The Synthesis of Surrealism and Medieval Mysticism


Written by Guan Pei Tao for the book Incubus

Andras Ikladi’s Incubus presents a profound, enigmatic, and ultimately haunting exploration of stories of contemporary witchcraft through the medium of photography by synthesising elements of 20th-century surrealism and medieval mysticism, amalgamating the dichotomy of the spiritual and the profane, weaving together the aesthetic threads of disparate traditions to create an arresting series of diptychs that simultaneously evoke the grittiness of Japanese snapshot photography, the heritage of Hungarian surrealists like Brassaï, and the otherworldly undertones of sorcery.


The origins of medieval witchcraft can be traced to the early days of Christianity, with texts such as the Picatrix, Lapidario, and the Lesser Key of Solomon providing recipes for the arcane world of sorcery and magic. These sources, with their chilling invocations of celestial and demonic powers, offer a stark contrast to the religious imagery dominating the medieval period. It is precisely this tension that Ikladi’s work so effectively captures. Incubus delves into the undercurrents of fear and fascination that permeate our collective understanding of witchcraft, highlighting the enduring relevance of these ancient beliefs in the modern era. 


In a similar vein, modern art has long been preoccupied with the exploration of religious and mystical themes. From the iconoclastic works of the Dadaists to the enigmatic creations of the surrealists, artists have sought to subvert and reinterpret boundaries. Figures such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte deftly blurred the lines between reality and imagination, utilising dreamlike imagery to challenge conventional notions of truth and perception. In this regard, Ikladi’s Incubus can be seen as part of a larger tradition of artistic inquiry into the unknown and the unknowable.


Witchcraft and its associated imagery have seldom been the subject of photographic exploration, making Ikladi’s work all the more compelling. By utilising the medium of photography to explore the realm of the supernatural, Incubus challenges the viewer to confront their preconceived notions of the photographic image as a document of reality. Instead, the work invites us 

to consider the camera as a tool for probing the depths of the human imagination. The diptychs in Incubus present a chiaroscuro of light and darkness, evoking the spiritual struggle that underlies the human experience. Using the subversive power of photography allows Ikladi to create images that are at once familiar and utterly alien, revealing a hidden, otherworldly dimension that lies beneath the surface of the vernacular, evoking a sense of unease that lingers long after the book has been closed. André Bazin noted: 


“Photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, a hallucination that is also a fact.” 


In 1963, the Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï argued for a “straight Surrealism,” which located surreality in banal things, in “the normality of the normal.” Brassaï, who disapproved of manipulations and trickeries stated that the Surrealism of his photographs was “nothing but the reality made fantastic through vision.” 


In this vein, Incubus remains in the realm of a straight rendering, instead relying on image pairing and sequencing structure to imply another layer of narrative by exploring the relationship between modern diptychs in photography and their counterparts in medieval art. Throughout art history, diptychs have been employed to juxtapose complementary or contrasting images, often with religious or allegorical significance. 


Wilson Hicks, the distinguished photo editor, offered valuable insight into the power of pairing images with his concept of the “third effect.” Hicks posits: 

“The juxtaposition of two images creates a third thing – a new idea, a concept, or a feeling that was not present in either of the two original images, and the mind strives to make connections, to find relationships between them. This process of synthesis can give rise to new ideas and emotions that are not necessarily inherent in the individual images themselves.”


The pairing of images in diptychs, when done with sensitivity and intention, can create a dialogue that transcends the individual photographs, resulting in a visual conversation that speaks to the subconscious mind. The images, seemingly unrelated at first glance, begin to engage one another, revealing connections and associations that were previously hidden. It is as if the images when brought together, awaken a dormant narrative lurking beneath the surface all along. This is the magic of diptychs – they can evoke a sense of wonder and discovery, inviting the viewer to actively participate in the unfolding of the story, to become an active interpreter of the visual language being presented before them. In this sense, diptychs can be seen as a dream dictating its course, allowing for an exploration of the human psyche in ways that a single image cannot achieve.


In the case of Incubus, Ikladi’s diptychs create a visual dialogue between the sacred and the profane, echoing the thematic interplay of religious and secular themes found in medieval art. The use of diptychs in this manner not only reinforces the thematic underpinnings of the work but also serves as a testament to the enduring power of this artistic technique.


In addition to exploring these fundamental concepts of image-pairing, it is essential to examine the role that sequencing plays in Incubus. The deliberate arrangement of images within the photobook creates a narrative arc that guides the viewer through the visual journey. This meticulous sequencing, akin to editing a movie, is crucial in establishing the desired mood and atmosphere. 


