Wednesday, December 24, 2008

To the question of surrealism and women


No doubt the question about surrealism and women is not one but several questions. A widespread academic view, which was very popular in the 80s and still is to be seen in many places, is that surrealism is unambiguously misogynist, which shows both in the works of surrealist artists and writers, in their temperaments, and in how women have "been treated" in the surrealist movement.

Others are capable of partly separating these different questions and imagining alternatives; in terms of ideology and ideas, are the aims of surrealism misogynist, passively sexist, naïvely wellmeaning or radically antisexist? what about the imagery, the fantasies, the mythology and the creative tools? what about the organisation and daytoday practice? and in terms of practical frameworks for real women; is it primarily disciplinary and isolating, or primarily revealing, inspiring and contact-knitting?

That old academic standpoint, the misogyny thesis, might perhaps not be that hot at many universities anymore, but remains a consensus in many places where it is mostly repeated by teachers and newspaper critics and others whose job it is to have opinions without investigating the matter. Several current academics have moved on to more fruitful lines of enquiry.

The tendency among many sympathetic academics and critics, as well as many surrealists themselves, to regard this standpoint as absurd and not confront it, is unfortunately indistinguishable from the outside from not regarding the question as interesting or legitimate, which indeed would be a case of ongoing sexism. While other sympathetic commentators have formulated different views, in general terms or in case studies of single historical surrealists, and the surrealists have usually dismissed the critique as reactionary and careeristic, and slightly more rarely, openly discussed the questions themselves. Our most important sources here, at least in the english language, are Nancy Joyce Peters's benchmark essay "Women and surrealism" in Arsenal #4, 1989, and Penelope Rosemont's bulging anthology Surrealist women of 1998 (also including the former; and indeed a necessary read for anyone who wants to approach the problematics, and who wouldn't?).

In these sources, the deeply-felt and well-argued defense of surrealism as a radically antisexist endeavour in its aims and methods is combined with a certain propagandistic eagerness for legitimation including a reluctancy to adress many complicated questions and admit any weaknesses or faults, at least regarding modern activities. The achievements, the consistency and vehemence, and the poetical and theoretical qualities of the works of women surrealists are very consistently praised in Rosemont's anthology. In this book, all women are intelligent, original, strong and sensitive (while it is attacked as totally irrelevant when Whitney Chadwick and other academics mentioned their beauty). All writings of women have remarkable poetic power. Every woman who ever wrote an article, regardless of the subject, is an important theorist. Every woman whom we don’t know anything else about than her name under a single isolated text is an important comet in the movement and a major mystery. Every woman who is repeatedly present in the source material is one of the movements' leading organisers and militants. This lack of objective assessment is obviously a conscious propagandistic choice, and certainly a minor weakness compared with the great merit of holding them forth and making them visible and available in the first place, but nevertheless something that might prove counterproductive in that it might make us refrain from posing certain critical questions.

Now some of the questions are in fact available for investigation with the crudest empirical methods. Rosemont has counted the women contributing to journals and exhibitions for each decade, but for some reason she does not seem to have counted the male contributors in the same way to be able to make a comparison. She has not studied any other comparable (whatever that should be) movement to establish that their share of women is actually smaller. And she has not taken the step to ask women who are not longer active in the movement why not.

While the academic standpoint is not just a rather poor standpoint, but very often this specific feminist-surrealismology is a rather poor strand of research, in most cases (with some notable exceptions) resting almost entirely on secondary sources and very little on original empirical research, the only effort involved being that of "critical reinterpretation" which all too often just means a comparison with another preconceived ideology and, even worse, imagining how historical women "must have felt" according to some standard popular psychology and an obvious lack of imagination and lack of understanding of the phenomenology of life in a radicalised context.


So let's once again cast a glance down the decades of the history of surrealism. From the outset, it is no doubt that there was sexism in the surrealist environment and examples of it can easily be found. Even Rosemont admits this, but, as she argues too, one important question here is whether there was more or less sexism within this environment than within society in general (probably far less) or within other broadly vanguardist movements (probably less than in most, but perhaps more than in a few). In spite of this manifest sexism, there was obviously something attracting women in this environment since they in fact gathered there.

