Surrealism and the feminine

Though much of the Surrealist’s theory behind their work involves the work of Freud, it would seem that sexuality was of more importance to their work (even if unintentionally). In particular in referring to an identity for the artist as they wished to be portrayed, and not working in relation to the notion of ‘femininity’ as the surrealist central organising metaphor of difference. Andre Breton wrote that ‘the time should come to assert the ideas of woman at the expense of those of man’ but the reasons for this he follows with ‘the bankruptcy of which is today tumultuously complete’. So the ‘feminine’ was not seen as a progression but a reaction which still adds weight to the import of the former masculine. Many of the reasons for this looking to the feminine too were gendered in the masculine.
That which Surrealists found so attractive, the ideas of automatism and the unconscious mind were for them indicative of the female state of mind as opposed to the male state of mind which represented culture and control. Consequently this liberation of the feminine was rooted in traditional patriarchal ideology that though fought against was not broken free from. If the production of the art object is taken from the masculine and put into the feminine, for example in the work of Kahlo or Oppenheim, very different things are happening. Again the artist can be said to be dealing with the ‘feminine’ as an ideological start point but surely these articles are not doing this in the same way as their male counterparts. They are not standing outside of their own experience and looking into another; this is why Kahlo’s and Oppenheim’s work is particularly strong, I would say stronger than other (male) Surrealists. In comparing the genders of artists this way, there is an acceptance that this was an ideology adopted by male artists. However because it was experience translated ‘second hand’ I think it explains many of the problems that male Surrealists had in establishing a fixed start point outside of Freud or Marx.
An example of the problem in action can be seen with Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Object: Fur Breakfast’. To whom does it become a fetishistic object as stated by many critics. Is it a fetishized object now and if so was it when it was produced? The manner in which it was first exhibited would seem to suggest that it was just considered another juxtapository construction of ideas, however it has become increasingly important as an art object today because it has become more relevant to an increasingly sexually divergent and tolerant society. The idea of fur having fetishistic connotations was confirmed by Freud as would perhaps the association with cup/vagina and spoon/penis. However when contemporaries of Oppenheim, Man Ray and Dora Marr, photographed the piece the emphasis seems to be on creating as staged a representation of the actual expectation of a cup, saucer and spoon as possible. They seem to be more concerned with the dichotomy of utility and in-utility. Only later, when photographed for MOMA New York in 1993 does the spoon becomes ‘involved’ with the cup and saucer, mirroring current concerns in representing sexuality in art – but even though now this association can be freely made with this piece of work the gallery is still not prepared to put the spoon in the cup! Oppenheim’s work should not be taken as being representative of the Surrealists approach to gender politics, indeed she compounds matters by posing naked for Man Ray at a printing press as if to break down the association of man with machinery.
Unfortunately this is not liberation, not that it was meant to be, but it reinforces the patriarchal ideals that Breton so wished to fight against. Beauty v brutality, nature v culture etc. He wrote in 1924 in the First Manifesto of Surrealism that concerns with ‘our mental world’ discovered by Freud were of the optimum importance to him. That the unconscious and dream states should not be neglected; indeed they should be encouraged. The only mention of woman is in reference to his sexual orientation – he finds women objects of desire.
This I feel is echoed throughout male Surrealist practise from painting, writing, found object to happenings – a dominant heterosexuality – and it is in this that the feminine is defined. Dali would seem to follow in this where his concerns with representation are related to various mental states, including those of paranoia that was thought would release normally repressed subject matters and imagery. Dali’s particular interests are as different to Breton’s as they are to Oppenheim’s. Primarily I feel this is because each artist in addressing their subconscious or unconscious are in fact addressing their own identity and consequently that most repressed facet of identity, sexuality. An argument is made that these projections of desire apparent in for example Magritte’s or Man Ray’s work, that incorporate the feminine, do so because the desire is not projected onto the image of a woman. But the idea of women being more able to ‘tap into’ these areas of the unconscious is being used. However when we look at Surrealist images of automata they are nearly always male and in the sense of being ‘automatic’ or ‘automated’ they seem to be in actual opposition to this idea of reacting against a male dominated world. Similarly the relationship between women and automata is transferred to mannequins or dolls which too have their own associations with passivity etc. that only reinforce patriarchal means, and consequently show the artist’s true intentions were related to their personal sexual identity.
