Studies in Photography
Extract from "Paul Nougé, Photographe"
This is an extract taken from the article printed in Studies in Photography Spring 2018 published in June 2018
There were critical differences between the Belgian and French Surrealist movements in the early 20th century. André Breton and his followers developed the process called automatic writing, and this became a central tenet of the movement. This was a means of directly channeling thoughts to the page from the unconscious mind. For this to work a trance-like state in the writer was usually needed6. For Paul Nougé, any form of writing required a great deal of conscious thought and manipulation; his poems were founded on phonetics and a vital juxtaposition of words. Nougé was inspired by the prose and poetry of Paul Valéry (whose work was a model for all Belgian Surrealists of the time)8. Valéry regarded language as inherently deceptive, and linguistic communication as incapable of representing the real nature of thought (something even automatic writing could not remedy).
Nougé produced Subversion des Images in the same year (1929) that Sapir published his theory that language mediates human reality (later to be refined to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). Further analysis of Nougé’s writing is beyond my ken, but his images interrogate the perception that photography depicts reality, in the same way that his writing seeks to destabilise the accepted capabilities of language. Nougé and Magritte were producing words and images that confront the mind with disturbing information to induce novel cognitive reactions (“to awaken an unforeseeable feeling”). Photography has the edge over painting in this function because of the misplaced belief in photographic veracity. Nougé’s images are disturbing objects ‘objets boulerversants’. These were to be agents of change for the human psyche, liberating humankind from habit and creating new thoughts and experiences (Belgian Surrealists were not lacking in ambition).
Les Vendages du Sommeil (The Harvests of Sleep) in the first edition of Les Lèvres Nues depicts a man in a trance-like state. He is engaged in automatically writing this text: “eyes closed, mouth sealed, my hand traces the signs of a…”. The incomplete message and the empty hand is a censorious response to the philosophy of automatic writing. Other images in the series are more difficult to understand; La Jongleuse (The Juggler): a young woman, flat out with her upper body resting on a table, seemingly exhausted, asleep perhaps, has five balls in an attitude of being juggled: they are agents of disturbance. La Jongleuse is an image of novelty and imagination and has a disconcerting relationship with reality. When interpreting images, objects, events, settings contained within them, patterns ‘image schema’ that correspond with our memories and sensory experiences are recognised. In some images in Subversion des Images, schemas are disrupted by the simple device of object omission, and in others by the addition of irrelevant objects, with the result that the image is placed beyond normality and becomes irrational. These manipulations by Nougé Paul Nougé, Les Vendages du Sommeil (The Harvests of Sleep), AML 00568_0133 Archives et Musée de la Littérature, Bruxelles (Belgique) Reproduction Marc Trivier © DACS 2018 were only ‘subversions strictly necessary’ to warp the representation of reality.
Surrealism is a serious subject, and even more so when combined with another serious subject, viz photography. Nevertheless, when I see Nougé’s image of a woman balanced very precariously and seemingly asleep on a shallow mantlepiece (Les Profendeurs du Sommeil) (The Depths of Sleep) or a small crowd staring expectantly at the imminent appearance of something that is never going to materialise (La Naissance de l’Objet) (The Birth of the Object), my thoughts are that Nougé was a farceur as well as a philosopher. His actions – the attacks on art, the obsession with manipulation of language, the necessity of disturbing the audience, and the urgency - are all thoroughly Dada, even though Nougé was never named as a member of that group.