Monday, 29 July 2013

Liberation That Looks Like a Neon Pedestal: Stereotypes of Surrealism


The Surrealist dictum said "my liberation shall not be your oppression", a hope that the act of liberating oneself could spark an encouragement of collective liberation for the masses, yet in much Surrealist work this unfortunately did not always ring true. Much like in George Bataille's writings, his wish for violent transgressions against the repressive figures of religion, state and the traditional patriarchal family unit, was too often misdirected upon the bodies of people - particularly women, whose bodies represented to Bataille sacred female virtue and chastity etc - this was rather than attacking the institutions themselves. Therefore, in Bataille's world it often was much more the case that "my liberation/ transgression will be your oppression, sorry but my desires come first".

With this in mind, it is worth looking at how their so-called quest for liberation played out in reference to the sources of oppression around them - and as a group of middle-class white men, they often behaved as if blind to class struggles and the fight for racial equality and were by and large pretty homophobic, the nearest form of oppression at hand, that entered into their daily lives of privilege, was the lack of women's rights, the strict gender inequalities and compulsory gendered behaviours of the time. Therefore, with the dictum of the collective over the individual, did the male Surrealist bring women along in their quest for liberation, did they encourage their wives, lovers, friends (if they had female friends that weren't just their mates' wives) to paint, write and to play and active role within the movement? In most cases, no, they did not.

When it came to what to do with one's (er, individualistic) liberation, it was suggested that one route to it was in pursuing an unbound, unchecked expression of one's dreams, fantasies and desires. But in negotiating how such a sexual liberation might actually work, the Surrealist demonstrated a reinforcement of conservative gender roles and negative stereotypes. Hal Foster says of this, 'But most surrealists were men, and men came first in this liberation. They included women, to be sure; indeed, this liberation focused on women, but as sites of desire for than as subjects of desire; women were asked to present it more than inhabit it'. Photography of female nudes as erotic objects dominated surrealism. In this (quite long) post I'm going to look at how the male Surrealists factored women in - this was mostly in the form of depiction rather than women's own expression or creative output. So exploring the representations of women in the art of the Surrealists, to see in what ways if any they reject or reinforce received stereotypes of women. These will be compared with the work of female surrealists of the time and those working later but still influenced by Surrealism, to see if they go further in the abolition of these stereotypes. The emphasis here will be on the photographic works, as photography possesses what Whitney Chadwick describes as an 'intrinsic...claim to document, to have a privileged relation to the real'. This'll be done in five roughly arranged sections that express the subjects and tendencies within surrealist photography; these are the nude, mythical maidens, mirror images, fetish objects and gender masquerades .


The Nude

The nude is one of art history's most institutionalised subjects, so commonplace that it seems women have always existed as objects of beautification and display. John Berger in Ways of Seeing decodes the meanings inherent in art works, revealing the oppressive nature of established art forms that privilege the display of women's bodies for the delectation of the male viewer. At the same time idealising the female form and stripping it of integrity and actuality. The nude is rarely presented as an autonomous subject, instead it is her relation to the viewer as object of visual pleasure. Berger says of the nude, 'Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality'

Man Ray's 1929 solarised photograph The Primacy of Matter over Thought (above) is an example of this positioning of the female form that is easily accessible to the viewing pleasure of the spectator. Mary Anne Doanne comments of this classic pose, 'The fetishistic representation of the nude female body, fully in view, insures a masculinisation of the spectural position'. The surreal destabilising aspect of this picture comes from the solarisation technique the nude body is outlined not by shadow but instead illuminated with an ethereal glow. The nudes head appears in the bottom left had corner of the picture in the golden section that draws the eye towards it first. The eye then wanders up and left over her reclining body. It is a beautifully composed picture that uses the classical pose of the nude, but also makes it strange, the figure seems to float and glow with electricity. This aligned the nude with technology by its photographic technique of solarisation. The nude has been yoked to genres, themes and subject identifications over the years, Gustav Klimt found fascination in women in, or as nature, painting hair and limbs that behave as if mingling with the natural world, woman as foliage perhaps. All this idolatry of woman as nature, or woman as scared amounted to just another way of objectifying the female form by making it purely decorative and unreal.
Thus Man Ray, despite his technical snazziness, still upheld art historical female objectification by his reluctance to deviate from the established classical treatment of the female body as nude. Conforming to Katherine Conley's statement that: 'The surrealists' sense of beauty and of love in the 1920s and 1930s was at once hopelessness old-fashioned and boldly modern, as though their woman on a pedestal were made of neon'.

