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The Fantastic Women Of Surrealism: An Introduction

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The Fantastic Women Of Surrealism: An Introduction

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When André Breton, a leader of the Surrealist movement and author of its first manifesto, wrote that “the problem of woman is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world,” he was not alluding to the unfair lack of recognition experienced by his female peers.

Marquee name Surrealists like Breton, Salvador DalíMan RayRené Magritte, and Max Ernst positioned the women in their circle as muses and symbols of erotic femininity, rather than artists in their own right.

As Méret Oppenheim, subject of a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, is seen remarking at the outset of Behind the Masterpiece‘s introduction to “the fantastic women of Surrealism”, above, it was up to female Surrealists to free themselves of the narrowly defined role society – and their male counterparts – sought to impose on them:

A woman isn’t entitled to think, to express aggressive ideas.

The first artist Behind the Masterpiece profiles needs no introduction. Frida Kahlo is surely one of the best known female artists in the world, a woman who played by her own rules, turning to poetic, often brutal imagery as she delved into her own physical and mental suffering:

I paint self-portraits, because I paint my own reality. I paint what I need to. Painting completed my life. I lost three children and painting substituted for all of this… I am not sick, I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts notes that Remedios Varo –  the subject of a current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago– and Leonora Carrington “were seen as the ‘femmes-enfants’ to the famous and much older male artists in their lives.”

Their friendship was ultimately more satisfying and far longer lasting then their romantic attachments to Surrealist luminaries Ernst and poet Benjamin Péret. Carrington paid tribute to it in her novel, The Hearing Trumpet.

The pair’s work reveals a shared interest in alchemy, astrology and the occult, approaching them from characteristically different angles, as per Stefan van Raay, author of Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna:

Carrington’s work is about tone and color and Varo’s is about line and form.

The name of Dorothea Tanning, like that of Leonora Carrington, is often linked to Max Ernst, though she made no bones about her desire to keep her artistic identity separate from that of her husband of 30 years.

Her work evolved several times over the course of a career spanning seven decades, but her first major museum survey was a posthumous one.

University of Cambridge art history professor, Alyce Mahon, co-curator of that Tate Modern exhibit, touches on the nature of Tanning’s deceptively feminine soft sculptures:

If I asked for two words that you associate with pin cushions, you would say sewing and craft, and you would associate those with the female in the house. Tanning played with the idea of wifely skills and took a very humble object and turned it into a fetish. She crafted her first one out of velvet in 1965 and randomly placed pins in it and aligned it with a voodoo doll. She says it ‘bristles’ with images. So she takes something fabulously familiar and makes it uncanny and strange to encourage us to think differently.

Tanning rejected the label of ‘woman artist’, viewing it as “just as much a contradiction in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘elephant artist’.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Sigmund Freud!

The famed psychoanalyst’s concept of the subconscious mind was central to Surrealism, but he also wrote that “women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.”

One wonders what he would have made of Object, the fur lined teacup, saucer and spoon that is Oppenheim’s best known work, for better or worse.

In an essay for Khan Academy’s AP/College Art History course Josh Rose describes how Museum of Modern Art patrons declared it the “quintessential” Surrealist object when it was featured in the influential 1936-37 exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism:”

But for Oppenheim, the prestige and focus on this one object proved too much, and she spent more than a decade out of the artistic limelight, destroying much of the work she produced during that period. It was only later when she re-emerged, and began publicly showing new paintings and objects with renewed vigor and confidence, that she began reclaiming some of the intent of her work. When she was given an award for her work by the City of Basel, she touched upon this in her acceptance speech, (saying,) “I think it is the duty of a woman to lead a life that expresses her disbelief in the validity of the taboos that have been imposed upon her kind for thousands of years. Nobody will give you freedom; you have to take it.”

Related Content

Discover Leonora Carrington, Britain’s Lost Surrealist Painter

A Brief Animated Introduction to the Life and Work of Frida Kahlo

The Forgotten Women of Surrealism: A Magical, Short Animated Film


– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.



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