So what did 20s women look for in a vanguardist social circle such as surrealism? Some suggestions:
a) collaborations and mutual inspiration in their creative work
b) careeristic networking, from recognition/coaching to concrete publication and exhibiting opportunities
c) a general sense of adventure and play and intensified life as opposed to available lifestyle alternatives and capitalist society in general
d) friendship, entertainment and fun in an innovative and radical environment
e) particularly intelligent, creative and radical male partners.

The feminist-academic critics here usually believe that women came looking for a) and b) only, which were supposedly denied them, and so settled for e) as an alternative. On the contrary, I would guess that all these five alternatives have been important, for many integrated into a sense of general curiosity-affinity, for others clearly focusing on one or the other point, sometimes even explicitly (quite obviously, a) and c) are the motives which make more sense from a surrealist perspective and would be expected to be the dominant forces driving the most engaged women in surrealism). It cannot be denied that many women of the so-called "liberated" varieties; dropouts and weirdos, frustrated heiresses, widows and rich-man's-daughters, communist activists, artists of all kinds; in fact were attracted to surrealism.

During the 20s, their role in surrealist life was largely a significant but not significantly acknowledged one. Within the surrealist environment, everybody writes and draws more or less, at least as part of games and experiments. And texts, drawings and collaborations by women do appear in journals and exhibitions, but not regularly and their contributors are obviously not considered equally important as writers and artists as many of their male friends. Even more significant, the regular signing of tracts and collective declarations, one of the rituals keeping the surrealist community together, is not done by women at all during this decade; obviously they are simply not officially recognised as members of the group.

But as the journals show, and as Rosemont and many others argue, their contributions are significant and in no way confined to being muses and lovers, which the feminist-academics claim are the only roles assigned to women in surrealism. In the pictures of the 20s surrealist group, Simone Breton (Kahn) has a central position. She was one of the main activists of the group and, with a talent for typing, also a sort of secretary. (This voluntarily adopted role seems like an early resignation to a traditionally feminine role, but I am not sure how much of a standard role the female secretary actually was at the time, and it definitely ascertained her place at the very center of the group.) Her cousin, Denise Levy (Kahn), did not live in Paris and so wasn't a part of everyday life in the group, but a very important correspondent as she spoke fluent german and so was the mediator of a lot of german litterature. Of other women in and around the group at the time, Nancy Cunard was an organiser type, Lise Deharme an independent type, Fanny Beznos and (from the south) Valentine Penrose had an ongoing poetic production internally fuelled, while in many others their participation in games and contribution of texts and artworks seems perhaps a little more passive and more a product of their being around for adventurous, social and romantic reasons (but often no less serious and sometimes even important contributions still); Renée Gauthier, Suzanne Muzard, Gala, Nadja, Jeanette Ducrocq and many others. With these, the feminist-academics are entirely right that they were not recognised and encouraged as artists by their fellow male surrealists, but the reason is simpler than misogyny: they were not recognised as artists because they were none in any other sense than their participation in the shared creativity.

And the situation changed. In the 30s with an intensified politicisation and with in some senses a modernisation of society in general, women became officially members of the group as shown by their signing tracts and declarations, and their contributions to exhibitions and journals was more in proportion with their presence. If we confine the discussion to french surrealism to start with, a few later more or less well-known female writers and quite a number of artists made their first or major public appearances within the surrealist community (such as Gisèle Prassinos, Valentine Hugo, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Remedios, Kay Sage, Claude Cahun, Lee Miller, Dora Maar, etc, of those who became famous; in surrealism but less in the outside world, many others are regarded as equally important such as Alice Rahon, Jacqueline Lamba, Mary Low, Isabelle Waldberg etc). Only as theorists are the female participants in the movement almost nowhere to be seen: the only significant female theorist in surrealism in france during the 30s is Claude Cahun (the mere writing articles on political and litterary subjects does not necessarily make for example Nancy Cunard and Mary Low surrealist theorists). Cahun is in many ways an exceptional character, and one which is usually not spoken very much about by the standard feminist-academics since she does not conform to any pattern, being one of the leading political activists and theorists of the group, and a homosexual and therefore not having affairs with male participants, she is simply one of these very complicated and unique truly surrealist characters who are difficult to use as a mere examplification of a polemic point.

