The Eyes Have It

“Eyes are the most external parts of the brain, liminal zones bridging inside and outside worlds.” This is the season of the Surrealist eye at Elephant West. To celebrate, Muriel Zagha investigates André Breton and co’s “rewilding” of vision.


The slicing of an eyeball in Luis Buñuel’s 1929 film Un chien andalou remains the most shocking and memorable of all Surrealist images. It is also one of the most enduring images in the whole history of film. Before the advent of computer-generated imagery, Buñuel and Salvador Dalí created the scene by means of a close-up of a woman’s face, a jump cut, a razor and a cow’s eye. This bricolage approach to making radically new images previously unseen in art is arguably at the root of the sequence’s visceral allure.

Why does this particular scene, the opener of a seventeen-minute film that is entirely composed of episodes as mysterious and illogical as dreams, stand out as emblematic of the Surrealist enterprise? The extreme nature of the image clearly signals a desire to épater le bourgeois by giving vent to repressed, socially unacceptable desires. It is significant that Georges Bataille’s troubling Story of the Eye, in which a series of fervidly transgressive pornographic episodes includes a human eye being inserted in a woman’s vagina, was also published in 1929.

Yet there is more to Surrealism’s fascination with the eye than the visceral provocations of Un chien andalou and Story of the Eye: Buñuel’s sliced eyeball also announces an intention to open the eye to a new way of seeing. Eyes are the most external parts of the brain, liminal zones bridging inside and outside worlds. The Surrealists were interested in subverting reality by drawing on interior states. Surrealism, André Breton declared, was “psychic automatism” or “the dictation of thought in the absence of any control exercised by reason”. Automatic writing, a technique invented by the Surrealists to reproduce the mechanics of a dream, is best practised looking inwards with eyes (at least) half-closed, in a state between waking and sleeping, in order to release surprising and poetic juxtapositions of ideas. In painting, the Surrealists also strove to create oneiric otherworldly landscapes inhabited by what Dalí called “apparitions”—distorted animalistic figures, truncated statues, melting clocks. “L’oeil existe à l’état sauvage,” said André Breton: the eye exists in its primitive state. The Surrealist eye is not a passive, tame channel of unmediated perception: it is a dynamic, irreverent, illogical organ from which the world is actively generated. Of René Magritte’s 1935 work The False Mirror, which represents a disembodied eye whose iris is filled with blue sky dotted with clouds, Man Ray said that it was “a painting that sees as much as it itself is seen”. Meanwhile, another iconic Magritte work, The Treachery of Images (1929), which represents a pipe labelled with the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”), tells the viewer to look harder and to reflect upon the artificiality of representation. Another reason why disembodied eyes recur so obsessively as a motif in Surrealist photography and film is because the camera itself is considered a prosthetic eye. The idea of dynamic perception runs throughout the Surrealist movement.

We are all of us walking cameras in search of Surrealist images and scenes. Central to Surrealism and its “rewilding” of vision is the idea of le merveilleux—the marvellous. The Surrealists experienced the marvellous as a kind of jolt as though a crack had suddenly opened in the world’s façade of normality, creating “convulsive beauty”, in the words of Breton. Its essence could be encountered in the street, in window displays and the lettering of shop fronts, or in a hallucinatory nightly walk (described by Louis Aragon in Le paysan de Paris) through the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, which turns it into a Garden of the Unconscious. The marvellous also arises from the way several objects or images might combine to suggest another plane of reality, whether accidentally or deliberately, as in the photomontages of Dora Marr, such as the beautiful Untitled (Shell Hand) (1934).

A traumatic historical context frames the Surrealist endeavour. Photomontages, collages, Exquisite Corpses (the game of random word juxtaposition), a profound fascination with prosthetics and fragmented bodies—expressed for example in Herbert Bayer’s photograph Glass Eyes (1928)—are also a response to the needs of the soldiers who returned maimed from World War I. Stretching across the desire to bring about a free and wondrous new visual sensibility—a re-enchantment of a disenchanted world—is the shadow of the Great War.