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Frederick Sommer in Context


Sommer, Untitled, 1947

Frederick Sommer, Untitled, 1947, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

Found Objects

Early in his artistic career, Sommer began collecting objects, many of which he found while frequenting local junkyards. Relying on chance, the artist went looking for the discarded treasures that he would then combine into compelling compositions and photograph. In 1950, Sommer commented: “Photography is well adapted to work by the laws of chance. Poetic and speculative photographs can result if one works carefully and accurately, yet letting chance relationships have full play.”[1]

The whimsical, uncanny arrangements of small items that Sommer started to create around 1946, the year Ernst moved to Arizona, echo similar practices by the Dadaists and surrealists, who also embraced chance in the 1920s and 1930s. While creating these works, however, Sommer also maintained his concern with pictorial logic and sought out elements that would look striking together in the fine gradations of grey tones he achieved in his meticulously crafted prints. Though chance helped Sommer find the objects, he kept them in his studio for years or even decades, waiting for the right combination to present itself. The objects arranged in this photograph reveal how Sommer experimented with ways to create formal balance between the rectangular and circular shapes and the different textures of the foreground and background while adding such unsettling items as the fake eye that looks back at the viewer and the small knob-like half-sphere that appears to be its blind counterpart.

Sommer, Valise d'Adam, 1949

Frederick Sommer, Valise d'Adam, 1949, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

Often humorous, as well as uncanny, Sommer’s photographs of his ephemeral assemblages abound in visual jokes and paradoxes, some based on literary allusions. Valise d’Adam (“Adam’s traveling case” in French) alludes to the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the biblical book of Genesis. It remains unclear whether the human-looking doll is Eve being made out of Adam’s body or, perhaps, Adam being crafted in the image of his maker. In either case, however, the work playfully comments on Sommer’s own act of creation, which allows him, through the use of a camera, to make mysterious, otherworldly images out of other people’s cast-offs.

Sommer, Ondine, 1950

Frederick Sommer, Ondine, 1950, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

Ondine alludes to the main character of a tale that was reinterpreted several times by French and German romantic writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The retellings include a novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a poem by Aloysius Bertrand, and a play by Jean Giradoux. All tell variants of a story of a tragic, mismatched love between Ondine, a water nymph, and a mortal man. Its first known version appears in the writings of Paracelsus, the sixteenth-century Swiss scholar and alchemist whose mystical texts appealed to the surrealists and Sommer alike, and whose name Sommer took for the title of a later abstract photograph.

Sommer, Moon Culmination, 1951

Frederick Sommer, Moon Culmination, 1951, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

In addition to using found objects, Sommer began using found images in the late 1940s. Here, a scrap of an old-fashioned illustration merges in a surprisingly harmonious way with a surface covered in splotchy paint. To Sommer, works like this were a testament to the potential for harmony between objects no one had thought to put together before. He wrote of Moon Culmination: “Things that we would say before the fact have absolutely nothing in common still have a mathematical chance to meet and work together. The cohesion of Moon Culmination is the coming together of two things that are unknown to each other. . . . If art has a social function it is to teach people that imagination is the finest order.”[2]

Max Ernst and Collage

The collages Max Ernst made both as unique works of art and as more widely disseminated “collage novels” were one of his greatest contributions to surrealism. Ernst’s culminating achievement in the latter genre was Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness), a group of five booklets that contained seven “books,” one for each day of the week. Published serially in 1934, it was made up of reproductions of 182 collages with almost no text. As his sources, Ernst used wood engravings found in nineteenth-century popular illustrated novels, natural science journals, and sales catalogs. Using images of turn-of-the-century life as his backgrounds, Ernst seamlessly inserted stories that defy reason and are full of violent, nightmarish events.

Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, 1937

Max Ernst, Une semaine de bonté ou Les sept éléments capitaux (A Week of Kindness or the Seven Deadly Elements), 1934, five volumes with photomechanical reproductions of collages, National Gallery of Art Library, David K. E. Bruce Fund. Dover Publications, Inc., 1976

The two-page spread seen here shows illustrations found in Friday that Ernst called “visible poems.” Subtitled The Interior of Sight, this section of the book has a line by the poet Paul Eluard as its epigraph: “And I object to the love of ready-made images in place of images to be made.”[3] The quotation underlines the way surrealists used collage to rearrange mass-produced imagery so that it would reveal the fears and desires that lurk just beneath the surface of popular culture.

Sommer’s Late Collages

Sommer, Untitled, 1944

Frederick Sommer, Untitled (drawing/collage), 1944, mixed media. Image courtesy and © Frederick & Frances Sommer Foundation

Although Sommer first started making collages in the 1930s, his earliest surviving ones date to the 1940s. In Untitled (drawing/collage), he combined a loosely drawn human figure lunging forward with a strange appendage, which was cut out of an illustrated book of nineteenth-century mechanical patents and sewn with thread onto the drawing. Though Sommer did not make many collages in subsequent decades, he turned again to books of old hand-drawn illustrations as source materials for the collages he made in the last decade of his life. Originally intended as objects to be photographed, these later works echo the intricacy and apparent seamlessness of Max Ernst’s collages. Sommer arranged cut-out illustrations from old anatomy books, focusing on formal repetitions to produce images that are even more enigmatic than Ernst’s. Unlike “collage novels,” Sommer’s collages do not suggest a narrative, but, rather, reconfigure human anatomy into puzzle-like compositions.

Sommer, Lacryma, 1992

Frederick Sommer, Lacryma, 1992, collage of photomechanical reproductions of lithographic, relief,
and intaglio prints, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer



Lacryma, meaning “teardrop” in Latin, depicts organs, including the fallopian tubes, ovaries, and a uterus hovering around a tear-shaped table leg. The grouping suggests things drooping and rolling; parts of it loosely resemble crying eyes, emphasizing the similarity of living structures that recur at a variety of scales.

Sommer, The Queen of Sheba, 1992

Frederick Sommer, The Queen of Sheba, 1992, collage of photomechanical reproductions
of relief and intaglio prints, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

Some of Sommer’s late collages seem to be the visual equivalents of skipreading, another surrealist practice that he embraced and promoted. To perform a skipreading, Sommer “read aloud from an existing work selecting phrasing and words to create a new poetry that was still grounded in the original text.”[4]

Sommer, The Miser, 1991

Frederick Sommer, The Miser, 1991, collage of photomechanical reproductions of lithographic prints, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

A few of Sommer’s collages suggest a concealed message. In The Miser, a hand about to be dipped into a sack evokes an old-fashioned money purse and is part of a circle made up of parts of the human gastrointestinal tract. The collage subtly suggests that the miser’s impulse to hoard wealth is antithetical to human biology, which dictates that nourishment must pass through our bodies without being able to stay there for very long.


[1] Quoted in Philadelphia College of Art, Frederick Sommer, 13.

[2] Frederick Sommer, “General Aesthetics, Part II,” originally written in 1979, reprinted in Sommer, Sommer. Words, 27.

[3] Max Ernst, Une semaine de bonté: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage, trans. Stanley Appelbaum (New York, 1976), viii. For more on Une semaine de bonté see also “Max Ernst, "Une semaine de bonté" — the Original Collages.” Musée d’Orsay, 2009.

[4] Nancy Solomon, “Frederick Sommer” in Amy Rule and Nancy Solomon, eds., Original Sources: Art and Archives at the Center for Creative Photography (Tucson, 2002), 184.