Jo Ann Callis, Untitled, from Early Color Portfolio, ca. 1976, archival pigment print, 40.6 x 50.8 cm, 16 x 20 in. © Rights reserved
Fantasized upon, idealised and fragmented: when we think about the surrealist woman, it is often as an “other” on which the artist projects his desires and fears. However, surrealist women artists have succeeded in challenging the objectification exercised by a predominantly male movement. In Dreamers Awake, its curator Susanna Greeves has reconsidered surrealism through a feminist prism.
Leonora Carrington, Title Unknown, 1963, oil and gouache on board, 60 x 71 cm, 23 5/8 x 27 15/16 in., © Estate of Leonora Carrington
Admittedly, this had already been investigated in detail in the 1980s. In Women and the Surrealist Movement (1986)1 , Whitney Chadwick studied the paradox of a movement which perpetuated patriarchal ideas while also becoming a means of emancipation for many of the women artists associated with it. She analysed the particular importance of the self-portrait and the relationship to the body for these artists as a means of redefining their own identity in both artistic and feminist terms. Her exhibition Mirror Image: Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in 1998 also inspired Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism at the Manchester Art Gallery in 2009. The exhibition Somos plenamente libres. Las mujeres artistas y el surrealismo will also open in October at the Museo Picasso Málaga. However, rather than repeat this historical research, Dreamers Awake focuses on the greater influence of surrealist women on contemporary practices at the intersection of feminism, gender and sexuality.
Linder, It’s The Buzz Cock!, 2015, Duratrans on light box, 251 x 153 x 10 cm, 98 13/16 x 60 1/4 x 3 15/16 in., © Photo: Robert Glowacki Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Louise Bourgeois & Tracey Emin, A Sparrow’s Heart, 2009-2010, archival dyes printed on cloth, 76.2 x 61 cm, 30 x 24.02 in., © Tracey Emin © Louise Bourgeois
Within a selection of 50 women artists, the majority are thus contemporary and in dialogue with a small group of modern artists. The paintings of Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning are included, playing with archetypes surrounding the surrealist woman’s esoteric or monstrous attributes, while the photographs of Claude Cahun and Lee Miller articulate a relationship with portraiture and the body marked by duality and ambiguity. Without concern for either hierarchy of chronology, these modern works mingle with contemporary practices which derived inspiration from them in one way or another. The fascinating yet repulsive objects by Mona Hatoum and Helen Chadwick provocatively and humorously reconsider the idea of the fetish. The muslin Siren (1994) by Kiki Smith explores a fragmented and sexualised female body, while the structures created by Berlinde de Bruyckere and Rachel Kneebone refer to its sensuality and metamorphosis through the use of wax and porcelain. Photo-collage is revisited in Linder’s punk hybrids, while Gillian Wearing combines performance and sculpture to transform herself in her photographs, often paying tribute to Claude Cahun. With her immersive installation My Life as an INFJ (2015–16), Shana Moulton rediscovers her body by means of objects and immaterial projections. Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois’s work Do Not Abandon Me (2009–10) also expresses this autobiographical relationship with the body through striking vulnerability and violence. Moreover this reappropriation and transformation lets transgressions of gender and sexuality run wild, challenging not only surrealism’s claimed masculinity, but also its heterosexuality. The queer identities of Cahun, Miller and Fini thus allow for experiments and alternatives to be considered outside the male gaze.
Jo Ann Callis, Untitled, From Early Color Portfolio, ca. 1976, archival pigment print, 40.6 x 50.8 cm, 16 x 20 in. © Rights reserved
Dreamers Awake succeeds in its attempt to reconsider the surrealism of women artists from a new perspective. By relating its avant-garde issues to contemporary artistic strategies, the exhibition offers a nuanced portrait of its influence and current relevance while paving the way for future encounters and reinterpretations.
Dreamers Awake, from 28 June to 17 September 2017, White Cube Bermondsey, London, United Kingdom.
Susanna Greeves and Mahon, Alyce (eds.), Dreamers Awake, exh. cat., White Cube, London (2017), London, White Cube, 28 June–17 September 2017