The University of New Mexico Best Student Essays

Cross with Krauss: An Inquisitive Exploration into “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism”

Initially presented as a colloquium paper at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Rosalind Krauss’ article “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism” is a notable contribution to the extensive collection of writings pertaining to surrealist representation. The importance of photography to the movement, however, is perhaps not sufficiently emphasized, and Krauss enthusiastically endeavors to rectify this in her unprecedented argument. Throughout her essay, she refers to writing, words, and syntax—and her argument is so complex that it actually feels like a run-on sentence begging to be diagrammed. To better follow its convoluted path, a simplification of the ideas expressed in Krauss’ argument is an apt point at which to begin.

Krauss commences with a comparison of two photographs: Monument to de Sade (1933) by Man Ray and a 1928 self-portrait by Florence Henri. While Monument belongs to surrealism and Henri’s photograph is Bauhaus in style, Krauss wraps up concise and effective formal analyses by uniting the images in their comparable use of framing: “In both cases one is treated to the capture of the photographic subject by the frame, and in both, this capture has a sexual import.”1 Krauss then transitions into the main body of her article by explaining that she wishes to address the comparative method that “was fashioned to net the illusive beast called style,” and it is style that “continues to be a vexing problem for anyone dealing with surrealist art.”2

She notes both William Rubin’s attempt in 1966 to construct a valid definition of surrealist style by asserting that all surrealist work revolves around one of two poles: the automatist/ abstract and the academic/illusionist, and André Breton’s earlier separation of surrealist work into the twin poles of automatism and dream.3

In an attempt to find stylistic unity, she asserts, Breton wrote “Surrealism and Painting” in which he praises vision among all other senses. But vision, says Krauss, is “immediately challenged by a medium given greater privilege: namely, writing”4 in the form of psychic automatism. Krauss believes Breton definitively chooses writing over vision. She then addresses Breton’s opinion regarding photography, which is surprisingly positive given his distaste for “the real forms of real objects.”5 Not only does Breton enthusiastically support some photographers, he includes photographs alongside the text of some his own major works. But photography was not only included in the work of Breton; it was also the “major visual resource of surrealist periodicals,”6 which could be considered the “true objects produced by surrealism.”7

From these observations, Krauss derives a provocative formula: the “primacy” given to the photograph by the surrealists plus the lack of stylistic definition in painting/ drawing/sculpture equals the existence of a stylistic definition within surrealist photography. She is quick to note that “visual heterogeneity” exists in photography as well as painting and sculpture. But rather than immediately offer an explanation, she lists several photographic forms, concluding with photomontage.8 In using Breton’s self-portrait Automatic Writing (1938)—which pairs a photograph of Breton with a written caption reading “L’écriture automatique”—as an example, she is able to refer back to the supposed battle between writing and vision. “Faced with this image and its caption, are we not confronted with yet another instance of the constant juxtaposition of writing and vision, a juxtaposition that leads nowhere but to theoretical confusion?” she asks. She continues:

It is my intention to show that this time it leads not to confusion but to clarity, to exactly the kind of dialectical synthesis of opposites that Breton had set out as the program for surrealism. For what I wish to claim is that the notion of écriture is pictured inside this work through the very fabric of the image’s making, that is, through the medium of montage.9

She then uses an observation by Aragon that the separate elements of Ernst’s collages are like “words”10 as a springboard to launch into the next step of her proof. She explains that the “experience of each element as a separate unit which, like a word, is conditioned by its placement within the syntagmatic chain of the sentence is controlled by the condition of syntax.”11 And whether syntax is thought of as temporal, as in speech, or spatial, as on a printed page, it is reduced to “basic exteriority of one unit to another,” which linguistics views as the gap that exists between signs. Signs themselves are divided into two parts: the signifier, “the mark or sound that is the sign’s material vehicle,” and the signified, “the meaning of the sign.” The space between these two, then, is the “precondition for meaning.”12

