Surrealism and Feminism

In the one course – Gesture and Meaning it is suggested that I study feminist art, and the course notes suggest some texts and workers in that field. In the other course, Documentary, it suggested that I look at Surrealism, similarly there are texts and artists in that field to “go and explore”.

Recently I had the pleasure of discussing feminist art with Lucie Bromfield at a study visit – Judy Chicago – in fact the only discussion I had on the day regarding feminism, which I found curious when the study visit was to a Judy Chicago show. Lucie has shared with me her draft essay “How Has a Feminist Reading of Surrealism Dealt with the Hegemonic Imbalance Found in the Movement?”. This work has sort of stuck with me, and indeed the conversation at the gallery; so I suspect that a good deal of my thoughts written here will have some foundation in Lucie’s thoughts – so acknowledgement is given here.

Invited in the Documentary course to look at Atget’s work about whom Benjamin remarked: “In fact, Atget’s Paris photographs are the forerunners of surrealist photography, advance troops of the broader columns surrealism was able to filed….he began the liberation of the object from the aura – Walter Benjamin, 1931 pp28 “Photography in the Dock” Solomon-Godeau 2009.

Benjamin’s words, written less than a decade after the Surrealist manifesto was coined, open the chapter that discusses Atget’s work from a number of aspects, but the aspect of a feminist perspective is perhaps the one I will dwell upon most. Though, as the text was referred to from the Documentary course, one suspects the aspect of authorship was in the mind of the author of the course. Be that as it may.

Despite Berenice Abbott’s intent on bring Atget’s work to the fore in 1928/29, it wasn’t until Szarkowski in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s did Atget gain the notoriety that he, Szarkowski, determined that he deserved. Indeed Abbott’s determined refusal to find a path in the surrealist genre – despite being introduced to Atget by Man Ray – may have contributed to her decision to sell the work in order to live. “Whatever the nature of the social, professional, and artistic positions Abbott occupied in relation to the surrealist milieu, the fact that she was a woman artist (and not a wife, mistress, or model) could only have been anomalous in the boys’-club (not to say misogynous) ambience of surrealism. Abbott’s embrace of Atget in 1928 must be understood as expressing a multiple refusal – a simultaneous refusal of surrealism, of art photography, and perhaps even of expatriatism (Abbott returned permanently [from France] to America in 1929). Ibid pp 35.

It was Abbott that brought Atget’s work to the attention of the American market, though it was Szarkowski who iconized the Frenchman’s work:

“What also became apparent from this feminist reading of Surrealism was that two further poles were to evolve; one that was to reject psychoanalysis and Freudianism; the second, that psychoanalysis was needed in order to more fully understand the roles assigned to women in society and art, because, as Juliet Mitchell would point out, “psychoanalysis is not a recommendation for a patriarchal society, but rather an analysis of one.” (Mitchell, 2000, back cover)” Lucie Bromfield, unpublished from: How Has a Feminist Reading of Surrealism Dealt with the Hegemonic Imbalance Found in the Movement?”.

Bromfield goes on to discuss these twin streams, also how female artists work ‘alongside’ the surrealists, but as for their collective importance to the origin of the movement, Bromfield goes on to cite Chadwick:

“The meeting in 1928 by male members of the Surrealists which lead to the 11th issue of this publication [La Revolution Surrealiste] was with the aim to conduct a “formal enquiry into sexuality”. The fact that there were no women present in the meeting was only commented upon by Louis Aragon “who apparently felt inhibited about discussing woman’s sexuality in her absence” (Chadwick, 1985, p.103). Along with their rejection of bestiality they also excluded homosexuality, though there was a paradoxical tolerance towards lesbianism.” Ibid Bromfield.

The inception od Surrealism then was guided by the absence of women, which is something that Solomon-Godeau goes on to discuss: “In making what might seem to be an ad feminin reference to a sexual division of labor along the lines of scholarship and stewardship, I mean to enforce, once again, the connection between canons, fathers, authority, and patriarchy. One of the the conspicuous features of virtually all canons in the field of cultural production is the relative absence of women and, needless to say, all other Others.” pp39 Solomon-Godeau

What I suggest here, is that, even if Atget was the forerunner of Surrealism that Benjamin suggests – a contention not without it’s detractors, but not discussed here – the movement was critically flawed by it’s singularity of exclusion to any Other representation. That Szarkowski, by his position of King maker at the MoMA, had iconized the relatively unknown French photographer from his position as the patriarchal head of a gender biased organization and art culture as much for his own determined position that he himself couldn’t. As Solomon-Godeau says “What distinguishes a photographi arbiter like Szarkowski from the other curators and critics has to do, first with the power of the position (not for nothing has Marth Rosler dubbed MoMA “the Kremlin of Modernism”) and, second, with his having produced a critical framework to justify, promote, and pedigree his preferences”. pp 39 Solomon-Godeau.