The feminist-academics cultivate a version where the male surrealists always tried to suppress the creativity of their female comrades. Judging from catalogues and journals this does not make much sense. But then, there are circumstances which do not readily show in such sources. Obviously, in some ways circumstances were not all that easy for female artists-writers-activists-adventurers seeking collaborations on equal terms. Particularly not since their presence in the community very often also included, as an essential part among others, amorous-sexual ties, which sometimes gave the women themselves, and even more the men, opportunity to end up in dilemmas dictated by double moral standards, remaining bourgeois prejudices, jealousy and egoism. There are some nowadays rather well-known cases where the famous husband/lover expected the wife/lover not to spend that much time with the group or with their creative work since she should care for the household/children etc (Jacqueline Lamba (Breton) being the most famous one). There are probably far more cases where the same result was acquired by a more spontaneous division of labor which wasn't conceived as problematic by either part.

And then there are a couple of well-known cases where an ambitious female participant dragged her male lover out of collectivity into both a more close family life and a more intensely pursued individual career (primarily the two mythic russian femmes fatales Elsa Triolet and Gala encouraging their husbands Aragon and Dalí that surrealism was to small for them). Obviously, the collectivity which is fundamental in surrealism is something which provides some obstacles to both the traditional confined family life and to spectacular marketing of individuals in careerist terms. Probably this is one of the fundamental things that the feminist-academics fail to understand about surrealism. For them, the way female artists may be expected to remain parts of the collective just like everybody else, appears merely as a will to deny them their rightful artistic careers and/or their rightful urge to set up conventional families. In this respect, it is clearly the academics and not the surrealists who are forefighters of conventional sexist bourgeois morality.

During the 30s, the surrealist movement became truly international, and in the various different countries where surrealist activity implanted itself there is of course a large range of variation in terms of females' conditions. We can easily list many important names (Toyen, Iréne Hamoir, Frida Kahlo, Grace Pailthorpe, Ithell Colquhoun, Franciska Clausen, Rita Kernn-Larsen, Elsa Thoresen, Sonia Ferlov, Eileen Agar, Edith Rimmington, Maruja Mallo, Ida Kar is a selection) but what about their situation? In famously liberal England and Denmark, half of the groups' activists and artists were women (but still none of the principal organisers and only one of the theorists, the psychoanalyst Grace Pailthorpe), and the fashionable idea of surrealism as being misogynist has perhaps never been applied to those local histories. On the other hand, in all of surrealism's extraeuropean distribution, in the Canaries, in Egypt, in Japan, and - to begin with - in the whole of Latin America, there was only a very small number of female participants, not given much exposure at all (the significant exception being the complex case of Frida Kahlo), and apparently without much significance to the activities (though mostly we don't have information enough to assess the real situation).


One point of controversy is to what extent female surrealists have been properly acknowledged. The thesis pursued by the feminist-academics was that while there is a conspiracy of silence against female artists in general, this was even worse within surrealism because of its misogyny. Nevertheless, the artists they pick as examples are all rather well-known, both within surrealism and within art history. The responding surrealists (such as Rosemont) claim that female surrealists are all well-known within surrealism and it is only in the outside world the conspiracy of silence reigns, and the tendency of the feminist-academics to stick to the already famous can be regarded as a part of that conspiracy. This question is available for empirical enquiry. And I have to say (perhaps a bit boring, yes) that the real situation seems a little bit more complex than to be sufficiently explained by one or two monumental conspiracies.

No doubt women artists in general have had to work much harder to be recognised than their male counterparts. This has probably been far less the case in surrealism, both because of its esteem of somehow "feminine" viewpoints and even more because of its insistence on collective activity, collective exhibitions and collective publications which always makes men and women, famous and non-famous appear side by side. For many female surrealist artists, fame has arrived late, more in spite of their local recognition within surrealism than due to their internal reputation.