In Dada photomontage, this spacing is created by white page between photographic elements, which destroys the seamless simultaneity of reality that was so attractive to the surrealists. Thus, they employed other methods such as combination printing and doubling to create spacing within the seamlessness of a photographic print.13 As doubling echoes the concept of signifier and signified and therefore sign, photography can be seen as reality constituted as sign. Krauss breaks this process down as “presence transformed into absence, into representation, into spacing, into writing,” and asserts that “this is the move that lies at the very heart of surrealist thinking, for it is precisely this experience of reality as representation that constitutes the notion of the Marvelous or of Convulsive Beauty—the key concepts of surrealism.”14 She goes on to say that “photographs are not interpretations of reality… They are presentations of that very reality as configured, or coded, or written.”15 She then brings her argument full-circle back to framing, noting that it, too, in the act of cropping reality, relates to the experience of nature as sign.16 Krauss finally wraps up the article by stating her thesis, that the surrealists added to reality “the vision of it as representation or sign” through the writing of the photograph.

Rosalind Krauss is an extraordinary art writer. This is evident. The dry analysis of Henri’s work written by Klaus-Jürgen Senbach provides a sharp contrast to Krauss’ insightful description of Man Ray’s Monument to de Sade:

This sense of the structural intervention of frame inside contents is further deepened by the morphological consonance—what we could call the visual rhyming—between shape of frame and shape of figure: for the linear intersections set up by the clefts and folds in the photographed anatomy mimic the master shape of the frame. Never could the object of violation have been depicted as more willing.17

Krauss’ manner of expression is at once powerful and delicate, demonstrating her keen sensitivity to the energy and formal harmony of Monument. She possesses a certain command of language that enables her to pair words in unconventional efficacy. In fact, Krauss’ relationship with words seems to be a sort of preoccupation, for it is upon words that she structures her argument.

The complexity of Krauss’ argument itself is quite extraordinary; the way in which she transitions from one subject to another in order to reach her final destination reveals remarkable argumentative skill. But it seems that she is so intent on reaching that destination that she manipulates the means by which she arrives at her end, for a particular passage stands out as problematic—and an important passage at that—as it is the turning point at which Krauss first refers to the supposed problem she wishes to solve. This particular passage is that in which she asserts Breton’s choice of writing over vision:

Indeed,Breton often presents surrealism-as-a-whole as defined by visuality. In the First Manifesto he locates the very invention of psychic automatism within the experience of hypnogogic images— that is, of half-waking, half-dreaming, visual experience.

But as we know, the privileged place of vision in surrealism is immediately challenged by a medium given a greater privilege: namely, writing. Psychic automatism is itself a written form, a “scribbling on paper,” a textual production…So, in the very essay that had begun by extolling the visual and insisting on the impossibility of imagining a “picture as being other than a window,” Breton proceeds definitively to choose writing over vision, expressing his distaste for the “other road available to Surrealism,” namely, “the stabilizing of dream images in the kind of still-life deception known as trompe l’oeil (and the very word ‘deception’ betrays the weakness of the process).17

The first problem is that of terminology, specifically the use of the terms “writing” and “vision.” Krauss says that Breton prefers writing to vision, but it seems strange to use these terms in opposition to one another. Writing is perceived by sight; one cannot smell or hear or taste words on a page or other surface. One may be able to touch them—if they are written in Braille, for example—but in the surrealist context of words on paper, writing and vision are intrinsically linked, for the former cannot be recognized without the latter. Suppose, though, for the sake of Krauss’ argument, that a necessary harmony does not exist between vision and writing. Suppose there is room for opposition. Still, then, her assertion that Breton gives greater privilege to writing is ambiguous. There exists no blatant evidence that Breton felt this way.

