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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Glimmers of irreality: the photographs of Jindrich Styrsky

by Alice Whittenburg

Imagine a black and white photograph of a hand (or view it directly , but imagination is very much to the point here). The photograph is, in one sense, a portrait of the hand and provides much detailed information about it. At first glance you can tell that the hand is that of a manikin. You see that the fingers are delicate, the wrist curved, and the stump of its pale arm lies somewhere beneath the simple lace cuff it wears. The photograph also yields information about the hand’s location. Displayed on a black disc just wide enough to hold it, it is surrounded by ads for shampoo (in German) and tubes of toothpaste, by the other objects that fill a storefront window in an uncertain place and time. Behind the hand there are three bottles with illegible labels and behind these there is a closed and inscrutable curtain. The photograph as a portrait permits you to recall what the hand of a manikin is like when it is not present. (If you ask why anyone would want to do that, then imagine that you are an artist trying to draw a manikin’s hand correctly or a fetishist who needs material for his fantasies.) In addition to seeing the photograph as a portrait of a thing, you might also imagine the photograph as a thing in its own right, to be viewed as a work of art. At once the composition is of great importance. You note that the hand is showcased, and the photograph has a documentary quality about it. The hand is in a store window, so the photograph does not seem to have been staged, but rather taken as it was found. No special techniques appear to have been used in the darkroom. You might not even glance at a manikin’s hand if you were walking past the store window in which it was displayed, yet the photograph makes it seem fascinating and faintly alarming. This photograph of a manikin’s hand—at once poetic and vulgar—was taken by the Czech Surrealist Jindrich Styrsky in 1934. Though he was primarily known as a painter, Styrsky photographed many other objects as evocative as this pale and dismembered hand.

Styrsky was actively involved in the surrealist movement from the founding of the Group of Surrealists in Czechoslovakia in 1934 until his death in 1942. The first exhibition of the Czechoslovak Surrealists took place at the Manes Gallery in Prague in 1935, and though Styrsky was already an established painter at that time, it was his photographs that attracted the most attention at the 1935 exhibition. Art critic Karel Srp says that Styrsky photographed in the way that he did “in order to capture the direct transition of everyday reality into super-reality.” (Srp, 19) This use of the term “super-reality” would seem to indicate that Styrsky was a surrealist in his photographic work as well as his painting. And yet Styrsky had been photographing shop windows, funereal objects and fairgrounds (his preferred, though by no means his only, subjects) since 1920, predating his involvement with Surrealism by more than a decade. Styrsky’s choice of subject matter, with its focus on fairgrounds and manikins, was in many ways more poetist than surreal. In addition, his photography was unarranged or unmanipulated in that he neither attempted to set up “trick” shots nor use darkroom techniques to achieve special effects; instead, he sought to present his subjects in such a straightforward, unstaged way that he might almost be called a documentary photographer. But it could also be said that Styrsky’s photography was much more irreal than surreal in its intentions and its effects.

Of course, you may be wondering how it was that Styrsky, a self-described surrealist artist, was actually an irrealist photographer. (It can’t be denied that the man himself said, “The whole principle of taking photographs lies in being surprised at finding a certain object and thinking about this discovery in the sense of Surrealism.” (Srp, 15)) Rest assured that my intention isn’t to re-label Styrsky now that he is no longer around to defend himself. Instead, I am interested in examining his photographs in a new and perhaps more effective way. I intend to use some phenomenological language in the process, but because I am not a philosopher, my phenomenological method will be extremely rudimentary. To start out, it’s necessary to give a brief overview of the difference between the surreal approach to art and the irreal approach. As G.S. Evans noted in his essay, “Irrealism is not a surrealism,” the surrealists claim that they are interested in using art to “research” the subconscious mind, which is viewed as the true reality. The techniques used by surrealism are designed to make subconscious material available to the conscious mind, but exploring a dream is as legitimate a way of doing so as creating a photomontage. Evans says, “…the surrealists, in believing that the dream state reflects a concrete reality (the unconscious), hold that this reality can interact with the “physical” reality of the world and be synthesized into a higher reality, a surreality. Irrealists, on the other hand, hold that there can be no such synthesis between dreams and reality; that there is an inherent tension between the two and that, indeed, the point of an irreal [work of art] is to bring out this unrelenting tension between what we can imagine (the dream) and what is possible (reality).” If you’ll again look at (or imagine) the photograph of the manikin’s hand, you may begin to notice that a combination of Styrsky’s subject matter and photographic method leads to just such a tension.

