Women on the verge

Break­ing Sur­re­al­ism’s glass ceil­ing

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews - Dou­glas Fair­field

In 1929, Amer­i­can fash­ion model and pho­tog­ra­pher Lee Miller cre­ated one of the most dis­turb­ing im­ages in the his­tory of Sur­re­al­ism: Still

Life— Am­pu­tated Breast on a Plate. Even to­day, her dead­pan dip­tych dis­play­ing a woman’s sur­gi­cally re­moved breast on a din­ner plate has shock value. “I ac­tu­ally can’t think of an­other im­age which can com­pete with the graphic and un­set­tling el­e­ment of this piece, not even in con­tem­po­rary art,” said Pa­tri­cia Allmer, re­search fel­low in art his­tory at the Manch­ester In­sti­tute for Re­search and In­no­va­tion in Art and De­sign at Manch­ester Metropoli­tan Uni­ver­sity and cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion Angels of An­ar­chy: Women Artists and Sur­re­al­ists— re­cently on view at Manch­ester Art Gallery. Miller’s piece was part of the exhibit. “Miller went to a mas­tec­tomy and asked the sur­geon, af­ter the op­er­a­tion, whether she could have the am­pu­tated breast. ... She took it to Vogue’s offices in New York, where she put it on a plate and ar­ranged it, to­gether with cut­lery, as a place set­ting. She took two shots be­fore be­ing thrown out, to­gether with the breast,” added Allmer.

As hor­rific as the pic­ture may be, the in­tent of Miller’s vis­ual state­ment can­not be missed. “It is a very pow­er­ful im­age,” said Allmer from Eng­land. “It is the ul­ti­mate re­jec­tion of the male gaze, lit­er­ally feed­ing the de­sired ob­ject (breast) back to it as dis­eased ‘ meat.’ ... It also draws on art his­tor­i­cal con­ven­tions and im­ages, rang­ing from the still-life tra­di­tion to rep­re­sen­ta­tions of St. Agatha, whose tor­ture, ac­cord­ing to leg­end, in­volved the crush­ing and cut­ting off of her breasts. St. Agatha is of­ten de­picted as car­ry­ing her cut-off breasts on a plate.”

So why isn’t Miller’s pho­to­graph bet­ter known— let alone the pho­tog­ra­pher her­self— in the lit­er­a­ture on Sur­re­al­ism, one of the most pop­u­lar and well-doc­u­mented art move­ments of the 20th cen­tury? Largely be­cause Sur­re­al­ism was es­sen­tially made up of a clique of male artists pre­dis­posed to re­gard women as ob­jects of de­sire, as lovers and muses, or as peo­ple to be feared, rather than as in­tel­li­gent and creative in­di­vid­u­als. And un­til re­cently, schol­arly ex­am­i­na­tion of women Sur­re­al­ists, from their ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in the move­ment in Paris in the late 1920s through the 1940s, has been scant. How­ever, in the past cou­ple of decades, women Sur­re­al­ists— writ­ers, pho­tog­ra­phers, and vis­ual artists— have be­gun to get their due. Among the more sig­nif­i­cant sur­veys on Sur­re­al­ism that in­clude or fo­cus on women are L’Amour fou: Photography and Sur­re­al­ism (Abbeville Press, 1985), Sur­re­al­ism and Women (MIT Press, 1991), Dada & Sur­re­al­ism (Phaidon Press, 1997), Sur­re­al­ist Women: An In­ter­na­tional An­thol­ogy (Uni­ver­sity of Texas Press, 1998), Mir­ror

Im­ages: Women, Sur­re­al­ism, and Self-Rep­re­sen­ta­tion (MIT Press, 1998), and Sur­re­al­ism: De­sire Un­bound (Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2001). Two of th­ese served as cat­a­logs to ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions. In ad­di­tion, a lim­ited num­ber of mono­graphs and bi­ogra­phies of women Sur­re­al­ists have been pro­duced, shed­ding light on their con­tri­bu­tions to the move­ment. Note­wor­thy are books on Leonora Car­ring­ton, Reme­dios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Meret Op­pen­heim, and Frida Kahlo, as well as on pho­tog­ra­phers Claude Cahun, Dora Maar, and Miller. The re­cent release of Angels of An­ar­chy (Pres­tel, 2009)— the cat­a­log

to Allmer’s exhibit— and Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini (The Ven­dome Press, 2009) demon­strates that the work of women Sur­re­al­ists re­mains a fer­tile field. “The cov­er­age of and writ­ing on women Sur­re­al­ists needs to be an on­go­ing project,” said Allmer, “one which is never fin­ished, un­til fig­ures like Fini, Car­ring­ton, and Tanning pop just as read­ily into our minds as their male equiv­a­lents.” Allmer’s ex­hi­bi­tion show­cased work by 32 women.

