9 October, 2017Issue 3535.1Visual Arts

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“I Didn’t Have Time to be Anyone’s Muse”: The Hidden Lives of Female Surrealists

Emma Parker

The Militant Muse: Love, War
and the Women of Surrealism
Whitney Chadwick
Thames and Hudson
October 2017
256pp
£24.95

 

 

 

 

 

 

In an interview in 1983, the painter, sculptor and writer Leonora Carrington tartly noted that her role as the muse of surrealism “was bullshit … I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse … I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist”. Carrington’s acerbic remarks have now inspired Whitney Chadwick in The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism, a collection of five biographical sketches outlining the friendships and love affairs between women in the surrealist movement. Linking together these life stories, Chadwick suggests that they were far too engaged with their own and each other’s work to fulfil the role of the inspirational, silent muse. By retelling the stories of multiple lives across five chapters, Chadwick weaves an alternative history of surrealism where these remarkable artists forged relationships as allies, lovers and mentors against a backdrop of ever-escalating violence in Europe during the Second World War.

By focussing upon female partnerships within the surrealist movement, The Militant Muse highlights how the particular cultural conditions created by Nazism warped and shaped these creative alliances. Embracing a form of collective life-writing allows Chadwick to examine the complexities of Valentine Penrose’s and Alice Rahon’s shared poetic vocabulary, alongside a study of Carrington’s and Leonor Fini’s creative culinary experiments. This approach runs the risk of smoothing over the often uneven relationships between individual artists; there are fascinating intersections of race, class and gender which arise through these often-unequal female partnerships and the tensions created by their obvious differences could and should be discussed further. Yet there are also significant gains to be made by searching for similarities, as well as differences, in these fascinating life narratives. Chadwick’s comparative methodology allows her to tease out hidden or obscured stories from letters, photographs, poems, recipes and other archival traces, combining them to create a web of close female relationships which she repositions as central, not peripheral, to surrealism. Chadwick’s research suggests that through different forms of female solidarity, these women created new artistic visions while often still married to famous male artists (including André Breton, Diego Riveria and Max Ernst). In this alternative history of an artistic movement, the supposed muses of surrealism inspired and challenged by each other, rather than silently energising their famous spouses.

The danger of this exercise in collective life-writing is not only that it potentially glosses over the clear differences between these female artists, but that it also reduces our interest in them to their personal lives, rather than their extraordinary work. Although there are black and white reproductions of paintings and sculptures accompanying each chapter, our interest in these is directed toward how they reflect the intimate relationships between women. Life-writing is a capricious practice and cannot be reduced to a single function or exercise. It is demonstrably true that the work of female artists and creators is still too frequently read as autobiographical, implying that women are incapable of reflecting anything beyond their own experience or, indeed, their own bodies. In this sense the rebellious, multifarious possibilities of life-writing can be reduced to a prescriptive understanding of autobiography or the autobiographical.  Griselda Pollock notes that the idea of trope of autobiography in art criticism is still deployed in order to “make a classic gendered and gendering move to reduce the artist whose is a woman to an intimate first name”. With Pollock’s words in mind, we should hesitate before leaping headfirst into an understanding of these artworks as representative of the tensions between Frida and Jacqueline, or Leonor and Leonora. Instead, an understanding how these works reflect both individual relationships, and the connections between art and a tumultuous political arena might yield more interesting results.

Consequently the context of the Second World War provides an important focal point around which Chadwick arranges this constellation of lives. She argues in her preface that the chaotic circumstances of war necessitated powerful new support networks among the female surrealists, highlighting how their relationships were tested amidst the violence and uncertainty of the early 1940s as many artists (including Breton, Lamba, Carrington and Ernst) fled Europe to escape Nazi persecution. In many instances, including Lee Miller’s experiences of the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, and Carrington’s incarceration and rape in Spain, they witnessed acts of extreme brutality, subsequently carrying traumatic memories which would influence and shape their art in the post-war years. Yet equally, as a chapter on Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore demonstrates, the war also inspired particular kinds of creative resistance and solidarity. Cahun and Moore, who were both lovers and stepsisters, carried out an orchestrated campaign against the Nazi occupation of Jersey by creating highly visual anti-Nazi tracts which they distributed across the island. Their collaborations, described as fighting “an individual battle together” would lead to their eventual arrest and detention in 1944. Connecting these incidents with Miller’s wartime photographic career makes a powerful case for the inseparability of the personal and the political, with Chadwick positioning individual friendships and love affairs as inseparable from a backdrop of conflict and social upheaval. 

