Dreamers Awake

White Cube Bermondsey, London

28 June – 17 September 2017

Jo Anne Callis Untitled (Woman with a Black Line) Archival Pigment Print. ‘From Early Color Portfolio’ Circa 1976 Credit: © Jo Anne Callis, Courtesy of the artist, Rose Gallery and White Cube.

“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.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph: George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

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.

North Gallery, Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell, courtesy of White Cube

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.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

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.

Eileen Agar Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in)

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.

Louise Bourgeois Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) Reverse View. Photograph: G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition, White Cube.

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.

Hayv KahramanT25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and White Cube.

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.

Alina Szapocznikow Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). Front View Photograph G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition,  White Cube

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.


Lee Miller and Picasso

 23 May – 6 September 2015, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

NC0002 1, Lee Miller and Picasso after the liberation of Paris, by Lee Miller, Paris, France, 1944

There are no women artists. Women cannot create. So said the oracles and we thought it must be true. Alice Hubbard, Photography Comes Into the Kitchen, Vanity Fair, October 1921. [1]

I have always admired Lee Miller’s definitive work as an artist, photographer and war correspondent, so I was naturally drawn to this latest exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The relationship between Miller and Picasso is a fascinating one in terms of the visual connection between artist and subject and how male and female creativity are perceived. However the celebrity status of Picasso billed in the press release as “the greatest artist of the twentieth century” is followed by reference to “the beautiful model, who became a skilled and highly influential photographer.” I can think of no reference to a male artist/ photographer or war correspondent in the history of Art or journalism that begins by telling us he was handsome, as if this were his primary attribute. When I visited the exhibition a high school group was introduced to Miller by a guide as “one of the first supermodels” defined by her relationships rather than her work and again my hackles were raised. That she began her career on the other side of the camera is as indisputable as her physical beauty, but in the context of an exhibition in the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, in the National Portrait Gallery and as part of the Institute for Photography in Scotland (IPS) 2015 Season, that really isn’t the point. In spite of the problematic framing of the show and its attendant labelling, Miller’s work resoundingly speaks for itself, a perfect counterfoil to the dumb language of celebrity which persistently surrounds it.

As author Ali Smith rightly described in her article The Look of the Moment in The Guardian, Sept 8th 2007; “Much of [Lee Miller’s] life would be a negotiation between the act of seeing and the act of being seen.” In a similar way the viewer of the exhibition must also negotiate these contradictory attributions of value. During the late 20’s and early 30’s Miller was adopted as a muse by the male Surrealist circle; appearing as Cocteau’s painted goddess, a statue brought to life in his 1932 film The Blood of a Poet. When she apprenticed herself to Man Ray, she became his lifelong obsession. The central curatorial conceit of this exhibition is Miller’s relativity to famous men, one Spanish artist in particular, yet in these early years she clearly established herself as an artist in her own right; producing Self Portraits and works such as Nude Bent Forward, Paris, 1930 and Solarised Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Meret Oppenheim), Paris, 1932. Miller also created highly provocative and challenging works;  Untitled, 1930 (Severed Breast from a radical mastectomy) arranged for consumption on a white dinner service and her portrait Tanja Ramm under a Bell Jar, Paris 1931, an apt metaphor for the suffocating ideals of Beauty and the Feminine that still persist today. Miller’s capacity to confront the viewer with uncomfortable truths found real expression and purpose in her work as one of the few female war correspondents and the only one to have seen combat during the second World War. She was present at the liberation of concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, getting so close to her subjects that it is impossible for the viewer to turn away from them. This is the real platform upon which to begin examining her relationships with fellow artists. Unless the general public walk in with prior knowledge or are curious enough to explore Miller’s life and work for themselves the starting point is a step backwards.

The exhibition celebrates the life and work of Pablo Picasso as documented by Lee Miller from their first meeting in 1937 to a final photograph taken in 1970, three years before Picasso’s death. It was a long and enduring friendship, Miller photographing Picasso over a thousand times and Picasso painting Miller six times. The presentation of artefacts, photographs and artworks drawn from the Lee Miller Archives and The Penrose Collection, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, create a sense of the great male artist and those in his orbit. However what is infinitely more satisfying is the opportunity to see up close Miller’s insight into the relationships between men and women within a close artistic and literary circle during a tumultuous time in human history. What shines throughout the exhibition is the eye and mind of Miller behind the camera and her connection to Picasso as fellow artist/ seer, rather than a muse.

Picasso, Hotel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France, 1937, P0110 (1)

In one of Miller’s earliest portraits of Picasso (Hotel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France, 1937) we see the intensity of his penetrating gaze held at the centre of the composition, an open doorway in the background positioned immediately behind his head, the artist turning to face the photographer. It is a moment of recognition, one of many throughout their 36 year friendship which feels like an acknowledgement, rather than the gaze the viewer is accustomed to seeing in Picasso’s Art- that of an older man beholding a younger woman in desire and ultimately in fear. Miller captured the many facets of Picasso’s personality, his childlike playfulness, his intensity and creative energy. What is clear in both the images of Miller and Picasso taken on 25th August 1944 during the liberation of Paris and in their final embrace in Notre Dame de Vie, Mougins, France in 1970 is their mutual admiration and respect. It is the equality of their gaze and the warmth of their smiles in regarding each other that is most striking. There is a strong feeling of Miller seeing him for who he was, also expressed in Picasso’s gift of Homme et Femme (Man & Woman, Pastel, coloured pencil and wash on paper, 1967) to Miller. The caricature-like depiction of the 86 year old Picasso sitting on a chamber pot with a naked female model (his wife Jacqueline Roque) legs open, face violently distorted, cuts through the myth of male virility and cultural dominance. The drawing acknowledges the vulnerability of age and masculinity in relation to the raw creative power of the Feminine, knowing that Miller would understand the joke.

