The Woman Question

Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
11 June - 2 October 2011

Surrealism is arguably the foremost art and literature movement of the twentieth century and carries with it considerable intellectual and cultural reach. Therefore, it repays on-going interrogation and research by schol­ars (be they art historians and/or artists, literary experts, psychoanalysts or political historians) when an exhibi­tion of the magnitude of ‘Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams’ is mounted in Australia.

Still strong in memory is ‘Surrealism: Revolution by Night’, put on by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and toured from Canberra to the Queensland Art Gal­lery (QAG) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1993. On that occasion, the exhibition was curated ‘in-house’ and comprised over three hundred loans from seventy-nine separate sources. It was cognizant of the influence of Surrealism on Australian artists and made their inclusion an important component of the survey. As the QAG was one of the galleries to host this mam­moth curatorial exercise after its term at the NGA, a proportion of viewers were already primed for the recent exhibition ‘Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams’ at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). It was mounted by the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou expressly for Brisbane and curated by Didier Ottinger, the Pompidou’s Deputy Director.

Having a single curatorial eye and knowledge base and one collection to deal with has considerable merit in these times of straightened financial resources. How­ever, while Ottinger chose the one hundred and eighty-six exhibits in Paris and wrote the in-depth catalogue essays, it is obvious that he liaised closely with senior curators at QAG/GoMA on his selection of works. This latest Surrealism show, for instance, has a strong film component (over one hundred titles) that admirably fits the mandate of the GoMA cinémathèque and was in fact curated for that facility by gallery staff member José Da Silva.1 It is also the Gallery’s practice to integrate the moving image directly into its mixed-media exhibitions (the Asia Pacific Triennial being a point in case) and this Surrealism show does it masterfully. ‘Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams’ also features photography as art as much as document and perhaps does so to ensure that Surrealist women artists have more than a muse-like presence for a movement that notoriously omits them as autonomous talents. This is the ‘sting in the tail’ for this writer on the Pompidou show.

Although there is much to commend it, with strong representation by Giorgio De Chirico, René Magritte, André Masson, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Victor Brauner, Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Roberto Matta, it seems an oversight that in Ottinger’s essays, the artist commentaries and the Surrealism chronologies, plus the bibliography, there is no acknowledgement of the femi­nist imperative. This imperative fuelled the ‘new art his­tory’ of revisionism and deconstruction we learnt from in the early 1980s and led to fine texts on Surrealism and women artists (by Whitney Chadwick, among others).2 It begs the question: why are there not more female artists included in ‘Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams’ and why has attention not been drawn sufficiently in the texts associated with this exhibition towards the con­flicted approach to the feminine by Surrealists in their work?3 After all, it was André Breton, that charismatic leader of the French Surrealists, who famously declared in 1929 ‘The problem of women is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in all the world’.

While some have argued that woman’s role as muse in Surrealism outweighs her role as artist, this is belied by the richness of the creative lives of those who made work, particularly during the 1930s and later in France and beyond (especially the United States). This was when the first revolutionary wave of the movement (1924-29), in which no women were listed as official members, had passed into history. Women there­fore belong more properly in their own right as artists to a second generation of Surrealists. And therefore, with this commentary I have decided to single out those female artists who as autonomous talents were included in the Pompidou exhibition.

Firstly, the combined ‘automatic’ drawings known as cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), where Valentine Hugo, Nusch Èluard and Breton played with notions of a woman in pastel on black paper. The exhibition includes two from those made by this trio in 1931. There is no determining who contributed to which part of these drawings but they do point to the fact that women themselves were complicit in their own gender’s depic­tion when enmeshed in the Surrealism movement. They were, after all, married to, or related in some way to the main exponents of it. When it comes to the pho­tographers, Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) is among those represented. She is an intriguing figure with her sexually ambiguous name and the androgynous per­sona which she photographed in various disguises. Here, however, four photographs from around 1936 fit the Surrealist’s love of ambiguous encounters between objects and, in the one titled La vitrine de chaussures (Shop window with shoes), viewers are teasingly con­fronted by shoe fetishism and its erotic implications.