And whilst I find difficulty in not conflating the gender biased curation, including the exclusion to some extent of Abbott’s work to foster the worth of Atget and the opening of an art movement deliberately starved of any Other representation; I am well aware that there will be many attempts, in fact have been, to rewrite the history from other aspects. But I wonder how another archive might spin the orbit of Atget’s contribution to both the Documentarist tradition and the Surrealist with the post-Szarkowski discovery of the work of Vivian Maier. An archive of greater proportion, perhaps therefore greater significance through greater exploration of singular narratives over time. An archive whose existence has produced an exigency unparalleled with even Atget’s oeuvre, the majority of which lies within the French art establishment. That ‘Surrealism’ is a term often appended to ‘quirky’ images, odd juxtapositions and ‘clever’ framing denies the origin of it’s creation as an art movement. But those terms are as readily in the frame in Maier’s work as they ever were in Atges’, that they were taken by a woman recalls to mind, as Solomon-Godeau does when discussing the effect of the authorship of Szarkowski in relation to Atget’s work, this quotation from T.S. Eliot.

“You cannot value [the poet] alone: you must set him [sic], for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he should cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which proceeded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them… whoever has this idea of order… will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” T.S.Eliot. “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in selected prose of T.S.Eliot, ed, Frank Kermode (New York:Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975) 109


4 thoughts on “Surrealism and Feminism

  1. Interesting post John. I wonder if the argument about the patriarchal nature of the Surrealism could apply equally to any number of other ‘isms….The plain fact is that the art world has always been dominated by men as the commissioners of work, artists, curators, critics, philosophers and perhaps even spectators. The only area in which women form a majority is in the subject matter, particularly when it comes to nude studies. The latter are in reality created for the voyeuristic pleasure of men. With the rise of feminism in the late 20th century and the critical deconstruction of Modernism things may have changed, but I am not sure that we have moved on all that much….With regards to Vivian Maier, whilst I admire her work and see it as a valuable historical archive, I am a bit uneasy that the whole collection was acquired by one guy who seems to have devoted his entire life to its promotion. I sometimes wonder what the driving force behind this is. The creation of another canon and realising the associated commercial rewards is one possible motivation….

    • I absolutely think that the various ‘isms were/are governed by a patriarchal society, much as most art societies are. However it was the narrow path of Feminism, on this course and Surrealism on the other course that came together in my mind – a natural consequence of undertaking two courses – could be good or bad. I’ll take good! To your point about change; I don’t think there is any great evidence that there is a change, other than the rise of consumerism which has had the immediate effect of commodifying Maier’s work almost as soon as it emerged into the light – I think that’s what you are referring to in your last point. As for Surrealism, I have found it difficult to comprehend that, almost deliberate, exclusion of the female/other into the critical framework of the form, especially as it relates to some of the workers in the medium. Man Ray’s work especially is at best exploitative, and yet he is held up as some form of deity in some circles. And as always I can’t decouple the man from the work!
      Thanks for the view

  2. I really don’t know enough or have read widely enough on this. However I find Mitchell’s comment regarding psychoanalysis confusing unless it’s being used it to turn everything on its head.
    I watched the Vivian Maier programme last night – fascinating, especially with regard to how the narrative was constructed. A woman who was recording life as she saw it but secretly and for what purpose? Even more interesting was the fact that she was doing this before Robert Frank and William Klein and certainly not part of “The Beat Generation”, and yet her images have such a quality of observation. I’m obviously going off point here but your mention of her sparked me.

  3. Yes, the Maier documentary was fascinating wasn’t it. It seems to me that Yentob’s view of the Maier world was always going to be through a narrow focus lens, as he had only got access to about about half of the archive. The authorship of the work therefore has always, as you infer, to be questioned. And yes, I agree about the relevance of Frank, both being ‘Others’ – in fact from relatively near each other in time and place – I thought about that too during the documentary. However Maier remained a determined ‘other’ for her whole life. A strange bird!

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