When Krauss claims that “the privileged place of vision in surrealism is immediately challenged by a medium given a greater privilege,” she seems to be alluding to Breton’s First Manifesto, which she mentions just before this statement in referring to the “invention of psychic automatism within the experience of hypnogogic images.” It is necessary, then, to take a closer look at the passage in the First Manifesto to which Krauss refers. Breton describes the events leading to the invention of automatism as beginning one evening when, before falling asleep, a phrase popped into his mind. Though he could not remember the phrase exactly, he recalls that it “was something like: ‘There is a man cut in two by the window.’” The phrase was accompanied by a “faint visual image of a man walking cut half way up by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body.”19 Breton then realized, “[I] was dealing with an image of a fairly rare sort, and all I could think of was to incorporate it into my material for poetic construction. No sooner had I granted it this capacity than it was in fact succeeded by a whole series of phrases, with only brief pauses between them.”20 From here, Breton further explores the manifestation of these phrases with Philippe Soupault. The two began to write phrases down as they came to mind, and automatic writing was born. So if this is the passage to which Krauss refers, and it seems to be, where does she read that Breton gives greater privilege to writing? Perhaps she assumes this solely because Breton chose to focus on the phrases rather than the accompanying visual images; but this does not necessarily mean that Breton feels that writing is more important. After all, it was Breton’s recognition of the nature of the image, an “image of a fairly rare sort,” that opened the floodgate of successive phrases. Further, he even explains in subtext that if he were a painter, the “visual depiction would doubtless have become more important for me than the other.”21 It is only his familiarity with words, as a writer, that he chose to explore these phrases— not because he believes that words are superior to image.

The other text Krauss mentions in this passage is Breton’s essay “Surrealism and Painting,” so it must be examined as well. As Krauss says, Breton does indeed open this essay with a “hymn of praise to vision.”22 But then she says, “in the very essay that had begun by extolling the visual…Breton proceeds definitively to choose writing over vision, expressing his distaste for the ‘other road available to Surrealism,’ namely, ‘the stabilizing of dream images in the kind of still-life deception known as trompe l’oeil.’” First of all, it is important to note that the quotation used by Krauss is not in the “very essay” (“Surrealism and Painting” from 1928) that began by praising the visual. This quotation, which supposedly expresses Breton’s definitive choice, is from the essay “Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism,” written in 1941.

Secondly, this quotation, when read in context, has quite a different implication. At this point in his essay, Breton has just arrived at the subject of automatism by explaining that André Masson had discovered it at the beginning of his “search for principles that would assure him a stable basis for his work.”23 Breton goes on: “Automatism…has remained one of surrealism’s two great directions,”24 and it is the direction that leads straight to the “unfathomable depths” of the “psychophysical field.”25 The other direction by which surrealism may “reach its objective,” then, is the trompe-l’oeil imagery for which Breton supposedly expresses distaste. Really, what he says is that this road is “far less reliable and even presents very real risks of the traveller losing his way altogether,” indicating a preference for automatism over premeditated trompe-l’oeil images, and not word over image, for when Breton speaks of automatism he is referring to both automatic writing and drawing. This is apparent in his tendency to frequently refer to both realms in equal conjunction, for instance, “the pen that flows in order to write and the pencil that runs in order to draw spin an infinitely precious substance.”26

If there is any doubt as to the equality Breton gives to writing and drawing or word and image, one need only refer to his other writings to identify the close relationship that he feels exists between the two. In “Distance” he writes: “It is pointless to distinguish between ‘literary’ painting and painting proper, as some maliciously persist in doing.”27 In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism he suggests that the “logical mechanism of the sentence alone reveals itself to be increasingly powerless to provoke the emotive shock in man which really makes his life meaningful,” but the spontaneity offered to him in surrealist “books, paintings, and films…shake up his settled ways of thinking.”28 All surrealist works are important—of books, paintings, and films, not one is necessarily more effective or truer than the other.

