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“The Psychic Lens” Reveals the Surrealist Impulse to Subvert the Essence of Photograph

ATLAS Gallery, London, presents “The Psychic Lens: Surrealism and the camera,” showing a new way of using photography to interpret the experience of life.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Artwork: Installation photograph of The Psychic Lens: Surrealism and the camera courtesy of ATLAS Gallery’s Instagram.

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well,” the legendary Belgian surrealist René Magritte observed, perfectly articulating the very nature of the art movement he served.

Also: “Surreal” is Named Word of the Year

French poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire coined the word surrealist in 1903, when he wrote the preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, the story of a woman who changes her sex to become a man in order to obtain the power necessary to subvert the patriarchy in a quest for equality. The play was first performed in 1917, at the close of World War I, and in just a few years later European artists from all walks of life began to embrace the concept of the surreal in order to make sense of the carnage they had witnessed across the continent.

Repetitions, 1934 by César Domela-Niewenhuis © 2014 César Domela/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Repetitions, 1934 by César Domela-Niewenhuis © 2014 César Domela/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Artist André Breton lead the charge having served in a neurological hospital during the war. Trained in medicine and psychiatry, he used Sigmund Freud’s methods to treat soldiers suffering from a new phenomenon: shell-shock.Freud’s work continued to serve as an inspiration as it opened up heretofore undisclosed channels of the mind, offering insights into free association, dream analysis, and the functions of the unconscious. This gave Surrealists a path into realms previously underutilized in Western art, exploring the space where the dream and reality commingle and coexist.

While the worked in all media, from painting to poetry, sculpture to film, it is with photography that they subverted the function of the camera itself.  The Psychic Lens: Surrealism and the camera, currently on view at ATLAS Gallery, London, through January 28, 2017, features nearly fifty photographs, including vintage works, by Man Ray, Andre Kertesz, Florence Henri, Horst P. Horst, Andre Kertesz, Tina Modotti, and Bill Brandt, alongside rarely seen works by artists such as Vaclav Zykmund, Franz Roh, and Raoul Hausmann, The Psychic Lens shows the way photography was employed to serve the surreailst impulse.

Rene Magritte at MOMA, New York, 1965 © Steve Schapiro

Rene Magritte at MOMA, New York, 1965 © Steve Schapiro

Magritte understood, “The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” This sentiment is the thread that permeates the works featured in The Psychic Lens. So many things in life, as well as in death, there seems to be no rhyme or reason readily apparent to much of it. We would like to believe, more out of faith than anything else, that existence can be understood by the human mind—when we may just by holding out hope for the brain doing what it does best: offering solace and comfort, and looking to the possibility of a positive outcome despite all evidence to the contrary.

The surrealists understood that we may never understand, and took a new tact: one that challenged to leap past logic and the rational and enter another realm. It is in the realm of dreams and nightmares, where we spend a third of our lives, that we receive nightly messages from the innermost core of our minds. Here there is a freedom, a space where nothing is bound to convention or cause and effect instead it is the ripe space of invention, creation, and free thought. The Psychic Lens is a masterclass in surrealist photography, guiding us through the men and women who used the medium not to record but to reexamine what it could do. No longer is the camera a vehicle to document the world as it is. In the hands of these artists it becomes a tool to see life uninhibited and afresh.

Modern History, 1956 © Toshiko Okanoue

Modern History, 1956 © Toshiko Okanoue


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.