Writ­ing in Dada & Sur­re­al­ism, Dawn Ades, pro­fes­sor of art his­tory and the­ory at the Uni­ver­sity of Es­sex, states: “Women [Sur­re­al­ists] made their im­pact in new me­dia— photography, the ca­davre exquis, and the Sur­re­al­ist ob­ject— which were be­yond the dom­i­na­tion of men.” In­deed, who can for­get Op­pen­heim’s iconic fur-cov­ered saucer, teacup, and spoon, Ob­ject (Break­fast in Fur) from 1936? It is still viewed as one of the most fetishis­tic ob­jects ever con­ceived in Sur­re­al­ism and was once at­trib­uted to Marcel Duchamp. And prior to her di­vorce from An­dré Bre­ton— au­thor of the Man­i­feste

du sur­réal­isme in 1924— Si­mone Kahn-Bre­ton had been among the

orig­i­nal group of Sur­re­al­ists who de­vised the ca­davre exquis (ex­quis­ite corpse), the par­lor game in which in­di­vid­ual play­ers con­trib­ute a par­tial draw­ing or sen­tence frag­ment to an ex­ist­ing draw­ing or group of words hid­den from view as a re­sult of the pa­per be­ing folded be­fore hand­ing to the next player. In short, women were part of the move­ment soon af­ter its in­cep­tion, de­spite not be­ing ac­knowl­edged by their male coun­ter­parts. “Only from the 1930s on­wards did the Sur­re­al­ist move­ment start to in­clude women as artists,” Allmer writes in the cat­a­log.

Part of the rea­son why women be­came in­creas­ingly in­volved in Sur­re­al­ist ac­tiv­i­ties was be­cause of their in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships with mem­bers of the all-male club. Miller was an as­sis­tant to, model for, and lover of Amer­i­can ex­pa­tri­ate and Dadaist Man Ray dur­ing his stay in Paris be­tween the wars, and she later mar­ried Sur­re­al­ist artist and writer Roland Pen­rose. Pen­rose was one of the or­ga­niz­ers of the Lon­don In­ter­na­tional Sur­re­al­ist Ex­hi­bi­tion in 1936, set­ting the stage for English Sur­re­al­ism. Car­ring­ton and Fini were ro­man­ti­cally linked to Max Ernst, but it was Tanning who be­came his wife. Varo mar­ried Sur­re­al­ist poet Ben­jamin Péret. And Maar’s com­pan­ion­ship with Pi­casso was rep­re­sented in some of his best-known paint­ings.

Un­der this mask, an­other mask. I will never be fin­ished car­ry­ing all th­ese faces. – Claude Cahun

Oth­ers, of course, steered clear of mar­riage for var­i­ous rea­sons, even fear of los­ing their cre­ativ­ity if forced to care for a child. “I have never been at­tracted by fe­cun­dity,” Fini stated. “It is the re­fusal of util­ity: par­tic­i­pa­tion in the con­ti­nu­ity of the species is an ab­di­ca­tion. In or­der to have chil­dren, a hu­mil­ity nearly in­con­ceiv­able in the mod­ern world is nec­es­sary, a bru­tal­ized pas­siv­ity or a mad pre­ten­sion. ... My­self, I know that I be­long with the idea of Lilith, the anti-Eve, and that my uni­verse is that of the spirit. Phys­i­cal ma­ter­nity in­stinc­tively re­pulses me.”

Allmer’s over­rid­ing the­sis for Angels of An­ar­chy ex­plores how women Sur­re­al­ists dealt with the myth of the “em­pow­ered white man” and the idea that men alone have pro­duced work that is sig­nif­i­cantly unique and orig­i­nal. “[The exhibit] is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the ways in which women Sur­re­al­ists chal­lenge pa­tri­archy and how, through this, they al­low Sur­re­al­ism to over­come its own blind­ness. Sur­re­al­ism, as a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work which seeks to break down bound­aries and op­po­si­tions, which seeks out the ir­ra­tional in the ra­tio­nal, the dream in re­al­ity, the il­log­i­cal in the log­i­cal, is a pow­er­ful tool,” said Allmer. “Un­for­tu­nately, the male artists didn’t push it far enough in the di­rec­tion of break­ing down gen­der hi­er­ar­chies. Women Sur­re­al­ists, how­ever, did— for ex­am­ple, through their ex­plo­rations of iden­tity as some­thing which is in flux and in [a state of] be­com­ing, rather than sta­ble and fixed. It’s about tak­ing con­trol of your own im­age and shap­ing it in any way you like. It’s a way of sub­vert­ing the ob­jec­ti­fied rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women.”

