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

Judy Chicago at the Ben Uri Gallery. Beware some sexually explicit material which may (apparently) shock some people

It’s all over, bar the shouting.

Or is it? see here

From "Nine fragments from the Death of Venus (boxed set)" 2004by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

From “Nine fragments from the Death of Venus (boxed set)” 2004
by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

"Peeling Back" 1974by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

“Peeling Back” 1974by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

Both images very shocking, but perhaps most shocking is the text that accompanies the lower image:

“This is a print made from the center drawing of the Rejection Quintet, five works originally inspired by several experiences I had in Chicago; one with a male dealer, the other with a male collector, both of whom made me feel rejected and diminished as a woman. I decided to deal with my feelings of rejection and in so doing confronted the fact that I was still hiding the real subject matter of my art behind a geometric structure as I was afraid that if I revealed my true self, I would be rejected. In the first drawings I asked “How does it feel to be rejected?” and answered : “It’s like having your flowers split open.” In the last drawing I asked: “How does it feel to expose your real identity?” And answered: “It’s like opening your flower and no longer being afraid it will be rejected.” In this, the transitional image, I “peeled back” the structure to reveal the formally hidden form. What a relief to finally say: “Here I am, a woman, with a woman’s body and a woman’s point of view.

What I gained from the looking at the work of Judy Chicago and what I gained from the study visit seemed slightly at odds with each other. I was the only ‘Other’ student present, so anything I say will be very visible…

The general comments from the students revolved around how Chicago did the work, the craft of the images, whether, for example, she had sub-contracted some of the stitching. About how some of the work was very detailed and yet some of was somewhat looser, which suggested to some that maybe the finer detailed work might have been created, albeit under Chicago’s direction, by other craftspeople.

I too was looking forward to see how beautiful this work was, I had seen all of the work via a video produced for the show and had seen the ‘dinner party’ (which I know was a collaborative project, under Chicago’s direction) in a couple of video presentations. I wasn’t disappointed. The work presented was very good; I am no expert in stitching, fabric or textiles, but I felt that this work was of an extremely high standard. The piece “Birth Tear 1982” had a great deal of animated discussion over whether the stitching had been dyed, or whether she had actually been involved in the fabrication of the piece. The tonal gradations were extremely finely constructed in shades of red and pink with black (or a very very dark red). Everyone seemed very impressed with the craftsmanship of it. The general consensus in the “Autobiography of a year”, where Chicago seemingly poured out her emotions in, as the exhibition catalogue denotes, “140 small drawings” was that the draftsmanship was nowhere near as good, except for a few that depicted a cat (presumably Chicago’s own). That the images were generally about sex was not to everyone’s liking. One of the OCA tutors had led the discussion at the start about what the images perhaps referred to, about some of the references Chicago might have been accessing, ‘religiosity’ was raised a few times, though not wholly successfully; other, short, conversations surrounded some of the photographs about perhaps how the female form was somehow a thing to be worshipped, but it didn’t really come to any conclusion, or consensus.

The small number of students present did divide into two separate groups, but the gallery is very small, and the number of works were considerable the twin parties soon fell back into one group and after an hour or so we were encouraged to consider which of two possible alternative galleries we might all decamp to – one being a textile exhibition and the other a group a feminist artists. It all seemed a bit hurried.

I decided to ask about feminism and sexism. I wanted to try and get a feel of what the group felt about the work. The general consensus was that feminism was largely a non-issue, that the work had been done and that it didn’t seem to affect these students very much. What I felt we didn’t do, as a group, was to explore why Chicago did what she did and still does; after all if feminism is largely a trope of the past what was the point of continuing to do the work in much the same way as she has been doing for several decades? That Chicago uses images that have the power to shock, combining graphic sexual imagery with a beguiling craft in such a way that still makes the viewer stop short isn’t a movement that has many adherents today. Chicago may be ‘out there’ on her own, but she is still doing it, some students wondered whether it might be her capacity (I wondered about need) for self promotion – to this someone added Tracey Emin’s name as someone who also, apparently, glories in self promotion ‘she knows what sells!’. I didn’t hear the same about Chadwick, though of course she is no longer with us.

That we, as a group, didn’t spend much time discussing why Chicago makes art at all was a disappointment to me. I expected to spend time looking at the craft. The focus when away from the craft dwelt on the sexual, if not (as was suggested) pornographic content of the work, but not why she felt she still needed to do the work in that way. I don’t think the group as a whole felt any need to discuss the reasons, the inspirations or the motivations in the work a great deal, which surprised me; this artist, and Emin, and Beorgois, and, perhaps especially Chadwick aren’t amongst many who are challenging the patriarchy of the world that we inhabit – this capitalist, consumer society in the West. As I said previously this group didn’t think there was a fight to continue, my own research, polling some forty or fifty women of different age groups, didn’t think, in the main that there is much of an issue today for women in society. And that disappoints and surprises me.

I had the fortune to spend about as much time again in the gallery with one other student who had also decided to stay and study the work. We discussed how Chicago’s work might seem to stuck in a time warp, that, as mentioned above, she seems still to be railing against the hegemonic dominant construction that appears to continue to increase it’s dominance over our lives. That maybe Chicago feels that she can’t move on because the cause that she continues to highlight through her work has a more acute relevance, has a resonance that will over a relatively short period begin to fully encroach on ‘developing’ economies and societies, such as India. It was a very useful conversation I found, and certainly the most fruitful of the day for me. Thank you Lucie, it was enlightening. P.s. I left your reference in!

I find it puzzling that the cause of feminism hasn’t apparently moved on a great deal. The artists like Chicago, Wilke, Chadwick, Spence, Emin and others have been unable to move the conversation onward. That activists like Fyn Mackay are represented as they are; why this sort of blog is required , and when I asked the same women about this quite a few more said “yeah, that happened to me all the time”!!

I thought the work of Chicago was both very beautiful and dramatic, that it provoked very visceral responses from me and the other students suggest that the work still has some potency. That it is seen a irrelevant to a lot of people, particularly women is a cause for concern to me. The fight for women’s rights isn’t over – this post contains some correspondence from 1909 suggests that we have moved forward, but by how far?