White Cube Bermondsey, London
28 June – 17 September 2017
“I warn you- I am not an object” Dorothea Tanning
The prospect of exploring “the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists” filled me with high hopes in terms of repossession of the Feminine and reappraisal of Surrealism in the popular imagination. Art historians have only begun to scratch the surface of female artists written out of the original movement, relegated to roles of lover, wife or muse in the biographies of male artists. Dreamers Awake features “sculpture, painting, collage, photography and drawing from the 1930’s to the present day” including works by Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Claude Cahun, Edith Rimmington, Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgoise, Alina Szapocznikow, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Carina Brandes, Hayv Kahraman, Eva Kot’átková, Nevine Mahmoud, Penelope Slinger, Shannon Pool, Jo Anne Callis and Julia Phillips. Whilst I welcome and applaud exhibitions bringing marginalised and neglected work by women artists into greater public awareness, this show left me feeling conflicted about the nature of Feminine reclamation, particularly in relation to contemporary art/ life.
One of the problems I had with the exhibition was the overbearing emphasis on the female body, or rather the persistent disconnect between body, mind and the Feminine. On the one hand there’s a challenge to the image of women as objects of “masculine desire and fantasy”, often “decapitated, distorted, trussed up,” “fearsome and fetishized” as “other” in the hands of male Surrealists from the birth of the movement. Although this “fragmented, headless body of Surrealism” is a “vehicle for irony, resistance, humour” and freedom of expression in the hands of female artists in the exhibition, there is a tendency, particularly in the work of contemporary artists, to simply offer derivative nods to the body politic whilst continuing the patriarchal tradition of the headless woman. Whilst the show ranges well “beyond those who might identify themselves as surrealists”, the superficial nature of the influence (or curatorial connection) in some work left me questioning the universal ground-breaking media exclamations surrounding the show. Fortunately, there’s enough complex, intelligent and beautifully executed work connected to the body to compensate for the weaker, more obvious and mediocre elements of the show. Caitlin Keogh’s clumsy, derivative acrylics on canvas, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s basic assemblage sculptures or Gillian Wearing’s masked photographic portrait of model Lily Cole laden with illustrative symbolism are examples of work which didn’t engender critical changes in perception.
Rosemarie Trockel’s black and white digital print, reimagining Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde /The Origin of the World, is an example of an appropriated work which became interesting in spite of itself for the questions it raised. My initial gut reaction was to sigh and roll my eyes at the projection of fear onto an image of female genitalia. Placing an enormous black spider where the model’s pubic hair should be, even to reclaim one’s own body, sex or gender struck me as perilously dull. Effectively it’s a reduction of Feminine power to B-Movie Body Horror by depicting the female body as something dangerous or deadly. This associative trope has been used since the Book of Genesis as an instrument of shame, self-loathing and control, turning desire into the fallen or demonic Feminine other. If Trockel’s intention is irony, turning the male gaze and traditions of seeing back in on themselves, then this image doesn’t really succeed, because like the disembodied woman, the work is missing its head. Perhaps what it does do, (though only if the original image is known to the viewer) is point to a canonical image of the Feminine by a male artist to generate debate in the present. Or if the historical reference is unknown to the viewer (masculine or feminine), the print could also be seen as a positive confrontation with individual or collective fears. The curious irony is that Courbet’s title acknowledges timeless feminine creative/ biological and sexual power in a way that Trockel’s tarantulan image does not. Strangely his full-frontal honesty is more convincing in its rejection of idealism for realism and/ or masculine eroticism. It was and is an image that in 2017 still wouldn’t be reproduced in mainstream media on the grounds of obscenity. That the female body is still regarded as shameful, scandalous, shocking or dangerous is cause for debate in itself. If Trockel’s intent is humour and absurdity in her juxtaposition of the hairy spider, then it simply comes across as a laddish joke, especially in the context of her surrounding work which is equally unconvincing in its vision.
