Book review: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick

Leonora Carrington, “The Juggler” (1954)

I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist. (Leonora Carrington)

I have to admit, I was not nearly as impressed with this book as I thought I would be. My anticipation was framed by two factors: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement was the first comprehensive look at the women artists associated with Surrealism (notice that I don’t say “Surrealist women artists,” as not all of the women in the book considered themselves Surrealists. Chadwick makes the distinction that these were women who were at one time affiliated with Surrealism in some capacity and had careers that were not reliant on Breton or Surrealism). Also, this book was one of the primary sources behind the In Wonderland exhibition and catalog, which is unsurprising considering that she was one of the curators/contributors to the catalog.

This book was written between 1980 and 1985. I found Chadwick’s writing to be informative, but poorly structured: I felt like I was following a mostly linear train of thought that she managed to break apart into six chapters, but there was little to no framing. Perhaps an introductory chapter that cohesively explains the book with nice summaries of each chapter is a relatively new requirement of scholarly work. And so are introductions and conclusions to each chapter, for that matter. What does this have to do with the actual content of the book? Not a damn thing, I just thought you all should know that the book was frustrating and that I am going to make sure my master’s thesis has a good abstract, introduction, conclusion, and that I properly frame my chapters.

Chadwick’s aim with her book is to make the women artists associated with Surrealism more accessible to study, and she claims to not want to isolate them as women artists, nor define them solely by their connection to the movement. It is debatable if she actually is successful in either of these aims, as her book ends up being somewhat essentialist and does not go too far outside of Surrealism to discuss the wider work of these artists. Chadwick prefaces her book with the confession that the histories of the women artists affiliated with “first generation” Surrealism were often difficult to distinguish because they were/are overshadowed by the histories of Surrealist men. These women more often than naught were remembered as muses to their male counterparts, but the fact that they continued in their own careers after the original group dissipated nullifies the idea that her role as muse outweighed her role as artist. Furthermore, the light that feminism shed on women artists particularly in the 1970’s and 80’s made it all the more important to address the women artists affiliated with Surrealism (even though Chadwick denies that this is a feminist retelling of the first generation of Surrealism). This book was the first time a woman attempted to address the “real” history of these women. This history is complicated, fragmented, often contradictory, and difficult to relay (which is definitely obvious in her piecemeal retelling of parts of different artist’s stories throughout the chapters). 

Left to right: Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington, Ady Fidelin and Nusch Eluard (1954)

Surrealism provided women artists a place to break past the conventions of their upbringing and reconcile their ideas with their lives. Their lives and styles are remarkably diverse, which is a testament to their individuality in a movement that embraces personal reality (or surreality, if you will). Chadwick asserts that the women artists in her book were women who were associated with the movement, since some outright rejected it, while others were excluded from modernist history (she blames curators who were more interested in telling a larger thematic story of Surrealism in their exhibitions). In theory, they were given the opportunity to mature artistically. However, though Surrealism exalted the idea of “la femme” in the singular, it did not equally revere the plural “les femmes.” Breton and other male Surrealists claimed to support women’s liberation and considered art the unifying force between the male/female polarity, yet the male ideal of the femme-enfant— the woman marked by youth, naivete, and purity– more or less hindered their attempts to reach true artistic maturity, since their male counterparts saw them as being at the mercy of their “immaturity.” Surrealism could not reconcile the 19th c. image of the passive, dependent woman who was defined by her relationship with men to the contemporary call for autonomy. Thus, Surrealism both provided opportunities for women while failing to meet their needs because of a restrictive male vernacular and ideology.

Chadwick breaks down her book into six chapters: Search for a Muse, The Muse as Artist, Revolution and Sexuality, The Female Earth: Nature and the Imagination, Woman Artists and the Hermetic Tradition, and Cycles of Narrative Fantasy. The first chapter, Search for a Muse, goes through the history of women as muses in Surrealism, finally giving these women a voice of agency and illuminating the tension between the movement’s theories and beliefs with actual practice. Chadwick believes that WWI (and later WWII), which thrust many women into the working world and was filled with changes in fashion that aired on the masculine side, contributed to the increased desire for freedom and personal expression (though one review I read fiercely argued this point, saying that these factors are not the only reasons women turned to Surrealism, and that it had been in the works long before then). Many of these women became affiliated with Surrealism through personal or romantic connections with male artists and were often already trained in art. In later years, particularly after the movement went international, women were “discovered” through their work, and if their lives/personalities suited Surrealism, it confirmed the efficacy of the “chance encounter.”