For some, recognition has been larger in official art history than in surrealism, typically in those cases were the artists' association with the surrealist movement was brief and ambiguous, like Frida Kahlo and Leonor Fini. For many, recognition outside surrealism has not yet been widespread in spite of their being agreed on within surrealism as central figures, such as with Toyen. While for even more, enquiry into their works and lives comes only slowly in both camps. Claude Cahun was for a long time just a name of a participant among others until her extremely powerful works and personal example became famous in recent decades, among surrealists and among some queer-minded academics but not among the standard feminist-academics. Penelope Rosemont seems to imply that the vast collection of female surrealists in her own book are unknown only to the official art and litterature history while surrealists themselves would know them all. This is not the case. Within the movement, I would guess there was only a handful of active feminists, biography freaks, or both, who could say they knew the majority of the names in the anthology. With these rhetorics, it seems Rosemont is in fact diminishing her own great achievement of discovering, finding biographical data, finding and translating valuable and often great texts of this impressive number of non-famous, rumor-famous, sub-famous and sometimes really famous women surrealists.

And of course a very important point is the width in time and space; academic students of surrealism usually are entirely uncapable of seeing surrealism as a living international thing with groups and individuals active in several different countries all the way back from the classical days to the present; sometimes they explicitly circumscribe their study to one or two particular decades in France or possibly some other country, but more often they do it out of mere ignorance that there is a lot more or of one or the other type of blunt denial. This is actually changing now in many places, where academic surrealism studies are starting to cover even recent times and peripheral countries. (For good and bad.) While for Rosemont, the internationalism and the actuality are part of the starting point. I would say this is a book of monumental importance, not only for being a fantastic anthology which could be opened at random for a strong poetic reminder, and reread over and over, but also for being a dictionary of biographical and historical information, and finally for implicitly posing a large number of questions on how to deal with gender issues within the current movement, questions that she on the explicit level denies need to be posed...


The fact that the position of women changed for the better in the 30s does not mean however that women since then have been on equal terms with men within surrealism and sexism was left behind in its entirety long ago (as it seems Rosemont is arguing in her book, but I know she is not actually thinking). Of course the sexism of society does not simply end at surrealism's door, and of course the traditional surrealist mythologies concerning desire, love, sexual identities, sexual practices etc are ambiguous. Nevertheless, the idea that surrealism is primarily misogynistic is a strangely misconceived one. Usually it rests on a simplified interpretation that the only place for real women in surrealism is as muses and lovers, as inspiring incarnations of the two mythical characters of the femme fatale and the femme-enfant.

First of all, the active participation of women as co-players, co-adventurers, co-activists, writers and artists everywhere quite simply falsifies that they would be tolerated as mere muses and lovers. Secondly, while surrealism indeed has been cultivating a mythology involving woman and the feminine, there are several things to keep in mind about such a mythology. A myth, in a creative connection, is a vehicle of thought confirming a system of associations and correspondences in order to reveal and create anew epistemological and sensory possibilities and opening up avenues for new enquiry. Myth is thus a tool and has primarily a conditional function depending on its productivity. This is indeed different from the sense of myth which we have in ideological myths of society, where myth is a good-enough non-rational justification of certain social conditions, and thus functioning by halting enquiry and independent thought insteading of forwarding them. The whole function of myth in the creative connection is then to facilitate the invention of new modes of thought and new possibilities of behavior and new senses of life, and not to explain or expect anyone to conform to the already known patterns.

Partly as a result of this and partly as a very simple logical fact, as a very important disclaimer, which seems rather obvious but which the academic-feminists don't trust the surrealists to be aware of, there is a difference between woman in myth and women in reality. Within surrealism, men and women alike, are supposed to be inventing new ways of life together, not conforming to standards or myths.

And then, the surrealist mythology concerning woman and the feminine cannot be satisfactorily reduced to the two tropes of the femme fatale and the femme-enfant. Indeed the classical source which is most explicit on this topic, Breton's Arcane 17, dwells on the mythological character of Melusine and on the role of woman as universal mediator-peacemaker-glue-secretskeeper-magician-naturekeeper-loveinspirer. This is in parts close to the essentialist feminism of most of his contemporary feminist movement (particularly the stresses on the bonds to nature and love and the demand that women's greater influence in society is by all means necessary among other things to end warfare). This idea complex may seem very politically outdated today, but for one thing it can not be satisfactorily accounted for as the choice between femme fatale and femme-enfant.

