An expert in Surrealism, Silvano Levy has made it his mission to excavate the life and work of neglected figures within the Surrealist movement. The author has previously published studies on Conroy Maddox, Paul Nougé, Dalla Husband, Desmond Morris, Toni del Renzio and Sheila Legge. Now his attention turns to the British artist Mary Wykeham (1909-96), a shadowy figure who, like many women involved in Surrealism, has been largely omitted from its histories. Wykeham was once a shooting star of Surrealism though fell from view during the post-war years. In this meticulously researched book, which draws heavily from the artist’s unpublished writings, Levy argues with conviction that her neglect is unjustified. Others ostensibly agree: the Hepworth Wakefield recently accessioned more than 100 of Wykeham’s works and her market is seeing increasing interest from collectors.
Wykeham led a remarkable life. Born into a well-to-do-family in Brighstone on the Isle of Wight, she grew up to become a politically and socially aware young woman with a fiercely independent spirit. She defied her father and forewent financial security to pursue her artistic aspirations. Her journey took her to London and Europe, where she embraced avant-garde art and found success as a painter and printmaker. Along the way she worked as a nurse, attended the Slade School and Grosvenor School, studied under Fernand Léger and Henry Moore, embraced and rejected Communism, became a war artist, explored Taoism, published poetry and exhibited widely, only to abandon it all and become a nun. This is all chronicled in exhaustive detail over a preface and ten chapters, from which emerges a fascinating portrait of a gifted yet conflicted artist wrestling to reconcile her commitment to art with a religious calling.
In 1936, Wykeham visited the pivotal International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London. Stirred by what she saw, and by the Surrealists’ desire to change the world’s social and political order by altering consciousness, she travelled to Paris where she found creative liberation at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17, the influential print studio at the heart of the Parisian avant-garde. Here, she learned burin engraving and experimented with automatic Surrealist techniques, creating semi-abstract works characterised by undulating and coiling lines. Her pursuit of the radical and unconventional under Hayter led her to rub shoulders with the likes of Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy and Joan Miró. It was a place, writes Levy, where she “was accepted and valued in her own right”.
The Second World War saw her back in Britain, producing poignant studies of bombed hospitals and forlorn Londoners hunkering down in air-raid shelters. When the hostilities ended, figuration gave way to increasingly abstract modes of expression, which only accelerated when she tragically lost her father to suicide in May 1947. In her grief, she was drawn to The Secret of the Golden Flower, a 17th-century Chinese Taoist book on Neidan meditation, which inspired a portfolio of non-objective engravings that were exhibited at The London Gallery. While her engagement with Taoism put her at odds with the Surrealists, whose antipathy towards any form of spiritual belief was fomented by André Breton himself, the prints are among her most mesmerising works. Characterised by twisting, sinuous lines, they convey, writes Levy, a dynamic “sense of energy—centrifugal and centripetal forces, spinning planes, spring-like tautening, rotation, contraction, expansion, stretching, swirling, vortices”.
In 1949, with works on show simultaneously in Paris and London (alongside those of Picasso, Magritte, Arp, Ernst and Klee), Wykeham’s career was ascendant. Yet, her heart was elsewhere and she left for Italy on a “spiritual search” that would lead her to Catholicism and eventually a monastic life in France. In a move that shocked her avant-garde circle, she became “Little Sister Mary”, created liturgical art for chapels and oratories, and was forced to renounce her former work, which, to her distress, was mostly thrown away or burned. However, Levy writes, “she refused to allow her life to be wholly under the direction of her superiors” and, after living as a hermit for 15 years, she returned to making art in London, producing at the age of 81 works of “unprecedented dynamism” and energy. Despite this new lease of creativity, she never regained her footing in the art world.
Pondering the impact of Wykeham’s oeuvre, Levy suggests that parallels can be drawn between some of her etchings and 1960s Op Art, as well as between her sculpture and that of Barbara Hepworth—although, as he rightly surmises, “claiming that Mary may have been an innovator or even an influencer would rock too many boats in the received wisdom of established art histories”. Nevertheless, there is much evidence among the book’s generous selection of illustrations to support Levy’s claim that her work of the 1940s “injected something new into the Surrealist repertoire...a dynamism rarely seen in the output of the movement’s main exponents, who generally relied on the shock effect of disturbing juxtaposition [and] motionless still lifes”. That is surely reason enough for this intriguing artist to be brought out from the shadows.
Silvano Levy, Mary Wykeham: Surrealist out of the Shadows, Lund Humphries, 192pp, 100 colour & 15 b/w illustrations, £45 (hb), published 30 October
• David Trigg is an independent writer, critic and art historian, and a regular contributor to Studio International, Art Quarterly and Phaidon books