Surreal Illusionism: Photographic Fantasies of the Early 20th Century

From 17 August to 15 December 2013, at the Finnish Museum of Photography

Press images:

 The Surreal Illusionism exhibition at the Finnish Museum of Photography features nearly 500 photographic postcards that offer a surprising wealth of pictorial ideas, high artistic quality and photographic allure. Surreal fantasies, mysterious dreams, role-play, glamorous divas and irony are running wild in the postcards. All these will transport viewers into the fascinating, forgotten golden era of industrial photography in the early 20th century and the early history of modern photographic art.

The late 1890s saw the emergence of a number of factories in Europe that were involved in the creation of a new art form. Photographs were not printed on the cards, like today, but, instead, real photographs were produced by using mechanised exposures and development processes. The production of photographic postcards, also known as “real photo postcards”, became a sizable industry, and the end products were distributed as far away as South America and Australia. The phenomenon only lasted for two decades but resulted in millions of photographs. Today, these cards are coveted collector’s items.

"From a Friend". Publisher A.B.N., circa 1904.


From today’s perspective, photographic postcards are fascinating particularly because of the photomontage techniques used. The combination of images and drawings, and multiple exposure were some of the methods used in industrial photography a hundred years before “photoshopping”. Because industrial colour photography was yet to be invented, the cards were coloured by hand. It is the craft that makes these mass-produced images unique. The synthetic world of colours further increases the mystery of the images.

The golden age of photographic postcards drew on the urban popular culture that began to emerge in the early 20th century. The rise of the cinema, the modern culture of sun-bathing, eroticism, circus and variety shows inspired the imagery of the cards. Technical innovations, such as the aeroplane, stimulated the imagination.

The heyday of postcards began to wane after the First World War. The various innovations, however, lingered on. Artistic ideas such as synthetic cubism and collage are based on expressive techniques that were used in the postcards as early as the beginning of the 20th century.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of avant-garde artists and poets began to draw inspiration from dreams, fantasy and the depths of the unconscious. An art movement known as surrealism emerged. The photographic postcards presented at the exhibition were “surrealist” before the word was even invented!

The exhibition also includes an installation created specifically by Jouko Korkeasaari for this show.

The curator of the exhibition is art researcher, docent Harri Kalha. Kalha’s book Ihme ja kumma: surrealismia ja silmänlumetta 1900-luvun alun postikorttitaiteessa (WSOY 2012) serves as a good companion to the exhibition. Books (in finnish) are given to journalists during the press conference.

The exhibition is part of the 2013 Helsinki Festival.

Claudia Luthi interview

Claudia Luthi interview

Galina Kurlat interview

Galina Kurlat interview