The claim that “by focussing on the work of women artists, Dreamers Awake shows how, through art foregrounding bodily experience, the symbolic woman of Surrealism is refigured as a creative, sentient, thinking being” just didn’t ring true to me in relation to some of the celebrated contemporary artists in the show. Sarah Lucas’s entwined chairs, The Kiss (2003, Wooden Chairs, varnish, cigarettes, wire, papier-mâché, acid free glue, leather cord) with a pair of breasts on the back rest and a cock and balls protruding from under the seat made from cigarettes is just a clumsy secondary school gag in comparison to a work such as Lee Miller’s Untitled photograph (Severed breast from radical surgery in a place setting 1 & 2, Paris, c.1929, modern gelatin silver prints) which shares the same gallery space. Then and now, Miller was way ahead of the times. Arguably her bodily experience though invisible in the shot is resoundingly present in the composition, with the raw meat/ severed breast served up on a plate with cutlery laid out for the viewer’s consumption. Many of her images cut through to the truth of lived experience, as a survivor of childhood trauma, former model and a war correspondent, Miller found liberation in the Art and life of photography. The juxtaposition of a domestic dinner setting with the disembodied breast is deeply subversive on a multitude of levels. The breast is disembodied, not as an erotic, maternal or biological focus but in the service of psychological, social and cultural interrogation. The two images served up side by side on a relatively intimate scale have tremendous power, in the equality of ideas and execution. Miller’s bloodied amputation is about as far removed from the neoclassical ideal of womanhood seen in the paintings of artists such as Magritte, Dali, De Chirico, Man Ray or projected in Cocteau’s 1932 film Blood of a Poet in which Miller appears in marble whiteout as an armless Neoclassical Goddess. Whilst narrowly fixated male artists of her generation were placing womanhood on a pedestal of passive desire, Miller fearlessly confronts us with an object which is anti-Beauty and savagely confrontational. Of the same generation, Dorothea Tanning’s statement “I warn you- I am not an object” immediately springs to mind. It’s a warning that like Miller’s photographic statement will never diminish in terms of power or relevance. Her emergence as a Surrealist artist equal to those who subjugated her to the role of muse is only just beginning. A pair of breasts, cock and balls made from cigarettes combined with a domestic chair is a lame and underdeveloped contemporary statement by comparison.
As I wrote in a previous post about the Surreal Encounters/ Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) the real power and contemporary relevance of Surrealist Art lies in “reconnect[ing] the viewer with underlying passions, obsessions and political activism”, “a collective sense” “beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion”. Despite the easy conversion of the movement’s famous poster boys into merchandise, Surrealism is “rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, economic uncertainty, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings.” The premise of the exhibition does pick up on these undercurrents to some extent; “In a world preoccupied with the politics of identity, in which the advances of previous generations must be continually defended, we see the continued- even renewed- relevance of surrealist ideas and strategies.” I couldn’t agree more. What disappointed me were the misguided allegiances to a revolutionary movement playing in the shadows of the contemporary art market. I looked forward to seeing more evolved attitudes and refined visual language, taking a lead from female Surrealists of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and running with it. I certainly don’t mean “refined” in terms of gentility, but in terms of awareness and the propensity to fight (savagely if necessary) for a way of seeing based on the artist’s identity. The marginalisation of women artists as a homogenous group persists today, therefore this isn’t an exhibition of female Surrealists as much as it is a wakeup call in terms of what we bring to this work as viewers- individually and collectively. It is far too easy (literally and metaphorically) to buy into the “surreal” as a word/idea misappropriated and devalued by consumerist popular culture, creating dreamily vacuous or supremely self-indulgent Art in which the disembodied woman prevails. The best work in the show subverts what we have come to believe (or have been taught) about feminine power, Surrealism and the nature of creativity. In terms of Western society, embracing the unconscious goes hand in hand with acknowledging, confronting and liberating what is held in check beneath the surface for political or patriarchal reasons, which has less to do with sex and more to do with the balance (or inequity) of power.
