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. Continue reading


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).  Continue reading

Catalog/essay review: American Women Modernists (BYU)

Wanda Gag, “Moonlight” (1926)

Thus it could be argued that while modernism theoretically protected the values of individuals, those individuals were required to be of a particular race and class in order for society to reach its pure objectives. While modernism theoretically protected the expression of an individual, that expression would only be accepted if it supported the prevailing social march. And while individualism was the source of style and substance in art, it was often only recognized if it was in accordance with the prevailing practice or the emerging form that was its contradiction. (Campbell B. Gray, Preface)

Before I started reading American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, I was a little appalled that the title of the catalog seemed to imply that some dude named Robert was the sole influence in the artistic careers of a number of women, or that their success was completely dependent on him. However, as soon as I saw that this catalog was published in 2005, I realized that there is no way that the scholarship included would paint such a picture (especially Erika Doss, who once called out someone I know on a particularly crass joke about finding a penny versus caring about women’s basketball). While Robert Henri is ultimately at the heart of this catalog, since the women artists discussed/exhibited were his students, it is more about how women and Henri’s beliefs about true modernism changed the course of modern American art history.  Continue reading

Book review: Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Natalya Lusty

Leonora Carrington, “Green Tea (La Dame Ovale),” 1942

Natalya Lusty takes on three major and somewhat disparate topics in her book Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. However, she brilliantly ties them together through their very disparateness: as a marginal movement (or at least that is how it was regarded/it regarded itself during the throes of Modernism), Surrealism positioned itself to examine other areas of marginality, i.e. the people outside of the bourgeoisie. Politically, feminism was originally a marginal movement and prided itself on being on the outside, as being in such a position allowed a more thorough critique of the (masculine) “norm.” Psychoanalysis, while at the heart of Surrealism, did not necessarily “jibe” with Surrealism (Freud once expressed to Andre Breton that he did not get what the genre wanted), and Surrealism’s tie to psychoanalysis was often tenuous. According to Lusty, “… Surrealism found in psychoanalysis a model on which to develop a theory of creative bound up in the mystery of unconscious desires and associations, a move which sealed the trope of the enigmatic woman as its most potent erotic symbol” (13). Unsurprisingly, feminism outright rejected psychoanalysis. So how does she tie everything together? She looks through the lenses of social and artistic inquiry to find common themes such as violence, parody, and transgression. It is through the tension between these areas that we see their relationships and how they analyze one another.

The book does not limit itself just to the years in which Surrealism was predominant, but rather spans the line dividing Modern and Contemporary art, which inevitably highlights the on-going feminist debates. Lusty spans her arguments from Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) to Cindy Sherman (1954- ), and though feminism did not officially exist when Carrington was creating much of her work, Lusty declares Carrington’s book The Hearing Trumpet as a precursor to feminist revisionist literature. Sherman’s work, which is believed to contain Surrealist overtones and references, has been both admired and chastised by feminist scholars for its treatment (objectification?) of the female body. I did not spend too much time reading about Sherman, as she is outside my area of study. I also did not spend too much time on her discussion of Claude Cahun’s photographic work. I instead focused on Lusty’s chapters comparing The Hearing Trumpet to our favorite work by Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye; I also looked at her analysis of psychoanalyst Joan Riviere’s essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” to Carrington’s story, “The Debutante.”  Continue reading

Catalog review: Independent Spirits (Autry, 1995)

Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, “4-B” (1937)

The full title of this exhibition is “Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945.” This was the first exhibition to look at women artists in the American West during this time period, at the end of a time where the West was considered the Last Frontier. In addition to actually identifying and displaying works by these oft-neglected artists, the exhibition’s larger goal was to look at “the shifting mechanisms of privilege and exclusion, as women evolved from amateurs to professionals, from the Victorian ideology of ‘separate spheres’  to a more integrated participation in the arts” (ix). The catalog (and presumably the exhibition) looked at women artists in multiple states/areas in the West: California (there were actually 3 essays on this state alone, taking into account Northern, Southern, and Modernism), the greater Northwest, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains. Women still had a lot of issues to deal with at this time, such as the over-bearing nature of a patriarchal society and the general marginalization of the American West as peripheral to the East Coast centers, but amazingly, women had more opportunities for independence– both artistically and socially– in the West than their Eastern counterparts did. This was because the West was not as rooted in European gender traditions that were more prevalent in the East (although, arguably, the East Coast was not as bad as Europe in this regard). I cannot even begin to describe how much I wish I could have seen this show, but unfortunately, I was 9 years old when it came out. Thank god for catalogs. For my research purposes, I have so far only read 3 of the 9 essays in depth: “The Adventuresome, the Eccentrics, and the Dreamers: Women Modernists of Southern California” by Ilene Susan Fort; “Inner Voices, Outward Forms: Women Painters in New Mexico” by Sandra d’Emilio and Sharyn Udall;  and “‘I must paint’: Women Artists of the Rocky Mountain Region” by Erika Doss.  Continue reading

Book review: TGGoS by Annette Shandler Levitt

Leonora Carrington, “The Inn of the Dawn Horse” (1937)

Apologies for abbreviating the title– The Genres and Genders of Surrealism— but it is kind of long for a post title in addition to a three-part author’s name. This was the first book I read as part of my comps studying and has been a crucial source in forming my ideas about “non-traditional” Surrealism (and by non-traditional I mean outside of the scope of Breton’s vision: a vision that largely excludes women as active contributors and looks largely at literature and art as being the only media capable of being Surrealist).

Annette Shandler Levitt comes from a different perspective than many Surrealist scholars because one of her specialties is Modern theatre, an area that Andre Breton did not seriously acknowledge. Levitt’s questioning of Breton really makes up the core of the book: she believes that Guillaume Apollinaire was the true founder of Surrealism, that 1917 is its actual starting date, and that Breton took Apollinaire’s ideas and manipulated them under a dictatorial stance that eliminated coherency and joy from the genre. Breton was (initially) so fixated on automatism as the defining characteristic of Surrealism that he could not see the even richer potential of broader dream imagery (though I should note that Rene Magritte seems to have changed his mind somewhat on this factor). Furthermore, though Breton may have been relatively open-minded when it came to not adhering to a specific aesthetic to define Surrealism, he was very closed-minded when it came to Surrealist theatre, which Levitt believes is the most rich (Breton also believed that poetry was the strongest genre in Surrealism, whereas Levitt believes it is the weakest). Her own scholarly point of view is extremely clear because she is so opinionated in her writing.  Continue reading

Exhibition/Catalog review: In Wonderland (LACMA)

An innovative way to help corral patrons while referencing Marcel Duchamp’s installation in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition.

I saw this exhibition– its complete title being “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States“– at LACMA in late March. However, if you want to see it now, it is in Quebec until September 3, 2012. According to the catalog, this is the first exhibition of its kind that looks at how Surrealism inspired women artists in America and Mexico in the mid-20th century. My primary motivations in going to the exhibition were to see how its proposed ideas could inform my thesis and buy the catalog for my bibliography. Plus, I wanted to see the work of so many of my artist-heroes in one place!

Continue reading