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Saturday, November 3 • 2:00pm - 3:30pm
7.D. Death Masks

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PANEL. Death Masks

“Surrealist Specters: Jacques Vaché and the Invention of the Avant-Garde Ghost”
Hervé Picherit
University of Texas at Austin

“Jacques Vaché est surréaliste en moi." With this famous sentence from the first Surrealist Manifesto (1924), André Breton transforms his deceased friend into a founding specter of surrealism. Dead in 1919, Vaché would be the first of many specimens in a veritable menagerie of surrealist ghosts, revenants, and spirits. It remains however that Breton’s friend from Nantes represents a unique case in surrealist “hauntology.” More than any other ghost, Vaché reveals how surrealism’s fascination with haunting represents an essential attribute of this avant-garde movement. Indeed, Vaché’s death was preceded by a “crisis of mourning” that struck the western world beginning at the end of the Nineteenth-Century. Triggered by the social sciences’ eclipse of spiritism, and accelerated by the Great War, this crisis transformed the very meaning of death. No longer conceivable as a migration of spirits, to die was to lapse into non-being. It is this new finality of death—foreclosing the transitional space of ghosts and mourning—that colored Vaché’s passing. Thus the surrealists’ work to preserve the realm of ghosts and haunting in the face of a crisis that was at once personal and shared. Claiming pre-Freudian practices such as divination and automatic writing as their own, the surrealists aimed to transplant spiritism into the aesthetic realm. As such, surrealist thinking participated in a duplicitousness that conceived of haunting as both a figurative and a literal state. In this light, Vaché’s persistence “inside” of Breton is simultaneously a metaphorical, and a factual, proposition. More generally, the surrealist project worked against modern scientism and nihilism in order to preserve the mere possibility of ghosts.

“The Camera and Other Creatures: Luis Buñuel and the Obliteration of the Self”
James Lastra
University of Chicago

As his early apprenticeship with Jean Epstein and his film criticism attest, Buñuel was deeply acquainted with the cinematic concept of photogenie. Like fellow surrealist Louis Aragon, Buñuel’s particular brand of both photogenie and surrealism was distinctly object-focused, with an eccentric view of the self. Indeed, one could argue, as I have, that Buñuel belonged not to Breton’s mainstream surrealism, but to a dissident, fractious form that emphasized the obliteration of the self into the world, to become a thing among things, as inert as a bottle, as lifeless as a corpse. Following thinkers like Roger Caillois and Georges Bataille, Buñuel’s approach mimics Freud’s death drive in an attempt to merge with the world in a kind of pre-Oedipal ecstasy of self-forgetting.Buñuel found the camera and the photographic image to be a perfect means not to recover the outer world of dreams, things, and irrationality for an expanded subject, but to meld the subject with the world in an orgy of self-obliteration. The camera’s constitutional indifference to hierarchies between humans, animals, things, the animate and inanimate found practical expression in his almost entomological view of humanity, as well as in his citational filmic practice, raiding the world for favored objects, scenarios, films, and even his own work for a set of found objects on which to dwell. For Buñuel, the camera was a creature like any other, and its life-world was one he could inhabit to eradicate the human need for order, intellect, hierarchy, symbolism, and even the boundary between death and life.

“Framing Death: Mirrors, Masks, and the Objectness of Man Ray’s Photographic Portraits”
Keri Mongelluzzo
Pennsylvania State University

In the context of Surrealism, and particularly in the work of Man Ray, the photograph stands in relation to the Surrealist object. Cutout photographic fragments of a former lover’s eye appear as elements in assemblages, while the camera performs a Lacanian operation, transforming subject into object at the moment of exposure. Moreover, lost or destroyed sculptures persist only in photographic form, as is true of a plaster cast of Man Ray’s curious death mask from 1932. Although much has been written connecting photograph to death mask on the basis of a shared indexical relationship to the real, little has been said regarding the place of Man Ray’s mask within his photographic practice. Rife with masks and mirrors, Man Ray’s photographs exhibit physical contact as it is enacted among mask, figure, and mirror in each of the possible permutations: figures hold masks and busts to flesh, hands caress mirrors, and mirrors frame figures as disembodied masks. I argue that it is through this performance of touch as displayed in Man Ray’s photographs with mirrors and masks that the artist emphasizes the photographic image’s equal status as object. This inclusion within the photographic space of bodies in contact with reflected images, of matter against flesh, directs attention towards the photograph’s tactile qualities and its existence as a three-dimensional object. The photograph and its surface, like mirrored planes and Man Ray’s death mask with eyes open, act as a threshold, or liminal space, between animate and inanimate, life and death, self and other.


James Lastra

University of Chicago
avatar for Keri Mongelluzzo

Keri Mongelluzzo

Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, Pennsylvania State University
A doctoral candidate in art history at Penn State, Keri Mongelluzzo specializes in photography of the interwar avant-garde. Her dissertation, “Bauhaus/Dream House: The Uncharted Surrealism of New Vision Photography,” explores the ways in which surrealism infiltrated the sterile... Read More →

Hervé Picherit

University of Texas at Austin


Robin Blaetz

Chair of Film Studies; Professor of Film Studies, Mount Holyoke College

Saturday November 3, 2018 2:00pm - 3:30pm EDT
Room D. Bertrand Library: Traditional Reading Room (second floor)