A lot of the imagery in surrealist art and literature by women and men alike focuses on women as independent erotic agents harboring magic secrets as well as strange bonds with animals and plants, sometimes tender and sometimes cruel - perhaps this is what art historians stuff into the category of femme fatales, but it is obviously something strong and independent, an attractive trope for poetic investigations for many women and many men alike. Then a lot of the imagery in surrealist art and literature by women and men alike focuses on women as beautiful dreamers, slightly elevated from petty worldly concerns while having developed the epistemological organ of intuition into something hypersensitive making them balance on the edge of madness, scatter their whims around them as oracle words, experiencing and arousing adventure wherever they go - perhaps this is what is considered the femme-enfant but it is obviously something very dynamic as well, an attractive trope for poetic investigations for many women and many men alike.

Obviously this mythology in terms of the feminine makes it necessary not to confine such a feminity to individuals of feminine gender. In mythological terms, the image of the poet or the artist is itself a feminine type of character; oversensitive, creative, harboring secrets, empathising, feeling other humans and animals and plants and landscapes etc etc. So obviously, the female mythic images are not someting which solely women may take part in, it is obviously equally possible, and to the same extent desirable, for men. In that sense, all images of magi, of diabolical lovers, of dark strangers, also when males, could be sorted as femmes fatales; and all of the borderline sensitives, instruments of chance, automatists, edge bohemes, lucid savages, psychonauts and psychedelics, could be sorted as femme-enfants. Most of the attractive tropes of mythology for surrealism are obviously on the traditionally female side of the spectrum. But, the determination of such images in terms of feminine or masculine is not the interesting part about them, and from a poetic viewpoint is at best a traditional background to better discern the transgressive qualities of poetic thought as such while leaving such a polarity as a mere temporary aspect distinction immediately giving rise to mediation and sublation and new oppositions and new constellations. If there is in one sense something which might be called "eternally feminine" in surrealism, this is something that one should be careful to draw simplified sexual-politic conclusions from since a) there is nothing eternally masculine, and b) there is nothing interesting with the eternally feminine except as an eternal starting point, the whole point with it being not what it is, but all that which it not yet is and may be on its way of becoming, and c) it is in no way distributed in an exclusive way in terms of sexes. Again, mythologies are not correctives but projections, points of experimental identifications, startingpoints of adventure, so there is clearly nothing which makes the obvious differences problematic between myths and psychological and social truths; the possible autonomy, independence, power, needs, demands, dynamism, refusal, unreasonableness, fallibility, undecidedness, unfinishedness etc of real female human beings are not constrained by cultivating poetic myths but by concrete power relations between people. If certain female participants often feel inclined (pushed or not) to make themselves all too well at home in one or other role, then this is a problem of communication, comfort and inspiration impairing the general dynamism of behavior within that group, and not primarily a problem with the myths they are conforming to.

Nevertheless, there is an obvious danger in myth thought to analogise all kinds of possible dual polarities with the two sexes and expect sexes to be eternally opposite and complementary. One aspect of this, that of the possible erotisation of the world and all kinds of categories, can often (not always) be very obviously dynamic and poetically fruitful, while other connected aspects are far less dynamical; particularly in those cases where its lazy application breeds an expectancy of the sexual behavior (and social behavior) of the two sexes to conform to those preconceived standards, to remain true to their categorisation, to not transgress. This is obviously something alien to the liberatory, transgressional and metamorphic spirit of surrealism; but it is always a cliché which remains seductive and easily fallen into by individual lazy, non-fervent, or aging practictioners, especially when combined with returning repressed taste for pornography and banal fetishism and with the often connected taste for occultist traditionalism and cultural pessimism. I would say this is a problem in surrealism, but not a problem with surrealism, as such prejudices are simply conservative and thus in effect antisurrealist.


Perhaps something also needs to be said about the recurring presence of the female body in surrealist imagery. On one hand, this is something shared with the mainstream of art throughout history and especially every kind of art thematising love and eroticism (except perhaps strictly male-homosexual local applications). But it should also be admitted that it is something particularly significant in parts of surrealism.