P0895, Picasso with La Coiffure, Villa La Californie, France, 1956

Miller’s portrait; Picasso with La Coffure, Villa La Californie, Cannes, France 1956 significantly positions the artist in relation to his work rather than his legend. Here Picasso is squatting low on the studio floor flanked by three of his paintings, taller in stature than the artist himself. Miller’s composition positions the artist in front of the fluid lines of a backlit Nouveau window/ doorway, mirrored in the painting on the lower right. Two artists and their ways of seeing are brought into focus in her insightful photograph. Similarly Miller’s son Anthony Penrose, Director of the Lee Miller Archives, framed the love between Miller and Picasso as a creative partnership; “My parent’s friendship with Picasso was a central part of their lives. Beginning from the camaraderie and ideals shared on the beaches of Côte d’Azur it developed rapidly into a love and creative collaboration. Roland Penrose became Picasso’s biographer, the curator of key exhibitions and regarded as ‘The Picasso Man’. Lee Miller lovingly chronicled the men and their achievements. It is fortunate she loved them both as much as she did. A lesser devotion would not have allowed her to tolerate Penrose’s obsessive passion for Picasso.”

One of the most compelling images in the show; Pablo Picasso and Roland Penrose, Mougins, France, 1937 explores this triangle. Here we see a dual portrait of both men, starkly framed by an open car door and bisected diagonally by heightened dark and light. We can see Miller reflected in the psychological barrier of glass and lens in this beautifully composed shot; the light diagonal behind Penrose’s head as he leans, hand behind head in supported admiration of Picasso, a dark diagonal framing Picasso’s head in the lower left, his eyes aligned with the black of the car door frame. The stiff white collar of convention and British reserve are evoked by this dual portrait, together with a darker creative presence. The composition of the photograph and its tonal associations are a powerful part of the three way dialogue. Penrose is elevated, aligned with a higher purpose, whilst the dominant personality of Picasso equally inhabits and grounds the frame. Many years later Miller described herself as a “Picasso widow”, a reference to her husband’s commitment to Picasso and her own.

The way that historical documents interact with images in the exhibition inform the viewer not of Miller’s Dispatches and photographs of the WW2 and its aftermath, but telegrams informing her husband of her safety or a letter from Man Ray to Roland Penrose dated September 24th 1942 enquiring “and what is our little Lee doing?” Although the exhibition press release refers to her important work during this period, the public face of the exhibition and text labels are more concerned with domestic arrangements and personal relationships. Fair play you might say, as this is at base an exhibition primarily about Picasso using Miller’s photographs to document his life. However in 2015 I would argue that the curatorial and educational responsibility is greater than that. Miller is a wonderful example of a woman challenging the conventions of her time and perceptions of the Feminine in her images, writings and actions. The presentation of the exhibition unconsciously puts her back in the “Beauty”, wife and mother box, rather than actively exploring the complexities and contradictions of her life’s work.

In a small photograph of Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, Munich 1945, we see her head and shoulders as she sits washing away the dirt, grime and experience of war, muddy boots and uniform by the tub. On her right is a white goddess-like statue, in this context the Neo-Classical aesthetic of Aryan propaganda, timelessly ironic in its idealisation of Beauty. Miller glances sideways at this nude, seemingly in distrust, aligned with her own nakedness. It is as if the statue is a reminder of how others perceived her in this private moment, publicly staged. It’s an image of multiple narratives and “many lives” lived by an extraordinary woman that begs further exploration. Whilst I can see the appeal to a public undoubtedly more familiar with the name Picasso than that of Miller, I would expect that this exhibition, which seemingly places her name first, would follow through by example.

Whilst in Edinburgh I also had the opportunity to see an exhibition of cyanotypes by early photographic pioneer Anna Atkins (1799-1871), responsible for the first book to be illustrated with photographs and works from the 1920’s by Modernist photographer Margaret Watkins (1884-1969) at the Stills Gallery/ Centre for Photography (25 April- 12July 2015). Also part of the IPS Season of Photography the information in this show focused attention on each artist/photographer in their own right and the volunteer who introduced me as a visitor to the exhibition was knowledgeable, passionate and the best possible ambassador for wider appreciation of two relatively overlooked photographers. In stark contrast when I visited the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition Photography: A Victorian Sensation (19 June- 22 November 2015) “meet[ing] the pioneers of photography” didn’t visibly include Atkins or signpost the exhibition at the Stills Gallery for visitors to discover her work. Focusing on the lowest common denominator of the commercial development of photography, its equipment and Fathers of the medium, again the curatorial focus for a public institution was disappointingly narrow. In the UK especially, where historically photography is not regarded highly in the hierarchy of Fine Art, public galleries have a role to play in widening awareness and appreciation of the Art form and promoting equality of representation.




* All images by kind permission of the National Galleries of Scotland.

[1] Alice Hubbard, Photography Comes Into the Kitchen, Vanity Fair, October 1921 (p60). Cited in Seduced by Modernity, The Photography of Margaret Watkins by Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie. McGill-Queens University Press. 2007.