Hirshhorn Hosts Surrealist Film Series Lead by Scholar Karen Yasinsky

By Katerina Pappas

On Sunday Jan. 31, The Hirshhorn Museum hosted a surrealist film series lead by film scholar Karen Yasinsky.

Yasinsky, a film professor at Johns Hopkins, is best known for her work in film, video installation and drawing. Yasinky’s art is featured internationally, and her films have played in various film festivals, including New York Film Festivals Views from the Avant Garde and the International Film Festival in Rotterdam. She received the award for Best Sound at the 2013 Ann Arbor Film Festival and was a recipient of The Baker Award.

Man Ray, an American visual artist known for his surrealist work, created art and film that contributed to the Dada and Surrealist movements. The film series consisted of four films: Le Retoir a la Raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926), L-Etoile de Mer (1928), and Les Mysteres du Chateau de De (1929). Yasinsky defined these movements during her discussion.

“Dadaist film in Berlin was a response to the World War,” Yasinsky said. “In a world of violence and financial absurdity, artists respond with art that does not have meaning in an attempt to de-familiarize the world.”

Many Dadaists believed war was a product of logic and bourgeois capitalist society. To revolt, they created a sort of anti-art—or film that followed no narrative and embraced randomness.  Surrealism in film follows different ideas.

“Surrealist films often rely on characters, narratives and realistic effects,” said Yasinsky. “The films sought to uncover unconscious drives and obsessions through realistic portrayals of the shocking.”

Surrealist film focuses on the shock factor. Yasinsky explained that repetition and use of characters were more common in surrealist films rather than Dadaist.

The four films go back and forth with the ideas of Dadaism and Surrealism, but also show a uniqueness that didn’t follow a specific school of thought.

“Man Ray was Dadaist and Surrealist but also neither,” Yasinsky said. His work showed both movements but also rejected them in making his own type of art. 

Tristan Tzara, the head of the Dada movement in Paris, commissioned the first film played during the film series, Le Retoir a la Raison. Ray completed this film in a single day and used the idea of random images without a narrative arc to create a film. He used Rayographs to make the images for the film.

Rayograms, or photograms, are a type of photography that is used without a camera. Objects are placed onto the surface of light sensitive material and then exposed to light. The area not exposed to light, due to the object, remains white, but the rest of the sheet becomes gray.

Yasinsky explained that his use of rayographs link to the Dadaist movement. In this film, Ray made rayographs by putting object such as, salt and pepper and tacks, on a piece of light sensitive paper and then exposing it to light. The random images lacking context indicate its tie to Dadaism.   


Man Ray’s Photogram, “Untitled”

Photo Credit: Katerina Pappas

On the other hand, L’Etoile De Mer (Starfish), the third film played during the series, showed surrealist values. There is a narrative and two characters that are followed throughout the film, including repeating images of starfish. Ray worked with surrealist poet, Robert Desnos, to write words that would flash on the screen between each scene to create a narrative arc. 
Yasinsky showed her passion and knowledge on art and film movements through her ability to analyze Ray’s work with precision and to educate the audience on its importance. Through her discussion, it became clear that art and society are intertwined and that film movements can fuel social movements.

Source List: Karen Yasinsky


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