While in pornography and advertising, female bodies are everpresent as commodities offered or as commodities advertising other commodities, in art the point of their exposure is to start addressing our basic concepts of beauty in their simplest form and push them to some sense of transcending experience. Of course, and especially nowadays, these categories are not well-defined and mutually exclusive, art may work perfectly well as advertising and pornography, while sometimes pornography can be disturbingly aesthetical. The different functions do remain distinct however, and when situationist- or postmodernist-minded intellectuals will say they are entirely merged, this is just a symptom of the lack of empiricism in said intellectuals.

Particularly in surrealism, bodies and particularly female bodies do have an important place simply because they do indeed seem to have that important place in imagination (so far based on manifestations predominantly by males in a patriarchal society but seemingly widely spread across groups there regardless of the real reasons for that quasi-universal apparent order of things), heavily invested with simple desire and utterly complex desire, with resistances, idealisations, fetishisations and tons of associations, reaching back to infantile concepts and forward to utopian wishfulfillments and sideways to our own most moving anecdotal experiences and to the ambiguity of the whole of pornographic imagery. It all seems dynamic for the imagination and that it the sole bottomline criterion.

But it should also be clear that surrealists are not interested in the nowadays common way of legitimising controversial representations (the strategy of so-called political art since pop) by pronouncing them to be "problematisations" of widespread concepts, neither "social documentary" nor "ironic" - regardless of whether this alleged problematisation intention is a post-factum-rationalisation or an honest admittal of lack of any real inspiration-dynamism in the original production, it does not help clichés from being clichés.

In opposition to this, surrealists tend to mean everything they say in a naïve way, because they are seriously investigating it themselves, everything presented in surrealist creation is research notes into the ambiances, dynamisms, fortunes and misfortunes of real experienced poetic phenomenology. In that sense, its fetishism concerning the female body is naïve, symptomatic, careless, libertarian and obsessed, but nowhere cynical, smug, calculated.

It is also noteworthy how similar this fetishisms of the female body in works of male surrealists is to that in works of most of those female surrealists who adress explicitly erotic themes; in the works of say Joyce Mansour, Nelly Kaplan, Rikki Ducornet, Marianne Van Hirtum, Mimi Parent, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, Jayne Cortez, Olga Orozco, Meret Oppenheim and Toyen, to still talk only about the famous. Here the perspective fluctuations also more often, naturally, encompasses the first-person perspective, and fetishism of the male body.

(The male body is obviously less a theme, and significantly less so for most male surrealists, in whom any fetishism directed that way will be interpreted as an indication of homosexuality. Of course there are many examples to be found of transgressive fantasies in these areas too. And of course a number of famous surrealists have been homosexual. While on the other hand parts of the movement have retained one or other type of homophobia (homophobia regarding males that is) based on a moral critique of "effeminisation" (such as Breton's much-cited 20s attitudes from the "investigations of sexuality"), on moral conclusions extrapolated from a bipolarising mythology, or on a certain misdirected sense of feminism (according to which male homosexuality denies women their rightful role as universal mediators of love). This indeed constitutes another challenge for the movement only rarely adressed.)

Let us in fact look at a few of those artists whose works are sometimes cited as prime evidence of surrealism's misogyny: Man Ray, Paul Delvaux, Max Walter Svanberg and Hans Bellmer.

Some idiots just can't grasp the notion of metamorphosis; so distorsion is then simply equal to violence; any representation of the female body diverging from realism corresponds to physical assault - such a refusal to think need perhaps not be seriously argued against. Much of Ray's work and perhaps most of Bellmer's are simply investigations of the metamorphic potential of the matter, and special way of being matter, of the heavily desire-infested female body; thus of erotic and imaginational phenomenology and not about social expectancies on behavior of women. The references to sexual violence in Bellmer are secondary to that fantasizing; obviously so in gory drawings or bondage photographs where uninhibited morphological curiosity simply doesn't recognise realistic restrictions, but in another way in some of the doll photographs, which integrate external associations to the forbiddenness of the particular type of fetishism and makes them part of the fantasy itself. "Irresponsible" and sometimes perhaps disgusting, sure, but still on the conditions of imagination and without implications for the real position of real women on the whole.

