Heady intimacy enjoyed in the arid Mexican desert…


The Wounded Deer, Frida Kahlo, 1946

From The Guardian:

To look at surrealist art is to see female bodies in pieces. Here a disembodied leg, there a mysterious eye. “Headless. And also footless. Often armless too; and always unarmed,” writes the scholar and translator Mary Ann Caws. “There they are, the surrealist women so shot and painted.” Surrealist artists, photographers and writers such as Hans Bellmer, Man Ray and André Breton famously turned women into their muses, and took them apart in life and on the page. The surrealists exalted women, without ever truly seeing them.

Whitney Chadwick, author of The Militant Muse, was one of the first feminist critics to call our attention to the valuable work created by the women at the margins of the group – the wives, friends and associates of Breton and co who made art every bit as daring and revolutionary. Chadwick’s 1985 Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement took a comprehensive approach to the women of surrealism, arguing that artists and writers such as Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo and Eileen Agar saw themselves as working independently of the movement; that rather than submitting to André Breton’s cult of personality (they didn’t call him “the pope of surrealism” for nothing), they participated in the movement by virtue of their “personal relationships, networks of friends and lovers”. “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse,” Carrington – one of the great female surrealists – told Chadwick when she researched that volume. “I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”

The Militant Muse is a beautifully constructed study of the complicated ways these women needed each other and urged each other on, whether in friendship or mutual inspiration, or in some cases through romantic desire. No longer having to prove that female surrealists’ work is worthy of study frees Chadwick up to delve into these friendships via letters, diaries, interviews and other archival material.

For example, she foregrounds the “heady intimacy” Kahlo and Jacqueline Lamba enjoyed in the arid Mexican desert when Lamba and Breton, her husband, came to Mexico City to visit Kahlo, her husband Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. Later, when Breton invited Kahlo to Paris, she stayed in the couple’s cramped apartment, sharing a bedroom with their young daughter, Aube. “While the men occupied themselves in redefining the role of art in a revolutionary society, the women communicated their own emerging sense of autonomy through shared images that spoke to their common interests” – including images of androgyny and doubling.

“The Militant Muse and Eileen Agar: Dreaming Oneself Awake reviews – the women of surrealism”, Lauren Elkin, The Guardian