Women artists and Surrealism

There is a famous work of Surrealist art called Le Déjeuner en Fourrure (Breakfast in Fur), which consists of a teacup, saucer and spoon covered with gazelle fur. This is Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim’s most widely known work and has been an icon of Surrealism since 1936, to the constant dismay of its creator who regarded it as of minor importance. This creation pursued her all her life, although she later disassociated herself from Surrealism. A photograph of Méret’s teacup, by Man Ray, could be seen at Angels of Anarchy, a Manchester Art Gallery exhibition devoted to the women artists associated with the Surrealist movement which ran from 26 September 2009-10 January 2010.

Méret Oppenheim never agreed to participate in any exclusively female exhibition and even refused to condone the reproduction of her work in books about women artists. This wasn’t because she felt that the battle for women’s liberation was won. Méret was a feminist and the granddaughter of suffragette and writer Lisa Wenger-Rutz, who’d been active in the Swiss League for Women’s Rights and encouraged radical thinking in her daughters and granddaughters. Méret was a radical and thoughtful artist who said in a letter to her sister Kristen, when she was asked to take part in an all woman exhibition in Los Angeles, that she was concerned about the possible ghettoisation of art by women. She strongly believed that the creation of art had nothing to do with one’s gender, but was a product of both the male and female sides of the artist’s psyche.

It was absolutely the best exhibition of Surrealist art that I’ve been to and is positively enhanced by the absence of tedious dinosaurs like René Magritte and the self-obsessed Salvador Dali

Artists are singular individuals, who as a result of their singularity are able to create original work and, though I am in awe of her originality, I feel inclined to disagree with Méret Oppenheim about exhibitions of ‘women’s art’. I acknowledge that for much of the 20th century, when Oppenheim was concerned with her own art (she died in 1985), there was no general awareness that there was even a problem – and women artists had little or no voice before the 1970s. At least today there is, I hope, sufficient awareness to avoid ghettoising art by women. Taking the path of caution further, if all exhibitions were generalised this would eliminate the powerful statements that grouping certain artists together can create whatever the group selected.

The Angels of Anarchy exhibition was certainly a case in point. It was absolutely the best exhibition of Surrealist art that I’ve been to and is positively enhanced by the absence of tedious dinosaurs like René Magritte and the self-obsessed Salvador Dali. This is partly because Angels of Anarchy shows up the original Surrealist movement for what it was, a group dominated by patriarchal older men who adored ‘playing’ with a sequence of attractive younger women and according them the role of personal muse, whilst denigrating the value of their work. However the more important reason, for me, that this exhibition was so worthwhile, is that the work on display was often so extraordinary and the display was thoughtful and thought provoking.

The tall Victorian gallery was partitioned to provide more intimate spaces for viewing. You entered through a suggestive red velvet atrium, where angled walls put you off balance even before you see the work. You were greeted by ‘the Angel of Anarchy’ herself, a masked head by Eileen Agar, an English artist who created two versions of this surreal visage. You’re led to assume it is female, with feathers, beads and brightly patterned scarves bound around it, disguising and hiding the features. She can’t see you and you can’t see her either. She epitomises the designated role of the woman in Surrealist art, dreamily inward-looking and silent. Eileen Agar was first a painter of her own, using a mixture of neo-classical and expressionist styles until the major-domo of British surrealism, Roland Penrose, declared she was actually a Surrealist. Eileen said “fine” and continued what she had been doing, whilst embarking on friendships with the Surrealists, especially the other Surrealist women.

This aspect of their lives was emphasised by the exhibition. Many of these women were friends, they kept company with each other, they laughed together and supported each other and it is this sisterhood, as well as links in their imagery and ideas, that makes them, the Surrealist women, seem like an art movement in themselves, regardless of the male artists they associated with. Lee Miller photographed most of them, her photography shown by the Manchester Art Gallery was on a par with that of Man Ray who is usually described as her teacher, though she did not objectify women in the way that Ray did. She photographs her friends as unique, identifiable people.

Leonora Carrington’s own paintings are hard to find in the UK, although she was born in Lancashire. Repelled by the narrow attitudes of her wealthy family, she left this country before World War II and has lived in Mexico since 1943, where she is today regarded as one of their own

There were more obviously surreal photographs as well, some of these also by Lee Miller. Photography forms one of the less well-known aspects of Surrealist art and these are all the more marvellous for their creation long before the era of digital photography. Dora Maar’s fantastical, disturbing photograph, ‘Pere Ubu’ is one of my favourite Surrealist images and her other photographs show huge technical proficiency, combined with a pure Surrealist imagination.