In Eileen Agar’s Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in) the blue Renaissance silhouette of a woman collaged on a ground of text, essentially the cut out of one age informing the reading of another, operates in a self-reflexive way. The encyclopaedic/ historical text, with reference to British colonies, historical rule and exploration works in counterpoint with the beauty and implied fragility of two exotic looking butterflies and the figure of the “bride”, anonymously blue and as collectable as a specimen in an age of discovery. Agar’s collages are frequently not just about the absurdity of images out of their elements, juxtaposed for 30 second amusement or shock value, but are far more texturally layered and sophisticated in terms of ideas and technique. Here the use of collage doesn’t feel random or automatic but considered in terms of dialogue between elements and the wider context of the work, transcending the time it was made. We may well question the freedoms afforded the Butterfly Bride in our own times.
There is also more than meets the eye in Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) by Louise Bourgeois. What we see from the front is a sculpture composed of folds of flesh and five breasts like cushions with the pronounced geometry and provocation of protruding nipples. As you move to the side and back of the structure the overall form comes into view. The associations of comfort and domesticity in an everyday piece of furniture and the couch as a repository of the traditional female nude in art comes into play. Then you come to the switchblade behind, the threat of violence where you’d least expect it, a warning against stereotypes and reductive visions of femininity, maternity and eroticism. The artist’s sculpture is like a surreal beast not in an aesthetic but a revolutionary sense. It defies and changes your perception as you move around and find yourself in relation to it. It’s a tangible presence that nourishes, intrigues, seduces, challenges and menaces the viewer from the plinth. It isn’t fantastical but potently real, infinitely more complex than simple dualism or juxtaposition of opposing elements. The inference of soft comfort is rendered in the solidity of polished metal, the couch accommodating the whole family and its needs, equally a source of feminine disquiet. It lives and grows in the imagination as you experience it resoundingly in three (or more) dimensions, as one would expect from a Master of her own Art. The femininity here has multiple layers, views, identities and hidden capabilities against type- it’s a work which refuses to be boxed, with its own distinct voice. I never cease to be amazed, elated and inspired by the penetrating honesty of this artist’s work. Bourgeois brings much that is held beneath the surface into the light with immense courage, consummate skill, tenacity and feeling.
Shannon Bool’s exquisite monochrome tapestry The Five Wives of Lajos Bìrò (Wool tapestry, 98 1/16 x 156 11/16 in), Carina Brandes’ Untitled (2012, black and white photograph on baryta) a triangular, mythical inversion of Leda and the Swan and Hayv Kahraman’s T25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) rooted in contemporary war on terror were similarly multifaceted engagements with the highly active nature of Surrealism, rather than giving passive aesthetic nods to it. Jo Ann Callis’s Untitled (Woman with Black Line) c.1976, archival pigment print, 22 1/8 x 19 7/16 in) further articulates this idea. It is an image of a woman photographed from above, with just her head and neck visible, face down in a pillow. There’s a drawn line like a seamed stocking along her back and forming the part of her hair, as if she could come apart, be peeled or shed her skin. Is she alive or dead in this sheath of image making? It’s a very intelligent image in terms of where the framing places the camera/eye/ viewer. We are placed in the uncomfortable position of being complicit in this bloodless, internalised crime scene, rendered with a deceptively soft palette of muted colour.
A work which perhaps summed up the exhibition for me was Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). On one side, there is a bird-like creature, composed of cast toes for the two feet, a mouth and chin and what look like outstretched wings, a playful, ingenious, hybrid fusion of a human/ bird free spirit that immediately made me smile. Then on the reverse, a different projection of Self, composed of just the cast mouth and upper breast, defining the “automatic” portrait of a woman. When viewed from this position the potentially shapeshifting woman is invisible. One seeing, the other being seen, one free, the other defined by her body, the living contradiction of what it is to be female in a world that hasn’t progressed far enough. Perhaps it was exactly that which disturbed and disillusioned me considering the exhibition as a whole. As I walked around Dreamers Awake I experienced the hope and exhilarating liberation of Art in terms of human expression, bringing what is hidden into awareness. Equally I saw the retrograde dictation of art by market values and a tendency to adopt traditionally masculine tactics to gain attention. I left this exhibition with faith in the tangible power of imagination and the extraordinary vision of female artists as an agent of positive change. I also saw what Surrealism and Feminism is not. That polarity reflects the wider world of Art/ life and the hard reality of creative work as ever more vital, resistant to or complicit with the political, economic and social extremities of the 21st Century.