Delvaux is all about the capacity of the female nude to create or emphasise an ambiance of the unusual, his landscapes are neither erotic scenes projecting desire nor modern pornographic scenes where female nakedness has become a matter of course and something to pay for or get comforted or comfortably aroused by. (An isolated and significant artifact is the shortstory by Alain Joubert about the firsthand experience of being such a surrealising female nude as in a Delvaux painting.) It has indeed been claimed that the widespread exposition of female nudes in pornography and advertising has made Delvaux's art redundant, but those genres are usually neither striving nor capable of creating something unusual, dreamlike, dissettling rather than the opposite: recognisable, disarmed and exploitable.

Then Svanberg has a clearly more "primitivist" take on the subject as he adresses the female body as a sun in a religion, the eternally embellishable monstrous centerpoint to worship in a new sacred cosmology. The poetic attraction in such a recharged universe is obvious, but in Svanberg's world there is also more of an obvious risk of letting this vision stand as a substitute and an obstacle for seeing real women with their needs, dynamism, fallibility and unfinishedness.

But let us also note that the fetishisms of surrealism are fetishisms which may adress all kinds of sexual fantasies and perversions, all in accordance with their sense of truth and dynamism to the imagination, and neither of their moral aspects, practical recommendability nor simple effectivity. Some of it is indeed highly unrealistic in terms of possibilities of practical enacting, some of it is indeed cruelly or carelessly sadistic or masochistic, some of it is twisted enough not to be erotic at all for the casual audience, much of it is highstrung romantical; if some of this works sexually arousing under certain circumstances, that may be an interesting part of the reception or not, but its primary purpose remains a totally different focus: to be an investigation of the imagination on behalf of poetry. Some more or less pornographical works by surrealists indeed work on the level of scatological jokes or attempts at scandal and has not much bearing on the specific surrealist sense of the erotic (though I shouldn't deny that blasphemy and scandal probably was much more interesting several decades ago when it was not a very common marketing strategy). The significantly surrealist pornographical works are usually rather some of those which serves as beautiful documents of uninhibited fantasies, or those which reveal erotic possibilities in everyday life by hypersensitively suggesting fetishist focuses (adressing the immanence of the marvellous).

But let's not deny that a lot of (lesser) surrealist artists and writers have put forward a sad amount of boring psychological documents about banal fantasies of sexual aggression, a bouquet of banal sexual puns and dirty jokes of doubtful value, some outbreaks of not very exciting coprolaly, as well as many faltering compositions where introductions of naked women or just nude torsos are expected to do more or less the whole job of creating a sensation of the unknown and tickling where the unknown is very obviously lacking...


In the early 20s, women were less than 10% of the surrealists. This soon rose slightly over 10%, but it was only in the second half of the 30s it rose above 15%. And then it actually kept fluctuating around 15% (12-18%) all the way up to the 80s, when the 20% limit was broken. After 1981, the fluctuation has gone between 20 and 25%. Obviously, the proportions are very different in different countries.

In the early days, it was almost only in Europe there were any women at all in surrealism. This changed in the 40s, when women were becoming active in south and north america (but still to this day not in Japan!). In the present situation, there is on the whole a higher proportion of women in those countries with an active movement present (surrealist groups rather than associated individuals), but even among those with a wide span of variation. To just mention a few examples, calculations summarising individuals present in surrealist collaborations and publications after 2000 shows that women in France, England and the Czech Republic are somewhere near the overall means of 25.0% (like Sweden and Greece); while Argentina, Canada and USA are above a third, and on the other hand Chile, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and the Netherlands are around 15%. Of course my data are very incomplete, to some extent supposedly in a manner reflecting the very phenomenon under study, so that it would not be a major problem, but unfortunately this incompleteness is unevenly distributed and may cause artificial differences.

The recruitment of women has varied more in relative numbers than in absolute numbers, meaning that the flow of women into surrealism has been a lot more constant than the flow of men. Men are obviously more trend-sensitive. In certain old times, when surrealism has been a major center of attraction, such as in the mid-30s and in the late 40s, the proportion of women among the newcomers has dropped to 8-9% of the newcomers, but in hard times it was often around 20%. In recent times the rate seems to have gone up, after 1981 fluctuating wildly between 20 and 35%. That these figures are usually larger than the total figures for the same period, means that women stay a shorter time than men in the movement.