The image of the classical nude was deconstructed and mocked by Rene Magritte's painting le Viol (above) in which the facial features of the figure are replaced by that of the female body parts, drawing attention to the objectification of the female body, the highly sexualised indignity of "woman". The breasts stand in for eyes and the public triangle mimics the shape of the mouth, it is an uncanny and aggressive statement about the way women have come to be defined by their sex in western art. Or quite possibly it was simply an exercise in transgression and transformation, or maybe it speaks of Magritte's preference to see the naked female body exposed, rather than deal with a woman's face...The painting can be read sympathetically or cynically depending on ones agenda/gender. The work of Francesca Woodman, coming later than the first early waves of Surrealism, worked during the 1970's reassessment of Surrealism and its rediscovery of maligned female Surrealist's such as Claude Cahun, it is useful to look at her employment of similar Surrealist strategies of destabilising visual expectations, distortions and dream-like projections.

In the untitled work (left) she takes up and shatters the classical attitudes that still inform contemporary western views of bodily perfection; by poking at her body and attaching clothes pegs, she pokes fun at the sanctity and the unreality of the representations of women's bodies in art. Making clear that a woman's body is not actually ethereal or the mysterious other but real and made of imperfect but tangible squidgeable flesh. The choice of clothes pegs links women's bodies with domesticity Forcing the image of the female nude out of its place of erotic idealisation and into the sphere of reality: of the banality of daily routine and the domestic chores of hanging up washing. This shatters one stereotype and takes up another: the place of woman and the home, another area of women's oppression. Both Woodman and Magritte's pictures show how it is possible, by deviating from retrogressive portrayals of the female nude, or making the scene uncanny can be employed to challenge and ridicule the stereotypical depictions of the unreal "beautiful female" form in art.

Mythical Maidens

The Surrealists displayed a fascination with touching thresholds, of taking themselves to the boundaries of sanity, morality and mortality. This was not always done literally but intellectually they were interested in going to the limits, exploring the unconscious and repressed. To use their findings to make sense of themselves by decoding their own fears and desires to better create art works that they felt, rather grandly and naively would free the masses of the bonds of oppressive religious, military and patriarchal norms and laws. That the activity of expression and an engagement with creativity could/would always liberate. The rejection of religious control in favour perhaps of a more existential thinking led the Surrealist to think about death, and a person's psychology as opposed to spirituality and fate. Death was one of the major themes in the Surrealist oeuvre. Conley states: 'The surrealists were attracted to the notion of death and its linkage to eroticism, finding the possibility of confronting their own mortality thrilling and pleasantly terrifying – but only as a philosophical construct'

The Surrealists took inspiration from the Symbolists of the late eighteen hundreds. Due to advancements in science and the waning of religious faith and belief in god, the Symbolists sought refuge in the mysterious, spiritual and the enigmatic. The vamp and the siren are recurring characters in their work. Depictions of the mythical maidens: Salome, Medusa, and Judith are rife, their presence revealing the male Symbolists' fear and desire of women.. The Surrealist can be seen to be intrigued in the same way by these images of deadly sirens, Conley proposes: 'Like all men facing the Medusa, the surrealists felt a mixture of attraction and dread'.

Man Ray's Woman with Long Hair is a dark atmospheric picture. The position of the woman's head and neck looks unnatural and uncomfortable, hanging over the edge of a plinth like a corpses on a mortuary slab. The sanguine facial expression and the loose following wavy hair is the emphasis of the picture. The curved lines of which are exaggerated by the picture being in black and white, the shadows deepening the sense of the unknown and unseen, giving the picture an eerie uncanny quality. The scene is certainly beautiful but also unnerving, it appears to be the scene of death, this yoking together of sensuality and death are problematic: were dead women more beautiful to the Surrealists? If it was simply an eroticisation of death, of an excitement of going to the edge, such is found in the sublime, why was it that only the images of women that could get them there? Ether way, the notion that female passivity, inaction is desirable is established or promoted by this picture.

Jean Delville's Symbolist painting Dead Orpheus makes this link between death and beauty explicit, the light around the figures head bathes it in glowing illumination making it appear something other than a inanimate object but a radiant object of wonder. Norbert Wolf comments on the painting, 'Orpheus' head – his face a metaphor for youthful beauty even in death'. What is troubling about the Surrealists fascination with death, is that it is incarnated and acted out by the figures of "beautiful" women, communicating that death and passivity are preferred or romanticised states of being for women. This is a rather abhorrent fantasy and to allow oneself to take pleasure in these images puts the viewer in a disquieting position. To the Surrealists "art is life", therefore by taking pleasure in the picture one may feel complicit in the dehumanisation of women.