Technical proficiency is something these artists have in abundance. Leonor Fini is probably the most skilled painter, her extraordinary, prescient painting, ‘Au Bout du Monde’ (At the End of the World) shows a defiant female survivor of a presumably man-made apocalypse, swimming in a world swamped by black, oily waters. In another work, ‘The Alcove’, Leonor depicts her friend and fellow painter Leonora Carrington, armed and armoured like a warrior, preparing to defend two young girls cowering in the gloom behind her. Leonor Fini deliberately twists the traditional conventions of ‘fine art’ with these unmistakably feminist paintings, which are produced with a classical, realist skill that totally subverts their antecedents.

Leonora Carrington’s own paintings are hard to find in the UK, although she was born in Lancashire. Repelled by the narrow attitudes of her wealthy family, she left this country before World War II and has lived in Mexico since 1943, where she is today regarded as one of their own. Her life story would make a Hollywood romance. Her paintings are symbolist and magical as much as surreal and she refuses to explain her animated symbolism, so you can read into it whatever you like. The Tate owns merely two of her drawings, so it was worth attending the exhibition just to see these few paintings by an extraordinary artist who should be a British national treasure.

Toyen painted a desperate vista of newly covered graves, lined up into a stale brown distance with, mysteriously, tiny butterflies hopefully gathering on them

Paintings by a better known Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, were familiar to me from her major retrospective four years ago at the Tate Modern in London. In Manchester a few of these dominated one wall and show Frida’s defiantly Mexican and bisexual take on feminism, though its resemblance to Surrealism was harder to see in the works selected here. Her still life pictures, painted in her last years when her fragile health was declining fast, are strongly symbolic but lack the proficiency of her earlier work. Frida herself declared that she was not a Surrealist, she painted her own reality. She also appeared in a short extract from a film by Lola Álvarez Bravo, where she kisses a young woman (Tina Misrachi) and the two of them retreat into a dark room. The white shutters are then closed in our faces by Frida, as she watches us implacably. This intense little gem of a movie is said to predict her death, but also shows us part of Frida Kahlo’s life and it is hardly Surrealist either.

‘Classical Surrealism’, if there is such a thing, was provided by the paintings of Kay Sage from the US, another rarely seen highlight of the show. Though an outsider to the main group, she was one of the Surrealist women who have been almost totally overshadowed by Surrealist partners. In her case that was Yves Tanguy, who painted weird Surrealist landscapes, filled with coloured oceans and biomorphic shapes. Kay Sage’s works are also landscapes although there the similarity ends, her paintings are emotive and intense, not merely strange. They depict loss and alienation, with empty humanoid forms and scaffold covered shrouds rising above the mists. These are not feminist works but intensely personal to this lonely artist, who was too repressed to fit in with the other Surrealist women. They are as stylistically exceptional as any early painting by Dali, also less repulsive and considerably better composed. Each painting depicts a single, intense vision and you wouldn’t like to live with the loneliness which they exude. Katherine Lynn Sage was misunderstood or ignored through much of her life and committed suicide at the age of 65.

A more down-to-earth vision of personal experience is provided by Toyen, the Surrealist pseudonym for Czech artist Maria Cerminova, who survived World War II in hiding in her homeland. Surrealism, along with all other forms of modern art, was ruthlessly suppressed by the Nazis who occupied Czechoslovakia between 1939-1945. Toyen painted a desperate vista of newly covered graves, lined up into a stale brown distance with, mysteriously, tiny butterflies hopefully gathering on them. It seems that, like Frida Kahlo and Kay Sage, Toyen represented her own reality.

They were never welcomed into the intellectual heart of the movement, however much they co-operated with the men

Despite these marvellous paintings, some of the most striking work in the Angels of Anarchy show were the photographs. As well as Lee Miler and Dora Maar there were later contributors to the medium, including Francesca Woodman whose 1970s Surrealist tableaux are like bizarre stills from an as-yet-unmade film noir, self portraits of separation and alienation that subtly transform the viewer into voyeur. Photo montages by Penny Slinger, including one of a lip-sticked mouth open to reveal the cavity filled by an ear, titled ‘I hear what you say’, are grotesquely disturbing in a manner that only one Surrealist photographer surpassed. I won’t say any more about Hans Bellmer’s ‘art’ here or anywhere else. You can Google him if you need to see why.

The enigmatic self-portraits of photographer and performance artist Claude Cahun emphasise the outsider nature of not only her as an overtly lesbian artist, who as such had no chance of being embraced by the main Surrealist group, but also the Surrealist women as a whole. They were never welcomed into the intellectual heart of the movement, however much they co-operated with the men.

