Women on the verge
Breaking Surrealism’s glass ceiling
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