When you view the photograph described above and see it as a portrait of a hand, you know that the manikin’s hand in the photograph is an analog, a substitute, for the real manikin’s hand that is actually the object of your (imaginative) consciousness. When you look at the photograph as a photographic work of art, however, you perceive it as an object in and of itself, and therefore you focus on its aesthetic qualities such as composition, contrast, etc. Your consciousness can go back and forth between the two ways of apprehending the photograph but cannot do both at the same time. Jose Ortega y Gasset describes this dichotomy in his essay on “The Dehumanization of Art,” though he is largely dealing with abstract art in this work. His position is that modern (especially abstract) art forces us to come to terms with the difference between understanding the “human” component of the work and understanding its aesthetic dimension. In fact, he argues that modern art became extremely abstract in order to encourage the viewer to focus on the aesthetics of the art itself, rather than on the people and passions that were once the distracting subject matter of art. Though he often sounds like an elitist when he celebrates this distancing from mass tastes and this “flight from the human person,” he does make clear what he means when he says, “Far from going more or less clumsily toward reality, the [modern] artist is seen going against it. He is brazenly set on deforming reality, shattering its human aspect, dehumanizing it. With the things represented on traditional paintings we could have imaginary intercourse. Many a young Englishman has fallen in love with Gioconda. With the objects of modern pictures no intercourse is possible. By divesting them of their aspect of ‘lived’ reality, the artist has blown up the bridges and burned the ships that could have taken us back to our daily world. He leaves us locked up in an abstruse universe, surrounded by objects with which human dealings are inconceivable…” (Ortega y Gasset, 20) The interesting thing about Styrsky’s photographs from this point of view is that they involve straightforward unmanipulated shots of real objects that manage to “dehumanize” reality as well as any abstract work of art. Styrsky’s choice of subject matter and his photographic technique enable the viewer to shuttle back and forth between the photograph as a portrait of a dehumanized object; the dehumanized object as a human artifact and something “real”; and the photograph as a work of art—all without becoming lost in “lived” reality. This in turn creates a tension between what is imagined and what is real, and I’ll attempt to explain how I think this happens.

The photograph of a manikin’s hand described at the beginning of this essay is in many ways very typical of Styrsky’s work. I’ve said before that shop windows, funereal objects and fairgrounds were his primary sources of material, but most of the images he chose from these sources had another common element. They were almost always representations of something else—objects that might be described as analogs. In The Psychology of Imagination Sartre describes an image as a form of consciousness whereby something that is absent is nonetheless present to our consciousness. In other words, though I know quite clearly that the manikin’s hand existed in 1934 in the unknown European shop window in which Styrsky found it, that hand is present to me (though not to my senses) when I imagine it while viewing its portrait. He adds that in the external world there are other objects that are also called images--drawings, reflections in a mirror, imitations, and so on. All images, however, serve as the means of evoking an object even though it is not present, serve as a representative of the object despite its absence. Sartre says, “…the image is an act [of consciousness] which envisions an absent or non-existent object as a body, by means of a physical or mental content which is present only as an ‘analogical representative’ of the object envisioned.” (Sartre, 26) He goes on to describe a wide variety of analogs; there are those whose “material is borrowed from the world of things (images of illustrations, photos, caricatures, actors’ imitations, etc.) and those whose material is borrowed from the mental world (consciousness of movements, feelings, etc.)…” (Sartre, 26) Almost all of the examples of Styrsky’s work that I have seen are photographs of some type of analog. In addition to the manikin’s hand, Styrsky photographed a wide variety of statues, folk paintings, manikins, artificial limbs, advertisements, etc. (He also captured a number of more abstract, textured images, which he found both in urban areas [e.g., cracks on walls and patterns of decay] and in the natural world [e.g., tangled tree roots and ripples in water]. These represent a type of analog intermediary between the world of things and mental images but their effect is more abstract than irreal.) As a result of his choice of subject matter, Styrsky’s photographs could almost always be described as analogs of analogs. The photograph of the manikin’s hand is a portrait of an artificial hand, but the hand itself is also a portrayal—of a real human hand. Not once or twice, but over a period of many years, Styrsky captured many such images. The viewer who sees a number of his photographs in a short period of time finds himself or herself involved in an unsettling search for a resting place that is hard to find. Is this a depiction of a living woman’s hand of which the manikin is but an analog, is it simply a portrait of the manikin’s hand, or is it a work of art that challenges you to look beyond hands or manikins to the dehumanized realms that Ortega y Gasset described? Whatever the case, Styrsky’s choice of subject matter explores a genuine tension between the real and the imaginary.

