Naomi Stewart: “Witnessing the Surreal: Blind Insight in Dora Maar’s Surrealist Photomontage”

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Adorning one of the illustrative pages of the 1929 issue of La Revolution surréaliste is a painting of a nude female, captioned ‘Je ne vois pas la [femme] cachée dans le forêt’. Surrounding it are sixteen photographs of key members of the surrealist group, all with eyes shut, demonstrating an imperative – foregrounded strongly from the early days of surrealism’s experiments with automatism – towards unlocking the ‘interior model’, the unconscious realm of the surreal, by looking inwards. Taking this idea of blind insight as its focus, my paper closely analysed French photographer Dora Maar’s photomontage Aveugles à Versailles (1936), exploring how it plays with the vision/blindness paradigm to engage with surrealism’s subversions of traditional conceptions of visuality.

Drawing upon Mary Ann Caws’ identification of a link between Maar’s recurrent focus on images of blindness and the ‘interior model’ which, for André Breton, would unbound the scope of our exterior vision, it argued that Aveugles à Versailles makes the limitations of Caws’ arguments particularly clear: it forces a confrontation between those who are actually blind and those who simply have their eyes closed, suggesting in the process that it is the latter who are exalted while the blind remain earthbound. For in fact, as Aveugles à Versailles reveals, true and total blindness is no good when it comes to Breton, the eye, and the pursuit of the surreal.

To create the montage, Maar made a very deliberate selection from amongst the street photographs she produced in Paris, London and Barcelona. There are two distinct sets of blind people represented in the image: blind musicians, and those whose eyes are open but unseeing, with only the whites visible. In all cases, these figures have been relocated from the squalid streets of the modern city into a grand interior at Versailles. The musicians are significant because they substitute a different sensory operation for the one the figures lack – where the visual fails, the auditory takes over. There is a sense of ecstatic abandon among them thanks to this musical element and the generally cheerful expressions on their faces. Tellingly, though, it is the two figures in the immediate foreground of the image, the whites of whose eyes are prominently on display, that best evoke a sense of ecstasy in that they seem to be the only ones party to the Ascension of the sleeping figure happening above them.

My key argument, therefore, is that in this montage Maar explores a conflicting set of considerations surrounding the lack of outward sight: on the one hand, drawing together this group of blind people and relocating them from the streets into the halls of Versailles seems to elevate their status and suggest their privilege (a privilege surely linked to the fact that they can only see inwardly); on the other, the exalted status of the sleeping figure, understood through the mimicking of an Ascension scene, suggests that the real privilege lies with those who can see both ways.