That there was co-operation between Surrealist artists, female and male, is demonstrated by the Cadavres Exquis (Exquisite Corpse) pictures. These are variations on the childhood game of consequences, where one person creates the first part of a verse or drawing, another the next and so on until the bottom of the paper is reached. The Surrealists named this game after an early endeavour with poetry, where the line, “The exquisite corpse drank the red wine,” emerged as an opening. They purported to use this game to spontaneously unlock the subconscious through chance association, though it’s difficult to see much spontaneity here, particularly with the collaged ‘cadavres’. However it was fun to look at the rest of the exhibition and then try and identify which artist produce which section of the drawing.

Displayed in a glass case there was more serious graphic and written work in the form of books, especially by Leonora Carrington who was hailed even by the chief purveyor of Surrealist misogyny, André Breton, as the best Surrealist storyteller. Books of poetry by Paul Éluard have been illustrated by the today unknown Valentine Hugo, who in the 1920s was one of the very earliest women to work with the Surrealists. Other largely forgotten Surrealists were given brief outings, including Valentine Penrose, Nusch Éluard and Mimi Parent, whose braided blond hair fashioned into a whip and named ‘Maîtresse’, is one of the most disturbing objects in the exhibition.

Sisterhood is powerful and the women interact through their strange and vibrantly erotic works

The Surrealist object was one of the triumphant ideas of the movement. It arrived with certain (male) artists from the Dada groups, to become the Surrealists’ preferred method of liberating art from formal sculpture, finding the marvellous in the mundane without having to spend a lot of money! Women Surrealists were encouraged to undertake these small scale pieces, using found and readymade ingredients and they excelled at it. Dorothea Tanning’s black velvet ‘Pincushion to Serve as a Fetish’ is both Surrealist object and small soft sculpture, part of a series of larger works she created in the 1960s, but all the more disturbing for its scale.

Not all the objects were as disturbing. Returning to Méret Oppenheim, her beer mug with a squirrel’s tail is momentarily entertaining but seems more a visual pun than a serious statement and a supposedly disturbing fur-covered glove with painted fingernails protruding looks like an old prop from a Hammer Horror film. Méret was a highly intelligent and imaginative painter and it’s a shame her work wasn’t more broadly represented, though her reproduction of the furry teacup as a cheap souvenir picture with fur fabric in a plastic frame provides her own sarcastic comment on the unwanted notoriety that the original gave her. Regrettably this exhibition does nothing else to dispel that notoriety.

One way to judge the success of any exhibition is to look for reviews. In response to a 1943 New York exhibition which included a number of Surrealists, Henry McBride in the New York Sun sarcastically commented that the work by the women Surrealists seemed to be better than that of the men because, “Surrealism is about 70% hysterics, 20% literature, 5% good painting and 5% is just saying ‘boo’ to the innocent public. There are, as we all know, plenty of men among the Neurotics, but we also know that there are still more women amongst them… It is obvious that women ought to excel at Surrealism. At all events, they do.” There seems little point in my commenting today on this inelegant confusion of misogyny and philistinism.

Even allowing for 65 years of history, a slight reduction in virulent philistinism and more awareness of the politically incorrect, the reviews for Angels of Anarchy seem to have been far more positive! For example, Kate Kellaway in The Observer caught the constantly surprising and disquieting nature of the Angels of Anarchy show when she said, “Visiting the show is like finding oneself in an attic filled with incredible souvenirs and severally haunted.”

Sophie Mayer, writing for online journal Chroma, picked up the feminist and sexual nature of much of the work, but even more on the closeness of the artists, despite physical and temporal separation, when she said: “Sisterhood is powerful and here the women interact through their strange and vibrantly erotic works.”

Of course in 1943 there were no women reviewing art in major newspapers or journals. Today it’s quite encouraging to see how far women artists and reviewers have come, thought there’s further to go, perhaps even with our own consciousness. The best comment I have found on Angels of Anarchy came from a man, when Jonathan Jones in The Guardian said: “This exhibition is a lesson in why feminists are right. How can so many good artists and so many striking works of art have been neglected, if not through the infinite resourcefulness of patriarchy?”

I wish I’d said that!

Susan Gilbert is an author and playwright who is currently working on a book about the Exhibition of 31 Women which, in 1943, was the first exhibition devoted to the women artists of the C20 avant-garde. It included Surrealists Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Valentine Hugo, Frida Kahlo, Méret Oppenheim and Dorothea Tanning, all of whose work was on show in Manchester