Dora Maar makes a strong appearance with thirteen gelatin silver photographs. Often referred to as a lover and muse of Picasso, she is here represented unencum­bered by this association, with, among other images, the series Les yeux (The eyes) c.1932–35, San titre (Hand and mirror) c.1934 and the perplexing montage-like Corail (Coral) c.1934-35. The abstract and curious compositions with pairs of glass eyes suspended in droplets of liquid or emerging sprout-like from earth or hovering above a nude woman in a mountainous land­scape, not only testify to Surrealism’s extensive use of collage and montage techniques to unsettle mundane expectations but they underscore Freud’s theory of dreams and the power of the unconscious to reveal hidden urges and obsessions. The eyes in Maar’s series are of cause mesmerising as they indicate ‘the gaze’ outwards to the world at large, but more particularly in her case, interior visions (as if the subject were blind or asleep). Viewers are able to cross-reference these particular photographs with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s slicing into an eye at the beginning of their film La Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) of 1928, which is also in this exhibition.

From 1927, a silent black and white Surrealist film La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Cler­gyman) made in France by Germaine Dulac was pro­jected in the exhibition proper, as was Maya Deren’s At Land of 1944, Deren’s second film made in New York. Of those artists affiliated with Surrealism practising outside of France, Deren is a fascinating figure for her strong presence within the Surrealist circle in New York City—counting as her associates Marcel Duchamp, Breton, John Cage and Anaïs Nin) and especially for her achievements as an avant-garde filmmaker. (To my mind, she deserved a one-page entry in the catalogue). In this film, Deren critiques social ritual by using herself as protagonist in a coastal landscape. She first reverses the natural rhythm of waves breaking and descending back into the sea and then climbs up a dead tree trunk on the beach to emerge, ‘magic-like’, onto a table where a formal dinner party is in progress, seemingly invisible to the diners and their bourgeois activity. What should be pointed out, of course, is the fact that the women artists who did achieve at this period are those who came from socio-economically privileged backgrounds and who had the curiosity, talent and drive to experi­ment with non-conventional modes of intellectual and creative inquiry.

Dorothea Tanning, with her painting Un tableau très heureux (A very happy picture) (1947), followed by her intentionally claustrophobic interior Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot (1970), is a case in point. Already a painter before she met Max Ernst, whom she married, Tanning forged a long career in the United States. As this later work references Surrealism through its mannequins and poupeés it would be misleading to link Chambre 202 too firmly with the feminist enterprise in the United States unfolding at the time. Tanning herself stridently voiced her practice as being removed from any political and social force other than Surrealism. Even so, the anxiety and sexual overtones of her soft sculptures in their domestic environment does invite comparison with first wave feminism.

Benefitting ‘Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams’ and adding to its integrity as an historical movement with a contemporary push, was the exhibition’s public program of talks by local artists. Apposite here is Madeleine Kelly whose paintings in her exhibition, ‘Hollow Mark’, at Griffith University Art Gallery in late 2011, demonstrate lessons learnt from both Surrealism and Feminism. This young artist adds to this mix a rich personal iconography that brings to mind Foucault’s ideas in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge, while ensuring (subconsciously perhaps) that her female figures are assertive and often central to the formulation of her compositions.4

notes: 

1. The film program was titled ‘The Savage Eye: Surrealism and Cinema’ and divided into thirteen separate categories, including ‘Across the Atlantic: Surrealism and the American Avant- Garde’ in which four films by Maya Deren were shown including the influential Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) which she co-directed with Alexander Hammid.

2. Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, Thames & Hudson, 1985, reprinted as a paperback 2002. See also Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg (eds), Surrealism and Women, The MIT Press, 1991.

3. Regarding female exhibitors in ‘Surrealism: Revolution by Night’ (1993), the catalogue checklist includes Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun, Ithell Colquhoun, Nusch Éluard, Leonor Fini, Hannah Höch, Dora Maar, Meret Oppenheim, Edith Rimmington, Dorothea Tanning; Joy Hester and Jacqueline Hick were in the Australian component. Often only one work represented these artists, as was the case with less well-known and accomplished male practitioners in the exhibition. Furthermore, the art medium dictated the number of exhibits by a particular artist (photographs were generally chosen as a group, unlike sculpture, for example).

4. ‘Madeleine Kelly: Hollow Mark’, was curated by Simon Wright (with catalogue essay by Abigail Fitzgibbons) for Griffith University Art Gallery, Queensland College of Art, Brisbane, 7 October – 13 November 2011, where the artist teaches and is a PhD. candidate.