Mirror Images

Mirrors have a very specific function in art, Berger again decodes the hidden agendas or proclivities of artists and viewers, 'You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your pleasure' he continues pointing out the hypocrisy and disingenuous nature of mirrors' symbolism, 'The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight'. Man Ray's Gala from 1947 makes its subject the act of looking, looking at oneself and displaying oneself to be looked at by others. At first glimpse Gala appears to be a rather ordinary classical portrait but on closer inspection there is something dark and troubling about it. Although the face seems serene, the reflection in the mirror is different, darker, the uncanny appearance of a doppelgänger revealing the murky nature of what is usually hidden, the unconscious perhaps.

Gala is quite reminiscent of the Symbolist Franz Von Stuck's painting Sin (left), the figures garment is open down the front of her body, her nakedness is displayed in provocative manner. Her face is in shadow but the expression is that of a leer. The title Sin represents the archaic notion that female sexuality is something that corrupts, provoking men's desire and leading to sin and the downfall of man. Man Ray in expressing the disingenuous nature of surface appearances uses the mirror to reflect something unpleasant about this beatific veiled woman. The choice of garment is telling, the veiling disguises ones body, partially obscuring and revealing tantalises us. The woman's look away from the camera is the process of assuming not to be aware of the camera's gaze while at the same time showing exhibitionist pleasure at being the object of the gaze. In this regard the picture conforms to Berger's hypothesis that by conditioning women to view themselves in the role of spectacle, that arouses them, if the woman is seen to enjoy this attention then they are punished for this vanity.



The position of the mirror in Woodman's photograph is interesting as it in on the ground, out of reach of the viewer, this is quite usual to have the mirror standing in for the look of the viewer. In this picture however, we have no access to the reflection, it is obscured by the figure of Woodman who appears to be springing up from and breaking out of the mirror. As a metaphor for wanting to shatter the view of women as objects of visual pleasure, vanity and the existence of a woman being something visual, elusive a surface image only. The fact that Woodman's face is distorted expresses her reluctance to be a stationary image but indeed the distortion proves she is moving, and an active participant in this picture.

Fetish Objects

Scenes containing incongruous objects are signatures of Surrealism. Objects are given new meanings by becoming the symbols of desire. Jennifer Mundy explains the surrealists' tendencies to fetishise, 'The fetishistic model of desire compounded to the surrealists' trompe l'oeil visual images remembered from dreams and fantasies, and to their specially constructed 'objects with a symbolic function'. In these works the image or object stood in the place of veiled or sublimated impulses or desires...'. Magritte makes these connections explicit in Philosophy in the Boudoir, items of clothing develop the anatomy of the bodies that wear them, the blouse seems to be growing breasts and the shoes some toes. By drawing our attention to these objects we begin to think about the weight of meaning that we attached to objects. In this case Magritte could to be providing a critique of the way woman are seen to be defined by the things they put onto their bodies, that women then become the trappings of gendered dress and thus objects themselves. Magritte's painting could also be an expression of his own fetishist desire towards these items of clothing that may arouse him, reminding him of what lays underneath.

Meret Oppenheim's My Nurse a collection of objects placed together and bound take on the significance of her claustrophobic feelings of desire for her old nanny/ nursemaid who apparently wore very tight skirts in which her thighs would be heard rubbing together underneath! The bound shoes then become fetishised objects endowed with sexual connotations due to their significance in Oppenheim's eroticised memory of her nurse. The surrounding meanings connected to the shoes also seep into this piece, perhaps corrupting the original intentions or even adding to them – that is of high heels' connotations, according to some Feminists of being tools of male oppression of women. Women wearing such shoes cannot move as freely and are often painful to wear. This oppressive and sadistic element is reinforced by the binding of the shoes. To Oppenheim it expressed the thighs rubbing tightly together, but artists are not always in control of the reception their work is met with. A valid reading of this piece, could easily be of male oppression of women; the heels are frayed and soft making the shoes impossible to walk in. The loss of movement producing a passivity, making the women a bound object, served up on a plat to be devoured by male desire. But the memory is Oppenheim's so can't we also say, so is the desire?

Salvador Dali's Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically is an overtly fetishistic construction expressing the mechanism of the suppression of lust, Mundy states 'Dali explored normally repressed feelings of guilt and shame...paraded in the paintings and objects of the Spanish artist who declared that perversion and vice were "the most revolutionary forms of thought and activity"'. The work is constructed of objects that Dali felt symbolically express that of the feminine, red shoes, pictures of shoes, sugar cubes and other domestic objects like the wooden spoon. The way this piece functions is of reading the objects together as a unity; the shoes and the photograph of a couple having sex express Dali's desire for women, while the domestic objects connote his traditional view of women being associated within the sphere of the home. The patch of pubic hair relays his fear of debasement by engaging in sex (Dali was notoriously frightened of sex and lost his virginity fairly late). The patch of hair is situated under the shoe suggesting it is something dirty. The way the objects come together shoes how Dali is perhaps trying to interpret his fetishistic fear and desire with what he associates with women. Feeling free enough to want to exhibit your fears and fantasies can be seen as liberating yet the message can be problematic, Mundy comments, 'The pursuit of the objects of desire was a pleasure to be savoured ad libertam'. This meant that due to the subjective nature of one artist's fantasy they could express them in a way that meant they were free from being held to account. Think of the disturbing nature of Hans Bellmer's desire for prepubescent girls in his dolls...

