Whitney Chadwick on Women in Surrealism. May 2012


For this essay I will be looking at women artists and the Surrealist movement, largely based on the concluding chapter of the book by Whitney Chadwick, of the same title. Some of the artists she discusses are Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Ittheli Coloquhoun, Leonor Fini, Grace Pailthorpe, Kay Sage, Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, Marie Toyen, Rita Kernn-Larsen, Eileen Agar, Valentine Penrose and Valentine Hugo. My personal interest lies in the themes of subjective narrative, the unconscious and self-portraiture, common in many of the works discussed here, and how they are contextualized in the discourse of art.

A general discussion of Female Surrealist artists

Chadwick begins her chapter ‘Cycles of Narrative Fantasy’ by emphasizing the importance of writing in Surrealism and how the visual and the verbal were inextricably linked. Although the artists Dali, Ernst and Masson were perhaps more known for their literary works of prose,
essays and poems, Chadwick stresses that writing was even more of an integral component of the women Surrealists’ work. Carrington, Tanning and Coquhoun in particular, wrote novels and along with Fini, Pailthrope and Sage, published plays, stories, poems and texts. Kahlo and Varo
kept a record of their dreams, nightmares and visions in their diaries, while Penrose saw her collages as an extension of her poetry (Chadwick, 1997).

The literary also affected the content of the work of many female Surrealists, with an emphasis on the narrative. From Kahlo’s autobiographical paintings and Varo’s and Carrington’s storylike
quests woven into their images, to Hugo’s illustrations accompanying Surrealist texts. Chadwick proposes several reasons for these women’s affinity for personal narrative, one of which is their isolation from the Freudian driven, Surrealist theory. In her view, their own subjective reality
was a likely source to turn to, as women were socially conditioned to accept the validity of the internal experience where “...emotion dominated reason [and] intuition replaced thought…” (Chadwick, P.236). Chadwick, however, also highlights the fact that the origins of “the personal and the self-revelatory … often associated with women’s creativity” (Chadwick, P.221) was in fact, a tradition initiated by male artists such as Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele. Surrealism offered a platform where the subjective could be explored by men and women, and those
explored by women can now be seen as the work of the oppressed collective where “the personal is the political” (Chadwick, 1997).

By comparing the prominent success of last two centuries’ women writers, “from Brontë to Virginia Wolf” (Chadwick, P.220), with the much more obscure fame of female painters of that period, Chadwick points out the following: the act of writing requires only pen, paper and table therefore enabling women to undertake this pursuit quietly and without drawing attention to themselves; the lack of technical training and knowledge of art history many women artists suffered from, was a result of institutions, as well as museums and studios, being inaccessible to them, and proved a hindrance to many; the “universal family disapproval of art as a career
for young women” (Chacwick, p.221) predominantly because of classical training’s emphasis on “the nude” (and all its implications) as a vital element; and lastly, it was intimidating for women to enter a field that was dominated by established male artists, so many took up reading and writing. Tanning, in particular, was influenced by writers Edgar Allan Poe and Ann Radcliffe, while the narrative style of early Renaissance frescos influenced Carrington’s work (Chadwick, 1997), who according to Breton, was the best Surrealist storyteller (Sue Gilbert, 2010).

Despite the female Surrealists’ engagement with literature and their considerable contributions, their role in the movement was still reductive. In her article ‘Double Vision’ for The Guardian website, Germaine Greer says that: “The body when separated from its identity - or soul, if you prefer - becomes just another thing.” (2012). In Surrealism, women generally, were seen as muses functioning as a bridge between the unconscious and reality. Chadwick elaborates on this concept saying:

“…woman, whose “convulsive beauty”, to use Breton’s term, was sufficiently compelling and disturbing to break through the conscious mind’s restrictive control, and onto whose image could be projected the secret, often forbidden, desires and obsessions lodged in the unconscious.” (Chadwick, P.220)

This idea was not shared by the women, who instead, integrated the muse into their surreal landscapes, depicting her in their own likeness and never directing the erotic violence out into the world. Unlike in the work of men, for example Hans Bellmer’s disturbing hybrids of female parts, Tanning mutes erotic violence by hinting at it subtly as an undercurrent of the childlike games her girl protagonists play (Chadwick, 1997). Kahlo’s treatment of the same theme is always self-directed. Chadwick says:

“There is no external being in the work of the women artists… who functions as a repository for the projection of erotic desire… no externalized violence…” (Chadwick, p. 220)

Conclusion, connections and questions

In her article on the topic of female Surrealists, Germaine Greer accuses the women of deluding themselves of being sexually emancipated while, in fact, enacting male fantasies. The preoccupation of self-portraiture in a lot of the work, in her view:

“…[perpetuates] In our polarised culture, in which real men may not be treated as mere body, and women must consider themselves primarily body, the portrayed body becomes the feminised body...” (Greer, P.1)

By this Greer implies that the “feminised” body is one which is passive and onto which things (like erotic violence) are projected (Greer, 2012). Chadwick, on the other hand, sees Surrealism’s conflicts between the theory and practice of having a more inclusive and consciously integrative creative community, in a society with a biased mentality, as proof of its pioneering spirit and as a precedent encouraging future generations of women artists (Chadwick, 1997).

Personally, although I understand the perspectives presented by Greer, still feel ambivalent about defining women’s art solely on what has been done before by male artists. Although I accept that a language has been established historically, which is clearly sexist, and presented as truth, it does not change the fact that I feel paralysed and cheated by, in effect, being prohibited to paint my own image. The questions raised in my mind are: Does the female body have to be eliminated completely in order to avoid stereotypical interpretation and the perpetuation of misogyny? Is it taboo to value intuition more, or as much as, rational thinking as a woman? Is the artist’s intention behind the imagery more important than the audience’s reading of it? Are ambiguity, polyvalence and the layering of meaning (used by artists such as Marlene Dumas and Louise Bourgeois) the only way to encompass the complexity of our relationship with our perception of art? In an online video I watched of the Slovenian, industrial band Laibach performing at the Tate Modern, there was a recorded voice of a man saying:

“To be of value, in the information age, a work of art must be devoid of information.”

But how does one achieve that, especially in the context of Postmodernism, where the idea of genius and inventing anything new is rejected? Must the intention to create meaningful art be completely aborted?

Word count: 1187


Chadwick W., ‘Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement’, Thames and Hudson, London, 1997.


The Debutante 1994, Ric Warren, California, online video, accessed 30 April 2012, http:// youtu.be/0kPyKz7JpFQ

Sphinx (The Art of Leonor Fini), Shivabel, online video, accessed 2 May 2012, http://youtu.be/ M87qxphn9tQ

Lee Miller (parts 1 – 6), online video, accessed 6 May 2012, http://youtu.be/8kBA81VL7wM (no other information available)

TateShots: Laibach, Monumental Retro-Avant-Garde, Uk, online video, accessed 3 May, http:// youtu.be/5YcujOx8Bus


Female Surrealist Artsits 2012, Susan Gilbert, The F Word: Contemporary UK Feminism, online article, accessed 1 May 2012, http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/courses/edpsy387-sp95/steven-clark/

Double vision, Germaine Greer, The Guardian: Art and Design blog, online article, accessed 3 May 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2007/mar/05/art.gender/print

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