Saturday 22 December 2018


White Cube Gallery, London

(The second in a series of fashionably late exhibition posts which focus on the wacky world of Surrealism. More moustachioed bicycles and lobster telephones to come.)

”To dress up, it is to change dimension, species, space…. To dress up, to cross dress, is an act of creativity. And in applying this to oneself, one becomes other characters, one’s proper character.”
- Leonor Fini

”I warn you, I refuse to be an object”
- Leonora Carrington

”My Fair Share of the Imagination”

This show opens with these words...

“Woman had a powerful presence in Surrealism. She is the object of masculine desire and fantasy; a harpy, goddess or sphinx; a mystery or threat. Often she appears decapitated, distorted, trussed up. Fearsome or fetishised, she is always the ‘other’… Repossessed by its owner, the fragmented, headless body of Surrealism becomes a vehicle for irony, resistance, humour and self-expression.”

As I am wont to catalogue on this blog, from Impressionism through to Pop Art, Modernism did not always have the greatest of records for recognising women artists. Dadaism, Surrealism’s closest cousin, effectively sidelined the humungous talent of Hannah Hoch. And Futurism even made misogyny into a policy, writing its “contempt for women” into its manifesto. Yet for all this the Surrealists may be the most egregious case. Which was probably inevitable...

Reviewing this exhibition, Olivia Laing has pointed out: “Early surrealists sought to plunder unconscious forces; inevitably, sex was the main energy supplier. What this meant in practice was a prevalence of women’s bodies, appropriated and dismembered. Voiceless, limbless, headless, the surrealist woman reaches her apogee in Magritte’s ‘The Rape’, in which a face is formed from a torso, with breasts for eyes and a pubic grin.”

And to Magritte we might add Giacometti’s ‘Woman With Her Throat Cut’, seen only last time. But the temptation to simply pile on examples should be resisted. It’s not to do with extremes but extent. Finding examples is like looking for water damage on something that’s already under the sea. As said over the Giacometti, the point is that it fits so easily among his other Surrealist works.

And the misogynist violence and the insistence on women being a subject for artists rather than artists themselves overlap, if not reinforce one another. Women are like the mannequins they were so often portrayed as, empty vessels waiting to be fertilised into life by the male imagination. This riffs offthequasi-Freudian association between women, absence and mystery. Women’s very presence becomes a kind of constructed absence, like they’re just a collection of holes and gaps. See for example Colin Middleton’s ‘Spain Dream Revisited’.

Not being able to speak might not be your most pressing concern if your throat’s currently being cut, but the point is the symbolic connection between the two. Roland Penrose’s ’Winged Domino’ (1937), not only stuffs shut a woman’s eyes and mouth, the model was his wife Lee Miller at the time of their separation.

Most people bothering to read this will be familiar with Angela Carter’s verdict on the movement, but it’s worth repeating anyway:

“…I had to give them up in the end. They were, with a few patronized exceptions, all men and they told me that I was the source of all mystery, beauty, and otherness, because I was a woman – and I knew that was not true. I knew I wanted my fair share of the imagination, too. Not an excessive amount, mind; I wasn’t greedy. Just an equal share in the right to vision.”

Which pinpoints what’s worst about all this. Surrealism was not, at the end of the day, overly concerned with art – its usefulness was as a tool for liberation, and it was one tool among others. Walt Whitman had said “I am large, I contain multitudes”. Surrealism presupposed that was true of all of us. We inhabited our minds like someone living in a mansion who had somehow come to believe the hallway was their bedsit. What we needed was a movement to illuminate those other rooms for us, but we each needed to do our own exploring.

Surrealism may therefore mark the biggest credibility gap between the promise of unbridled liberty and the failure to deliver on that promise for fully half of the population. They were forever insisting there was no essential self, that each one of us contained a multiplicity. Which could scarcely be any more at odds with their gender essentialism.

Why should this be? We could trace it back to Freud, who articulated exactly the same contradiction.Certainly the Surrealists were fixated by him, to the point that he supplies even this show’s title. (“The madman is a dreamer awake.”) But ultimately the problem was more deep-rooted, with Freud himself merely another symptom. Like the primitive, women were at a fundamental level associated with the irrational. So like the primitive it followed they must be colonised, plundered and appropriated. My liberty was presupposed to come at your expense.

