The Militant Muse: Women at the Forefront of the Surrealist Movement

So much of the greatness of surrealism is focused on the male…whether through his creation or his gaze. But what about the women of surrealism? Not merely those sited as muses, but those women who took on a movement geared towards the male, and turned it – through their tenacity, genius or combination of the two – towards their vision, and their lives.

In a new book, The Militant Muse, art writer Whitney Chadwick shines a light on five pairs of women who were at the forefront of the surrealist movement – Valentine Penrose & Alice Rahon Paalen, Leonora Carrington & Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo & Jacqueline Lamba Breton, Claude Cahun & Suzanne Malherbe and Lee Miller & Valentine Penrose – and explores the dynamics of their relationships.

The author spoke to us about her inspiration for the book, sexism in the surrealist movement, and what she thinks  people can learn from this book.

Whitney, what inspired your interest in surrealism?

I came to surrealism in a somewhat roundabout way that included a graduate seminar on mysticism, a painting by André Masson titled Gradiva, and an introduction to several surrealist artists through Masson. I was fascinated by what I learned and I began to research the surrealist movement. That soon led to a PhD Dissertation on surrealism and myth, and a first book on the subject (in which surrealist women did not figure, except as muses!). It was followed by my second book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, in which I began to merge  my graduate studies in myth and surrealism, and my growing interest in feminist theory.

What made you want to tell the stories of these extraordinary women?

When I began writing about the women of surrealism I confronted an intellectual dilemma, i.e. How could women artists reconcile the incompatible roles of lover, muse, and serious artist in the context of surrealism?

The pull quote from Leonora Carrington interests me tremendously ‘I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse.’ What do you feel this quote tells us about how male and female surrealists related to the everyday?

Encouraged by her mother and Irish grandmother, Leonora Carrington began to make art and tell stories before she learned to write. Her mother copied out her first stories and, from that moment if not earlier, she took herself seriously as an artist. Expelled from several schools, she confronted her parents’ desire to see her married, and her own determination to escape the life of social graces that lay ahead. Instead she enrolled in cubist painter Amédeé Ozenfant’s London academy, met painter Max Ernst in London in 1936, and fled to France with him. There, beautiful, talented and determined, she soon joined the surrealist circle .

Do you think there was an inherent sexism in the surrealist movement? Was it a symptom of the times or something deeper?

The surrealist revolution was both artistically and theoretically radical and yet often conventional in its attitudes to gender and sexuality. Still it offered women (particularly those young and beautiful) an alternative to bourgeois life.

Did you have any surprises during the research period for the book?

My biggest surprise came when I discovered an unpublished cache of letters written by Leonora Carrington to painter Leonor Fini, her closest female friend in Paris, in a private archive in Paris. The letters were initiated by Max Ernst’s arrest and imprisonment as an enemy alien in 1939 when the couple was living in the South of France (he was a German citizen). They recounted Leonora’s terror, her determination to make art, and her love for Ernst and Fini. They also transformed my own understanding of the ways that women artists’ lives and work were reshaped by war and surrealism.

Do you feel drawn to any of the women in particular?

I was fortunate to have met a number of women surrealists in the course of my research on surrealism. All of the women were fascinating, both in terms of their lives and their art. Their works have enriched my own life, and my work as a writer and curator. My closest relationship with a particular woman surrealist was with Leonora Carrington about whom I have published two books, organized exhibitions and written many essays and articles, most recently an essay for a retrospective exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City that celebrates the end of Centenary year.

Do you have a favourite anecdote from the book?

In 1938? Frida Kahlo came to Paris for the opening of her first exhibition sponsored by the surrealists. She stayed at the apartment of André and Jacqueline Breton where she joined a group of surrealists meeting for discussions and to play surrealist games. One evening she refused to divulge her age and was given a forfeit that included making love to an armchair. Her performance was considered brilliant and the surrealists admitted to being very impressed by their Mexican guest.

How do you feel that the art world relates to ‘woman as creator’ today?

That’s a complicated question! I can only say that women have greater access to the art world than ever before, BUT that does not mean that women are treated equally.

What message would you like people to take away from the book?

I wrote The Militant Muse to explore the lives of the women surrealists after war was declared in Europe in 1939. World War II brought nightmares of fear, exile, loss, and emotional collapse. Many women surrealists lacked the security of marriage, motherhood and family, social structures often rejected by male surrealists. Struggling toward personal and professional maturity, they found new forms of partnership and artistic maturity through their friendships with other women. It is their stories that inspired and shaped the book.

The Militant Muse: Love War and the Women of Surrealism by Whitney Chadwick, published by Thames & Hudson, is out now

IMAGE: Leonor Fini & Leonora Carrington

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