How Surrealism has shaped the self-portraits of three generations of women artists

Women and Surrealism at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


The relationship between women artists and the Surrealist movement hangs on an intriguing contradiction. On the one hand, the patriarchal, some would say misogynistic, ideologies of Surrealism tended to objectify women before a fetishistic male gaze, while on the other, Surrealism’s subversive attitudes towards the Church, State and family provoked women to question their traditional roles in society.

Feminist art historian Whitney Chadwick, professor of art at San Francisco State University and curator of “Mirror images: women, Surrealism, and self-representation”, explains, “Surrealism became the first modernist movement in which a group of women could explore female subjectivity and give form, however tentatively, to a feminine imagery”.

The large number of self-portraits by female Surrealists—compared to a mere handful by their male counterparts—provides the springboard for the exhibition. What is fascinating to discover is how creatively these women artists conveyed a sense of self beyond that of dutiful object of male desire, while working within the Surrealist aesthetic.

The case is made most forcefully in a startling series of photographs by Claude Cahun from the late 1920s and 30s. Cahun repeatedly took herself as subject, shifting between a variety of guises from vamp to androgyne. In adopting multiple personae and crossing gender boundaries, she asserted a far more complex vision of female identity than Surrealist convention allowed. André Breton was apparently so disgusted by her appearance and openly lesbian lifestyle that he would abandon his favourite café when she arrived.

In 1985 Professor Chadwick published the first full length book in English about female artists associated with Surrealism. “Mirror images”, and its scholarly accompanying catalogue, pushes the debate forward to consider not just the historical milieu, but the legacy of Surrealism and its influence on subsequent generations of women artists. Cahun’s photographs are placed near Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled film stills” dating from the 1970s, in one of the show’s many fruitful juxtapositions. If Cahun “posits multiple selves”, as co-curator Katy Kline argues, Sherman “posits multiple roles,” turning out a sequence of parodic, theatrical performances for the camera. It is in Sherman’s disturbing reworkings of the distorted, sadistic imagery of Hans Bellmer’s dolls, however, that she most openly admits a connection to Surrealism.

The 100 or so works on show, dating from 1928 to 1996, fall loosely into three categories, beginning with women directly associated with Surrealism in the 1930s and 1940s, including Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Claude Cahun, and Leonora Carrington, moving on to the those who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Eva Hesse, and finishing with a larger group of younger, contemporary artists, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and Dorothy Cross, and less well-known artists such as Paula Santiago from Mexico, Michiko Kon from Japan and Cuban-American, Ana Mendieta. Although these later generations would not consider themselves Surrealists—and even some of the progenitors, including Leonor Fini and Frida Kahlo, rejected the tag—Professor Chadwick convincingly highlights points of dialogue between a Surrealist past and the present, while avoiding the pitfalls of universalising the experience of women from very different eras. As she acknowledges, since women received scant attention in the study of Surrealism before the early 1980s, the channels of influences have primarily been male.

The tight focus of the exhibition on female subjectivity and self-representation, means that a few important historical figures, including Lee Miller, for whom the self-portrait was not a particular concern, are passed over; and the choice of contemporary artists is markedly selective. The American Francesca Woodman’s career lasted only eight years, until her suicide in 1981 at the age of twenty-two, yet her black and white photographs of her body which humorously appropriate the imagery of Magritte and Bellmer, are given a lot of space in the exhibition and in the catalogue. But then “Mirror images” does not pretend to be a comprehensive survey; rather it is a compelling, thematic enquiry into a still relatively untapped field. In challenging masculine orthodoxies, it asks as many questions as it answers.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Here’s looking at you babe!'