Perhaps their treatment of women is the loose thread which, when tugged at, dissolves the striking imagery and exposes the underlying deficiency of their programme. Listen to your dreams, but dream the right ones. Reject bourgeois politics, provided you embrace Stalinism. Pursue liberty in all things, but only as our Pope commands you.

Such sureties can be tempting, but they lose us too much. Carter’s own writing is considered to be highly Surrealist influenced, you’d struggle to find the break point she claims. And was it ever thus. I’ve written the epitaph for Surrealism myself a thousand times. It often looks like something from which we’ve extracted everything we could want, and now we go to throw the used wrapper away. And yet we find the obstinate thing still sticking to our fingers.

The less-than-exemplary way they were treated didn’t stop the list of women Surrealists being long. However this show’s features a few names from that list, but its focus is on post-Surrealists looking back at all this. Which is quite frankly a bit of a disappointment. (Though shows devoted to Dorothea Tanning and Dora Maar are coming up next year – hurrah!) Many you’d more expect to find in the White Cube than in a show to do with Surrealism. The show complains that “today… the unconscious mind is familiar territory, and the word ‘surreal’ itself debased to the point of meaningless.” Then devotes much yardage of gallery space to proving that very point.

But that quote only starts tograsp the real problem with Surrealism today - that it seems known. Far from a beguilingmystery everyone imaginesthey already get it.Socontemporary artists are forever claimingthey’re its inheritors, often on the basis of a hazy notion that once it was ‘edgy’ and now so are they. Does for example Sarah Lucas belong here? (Inasmuch as her tedious efforts belong anywhere.) Nor is there any attempt to arrange the work in any chronological or thematic order. With nigh-on one hundred and seventy exhibits, it often looks more like the slush pile for a show than a show itself.

But let’s work with what we’ve got. And let’s cut through the chaff, making our focus women artists who refused to be objects, who whodidtry to repossess the Surrealist body for i’s owner, who despite everything did take the Surrealist path towards liberation.

Genital Warfare

Perhaps the most obvious route for women artists to counter Surrealism’s phallocentrism, which is really just a fancy word for willy-waving,isan equal but opposite celebration of the vagina. Yet reversing an opposition leaves you with an opposition. It effectively says “very well, now I’ll show you mine”, which answers rather than overcomes Giacometti’s notion that we’re reducible to our genitals. However, some artists do take this broad approach but find ways to make it work.

For example, ‘Wall Cabinet II’(2017, above) by Mona Hatoum (last blogged of here) is a collection of sculptures which are somewhat vaginal. They’rerendered in glass then placed in a glass cabinet, playinginto the Surrealist notion of femininity asa form of display. Yet each is in it’s own waymisshapen, looking like miscasts from some error-proneashtray factory somewhere. And it’s that misshaping which makes every piece individual, which makes the work interesting to the eye. Life lies in deviation from the norm.

Lee Miller’s ’Severed Breast From Radical Surgery’ (c. 1929, above)isn’tall that far from Surrealist painting. You can picture it painted byMagritte.But it’s effectiveness comes from being a photograph. Particularly when rendered with the slick brush strokes of a Dali, Surrealism make idealised symbols out of sex organs. Miller counts with a slice, quite literally, of real life. 

That bloody, squidgy stuff is a real severed breast on a dinner plate, the result of a mastectomy.To quote Olivia Laing again: “Miller has been subject to all the customary visual dismemberments of the surreal gaze; now she shows what slicing into flesh actually looks like.” It might be best summed up byMia Farrow from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’:“This is no dream, this is really happening!”

The Antidote is Ambiguity

As an artistic approach, Surrealism’s more suited to irreconcilable strangeness than pedagogery. It’s misogyny was never a conscious strategy, it justpopped the cork on thethe repressed male mind and this is whatcame pouring out. Just getting rid of the social repression, without challenging the social structures which lead to that repression - normally thatdoesn’t end well. Yet tosimply point this outthis would be to abandon Surrealism rather than reclaim it. (A group like the Guerrilla Girls, however great they might be, aren’t surreal in any way.)

