“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.