Surrealism is one of the most important things ever to happen to Western culture. It was the marketing campaign for Freudian thought — and Freud’s ideas completely changed how we think about thinking. Surreal art and literature not only delivered Freud’s theories to the public, but viewers could sense from them the very emotional and cognitive sensations Freud described. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we gobbled it up.

Surrealism can be divided between André Breton’s official club — “the Surrealists” — and the general surrealist movement. What matters most now are the cultural legacy of the broader movement and the Freudian ideas that surrealism helped the public to internalize to such a degree that the impact is now largely hidden from us. Just as it is difficult to remember what words looked like before learning to read, now we can’t remember a time without the unconscious, dreams as wish fulfillment, free-association and so on.

Now at Bowdoin is an extraordinary exhibition featuring a wide view of surrealism, “Under the Surface: Surrealist Photography.” Next to expected names like Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, Max Ernst, Lee Miller, Eugène Atget, Dora Maar and Breton, we see works by major photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and Maine’s own Berenice Abbott.

The impressive surprise is that the bulk and the best of the works are from Bowdoin’s own collection. This includes some extremely important pieces, such as one of Man Ray’s first “rayographs” — a camera-less image created by putting objects in front of photographic paper and then exposing it to light.

Abbott ultimately settled in Monson, Maine, but she was Ray’s studio assistant in Paris. It was she who published Atget’s work, making the Parisian photographer into a star after his death. Atget then became an icon for his uncannily creepy scenes of Paris devoid of human life. He is represented by several excellent works, including a pair of haunting Versailles statuary scenes and a dreamily vacant stage-set-like view of 28 rue Bonaparte in Paris.

Abbott is not typically seen as a surrealist, but she invented (and patented) the distortion easel. Her twisted and confident self-portrait is one of the most compelling portraits on view.

Another important image is Ray’s 1936 “Space Writing (self-portrait)” in which he used a light pen to scribble in the air during a long exposure photo. The light-writing that includes his (reversed) signature creates a substantial plane in front of the blurred, or de-materialized, artist. While photography did not play a major role with the Surrealist club other than within their great journal, “La Révolution Surréaliste,” this work cuts to the quick of what the Surrealists were trying to do.

Free-association — the “talking cure” — was Freud’s basic therapeutic tool and he used it to help his patients become aware of their repressed thoughts. Breton, a writer, latched onto this approach and his 1924 definition of “surrealism” is essentially free-association writing (“automatism”). But a key issue of psychoanalysis arose with “transference” (the speaker projects an involved role onto the listener). While Freud first saw transference as a problem, he came to accept it as a key component of psychoanalysis. Because photography puts the viewer in the artist’s shoes, it is all about transference-laden encounters. Writing, on the other hand, is more of a one-way street.

Because we generally regard photography as journalistically accurate, photos of disturbing things cut deeper than paintings or descriptions of them — such as Hans Bellmer’s uncanny (a Freudian term) images of his mannequin-like, modular dolls.

Moreover, we encounter uncanny photos as genuine enigmas instead of fabricated fictions. One of the strongest works in the show, Cartier-Bresson’s image “Brussels,” is a great example of this: Two men stand behind an outdoor fabric screen. One is unselfconsciously peeping through a hole at the subject we cannot see, while the other turns away with a look as though he feels guilty at having been seen by the camera, the photographer, us. We cannot help but be implicated in the equation because surprising the peeper is part of the drama, and we have no reason to think the photographer knew any more than we do about what the two men were doing. We project each man onto the other; we surmise that the guilty man was peeping and that the peeper will also feel guilty when discovered.

This is the key of Freudian method: evidence.

This underlies our fascination with images like Lee Miller’s 1930 “Exploding Hand” which shows a woman’s hand in a fabulous triangular sleeve reaching to a swanky shop doorknob. The glass and reflective possibilities make our point of view unsure, but what grabs us is the enigmatic set of scratches in the glass. They are traces of something, but of what? The mystery pulls us in.

The most famous form of psychological evidence is the “Freudian slip” — an accidental comment that we now believe reveals a genuine inner desire. This is very different from science — and much older. It is the knowledge of hunters (tracks), detectives (clues) and doctors (symptoms). Freud, after all, was a doctor. In the Freudian view, our unconscious selves are seething with sexual and violent inclinations and it is only through society that we learn to keep them in check. These are what sometimes “slip” through.

Freud’s ideas quickly became well-known among his skeptical colleagues following the 1899 publication of “The Interpretation of Dreams” and Abraham Brill’s English translations of Freud’s writings beginning in 1909. But Freud is so radical and strange-sounding (e.g., Oedipal Complex) that it seems hardly possible these ideas could have worked their way so completely into public acceptance without the surrealist circus leading the way.

Its poignant subject alone makes “Under the Surface” an important and exciting show, but its unexpectedly strong works make it Maine’s first do-not-miss show of 2014.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:dankany@gmail.com