provenance as prestigious as that of the Breton collection coupled with works of an exceptional quality triggered inordinate enthusiasm from collectors. Under the seal of this collection, the Bellmer Poupée works, less successful than that of 1936 coloured with aniline dyes, change hands at around EUR 10,000, as did the one offered at auction by Mathias-Le Roux-Morel-Baron-Ribeyre (Paris) in November 2006, which still managed to quadruple its low-end estimate!

By way of another example, the sale proceeds achieved for Raoul Ubac in 2003 amounted to nearly EUR 400,000 whereas, in 2005, his works ‘only’ raised EUR 90,411 on virtually the same number of transactions as in 2003. You need to reckon on between EUR 10,000 and EUR 20,000, currently, if you covet a photomontage or a solarized composition from the 1930s. As for Pierre Molinier, despite 2003 sale proceeds of EUR 142,421, a 460% rise on the previous year, his record was not set in that year but in 2005 with EUR 211,873. This good result in 2005 reflected the success of the 8 June sale dedicated to Molinier, organised by P.Bergé-Buffetaud-Godeau-Chambre-De Nicolay in Paris. No fewer than 126 photographs were offered at auction during this sale, of which the majority saw the hammer down at between EUR 350 and 750, although certain prints went for between EUR 1,000 and 3,000 like Le podex d’amour, a photomontage sold for EUR 2,600,