Photography and the Surreal Imagination

Feb 5 – Nov 29, 2020
Main Building

This exhibition presents the wide reach of the surreal imagination in modern and contemporary photography. Anchored in historical Surrealism, it explores photography’s central tension between documentation and invention, a generative force for artists connected to that movement. These artists produced images that teeter between truth and suggestion, reality and its invented double. Drawn from the Menil’s holdings and Houston collections, the exhibition demonstrates how this vision of photography continues to hold sway and how artists have used the camera to reshape, question, and disturb the way we see the world.

The presentation begins with an examination of the transformation of the everyday through the lens in a tradition that recasts the world as an enigmatic theater, from Eugène Atget’s shots of Old Paris to Allison Janae Hamilton’s haunted folklore of the American South. Photographs in the exhibition also foreground the exploration of the body, including Hans Bellmer’s images of deconstructed dolls and Cindy Sherman’s cinematographic self-staging, among other depictions of costumed, distorted, fragmented figures. Lastly, the show considers the manipulation of the image. It highlights artists from Man Ray to Lorna Simpson, all of whom turned the photographic surface into collision of pictorial fragments that questions the nature of representation.

Photography and the Surreal Imagination is curated by Natalie Dupêcher, Assistant Curator of Modern Art, and will coincide with the FotoFest Biennial 2020. It will be installed adjacent to the Menil’s Surrealism galleries.

This exhibition is generously supported by the City of Houston.

Video Walk Through, Photography and the Surreal Imagination


Laure Albin-Guillot
Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Diane Arbus
Eugène Atget
Hans Bellmer
Claude Cahun
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Joseph Cornell
Roy DeCarava
Jay DeFeo
Max Ernst
Allison Janae Hamilton
K8 Hardy
Georges Hugnet
André Kertész
Clarence John Laughlin
George Platt Lynes
Man Ray
Rose Mandel
Lee Miller
Lisette Model
Toshiko Okanoue
Robert Rauschenberg
Cindy Sherman
Lorna Simpson
Frederick Sommer
Dorothea Tanning
Arthur Tress
Susan Weil
Francesca Woodman