Bellmer’s use of parts of dolls to create seemingly independent representations of the human form are defined by their dress as particularly female. It has been argued that the artist was transferring a subconscious castration anxiety but I feel it displays more about a personal attitude to women; of being able to possess the female as a child would possess the original doll. And at the same time having such a degree of control of the idea of woman in his own mind that he could even mutilate it and transform it to suit his own fetishistic interests. Even the apparently banal title ‘Poupee’ (Doll) admits an unwillingness to name this extreme vision. True that the male doll may not have been available to produce work around similar ideas but the artist is in the business of creating and Bellmer used not what he had to but what he wanted to, even to the extent of dressing the dolls in a manner that it is clearly open to be interpreted as sexual in motivation.
Oppenheim, dealing with issues of abuse towards herself when she was a child, projects onto the abuser, her nurse, the image of the woman as a tied and trussed bird ready for cooking as if in some bizarre childhood revenge fantasy. Though this object ‘Ma Gouvernante’, would appear to have fetishistic undertones it is related to abuse and revenge for that abuse. Kahlo, even more particularly, addressed the personal issues of her womanhood rather than the general idea of ‘woman’. It is interesting that despite his supposed ideology of art, Breton viewed Kahlo first as a woman ‘endowed with all the gift of seduction’ and then as an artist ‘situated at that point of intersection between the political line and the artistic line.’
He viewed her work as related to Surrealism not probably because of the subject matter of her work but because of the way that the subject matter was portrayed. The supposed liberation of repressed images was attractive to Breton, however Kahlo’s choice of images was personally and culturally specifically symbolic – not random or automatic. Also her work was related to the feminine in a personal sense, how could any man look at ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ of 1932 and realistically expect to identify with the particular pain and anguish present in the artist when she painted it?
Her work is related to the European Surrealists in that it deals with personal experience to an extreme of candour. Kahlo’s is of the feminine whereas Bellmer’s or Man Ray’s is of the male heterosexual view and experience of the feminine. The work of Kahlo seems obsessed with certain recurring images: the foetus, the self-portrait, the family and personal injury. Much of this can be related to Kahlo directly; as a young girl she was involved in a road accident that resulted in an operation that left her unable to have children and permanently scarred. Kahlo’s work differs specifically from the European Surrealists in that it does not deal with Freud – instead it deals with that which is personal to the artist. Her identity, without Freud as an intermediary. The European Surrealists looked to the writings of Freud first and assimilated imagery accordingly.
Breton applied the idea of using the concept of the feminine retrospectively to Surrealism mainly because of the problems faced by the group when they tried to identify with or ally themselves to Marxism. Certainly their work is best explained in terms of psychoanalysis as it directly deals with many of the same concerns both from the perspective of the artist and the spectator who, depending on gender, age, and whatever else constitutes an individual identity, interprets the work in a peculiarly individual manner. The mannequin of Masson, imprisoned in a cage, mouth covered and displaying a flower could mean as many different things to as many different people that viewed it. What does seem clear from studying the philosophies behind Surrealism is that they felt free to express in any way, on any subject they chose, including the subject of Surrealism itself. Certainly aspects of Surrealism portrayed an interest in the feminine that was unlike any other modern art movement, but through this Freudian based interest ran another seemingly common thread, certainly in Europe. Breton always sought the approval of Marxist groups but found organisations such as the French Communist Party unwilling to recognise the Surrealists as an autonomous allied revolutionary group. In his Second Manifesto of Surrealism he tried to simultaneously use the doctrines of Freud and Marx as influencing factors for his group’s work. However he was explicit in defending the use of Freudian ideas but in the form that he felt they should be used and not as Bataille was using them. Basically without reference to the social (or Marxian ideology) and concentrating on the dark side of the psyche and studying methods by which decay or dissolution take place.
Though Marxian doctrine was important to Surrealists like Breton it cannot be said to support the movement as a foundation as did Freud’s work. The most consistently followed subtext subject matter of Surrealism was not particularly the feminine, but the ideas of identity, sexual orientation and sexual identity. This would seem capable of supporting all of the varied artistic practises within Surrealism. Certainly imagery and subject matter that organises around the feminine appears both in the work of male and female Surrealist artists, but the origination of this subject matter comes from different perspectives so it does not seem fair, particularly to the women artists, to unify them as being part of a consistent subtext or theme of the movement when the origins of these artworks already have a unity in being based around the identity of the artist.


“breakfast with Meret” 1995


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