André Breton’s Surrealists styled themselves as professional troublemakers, sworn enemies of social and cultural convention, but in their attitudes towards women the boys were remarkably old-fashioned. If one ignores the rhetoric, it’s clear that women were viewed as either sexual objects or muses, but rarely as active subjects.
The Surrealists may have wanted their women, in the words of art historian, Whitney Chadwick, to be “beautiful, independent and creative”, but they were also expected to be sexually compliant, good cooks, and willing disciples of Breton’s dogma.
Frida Kahlo destested the male Surrealists she met in Paris, complaining they were “so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten”. She told her lover, Nickolas Muray, she’d sooner sell tortillas in the marketplace than have anything to do wth those “‘artistic’ bitches”.
In art history’s ongoing reassessment of both Surrealism and women artists, there has been new attention lavished on figures such as Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Kay Sage, Lee Miller and Claude Cahun. If the resulting surveys have often been disappointing, the same could be said about their male counterparts. I wasn’t impressed by a Dorothea Tanning show I saw at Tate Modern, but it didn’t feel as profoundly cynical as an earlier Tate show by her famous husband, Max Ernst.
Surrealism has always had an element of charlatanry, from Breton’s Napoleonic posturing to Dalí’s publicity stunts. Many of its failings have arisen from the difficulty of making work through a process of “pure psychic automatism”. To meet this criterion, put forward in the first Surrealist Manifesto (1924), artists would have needed to switch off their conscious minds and spontaneously channel their subconscious instincts. For trained artists this is no simple matter, as one’s knowledge of art history and technique keeps getting in the way.
Is it easier for women than men to access the subconscious mind? Women are generally less inhibited when it comes to talking about their personal feelings or anxieties. Curator, Carrie Kibbler, at the Hazelhurst Art Centre, felt there was a strong Surrealist current in the work of contemporary Australian women artists, and has put together an enterprising exhibition to support her hunch. In the Arms of Unconsciousness: Women, Feminism & the Surreal, features 22 artists who have been influenced by Surrealism – which should no longer be seen as a movement, but a set of techniques, ideas and attitudes.
The show includes wellknown figures such as Del Kathryn Barton, Patricia Piccinini, Anne Wallace and Caroline Rothwell, along with artists such as Vivienne Binns, Julie Rrap and Jill Orr, who might (with apologies) be described as veterans of performance and feminist art. There’s also room for younger talents, such as Lucy O’Doherty, Juz Kitson, Marikit Santiago, Honey Long & Prue Stent, and for those such Louisa Chircop and Madeleine Kelly, who deserve to be better known. A video by Kaylene Whiskey provides Indigenous content, but it’s more slapstick than surreal.
The highlight of the show is probably Del Kathryn Barton’s short film, Red (2017), which features Cate Blanchett in the unaccustomed role of a redback spider. Barton is also represented by a large painting, Love wants to give (2022), which pictures the coupling of two fantastic beings in a psychedelic landscape. There’s an aggressive dynamism about the film that creates an very different mood to the hallucinogenic atmosphere of the painting.
Red is nightmarish, but also tightly plotted, using the homocidal mating habits of the female spider as a way of conjuring up fears common to males of another species. There may more genuine Surrealism – in the sense of pure psychic automatism – in some of the other strategies one finds in this exhibition, from biomorphic abstraction, to collage, to the creation of precise but unsettling images.
The show incorporates a wide variety of media, from digital art to ceramics, with huge variations within each field. Ceramic sculptor, Linda Draper, uses repetitive, tubular forms to create strange hybrids between marine invertebrates and Marcel Duchamp’s bottle rack. Dracaena (2021), with its two black eyes, looks as if it might spring to life at any moment. Another ceramic sculptor, Juz Kitzon, draws a more direct inspiration from the natural world, but piles on the detail until it becomes difficult to know whether we are looking at something that is animal, mineral or vegetable. An entirely black piece appears charred but miraculously preserved, as if it has been transformed by fire but also left intact. Jenny Orchard’s totemic ceramic figures are combinations of her dreams and conscious reflection on science and biology.
Among those artists who aim for the disturbing, one-off image, perhaps the most striking is photographer, Pat Brassington. In Pillow talk (2005), a child’s legs sticking out from beneath a cushion feels as odd and sinister as a pink, scaly appendage partially concealed by a white curtain in The Wedding Guest (2005). In a black-and-white print, Enveloped (2020), a nod in the direction of a famous Man Ray photo of a seated nude seen from the rear, is given sharp outlines and enveloped by a leaf pattern. The result is an image that partakes of several different registers – an abstract design, a fragment of a real, eroticised body, and even a hint of landscape.
The collage aesthetic is dominant in an animated video by Deborah Kelly, The Gods of Tiny Things (2019), and multiple 2D and 3D works by Louisa Chircop. Both artists show their awareness of the Surrealist game, exquisite corpse, in which several artists would draw fragments of a figure on a sheet of folded paper. When revealed, the final, monstrous form would be a surprise to everyone.
The subtitle of the show gives equal billing to feminism, which the curator, in a catalogue note, divides into four waves. Kibbler’s thesis is that there is a strong feminist agenda in the way Australian women artists have embraced the visual strategies of Surrealism. She believes women surrealists have “presented more fluid representations of gender and sexuality and challenged the hierarchy of power while presenting the female body as a representation of self, a liberation of their desires or their traditional domestic settings and roles.”
If this sounds vague but heroic, it’s because one could say the same thing about almost any style women artists have adopted. It would be just as easy to imagine a realist artist portraying women in roles traditionally associated with men and seeing this as a challenge to the patriarchy. The male Surrealists were often criticised for images of torn, debased or fragmented female bodies – think of André Masson’s Gradiva (1939) which pairs a body with a slab of meat; or Rene Magritte’s The Rape (1935), in which a woman’s torso has replaced the features of her face. Yet it seems that when women artists dismember same body it’s to be accepted as a feminist gesture.
There’s something missing in this equation, which assigns contrary moral values to the gender of the artists. The problem with all overarching theses is that they don’t take adequate account of the complex subjective elements in an artist’s work. It’s credible that every woman in this exhibition is both a feminist and a surrealist, but it’s much harder to prove there’s an intrinsic affinity between these two ideologies. A style is a kind of visual language, and a language needs to be flexible enough to express all points of view. How these expressions are to be interpreted is a more personal, unpredictable affair.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July, 2023