The Forgotten Women of Surrealism: A Magical, Short Animated Film

“The prob­lem of woman is the most mar­velous and dis­turb­ing prob­lem in all the world,” — Andre Bre­ton, 1929 Sur­re­al­ist Man­i­festo.

“I warn you, I refuse to be an object.” — Leono­ra Car­ring­ton

Fash­ion mod­el, writer, and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Lee Miller had many lives. Dis­cov­ered by Condé Nast in New York (when he pulled her out of the path of traf­fic), she became a famous face of Vogue in the 1920s, then launched her own pho­to­graph­ic career, for which she has been just­ly cel­e­brat­ed: both for her work in the fash­ion world and on the bat­tle­fields (and Hitler’s tub!) in World War II. One of Miller’s achieve­ments often gets left out in men­tions of her life, the Sur­re­al­ist work she cre­at­ed as an artist in the 1930s.

Hailed as a “leg­endary beau­ty,” writes the Nation­al Gal­leries of Scot­land, Miller stud­ied act­ing, dance, and exper­i­men­tal the­ater. “She learned pho­tog­ra­phy first through being a sub­ject for the most impor­tant fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phers of her day, includ­ing Nick­o­las Muray, Arnold Gen­the and Edward Ste­ichen.” Her appren­tice­ship and affair with Man Ray is, of course, well-known. But rather than call­ing Miller an active par­tic­i­pant in his art and her own (she co-cre­at­ed the “solar­iza­tion” process he used, for exam­ple) she’s most­ly referred to only as his muse, lover, and favorite sub­ject.

“Sur­re­al­ism had a very high pro­por­tion of women mem­bers who were at the heart of the move­ment, but who often get cast as ‘muse of’ or ‘wife of,’ ” says Susan­na Greeves, cura­tor of an all-women Sur­re­al­ist exhib­it in South Lon­don. The mar­gin­al­iza­tion of women Sur­re­al­ists is not a his­tor­i­cal over­sight, many crit­ics and schol­ars con­tend, but a cen­tral fea­ture of the move­ment itself. When British Sur­re­al­ist Eileen Agar said in a 1990 inter­view, “In those days, men thought of women sim­ply as mus­es,” she was too polite by half.

Despite their rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, male Sur­re­al­ists per­fect­ed turn­ing women into dis­fig­ured objects. “While Dalí used the female fig­ure in opti­cal puz­zles, Magritte paint­ed porni­fied faces with breasts for eyes, and Ernst sim­ply decap­i­tat­ed them,” Izabel­la Scott writes at Art­sy. Sur­re­al­ist artist René Crev­el wrote in 1934, “the Noble Man­nequin is so per­fect. She does not always both­er to take her head, arms and legs with her.” Edgar Allan Poe’s love for “beau­ti­ful dead girls” esca­lat­ed into dis­mem­ber­ment.

Dalí employed no lyri­cal obfus­ca­tion in his thoughts on the place of women in the move­ment. He called his con­tem­po­rary, Argentine/Italian artist Leonor Fini (who nev­er con­sid­ered her­self a Sur­re­al­ist), “bet­ter than most, per­haps.” Then he felt com­pelled to add, “but tal­ent is in the balls.”

When writ­ing her dis­ser­ta­tion on Sur­re­al­ism in the 1970s at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, Glo­ria Feman Oren­stein found that all of the women had been total­ly left out of the record. So she found them — track­ing down and becom­ing “a close friend to many influ­en­tial female sur­re­al­ists,” notes Aeon, “includ­ing Leono­ra Car­ring­ton and Meret Elis­a­beth Oppeneim” (anoth­er Man Ray mod­el and the only Sur­re­al­ist of any gen­der to have actu­al train­ing and expe­ri­ence in psy­cho­analy­sis).

Through her research, Oren­stein “became the aca­d­e­m­ic voice of fem­i­nist sur­re­al­ism,” recov­er­ing the work of artists who had always been part of the move­ment, but who had been shoul­dered aside by male con­tem­po­raries, lovers, and hus­bands who did not see them on equal terms. In the short film above, Glo­ri­a’s Call, L.A.-based artist Cheri Gaulke “man­i­fests Oren­stein’s jour­ney into the sur­re­al with col­lage-like ani­ma­tions.” It was a quest that took her around the world, from Paris to Sami­land, and it began in Mex­i­co City, where she met the great Leono­ra Car­ring­ton.

See how Oren­stein not only redis­cov­ered the women of Sur­re­al­ism, but helped recov­er the essen­tial roots of Sur­re­al­ism in Latin Amer­i­ca, also erased by the art his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship of her time. And learn more about the artists she befriend­ed and brought to light at Art­space and in Pene­lope Rose­mon­t’s 1998 book, Sur­re­al­ist Women: An Inter­na­tion­al Anthol­o­gy.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

An Intro­duc­tion to Sur­re­al­ism: The Big Aes­thet­ic Ideas Pre­sent­ed in Three Videos

Sal­vador Dalí Gets Sur­re­al with 1950s Amer­i­ca: Watch His Appear­ances on What’s My Line? (1952) and The Mike Wal­lace Inter­view (1958)

David Lynch Presents the His­to­ry of Sur­re­al­ist Film (1987)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • ik says:

    Rene Creval was not kicked out of Sur­re­al­ism for being homo­sex­u­al.

    Whit­ney Chad­wick inter­viewed every woman of sur­re­al­ism when most were alive. None of them had any crit­i­cisms of the men.

    The Sur­re­al­ist men active­ly pro­mot­ed the art of female Sur­re­al­ists. Their crit­ics ignored those female artists and when they final­ly com­mand high prices on the art mar­ket, blame their era­sure on the Sur­re­al­ist men. Sur­re­al­ist artists, in this case most­ly dead, can not tell uni­ver­si­ties what to teach and muse­ums what to show, but the era­sure is ridicu­lous­ly blamed on them.

    I’m not sin­gling you out; you have been told what to say by many oth­er hacks.

  • Jon says:

    The direc­tor, Cheri Gaulke, also recent­ly com­plet­ed a short doc­u­men­tary on the incred­i­ble Alma W. Thomas, a Black woman artist, broke col­or bar­ri­ers on and off the can­vas, yet did not receive nation­al atten­tion until she was 80. Watch online at — or see at the trav­el­ing ret­ro­spec­tive exhi­bi­tion of her work, cur­rent­ly in Nashville.

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