This is clearly the case in the self-por­traits of French pho­tog­ra­pher Claude Cahun (the pseu­do­nym of Lucy Sch­wob) who never mar­ried and who, in 1912, at age 18, be­gan to probe the con­cept of iden­tity in her work. She be­came as­so­ci­ated with the Sur­re­al­ist group in Paris in the 1930s, along with pho­tog­ra­phers Miller and

Maar. “The artist as both sub­ject and ob­ject lies at the core of Claude Cahun’s self-por­traits, which re-ap­pro­pri­ate the genre of self-por­trai­ture and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women from a male do­main,” said Allmer. In fact, through a se­ries of self-por­traits done in the 1920s— nearly 50 years be­fore Cindy Sher­man turned the cam­era on her­self— Cahun donned many guises. Her self-im­ages could be si­mul­ta­ne­ously mys­te­ri­ous and al­lur­ing while the­atri­cally silly and over­done, yet they con­veyed the self-aware­ness of an artist fully in charge.

“From her act­ing ca­reer dur­ing her early days in Paris ... in which she was dis­guised as one of the wives of Blue­beard, for ex­am­ple, she cer­tainly re­tained the im­pulse of dis­guise and the out­ward-turned self, show­ing it­self al­ways dif­fer­ent,” writes Mary Ann Caws, pro­fes­sor of English, French, and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at the Grad­u­ate School of City Uni­ver­sity of New York, in an es­say for Angels of An­ar­chy. “The mask cov­ers, and it at­tracts— but what it does not do is re­veal any­thing about the per­son­al­ity of the face be­hind it.” Cahun con­firmed as much in her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Dis­avowed: or Can­celled Con­fes­sions (1930), stat­ing: “Un­der this mask, an­other mask. I will never be fin­ished car­ry­ing all th­ese faces.”

In Self-por­trait (1927), Cahun’s imag­ined per­sona is de­lib­er­ately se­duc­tive but sends a mixed mes­sage. She sits ca­su­ally on a chair in ath­letic tights with her legs crossed and a bar­bell on her lap. Made up with spit curls on ei­ther side of her fore­head, hearts painted on her cheeks, and kew­pie-doll lips, Cahun looks las­civ­i­ously at the cam­era, yet the boldly printed di­rec­tive on her shirt reads “I AM IN TRAIN­ING DON’T KISS ME.”

In PeterWebb’s Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini, based in large part on Webb’s con­ver­sa­tions with Fini dur­ing their 12-year friend­ship (she died in 1996), one learns of her in­de­pen­dent spirit and life­time of paint­ings in which she pre­sented her­self as a con­trol­ling but mer­ci­ful fig­ure. In­deed, Webb dis­cusses the self-taught Fini’s per­sis­tence in con­vey­ing through her art the com­plex re­la­tion­ships of men and women, par­tic­u­larly be­tween dom­i­nant fe­male fig­ures and pas­sive, an­drog­y­nous males.

Fini was born in Buenos Aires and raised in Italy. Her ex­tended stays in Mi­lan, Paris, Lon­don, and New York brought her into con­tact with nu­mer­ous artists in the fields of com­mer­cial art, fash­ion and set de­sign, book il­lus­tra­tion, and fine art. Con­sid­ered among her friends and ac­quain­tances were Gior­gio de Chirico, Carlo Carrà, Sal­vador Dalí, Henri Cartier-Bres­son, Man Ray, Paul Élu­ard, Pi­casso, Bre­ton, and Ernst, as well as Tanning, Op­pen­heim, Car­ring­ton, Maar, and Miller. Al­though she had close re­la­tion­ships with some of the male artists, most did not take her work se­ri­ously. She never warmed up to Bre­ton due to his misog­y­nist at­ti­tude and dic­ta­to­rial man­ner. Carrà said that women were in­ca­pable of be­ing good artists be­cause of their in­ces­sant in­ter­est in paint­ing their fin­ger­nails.