Yet there must be more to it because Styrsky wasn’t the only person to photograph such objects. French photographer Eugene Atget was probably the first, but many others, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Andre Kertesz (and in Czechoslovakia, Jaromir Funke), explored the world of shop window manikins, funereal objects, and other bizarre items. According to Srp, however, Styrsky’s approach was unusual in that he tended to focus, first and foremost, on the details of the object itself. “[Styrsky’s] process is remote from Atget’s approach to photography,” Srp says. “Styrsky particularizes, rips fragments out of their context, monumentalizes details. He focuses, for example, on a rubber glove attached to a shop window, on an artificial hand lying in the window of a perfume shop.” (Srp, 25) Elsewhere Srp says, “The method Styrsky chose to photograph appeared simple. It even seemed accessible to everybody. The direct portrayal without any kind of secondary effects was, however, probably more demanding than the complicated experimental techniques. At the very least it places greater emphasis on the perception of the world around us.” (Srp, 29) In phenomenological terms, perception involves “an intentional synthesis of a potentially infinite series of particular perspectives.” (Kohak, 67) All the possible perspectives, from each ever so slightly altered vantage point, give us an infinite number of ways to perceive something, and we can only ever experience a limited number of them. That is why when Sartre describes perception he talks about serving an apprenticeship, and he says that we must learn objects. He goes on to say that, “In the world of perception every ‘thing’ has an infinite number of relationships to other things. And what is more, it is this infinity of relationships—as well as the infinite number of relationships between the elements of the thing—which constitute the very essence of a thing. From this there arises something of the overflowing in the world of ‘things’: there is always, at each and every moment, infinitely more than we see; to exhaust the wealth of my actual perception would require infinite time.” (Sartre, 11) The number of “facts” we can thus learn about any given object is also infinite in nature (in addition to all the perspectives from which I can view the manikin’s hand, think of the gradations of color on its surface, the variations in the shapes of the fingers, the complexities of the design in the lace of the cuff, the variations in its molecular structure if I were to view it microscopically, its exact location in regard to each of the other objects around it, etc.) . Despite the fact that a photographer may attempt to generalize in order to show us the “atmosphere” of a place or the “character” of a person, a photograph represents but one possible perspectival view of any object, and it fails to show us a vast number of relationships that object has to other objects. Srp says that as a painter, Styrsky tended to emphasize the isolated object, but “in photography, on the other hand, he could not abstract an object from its milieu in this way, though he tried to do so many times.” (Srp, 28) I disagree with this assessment. Styrsky kept a careful balance between giving us enough of the milieu so that we know what the object is, but not enough information that we can generalize about it. In other words, he gave us enough information to dehumanize the object without making the image abstract. A closer look at his photographic method will help to illustrate how he did this.

Styrsky purposefully looked for and carefully chose certain objects (like the manikin’s hand), yet photographed them as though he was only accidentally standing before them. Srp says in this way his camera was like a surgeon’s scalpel, which he used “to extract the utilitarian function from objects, without letting their raw nakedness suppress the mysterious ambiguity.” (Srp, 19) He goes on to say that this is done in order to reveal the meanings objects have in the subconscious. Yet a phenomenologist (who would not accept the existence of a subconscious) would say it has far more to do with the meanings objects have to human consciousness itself. When a photograph is taken in such a way that an object’s function is left in doubt, a limited set of facts about that objects is disconnected from what Hussserl called its “essence,” the way it functions for us as humans. A chair’s essence, for example, is as a more or less comfortable place to sit, regardless of whether it’s made of wood or of aluminum or of plastic. (Kohak, 13-14) It’s true that we can photograph a chair in such a way—very close up or from a peculiar angle—that it can no longer be recognized as a chair, but that doesn’t accomplish the same thing as one of Styrsky’s photographs. What he did with his camera-as-scalpel was to choose subjects that are ambiguous and difficult to generalize because they are already analogs. The resulting photograph forces us to focus on the facts (the long, glossy pale fingers of the manikin’s hand, the lace cuff that hides a stump, the extent to which this analog approximates a hand of flesh and bone), rather than ask what is the way this object functions for me as a human being. Thus Styrsky’s photographs dehumanize the object and force us to confront it in its own right, as brute existence, rather than as a tamed and domesticated bit of human culture. For this reason, Nezval says, “…reality (for Styrsky) becomes a tortuous, cruel phantom which horrifies, reveals, and fascinates.” (Srp, 9) While I think that may be a bit strong, it is true that Styrsky gave us portraits of objects that affect our consciousnesses in somewhat the same way as those optical illusions that we can perceive either as two faces in profile or as a vase. With Styrsky we are forced to shuttle back and forth from the manikin’s hand as analog of a human hand, to the photograph as analog of the manikin’s hand, to the photograph as work of art, leaving us ever uncertain about which reality we inhabit, asking us to see the glimmers of irreality that come about as a result of this tension between what is real and what is imagined.