And finally, the last of Breton’s writings that should be considered, as it is highly relevant to the subject, is a lengthy passage from his essay “Words without Wrinkles”:

Only at this price could we hope to restore language’s true destination, which for some (myself included) promised to take knowledge a giant leap forward, and exalt life by as much. We thereby lay ourselves open to the usual persecutions in a domain where good (good usage) consists mainly in remembering the etymologies of words, in other words, their deadest weight, and in making the sentence conform to a mediocre and utilitarian syntax, where everything is in agreement with paltry human conservatism and with a loathing of the infinite that never wastes an opportunity to show its face. Naturally such an enterprise, which is part of the poetic impulse, does not demand so much clear will from those who take part in it; one does not always have to formulate a need in order to satisfy it. And my intent here is only to develop an image.

It was by assigning color to vowels that for the first time, consciously and in full knowledge of the consequences, someone turned the word away from its duty to signify…There are words that work against the idea they are claiming to express. Indeed, even the meaning of words is not always pure, and we are nowhere near determining to what degree the figurative sense progressively acts on the literal sense, each variation in the latter supposedly entailing a variation in the former.29

Within this passage Breton addresses, as Krauss has, both syntax and sign. However, Breton speaks negatively of “utilitarian syntax,” syntax which is marked by structural logic—the sort of syntax to which Krauss refers30 in her argument to prove that writing exists in surrealist photography. Furthermore, Breton’s statement that “the meaning of words is not always pure,” and that the countless variations in the sense of words may lead to infinite interpretations, seems to directly negate Krauss’ assertion that “Breton appears to be reversing the classical preference of vision to writing…For in Breton’s definition, it is the pictorial image that is suspect, a ‘deception,’ while the cursive one is true.”31

Breton also says “one does not always have to formulate a need in order to satisfy it.” And is this not exactly what Krauss did? She desired to prove that there is a sort of writing in surrealist photography that reconciles the opposition of vision and writing, allowing them to exist harmoniously in one big surrealist blob of indecipherable reality/representation. But since the opposition of vision and writing never really existed, Krauss formulated a problem using a preference of Breton’s that also never really existed. Though it remains an intriguing and noteworthy argument, Krauss’ misrepresentation of Breton’s statements compels one to question its validity.


1 Krauss, Rosalind. “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October, Vol.19. (Winter, 1981): 3-34. JSTOR. 2.0.CO;2-0>. 2 Krauss, 7. 3 Krauss, 8. 4 Krauss, 10. 5 Krauss, 13. 6 Krauss, 14. 7 Krauss, 17. 8 Krauss, 17-18. 9 Krauss, 19. 10 Krauss, 21. 11 Krauss, 21. 12 Krauss, 22. 13 Krauss, 25. 14 Krauss, 28. 15 Krauss, 29. 16 Krauss, 29-31. 17 Krauss, 4. 17 Krauss, 10. 19 André Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969) 21. 20 Breton, Manifestoes, 22. 21 Breton, Manifestoes, 21. 22 Krauss, 9. 23 André Breton, Surrealism and Painting (London: Macdonald, 1972) 68. 24 Breton, Surrealism, 68. 25 Breton, Surrealism, 70. 26 Breton, Surrealism, 68. 27 André Breton, The Lost Steps (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1996) 106. 28 Breton, Manifestos, 152. 29 Breton, The Lost Steps, 100-101. 30 Krauss, 21. 31 Krauss, 11.

Works Cited

Ades, Dawn. André Masson. London: Academy Editions, 1994.

Breton, André. La Clé des Champs. Paris: J.J. Pauvert, 1967.

Breton, André. The Lost Steps. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1996.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969.

Breton, André. Surrealism and Painting. London: Macdonald, 1972.

Gascoyne, David. A Short Survey of Surrealism. London: Enitharmon Press, 2000.

Krauss, Rosalind. “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October, Vol.19. (Winter, 1981) 3-34. JSTOR. 2.0.CO%3 B2-0>.

Added November 9, 2010

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Nominated by Prof. David Craven (U. of Essex ART 308, The Art of Subversion: Dada and Surrealism): “Elaine’s essay is very perceptive and equally probing, as she makes a compelling argument about a highly complex issue in art history. Her work is simply outstanding.”

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