Fini loved cats, and they served as in­spi­ra­tion for her cos­tume de­signs and her trade­mark fe­line masks; they were also fea­tured in her paint­ings. She was also at­tracted, as were other women Sur­re­al­ists, to the im­age and sym­bol­ism of the sphinx. “I re­mem­ber I wanted to be like the sphinx.… I wanted to think like it, to be strong and eter­nal, to be a liv­ing sphinx. Later, I felt that the com­bi­na­tion of half-an­i­mal, half-hu­man was the ideal state. I iden­ti­fied with the hy­brid. The sphinx is a liv­ing be­ing who dom­i­nates men in a calm way and has pity for them. But it can also be danger­ous,” she said to Webb. Ac­cord­ing to him, “She en­joyed re­la­tion­ships with men, but they were specif­i­cally cho­sen to ful­fill her ideal of an­drog­y­nous beauty and am­biva­lent sex­u­al­ity. This ideal is most clearly seen in those few male fig­ures that ap­pear in her paint­ings: sub­mis­sive, nude be­ings dom­i­nated by Leonor her­self in her per­son­i­fi­ca­tion as the sphinx, that enig­matic and vo­ra­cious crea­ture from mythol­ogy that was so preva­lent in the ar­chi­tec­ture and sculp­ture of Tri­este [Italy, her home­town]. Sphinxes ap­pear through­out her work, shar­ing pride of place with cats. ... She of­ten said she pre­ferred cats to hu­mans, see­ing them as wiser and also more ab­so­lute and to­tal in their af­fec­tion, loy­alty, and de­vo­tion.” This is vividly demon­strated in her paint­ing The Ideal Life (1950), which de­picts the artist as a Gypsy princess seated in front of a cir­cu­lar, man­dorla-like metal shield with no less than six cats at her feet amid par­tially eaten crois­sants and strewn-about seashells.

Angels of An­ar­chy and Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini demon­strate just how in­te­gral women were to the Sur­re­al­ist move­ment dur­ing the 1930s and 1940s and tes­tify to their in­de­pen­dent na­ture in the face of dis­crim­i­na­tion. No women were listed as mem­bers of the move­ment in of­fi­cial records of the de­vel­op­ment of Sur­re­al­ism. To­day, th­ese artists’ bizarre and com­plex im­agery con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate and chal­lenge our aes­thetic and our in­tel­lec­tual sen­si­bil­i­ties. “I think Sur­re­al­ism is the most in­flu­en­tial art move­ment which we still haven’t di­gested,” Allmer said. “Sur­re­al­ism was fun­da­men­tally about break­ing down bound­aries, op­po­si­tions and hi­er­ar­chies, even if it didn’t quite man­age this in re­gard to gen­der op­po­si­tions.” But women sur­re­al­ists were, in fact, do­ing just that.

older to wean my­self off of liv­ing for the pho­to­graphs and slowly build my own life. Be­cause the cam­era can lit­er­ally be be­tween you. It be­comes what you’re do­ing rather than you be­ing there.” In 1983, she re­signed from Rolling Stone, be­com­ing the first con­tribut­ing pho­tog­ra­pher for Van­ity Fair.

Early in her ca­reer, Lei­bovitz em­ployed Mi­nolta and Nikon 35mm cam­eras. In the 1980s, she switched to a larger, medium-for­mat Mamiya, but she han­dled it like a 35mm rather than mount­ing it on a tri­pod. She prefers to be able to move nat­u­rally with the cam­era around the sub­ject. Dur­ing the last decade, Lei­bovitz made the tran­si­tion to dig­i­tal photography. In At Work, how­ever, she writes with nos­tal­gia of the Mamiya’s 140mm lens that she used to pho­to­graph her mother for the 1999 book Women. She used the same lens to pho­to­graph her first daugh­ter, Sarah, at 6 months and to make her last por­trait of a long­time friend— writer Su­san Sontag.

Sontag died at the end of 2004 af­ter two bouts with can­cer. Lei­bovitz was by her side un­til the end, and she de­cided to ded­i­cate her next book to the years she knew Sontag — from 1990 to 2005— and to se­lect the pho­to­graphs “as if Su­san was stand­ing be­hind me and had a say,” she told NPR. A Pho­tog­ra­pher’s Life: 1990-2005 fea­tures pho­tos of Mikhail Barysh­nikov, Chris Rock, and other celebrity fig­ures, but it also places em­pha­sis on the peo­ple in Lei­bovitz’s fam­ily and on Sontag. It in­cludes pic­tures of Sontag in the hospi­tal. “She would have cham­pi­oned th­ese pic­tures,” Lei­bovitz said. “My love for Su­san is there as well as the essence of her end.”