One of the book’s most compelling chapters charts the relationship between Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and Jacqueline Lamba, a French artist married to Breton and struggling, at the time of her first meeting with Kahlo, to establish her own creative identity. Photographic images of Kahlo and Lamba which appear embedded in the text testify to a startling and clearly intimate friendship at odds with the formal, sombre gazes of their respective self-portraits. Through Chadwick’s skilful retelling we hear not only of the women’s productive friendship but also of how Lamba’s husband attempted to claim Kahlo as anticipating his own surrealism. Kahlo’s response was swift and condemnatory, claiming “I never knew I was a surrealist until Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one”. Beneath the sarcasm is a serious refutation to understandings of her work as a virginal ‘new world’ or colony for European male surrealists to discover, interpret and conquer.  With Kahlo’s own image now adorning the wrist of British Prime Minister Theresa May, the appropriation of her image and work sadly continues to persist in the twenty-first century. Kahlo’s fury with Breton would soon spread to the other male artists within the movement, as she claimed she’d “rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris”. Kahlo’s palpable anger demonstrates not only a desire for personal independence, but a wider anti-colonial sentiment that rejects European influences and claims upon Mexican culture. By retelling these anecdotes Chadwick presents a powerful picture of Kahlo while testifying to her close relationship with Lamba. However there is a risk that this focus upon the personal therefore misses the opportunity to discuss Kahlo’s lifelong Marxist politics, which partly fuelled her rejection of “those ‘artistic’ bitches”. As Malherbe and Cahun’s highly dangerous program of resistance demonstrates, strongly-held political convictions could prove lethal and it is possible that, by resolutely focussing upon their relationships with each other, we may lose sight of how these artists constantly looked outwards, responding in their work and letters to the politics of a turbulent world.

The Militant Muse should be seen as part of a wider, still-growing interest in establishing and celebrating the work of female surrealists who have been historically overshadowed by the accomplishments of their famous male contemporaries. The recent exhibition of exclusively-female surrealist art entitled “Dreamers Awake”, which ran at the White Cube Gallery till 17 September 2017, follows shows at Sotheby’s in New York (2015), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2012) and the Manchester Art Gallery (2009) which sought to showcase and champion their creations. The permanent surrealist works on display at the Tate Modern suggests the need for such exhibitions as, although it features work of Carrington, Fini, and Eileen Agar, the collection continues to prioritise and affirm the influence of male heavyweights such as Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. Chadwick’s own scholarship has contributed towards this steady reevaluation, as both Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985), and Women, Art and Society (2010) highlight the importance of these women as creative agents rather than merely inspirational figures. Her interest in exposing how “surrealism constructed women as magic objects and sites on which to project male erotic desire” has come, concurrently, with the desire to demonstrate how these women answered back to such misogynistic demands for silence. Her academic research has emphasised how these artists represented both themselves, and their divergent experiences of their female bodies, by experimenting with sculpture, photography, poetry and paint. Although the Militant Muse stems from this still-growing enthusiasm for the female surrealists, underpinned by recent international exhibitions, it simultaneously encourages us to view their work as autobiographical, albeit spilling truths about their relationships with other women, rather than their male counterparts. At times this emphasis on a broad understanding of women can feel strained, especially with recent interpretations of surrealist art frequently claiming the gender fluidity of figures such as Cahun. However, in a study where both the lives of these artists and their work sit together uneasily on the page, resisting any final or totalising unity, this should be seen a productive difficulty. Despite the difficulties of autobiographical interpretations, the intriguing network of solidarity which emerges from this collection of life-stories is extraordinary and defiant; the history that Chadwick has unearthed will undoubtedly influence our understanding and interpretation of the surrealist movement for years to come.

 

Emma Parker is a PhD student at the University of Leeds whose research focuses on colonial and postcolonial life-writing. She is also a research assistant on the AHRC-funded project ‘Mobilising Multidirectional Memory to Build More Resilient Communities in South Africa’