I hope you’ll want to see more of Styrsky’s photographs in addition to the portrait of a manikin’s hand I’ve gone on about at such lengths. Two of the books listed at the end of this essay (Jindrich Styrsky and Ceska fotograficka avantgarda: 1918-1948 , which is now available in English as Czech Photographic Avant-Garde, 1918-1948) contain a rich selection of his work. The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague has an extensive collection of his contact prints. All his surviving negatives are in a private collection in Paris, but you can also see examples of his work on the walls of the Pompidou Centre as well. And I’d just like to offer one more thought for your consideration: the existence of digital cameras and (my preferred option) point-and-shoot cameras and one-hour photo developing make direct photography of found analogs surprisingly easy. It’s an intriguing way to experience some glimmers of irreality for yourself.

Hypertext Notes

portrait – I am using this term in the sense in which Sartre uses it in Psychology of Imagination – meaning an “analogical representative’ of the object envisioned.” Back to the text

poetist – The Czech photographer Antonin Funke, who did not consider himself a surrealist, photographed similar images at around the same time (and at least once, in the case of a folk painting at a fairground, the two photographers captured the same image, though Styrsky’s included less of the fairgrounds setting). Antonin Dufek says, “In part [Styrsky’s] photographs--like Funke’s--were influenced by poetism (carnivals and fairs), the miraculousness of the commonplace (advertisements and walls), and by poetic absurdity (unusual encounters, signs, graffiti); often by things that are permeated by sex and death…The Prague surrealists paid tribute to the former strength of these photographs with a special display and also used them as advertisements in the first issue of the international bulletin of Surrealism. Similar photographs were evidently lacking in Paris surrealist circles.” (Dufek, 218-219; translation by G.S. Evans) Back to the text

intermediary - According to Sartre, these intermediary types present us with “syntheses of external elements and psychical elements, as when we see a face in a flame, in the arabesques of a tapestry…” (Sartre, 26). The effect of photographs of such analogs is not quite the same as photographs of statues, drawings or manikins; in fact, such photos have much the same effect Ortega y Gasset described—they introduce us to a truly dehumanized world that must be appreciated for its aesthetic values alone rather than how it approximates reality. One photographer who worked with such images much more than Styrsky did was Aaron Siskind. Though he began as a documentary photographer, he soon moved on to discovering pictures in seaweed and on marked walls, later focusing on surfaces covered in splashed paint, graffiti marks, and crumbling materials. (Conkelton, exhibit notes) His photographic process was similar to Styrsky’s—he used one camera, one lens, a limited number of types of film, and a documentary approach. His attitude toward his subject matter was almost phenomenological in its focus on individual perception. “Move on objects with your eye straight on,” Siskind says in “The Drama of Objects,” “to the left, around to the right. Watch them grow large as you approach, group and regroup themselves as you shift your position. Relationships gradually emerge and sometimes assume themselves with finality. And that’s your picture./ What I have just described is an emotional experience. It is utterly personal—no one else can ever see quite what you have seen, and the picture that emerges is unique, never before made and never to be repeated…” (Siskind, 23) Admittedly, the overall effect of his work could better be described as abstract expressionist than irreal. Back to the text

Work Cited

Sheryl Conkelton. Notes from the curator to “The Drama of Pictures: Aaron Siskind’s Photography,” March 8-July 6, 2003 at the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona.

Antonin Dufek. “Surrealisticka fotografie,” Ceska fotograficka avantgarda: 1918-1948 , koncepce a vyber fotografii Vladimir Birgus. Prague: Kant, 1998.

Jose Ortega y Gasset. “The Dehumanization of Art,” in The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings on Art and Culture . Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1956.

Erazim Kohak. Idea and Experience: Edmund Husserl’s Project of Phenomenology in IDEAS I . Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Jean-Paul Sartre. The Psychology of Imagination. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

Aaron Siskind. “The Drama of Objects,” Minicam Photography 8, (June 1945).

Karel Srp. Introduction to Jindrich Styrsky. Prague: Torst, 2001.

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