Essay review: Speaking with a Forked Tongue: ‘Male’ Discourse in ‘Female’ Surrealism? by Robert J. Belton

Valentine Hugo, “Untitled (Object of Symbolic Function)” (1931)

… we have discovered the issue of methodology itself to be deeply problematic in such a socially crucial area. It is necessary, in a word, to learn to speak with a forked tongue. And since we have no metalanguage with which to characterize absolutely where the female Surrealists stand, what we must do is remain eternally vigilant to our own psychological social, ideological, and methodological preoccupations. (60)

This essay was included in the anthology Surrealism and Women, which was edited by Surrealist scholar-extraordinaire Mary Ann Caws as well as Rudolf Kuenzli and Gwen Raaberg and deals with various postmodern issues in the study of Surrealism. Belton confronted a big issue in a relatively short paper: how can we objectively discuss the work of female artists in a genre that is dominated by male rhetoric? As we have seen in previous works, Whitney Chadwick, for example, is all for seeing Surrealism as a joyous outlet for women artists. This outlet not only allowed them to finally express themselves in a less restricted way, but also (in Chadwick’s view) paved the way for feminism. Belton was much less optimistic in his views– he wastes no time in mentioning Chadwick’s views, which indicates to me that he clearly wants to refute them– and wants the reader to recognize that women and Surrealism is a difficult combination to discuss.

Part of the problem with Chadwick’s views (among others) is that she seems to operate as though Surrealism happened in some sort of artistic bubble, but this is (obviously) not the case. Surrealism was a product of a network of sources and influences which were socially and politically rooted. Aesthetic expression was secondary. Surrealist doctrine was patriarchal– there is no denying that– therefore we must speak with a “forked tongue” when discussing women artists and Surrealism. For example, the piece above by Valentine Hugo (“Untitled [Object of Symbolic Function]”) is completely immersed in sexual symbolism, with the red “male” glove penetrating the white “female” one. Valentine was a woman artist, yet she is using a clearly male visual rhetoric to illustrate her work. Therefore, while it would be nice to expand our readings of Surrealism in a contemporary feminist mode, the “‘objective’ cultural and contextual description” (50) can be prohibiting.

The works by women Surrealists cannot be considered entirely pro-feminist, because even though some of the artists eventually became involved in the Feminist movement in the 1970’s, their work of the 1930’s and 40’s was based in the Surrealist doctrine. If one wants to regard the work as proto-feminist, one has to take into account the “multiplicities of ideologies” than make up Feminism. Furthermore, most of these women became involved after the major innovations had been made that defined Surrealism. Post-war France was incredibly anti-feminist: it did not grant women the right to vote until the mid-1940’s and went through a period where women were denied birth control because they were expected to repopulate the country after so many Frenchmen had been killed in the war (or rather wars).

Leonora Carrington, “Portrait of Max Ernst” (1939)

Belton is quite blunt about women’s “real” roles in Surrealism. Most of them were involved with (and possibly largely inspired by) their male counterparts. The male artists were apparently largely indifferent to the work by the women artists of the group and may have only allowed women to participate in exhibitions because of the idea that they were all like Frida Kahlo, whom Andre Breton described as “a ribbon around a bomb.” According to Belton, self-exploration in Surrealism, a topic of which Chadwick in particular was so fond of, became popular mainly after their male companions had died (Kay Sage was with Yves Tanguy, Leonora Carrington was with Max Ernst for a time, etc) because “they had no where else to look” (58). He seems to prefer to lump the visual category of “self-exploration” under Magical Realism or Neo-Romanticism. Frida Kahlo, as we are well aware, was all about self-exploration and did not consider herself a Surrealist precisely because of its misogynistic doctrine. She preferred to be considered a Magical Realist, and yet people still call her a Surrealist…

According to Belton, the only artists who can be “described in the same terms of narcissism and abrogation of social responsibility that are applicable to the men” (57) are Gail Pailthorpe, Lee Miller and Toyen. Furthermore, the only women artists who took “proto-feminist” risks were Leonor Fini, Ithell Colquhoun, Meret Oppenheim, and Toyen (and by “proto-feminist” I mean that they depicted male castration). This significantly limits the number of women artists who have generally considered Surrealists, which points to the real issue at hand: the methodology used to describe women in Surrealism is inherently flawed. Another way of putting it is that “men and women may use the same vocabularies, but they speak fundamentally different dialects” (59). This problematic methodology needs to be adjusted in order to better understand women in Surrealism.

This was the first essay I have read in a long time that initially pissed me off. A lot. Even though I knew it was trying to be an objective bridge between Surrealist realities and feminist rhetoric, which do not necessarily always align, I found his ideas to be rather closed-minded and antiquated for most of the article. I also have to admit that the fact that he is a male scholar clouded my judgment somewhat. However, I personally have to be careful when I feel too emotionally provoked by a scholarly work because it usually means I didn’t read it right. Nevertheless, even though he lightly touched on his eventual conclusion in the introduction, it wasn’t until the end that Belton reached the core of the issue at hand. At that point, I decided that the essay wasn’t half-bad after all, though (again) a bit depressing after spending the last 3-ish months reading relatively uplifting material. Once my head cooled, I realized that this was an invaluable addition to my reading list and is applicable to both my major and minor concentrations: the possible performativity of gender in order to fit into the movement, the difficulty in combining to fundamentally different mindsets into one idea of women in Surrealism (this will prove to be an interesting argument to make in my question about how the marginality of Surrealism and Feminism can help inform one another), and the issues that can arise when one declares oneself a Surrealist versus denying it.


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