Re­gard­ing her work as a pho­tog­ra­pher of por­traits, Lei­bovitz bat­tled ear­lier in her ca­reer with the old saw that says there are cer­tain peo­ple who pos­sess un­vary­ingly pho­to­genic faces. “I would al­ways go into a shoot with some kind of plan to help things along,” she re­calls in At Work. “Over the years, how­ever, I’ve come to un­der­stand, al­most re­luc­tantly, that the cliché is true.” Among those who have that sort of com­mand­ing pres­ence that al­ways re­sults in good pho­to­graphs are Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kid­man, Johnny Depp, and Su­san Saran­don. The key may be that they en­joy be­ing pho­tographed. “I re­al­ized when I stud­ied pic­tures of Marilyn Mon­roe that it al­most didn’t mat­ter who the pho­tog­ra­pher was,” Lei­bovitz writes. “She took charge. It seemed like she was tak­ing the pic­ture.”

Lei­bovitz’s role in her fash­ion work of­ten shifts into the di­rec­to­rial. Cou­ture shoots, such as those for a 1999 as­sign­ment for Vogue, were set up as the­atri­cal in­ter­ludes. That one re­volved around the idea that the two mod­els, Kate Moss and Puff Daddy (as he was then called), meet at a party and have a ro­mance in Paris. A project for the De­cem­ber 2005 is­sue of the mag­a­zine was even more elab­o­rate. In one pic­ture, Keira Knight­ley and Jeff Koons look like some­thing out of mythol­ogy. The set­ting was ac­tu­ally based on the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. In the photo, Koons is one of the Wicked Witch’s fly­ing mon­keys car­ry­ing away Knight­ley’s Dorothy. A trio of con­tem­po­rary artists filled out the cast: Jasper Johns as the Cow­ardly Lion, Brice Mar­den as the Scare­crow, and Chuck Close as the Wizard. For an­other photo in the shoot, Lei­bovitz brought in the Penn State band to march up and

down the Yel­low Brick Road. “What’s great about do­ing the Vogue work is that it seems com­pletely ap­pro­pri­ate to go over the top,” she says in At Work. “ Vogue is about dreams and fan­tasy.”

Lei­bovitz’s best-known por­traits in­clude John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the Blues Broth­ers and Bette Mi­dler re­clin­ing in a sea of rose petals. Other sub­jects have been Patti Smith, Mark Mor­ris, Steve Martin, and the Rolling Stones. She has cap­tured Ella Fitzger­ald, Carl Lewis, William S. Bur­roughs, Philip John­son in his renowned 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Con­necti­cut, and Jude Law with his black lab and a row­boat. In the book Women, there are por­traits of El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, Hil­lary Clin­ton, and Venus and Ser­e­naWil­liams as well as pic­tures of show­girls, a sur­geon, pros­ti­tutes, coal min­ers, and artists.

In At Work, Lei­bovitz re­sponds to 10 com­mon ques­tions. Asked where she gets ideas for pic­tures: “I do my home­work. ... Of course, I carry around with me, like a backup hard drive in my head, a vast mem­ory bank of the work of the pho­tog­ra­phers who came be­fore me. I’m a fan of photography. A stu­dent, if you will. I col­lect photography books. Some­thing in the his­tory of photography might con­trib­ute to the style I choose to shoot in. The style of the photography is part of the idea,” she writes.

“There are times when I just can’t get what I want,” she says in At Work. “I some­times think I get maybe 10 per­cent of what I see. … Photography is lim­ited. It’s an il­lus­tra­tion of what’s go­ing on. Ba­si­cally, you’re never to­tally sat­is­fied.”

Claude Cahun: Self-por­trait, 1927; Jer­sey Her­itage Trust, cour­tesy Manch­ester Art Gallery

Meret Op­pen­heim: Ob­ject (Break­fast in Fur), 1936, Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, New York

Mimi Par­ent: Mis­tress, 1996, hair, leather, and wooden box; Col­lec­tion Mony Vibescu, cour­tesy Manch­ester Art Gallery

Leonor Fini: Self-Por­trait with Scor­pion, 1938, oil on can­vas; cour­tesy The Ven­dome Press

Penny Slinger: I Hear What You Say, 1973; The Pen­rose Col­lec­tion, cour­tesy Manch­ester Art Gallery

An­nie Lei­bovitz with Nick Rogers, Hous­ton, Texas, 2008; cour­tesy Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum Be­low, The White Stripes, New York City, 2003

Mark Mor­ris, Cum­ber­land Is­land, Ge­or­gia, 1990

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