(These calculations are based on a population of 2633 sexed persons appearing in surrealist journals, exhibitions, games, declarations, organising and campaigns from the 20s to the present.)


So, in the history of surrealism from the second world war on, there is a continued slow improvement of women's conditions - from "not bad" to "even less bad, but in some ways still not very good". In a movement with such a great interest in eroticism, both the possibilities and some of the problems of the so-called "sexual revolution" were addressed within surrealism already in the 50s, and even more so in the 60s when they were parallelled with some direct sexual-political questions arising from the resurrected-radicalised feminist movement of the day. Such questions have been regularly awoken since, in some surrealist groups more than others, but usually in one way or another emphasising the need to keep the discussion alive and to try to invent ways of making participation possible on equal terms and in a truly empancipatory vein.

Currently, the situation is different in different groups; female participation in current groups varies between less than a sixth and more than half. Many groups have a leading female character at its center. Some groups are explicitly feminist, some groups are eager to avoid that designation. Some groups regularly or occasionally face critical questions of sexism in their own organisation and activities, some hope to avoid them and to remain a relative freezone from gender-role impositions.

Many of the forefront theorists and organisers in surrealism today are females: Penelope Rosemont herself, Merl, Marie-Dominique Massoni, Lurdes Martinez, probably others. There is an abundancy of important surrealist creators who are women, important both in terms of the works in themselves and of their explicit placement within a collective radical endeavour; I certainly do not have the necessary overview here but will list only some of my own favorites, be they personal friends of mine or not, (and leaving out those already mentioned elsewhere in the text): of poets Emma Lundenmark, Eva Kristina Olsson, Beatriz Hausner, Mariela Arzadun, Josie Malinowski, of sculptors Virginia Tentindo, of painters Kathleen Fox, Sara Avila, Katerina Pinosova, Katerina Kubikova, Marie Wilson, Anasor ed Searom, and then in dance, in film, etc, while the most important still remains the field of surrealist everyday life, where it would be difficult to single out any specific guiding stars-

But on the whole, it is undoubtedly plainly wrong to see in surrealism an active reduction by men of women to their roles as mere lovers, muses, objects. There is instead a continuous thematisation/adressal of women as comrades/coplayers/coexperimentators/costrugglers, as artists/magicians/wise/truthsayers, as lovers/desire-objects/co-eroticists, as inspirators/mediators/muses, by men and women alike. If it is, in spite of this, not too difficult to gather a number of anecdotes where single female surrealists have been reduced to mere lovers or muses by single male surrealists or by their own lack of selfconfidence, there is nothing that seems to justify explaining this as an expression of something central and specific to surrealism, rather than of remnants of common sexist bourgeois morality.

While some of the basic practical social problems remain even in their original form. As the responsibility for household and childcare are still everywhere women's to a larger extent than men's, so whenever heterosexual pairs are organised as surrealists together (either because they join surrealism together or because they meet in surrealist activities), the males will typically have better opportunities than the females to participate as much as they like. And whenever such pairs are broken up, the male typically remains in the group while the female feels a pressure (or a need) to leave. This is quite obvious, and on the whole there is a significant difference between the average duration of the surrealist involvment between females and males. This quite obviously has to do with the fact that women are traditionally encouraged to prioritise commitments to relationships while men are encouraged to prioritise commitments to tasks and interests. This is a problem that still demands solutions, not necessarily in order to try to increase the sex rate in surrealism to even figures at any price, but rather to create possibilities for all those attracted by surrealism to be able to participate with their desires, innovations and sensibilities on equal terms, and particularly not to let passive acceptance of ideological division of labor and ideological hierarchies in society obstruct the participation in the great adventure for some.

So, in spite of the propagandistic view that everything is fine, but even more in contrast with the 80s academic view that surrealism is essentially misogynic, there are a number of specific problems to face, which there are in some ways particularly good circumstances for...

And let's not be overprotective and rebuff all this critique before listening to it, there might be specific points in it which are very interesting for us and useful to get pointed out. But in order to make use of it, we will of course have to remove it from its academic context and put it into an active framework.

(Several people have contributed to this text, but as some opinions in the first person are kept in the final editing we could choose to attribute it, too, to its drafter/editor:)

Mattias Forshage

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

word i want to see girls in art with surreally large breasts