The Fantastic Women Of Surrealism: An Introduction

When André Bre­ton, a leader of the Sur­re­al­ist move­ment and author of its first man­i­festo, wrote that “the prob­lem of woman is the most mar­velous and dis­turb­ing prob­lem in all the world,” he was not allud­ing to the unfair lack of recog­ni­tion expe­ri­enced by his female peers.

Mar­quee name Sur­re­al­ists like Bre­ton, Sal­vador DalíMan RayRené Magritte, and Max Ernst posi­tioned the women in their cir­cle as mus­es and sym­bols of erot­ic fem­i­nin­i­ty, rather than artists in their own right.

As Méret Oppen­heim, sub­ject of a recent ret­ro­spec­tive at the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, is seen remark­ing at the out­set of Behind the Mas­ter­piece’s intro­duc­tion to “the fan­tas­tic women of Sur­re­al­ism”, above, it was up to female Sur­re­al­ists to free them­selves of the nar­row­ly defined role soci­ety — and their male coun­ter­parts — sought to impose on them:

A woman isn’t enti­tled to think, to express aggres­sive ideas.

The first artist Behind the Mas­ter­piece pro­files needs no intro­duc­tion. Fri­da Kahlo is sure­ly one of the best known female artists in the world, a woman who played by her own rules, turn­ing to poet­ic, often bru­tal imagery as she delved into her own phys­i­cal and men­tal suf­fer­ing:

I paint self-por­traits, because I paint my own real­i­ty. I paint what I need to. Paint­ing com­plet­ed my life. I lost three chil­dren and paint­ing sub­sti­tut­ed for all of this… I am not sick, I am bro­ken. But I am hap­py to be alive as long as I can paint.

The Nation­al Muse­um of Women in the Arts notes that Reme­dios Varo —  the sub­ject of a cur­rent exhi­bi­tion at the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go- and Leono­ra Car­ring­ton “were seen as the ‘femmes-enfants’ to the famous and much old­er male artists in their lives.”

Their friend­ship was ulti­mate­ly more sat­is­fy­ing and far longer last­ing then their roman­tic attach­ments to Sur­re­al­ist lumi­nar­ies Ernst and poet Ben­jamin Péret. Car­ring­ton paid trib­ute to it in her nov­el, The Hear­ing Trum­pet.

The pair’s work reveals a shared inter­est in alche­my, astrol­o­gy and the occult, approach­ing them from char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent angles, as per Ste­fan van Raay, author of Sur­re­al Friends: Leono­ra Car­ring­ton, Reme­dios Varo, and Kati Hor­na:

Carrington’s work is about tone and col­or and Varo’s is about line and form.

The name of Dorothea Tan­ning, like that of Leono­ra Car­ring­ton, is often linked to Max Ernst, though she made no bones about her desire to keep her artis­tic iden­ti­ty sep­a­rate from that of her hus­band of 30 years.

Her work evolved sev­er­al times over the course of a career span­ning sev­en decades, but her first major muse­um sur­vey was a posthu­mous one.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge art his­to­ry pro­fes­sor, Alyce Mahon, co-cura­tor of that Tate Mod­ern exhib­it, touch­es on the nature of Tanning’s decep­tive­ly fem­i­nine soft sculp­tures:

If I asked for two words that you asso­ciate with pin cush­ions, you would say sewing and craft, and you would asso­ciate those with the female in the house. Tan­ning played with the idea of wife­ly skills and took a very hum­ble object and turned it into a fetish. She craft­ed her first one out of vel­vet in 1965 and ran­dom­ly placed pins in it and aligned it with a voodoo doll. She says it ‘bris­tles’ with images. So she takes some­thing fab­u­lous­ly famil­iar and makes it uncan­ny and strange to encour­age us to think dif­fer­ent­ly.

Tan­ning reject­ed the label of ‘woman artist’, view­ing it as “just as much a con­tra­dic­tion in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘ele­phant artist’.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Sig­mund Freud!

The famed psychoanalyst’s con­cept of the sub­con­scious mind was cen­tral to Sur­re­al­ism, but he also wrote that “women oppose change, receive pas­sive­ly, and add noth­ing of their own.”

One won­ders what he would have made of Object, the fur lined teacup, saucer and spoon that is Oppenheim’s best known work, for bet­ter or worse.

In an essay for Khan Academy’s AP/College Art His­to­ry course Josh Rose describes how Muse­um of Mod­ern Art patrons declared it the “quin­tes­sen­tial” Sur­re­al­ist object when it was fea­tured in the influ­en­tial 1936–37 exhi­bi­tion “Fan­tas­tic Art, Dada, and Sur­re­al­ism:”

But for Oppen­heim, the pres­tige and focus on this one object proved too much, and she spent more than a decade out of the artis­tic lime­light, destroy­ing much of the work she pro­duced dur­ing that peri­od. It was only lat­er when she re-emerged, and began pub­licly show­ing new paint­ings and objects with renewed vig­or and con­fi­dence, that she began reclaim­ing some of the intent of her work. When she was giv­en an award for her work by the City of Basel, she touched upon this in her accep­tance speech, (say­ing,) “I think it is the duty of a woman to lead a life that express­es her dis­be­lief in the valid­i­ty of the taboos that have been imposed upon her kind for thou­sands of years. Nobody will give you free­dom; you have to take it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent

Dis­cov­er Leono­ra Car­ring­ton, Britain’s Lost Sur­re­al­ist Painter

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life and Work of Fri­da Kahlo

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

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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