But several works paradoxically use the supposed mystery of femininity as a cloak for theiractions, the supposedabsence of womanhood as a base of operations. Forall that this was an unstated certainty, it was stilla certainty to be taken down. Arguably gender essentialism is the ultimate unstatedcertainty of our society. So it follows thatits antidote is ambiguity. Banishing womento the phantom zone can allow them to act like phantoms.

In Shannon Bools’ Michaelerplatz 3’ (2016, above) the mannequin, the so-often-seen headless Surrealist woman, is depicted as regarding herself in a succession of mirrors. The irony of a headless figure looking in the mirror iscompounded by her body itself being reflective, the view we see already being in a mirror and the apparent photo being a tapestry – a woman’s medium. But crucially itsmore elusivethan assertively feminist about it. Its like a snapshot of what the Surrealist sculpture found herself doing after all those male gazers had gone home for the day.

Similarly, Jo Anne Callas’s print ’Woman With Black Line) (c. 1976, above) deliberately conflates a woman’s body with her dress. It’s a Surrealist device often seen in, for example, Magritte. But here it suggests that femininity is a construction, and so somethingwhich can be discarded. It’s an upping the ante on expressions such as “put my face on”.

Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture ’Breasts and Blade’ (1991, above) at first glance looks like a female torso, the sort of thing Henry Moore might create. But it’s more a collection of symbols of femininity, an array of undulations – an essence not a body.You then discover the sculpture houses a giant sliding blade, like the world’s largest and most surreal pen knife. The elements Giacometti was forever posing in opposition, here they’re combined. 

And, like many Surrealist objects, it hasa basis in reality. With pen knives the holder normally is curved, to sit more easily in the hand. (In general Bourgeois seems a good example of an artist able to build on Surrealism, rather than just imitate some of its surface features.)

Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II’ (1966) is a conventional bust of a woman’s … well, bust, complete with low-cut dress. But turned round (as seen below) it becomes a face with bird wings, under the china human foot where you might expect bird claws. Though the Surrealists had a fascination for alter egos (often taking bird forms, such as Max Ernst’s Loplop), this work suggests the two sides need to be in combination.

Similarly Eva Kotankova’s ’Untitled’ (2013) stringscut-out figuresinside a glasscabinet. Seen from one side they’re human, from the other birds. As the indicia puts it “one tries to resemble and copy the other”, leading to “failure and accidents”.

Less overtly ambiguous (if that’s a thing) is this untitled 1963 drawing by Leonora Carrington (above). Our eyes are trained to frame the image as an encounter, the coloured figures on the boat representing us, the conscious mind journeying to reach the unconscious, represented by the strange flying and aquatic creatures. Hands reach out to touch one another.

Yet they seem so intermingled already. The picture initially looks neatly split into halves, but there’s elements which disrupt this – the fish by the stern of the boat, the winged fish climbing behind it. Only one figure has a human face, and he combines it with a merman tail swishing in the water. While the curved ladder motif, which arises from near the rudder of the boat, frames and thereby finds an equivalence between the figures. Surrealism sought to reconcile the conscious and unconscious mind. Yet here the separation seems only an appearance in the first place.

This show does often feel like it originally planned as a grab-bag of contemporary women artists, then at the last moment it was thought to need more of a through-line - and so the Surrealist angle was hit on. But I’ve tried to focus on the few who do in some way answer the question which has been raised, and who at comes come up with inventive and ingenious responses. Nevertheless, I don’t think, could they be called “answers”, which is part - perhaps the root - of their effectiveness.

The first part of this, the critique of Surrealism as a movement, virtually rattled off the keyboard. The second part proved much more elusive, like catching a bird in flight which may or may not be a bird. But, beyond the obvious point about a male head trying to work it’s way around feminism, perhaps that’s the thing working the way that it should. These are artworks made to defy certainty, to create and then revel in ambiguity. Several works need to be physically seen from different angles or in different settings before they can be fully appreciated. Which may well say it all.

This video’s really just a slideshow of exhibits, but gives you some notion of what was afoot…

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