In Wilson Hicks’ seminal work, Pictures on a Page, he offers valuable insights into the power of photographic arrangement and sequencing: 

“When images are skillfully arranged on a page or in a sequence, they have the power to communicate ideas and emotions that extend beyond the boundaries of the individual photographs. A well-crafted visual narrative  emerges from the interplay of images, giving rise to a unified expression of thought, emotion, or concept. It is the relationship between the photographs that is paramount, for it is in the space between the images that the story truly unfolds.“ 


In the context of Ikladi’s Incubus, the thoughtful arrangement and sequencing of diptychs are instrumental in evoking the haunting, mystical atmosphere of the work and encouraging the viewer to explore the intricacies of the themes presented.  In addition to its innovative use of diptychs and sequencing, Incubus also invites us to consider the role of semiology in photography. As noted by photographer Ralph Gibson:


“The photograph can be a powerful signifier, both revealing and concealing meaning. [...] An image can only have significance when it has the power to evoke a response in the viewer. Each photograph is like a code that must be deciphered to reveal its meaning.” 


The signs and symbols that populate the photographs in Incubus function not only as visual anchors but also as potent, transcultural signifiers that tap into a collective, subconscious reservoir of meaning. The resulting images are imbued with depth and resonance that invites the viewer to explore the multifaceted layers of meaning hidden within each frame. As Gibson elaborates on this idea: 


“Photography is a very subtle way of telling a story. It’s not like literature. You can’t spell it out. The viewer has to work a little harder to get it. A good photograph can be like a riddle. What is it? What does it mean? [...] Every image contains a multitude of potential meanings, and it is the viewer’s task to unravel these meanings in order to fully engage with the photograph”. 


This notion aligns seamlessly with the thematic underpinnings of Incubus, as each diptych challenges the viewer to decipher a complex interaction at play. Goran Sonesson’s work Semiotics of Photography - On tracing the index provides valuable insights into the way photographs function as signifiers. In this passage, Sonesson delves into the unique capacity of photographic images to convey meaning and evoke emotion:


“Photography, as an art form, has the power to both document reality and transcend it. While the photographic image is inherently indexical, bound to the real-world subject it captures, it also possesses the ability to evoke emotions, associations, and meanings that reach far beyond the immediate scene depicted. This duality of the photographic sign – its capacity to serve as both a faithful record of reality and a conduit for the imagination – lies at the heart of its semiotic potential. The photographer, as a skilled interpreter of this visual language, wields the power to shape and direct the viewer’s experience, drawing attention to the subtle nuances and hidden layers of meaning that reside within the photographic frame. In this way, the semiotics of photography is not simply a matter of decoding the image, but rather a dynamic process of discovery and revelation that enriches our understanding of the world and our place within it.” 


The prominence of vertical compositions in Ikladi’s work elicits a distinct psychological effect that is markedly different from that of horizontal arrangements. Rudolf Arnheim, the renowned visual psychologist and art theorist, has explored this phenomenon extensively in his writings, positing that “the vertical axis has a symbolic value... it corresponds to the axis of the human body and represents elevation, aspiration, and transcendence.”


Analogue to this observation, the elongated vertical component of the Catholic cross (also known as the Latin cross) can be seen as symbolising the connection between the earthly and divine realms and the human aspiration to reach the divine. The vertical orientation of the cross could also represent the struggle for spiritual growth and the importance of sacrifice and redemption in Christian theology. On the other hand, the Greek cross has equal-length horizontal and vertical components, forming a perfectly symmetrical, centered composition. This symmetry suggests a sense of balance, harmony, and unity. The Greek cross could be seen as representing the idea that spirituality and the divine are accessible in all directions, emphasising the omnipresence of the divine. 


Verticality imparts a sense of dynamism, tension, and ascension, reflecting the human desire to rise above the mundane and attain the sublime. Arnheim further asserts that “the vertical orientation of an image can evoke feelings of stability and strength while simultaneously suggesting the possibility of reaching for the heavens or transcending the earthly realm.” This emphasis on the vertical heightens the sense of otherworldliness and mysticism that pervades Incubus, further reinforcing the thematic motifs of the supernatural and the divine.


In conclusion, Andras Ikladi’s Incubus represents a masterful synthesis of 20th-century surrealism and medieval mysticism, deftly employing the visual language of haunting diptychs to create an evocative exploration of the liminal space between the imagined and the real, the sacred and the profane, the mystical and the mundane. Incubus stands as a powerful example of the transformative potential of the photographic medium. Equally drawing upon the semiotic theories and the wisdom of ancient texts like Picatrix and Lapidarius, the legacies of surrealism, medieval mysticism, and the are-bure-bokeh tradition of Japanese snapshot photography, Ikladi has created a body of work that defies easy categorisation, serving as a catalyst for introspection that challenges the viewer to engage with the images on a deeper, more visceral level, and to confront the enigmatic depths and unspoken fears of their own psyche.