Leonor Fini, “Petit Sphinx Gardien” (1943-44)

Chapter 2, The Muse as Artist, further explores the resentment that some of the women artists felt in being regarded as muses (Leonora Carrington had one word for this pronouncement: “Bullshit”). Chadwick defines a muse as an externalized source of creative energy and a personification of the female Other, which is a “peculiarly male invention” (66). Many women plain rejected the title of Surrealist because of these chauvinistic attitudes towards women. Frida Kahlo insisted that she was a Magical Realist, and Leonor Fini never officially joined the group nor wanted the title of Surrealist, even though she exhibited with them (although her work airs more on the perverse “Bataille-side” of Surrealism anyway, and Breton hated Bataille). Their affiliation with Surrealism, however tenuous, made it easier to actually be an artist and exhibit work, since the attitude was overall more open-minded. Though men relied on women to be their muses, women found inspiration in themselves (often through self-portraiture, however direct or indirect the representation was), as they were alienated by Surrealist theories. Chadwick points to Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that the mirror is the key to the feminine condition: women concern themselves with self-image while men enlarge their own self-image provided by the reflection of woman.

The third chapter, Revolution and Sexuality, delves into the (male) Surrealist attempt to reconcile l’amour (love) with l’erotique (erotic). Breton was somewhat puritannical about sexuality in Surrealism, rejecting homosexuality and bestiality while accepting onanism, sodomy, and exploration of various forms of sexual pleasure. He was more of a romantic idealist than anything else, and his insistence in melding the erotic with love made “the act of love dependent on all forms of expression” (103). However, the language of love was male, and even though the women of Surrealism were perfectly comfortable with their bodies, they avoided imagery of the adult female sexual experience. Freud was of little interest to the women Surrealists because they found little support for a more liberated understanding of female sexuality, including maternity (perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these artists did not have children of their own).

Remedios Varo, “Creation of the Birds” (1957)

I’ll be totally honest here: I skimmed over the last three chapters. Chapter 4, The Female Earth: Nature and Imagination, connected the female creative powers with those of nature. Women, lacking an external human muse, were able to identify their psychic reality with the barren or fruitful earth. Chapter 5, Women and the Hermetic Tradition, delved into some of the women’s affiliation with the esoteric and the occult. According to Chadwick, “Unlike the male Surrealist, who absorbed the image of woman into his own image through the metaphor of the androgyne or couple, women artists have often chosen to emphasize the fundamental biological and spiritual forces that distinguish women’s experience from that of men, and that place her in direct contact with the magic powers of nature” (182). The final chapter, Cycles of Narrative Fantasy, delves into the (often overtly) literary nature of Surrealist art, discussing the incorporation of poetry and short stories into the individual creative repertoire. The challenge for many artists was to keep the literary side distinct from the aesthetic. The personal narrative was dominant for women artists in all creative forms.

Though I found this book frustrating to actually get through, it gave me a lot to think about not just in terms of women in Surrealism, but also about gender performativity (Butler, anyone?). These women were conflicted between wanting to express themselves as women, but they were part of a movement that was catered towards male expression. Fini, it could be argued, exhibited certain “male” qualities of perversity and overt rebelliousness, for even though the Surrealists claimed to admire the rebellious woman, it had to fit within their masculinized perception of the ideal Surrealist woman. This in turn led to Breton’s general dislike of her and her work. And I believe Natalya Lusty pointed out Leonora Carrington’s conflict in trying to fit in with the Surrealists while expressing her own concerns within her art. Lusty argued that Carrington essentially dumbed down her short story, “The Debutante,” through its use of poor French (Carrington was British) in order to fit into a certain mold that would gain her exposure while being specific to her own needs of self-expression.

This book also appears to be a precursor to In Wonderland‘s proposal that Surrealism provided an outlet for women that eventually contributed to the wider aims of Feminism. Though Chadwick is careful in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement to state that she is not trying to associate Surrealism with feminism (apparently some of the artists she talked were concerned that she was trying to make that assertion), it is easy to see how it eventually transitioned to these later views. When I was talking to Amelia Jones, an art historian whose interests lie in feminism (among other things), she said that In Wonderland‘s pre-feminist proposal was “Whitney Chadwick’s deal.” Perhaps she was initially trying to tread carefully in this area while the artists were still alive to argue with her.


3 thoughts on “Book review: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick

  1. Really interesting post. Not that I’m hugely we’ll versed in art history, but I’d never heard of any of these painters, so it was fantastic to get such an interesting introduction. LOVE the sphinx painting.

  2. Have you looked at Gloria F. Orenstein’s “Art History and the Case for the Women of Surrealism,” published in 1975. I believe it is an important predecessor for Chadwick’s book and calls for revisionary art history on Surrealism and women.

  3. I vaguely remember reading this book many decades ago and wasn’t impressed either. Later reading Dorothea Tanning’s autobiography “Birthday” I found out that she rejected invitations to be in all women exhibitions because she thought they were sexist. This complicates the story of how women associated with Surrealism are represented in art history. I would like to read an article/book comparing the careers of the female Dadaists to the women associated with Surrealism because there is so many differences (careers, attitudes of male companions and art history’s recognition of them).

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