- Surrealism in the Hallucinatory City
In his cultural history of Australian modernism, Ghost Nation, the poet and writer Laurie Duggan presents a “thick description” of the everyday contradictions that saturate the landscape of Australian visual culture. Attentive to the density of the everyday which includes “the residues of a dream-world” (Walter Benjamin’s phrase), Duggan’s portrait maps the visual landscape against the intersecting tensions that came to define Australia in this period, as enigmatic island-continent and emerging modern cosmopolitan nation.1 Here the nation’s ghostly residues are not mirages ignited by death, but the assortment of images that ghost each other: hallucinated assemblages that reveal a deeply embedded mythology of a distinct Australian natural light, increasingly transformed by a modern, industrial, and cosmopolitan sensibility.2 In describing Sydney in the interwar period as “an hallucination, an intense image,” that attracted photographers like moths “drawn to the light,” Duggan notes a shift in the representation of light by photographers in this period. Rather than a desiring to illuminate its subject, modern photography made light itself the subject. In these new images, he writes, “the photographs (and the city they ‘reveal’) are nothing but constructions of light” (Ghost Nation, 120–22).3
This article takes the representation of Sydney as a “hallucinatory place” as the starting point for an examination of the surrealist images produced by photographer Max Dupain throughout the mid-to-late 1930s. While a hallucinated sense of the city has a strong surrealist legacy—from Louis Aragon’s urban reveries to Walter Benjamin’s Parisian dreamscapes—in the surrealist-inspired work of Dupain and his erstwhile collaborators, Olive Cotton and Douglas Annand, the hallucinatory place that floods [End Page 269] their images nevertheless draws out the vernacular, everyday qualities of their home city. In what way did surrealism become an optimal language through which to redefine the importance of modern photography for a new vision of the city? And how was an experimental surrealist photography enlisted to record, as well to defamiliarization, the everyday environment of Sydney, including its startling light, so that it might be experienced, understood, and represented anew?
The existing critical work on Dupain, while acknowledging the influence of surrealism, has fallen short of a sustained critical discussion of the surrealist phase of his work or indeed how his surrealist images reflect surrealism’s increasingly anti-imperial, regional inflection.4 While Dupain’s photographic practice was eclectically modernist, the sheer volume and range of images he produced using surrealist techniques and themes, along with their conceptual sophistication, deserve closer scrutiny. Dupain’s turn to documentary photography during World War II and his subsequent repudiation of commercial photography have tended to eclipse the importance of this earlier surrealist phase. This article argues that Dupain’s surrealist images—far from merely registering a playful response to the stylistic effects of surrealist photography, as some critics have argued—produced a regional variant of surrealism that accorded with the movement’s increasingly international spread.5
In developing a homegrown surrealism, Dupain forcefully argued for an experimental modern photography that rejected the constraining idealism of pictorialism, but nonetheless permitted a subjective and poetic response to the urban environment. The photographs from this period paradoxically exoticized the familiar and vernacularized a modern vision of the city, producing a cosmopolitan frame that paid homage to Sydney’s distinctive atmosphere and culture, while also internationalizing local photography practice through the assimilation of a modernist emancipatory ideology. Dupain’s resolute determination to remain in his home city and focus on its distinctive features went against the grain of the expatriate adventures that were the norm for many Australian artists and writers at the time. By the 1930s, he had also moved on from the trend among photographers to send their work to international salons in cities such as Paris, London, and Amsterdam, preferring to place his work in local exhibitions and publications.6 Dupain nevertheless engaged with the international modern photography movement, absorbing its ideas and images, circulated in both specialist photography journals and commercial print culture.
Dupain’s cosmopolitanism thus registers the tension between a regional specificity and an intellectual and creative engagement with the transnational networks...