Gender Masquerades
The dominance of male heterosexuality in Surrealism meant that the representation of women and their sexuality was somewhat limited by Surrealist thought still being very much under the influence of patriarchal attitudes and regulations. One exception to the usually quite narrow minded view of gender and sexuality came from Marcel Duchamp's incarnation as Rrose Selavy. Duchamp put on this persona, met new people and travelled around as Rrose. Tashjian states of this performative gender bending being more than just drag, 'Duchamp's continued association with Rrose in a series of exchanges decisively transforms her portrait into his self-portrait, doubling Rrose the woman into Rrose Duchamp.' the fact of this lived cross dressing perhaps giving more validity to Duchamp's creation, rather than a form of cross dressing that had more in common with parody and the mockery of supposed normative behaviours. She continues, 'In the process we confront a persona that blurs the cultural borders of gender and sexuality, opening up possibilities that we have only begun to imagine'. The fact that this (art) performance was recorded by Man Ray's photography likens Duchamp's incarnation to be that of a living art work rather than just living. The Portrait of Rrose Selavy hides the "tell tell" signs of Duchamp's daily lived gender as male by the employment of shadow and lighting, Tashjian states, 'Rrose Selavy's existence as a woman is reinforced by the authenticity that we attribute to photography'. But, in some ways Rrose is played like a game rather than letting it become too real, always returning to the limitations of the Surrealists who always had the safety of being white, heterosexual middle-class men to return to.

Does Duchamp's gender play go far enough to subvert the binary opposites that gender has been forced into? His dress, hair style and demeanour is that of a clichéd stereotypical women's way of dress that carries with it the marks of woman's oppression in behaviours and dress that act as a masquerade. 'The idea of masquerade, of appearance as artifice strikes at the very heart of the idea of identity inhabited as a natural skin.' It is just as artificial for a woman to 'put on' femininity as it was for Duchamp. Duchamp is conforming to standardised notions of femininity rather than proposing something new and politically subversive. Claude Cahun's cross-dressing amounted to refusing to wear clothes that were obviously gendered, or when she did it was to make obvious the costuming of all forms of dress, with irony and with pleasure. Suleiman states ways in which the form of femininity that is understood as "normal" is in fact as construction, that women perform a kind of daily drag by just conforming to patriarchal expectations, 'The woman 'imitates' the module of femininity she sees presented to her by men, but she does so consciously, even as a parody in a manner akin to that of the quotation'.

Frida Kahlo's Portrait with Hair Cut Off expresses how bound the idea of gender is with style, rather than biology. After cropping her hair, Kahlo is dressed in a man's suit, playing with the idea that you can appropriate the sex of another by simply 'putting it on'. She takes off femininity by cutting off her long feminised hair and puts on maleness by wearing a suit. Within this mixture of socially constructed genders there is much more chance of subverting stereotypes, to allow for a more liberated view of sex and gender that includes all orientations, 'Both body and face trouble any normative sense of gender while being at the same time intensely sexual'. The frisson comes when these two genders come into play together, Kahlo is not dressing up as a man, or going butch, but expressing her own form of Female Masculinity and sexuality.

I've remained interested in the possibilities set up by Surrealism, despite being let down by the fact they never went far enough in challenging oppressive stereotypes of women and so often conformed to them, the fact they refused to entertain anything other than compulsory heterosexuality - all the more disappointing considering quite how much attention they gave to the subject of sexuality! But what they did hope to do was to give everyone agency over their own desires, dreams and fantasies, in theory if not practice. It is unforgivable that women figured only as muse rather than being allowed to enter into dialogues that would've helped these men understand and confront their retrograde attitudes to women. Had women been heard or allowed a voice in Surrealism, they no doubt would have led the charge of this so called liberation. Instead male Surrealists often fell into the attitudes Conley described Andre Breton possessing in his relationship to women, 'he lauds the women in his life: each one offers him a fresh perspective on himself, like a traditional muse. What room is there for actual women as creative subjects in this world view?' There in Surrealism was the seed of possibilities of a truly liberated way to view sexuality and desire in art and life, but it wasn't activated by them themselves - it is clear when looking at some of the second wave female Surrealists, who carried on challenging and pushing for the liberation that was promised them, they who constructed their own art in the gaps the male Surrealists left behind.