Patricia Allmer, ed.
Intersections: Women Artists/Surrealism/Modernism
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016
328 pp., 72 colour illus
Hardcover £75. ISBN: 9780719096488
If there is a true individual identity I would like to find it, because like truth on discovery it has already gone.
— Leonora Carrington (1970)
In her introduction to Intersections: Women Artists/Surrealism/Modernism, Patricia Allmer explains that little theoretical work has examined the significant intersections (the imbrications, interpenetrations, and connections) between surrealism and modernism. This insufficiency has produced a contested field of intellectual history made all the more complicated by the largely neglected presence of women artists working within it. Allmer acknowledges the significant feminist scholarship since the 1970s that has addressed women’s surrealism through critical historical work (Gloria Orenstein, Whitney Chadwick, Katharine Conley, and Mary Ann Caws, among others) and through exhibitions such as In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States (LACMA 2012) that expanded beyond the surrealist camp in Europe. She further lauds the important contribution of Rosalind Krauss in the theorizing of modernism in the journal October. Yet this work, she observes, has not secured the place of women artists in major, definitive exhibitions and surveys of surrealism or modernism, nor has it dispelled the intransigent notions of “male creative authority” and “discursive power” they reinscribe. She writes, “the woman artist occupies a permanently impermanent position” and the “work of the woman artist in modernism and surrealism comes…to resist the ‘normalizing’ and commodifying narratives of art-historical recuperation” (p. 1).
Allmer presents the essays in Intersections as new modes of reading and criticism by a new generation of scholarship. Building upon extant feminist contributions, these essays approach interdisciplinary contexts of production to mark out critical intersections between surrealist and modernist aesthetic assumptions, presumably avoiding the dichotomous thinking, engendered by “women/surrealism,” that continues to justify the provisional or marginal status of women’s work. One of the questions Allmer identifies here is: why has surrealism been such a focus of scholarship on women in modernism? And why have some artists become canonical figures while others remain on the periphery? These essays aim to challenge persistent canonical constructions by attending to enduring critical blindspots (race, class, nationality, location, colonialism) and to marginal, lesser-known, atypical or later oeuvres across different generations of artists.
The essays mapping these intersections address artworks across and beyond the twentieth century, from Hélène Smith’s Ultramartian Landscape, 1900, to Aube Elléouët’s collages of 2014. They are not organized chronologically but rather grouped thematically as practices: automatic, poetic, magical, combinatory, and practices of fashion, an arrangement of diverse visual art and literary production that allows for thought-provoking juxtapositions across a range of historical contexts. The book has also benefitted from the generous use of colour reproductions, especially of lesser-known works. I will address a few of those essays in which the work of intersectionality is evidently productive.
Colin Rhodes considers the automatic practices of Hélène Smith, Aloïse Corbaz, Anna Zemánková, and Unica Zürn. Despite the significance of their automatism for Breton’s formulation of surreality, they were distanced by him through a process of “othering” that left them on the margins of the modernist avant-garde, their outsider status cemented by subsequent inclusion in Art brut.
In contrast, Katharine Conley’s essay on the automatic writing of Susan Hiller’s Sisters of Menon, 1972–79, part of a larger project called Draw Together, demonstrates the artist’s recuperative impulse to connect the collective actions of surrealist circles during the 1920s to those of 1970s feminism. She situates this work in relation to Hiller’s ongoing interest in spiritualism and surrealism and the role of women. There are two moments of production here: Hiller’s automatic writing from 1972 and its installation framed by a negative cross in 1979. Conley likens Hiller’s automatic writing to a “photograph taken by her body” evoking a corporeal engagement with the immediacy of transcription consistent with earlier surrealist practices such as rayograms, but more importantly, with the women surrealists’ emphasis on embodiment—automatism as experiential. Her argument is complex yet compelling in aligning the indexical traces of automatic writing vis-à-vis their symbolic meaning with the surrealist attempt to blur the boundary of unconscious and conscious processes. This surrealist strand is then entwined with the modernist connotations of the frame, considered in relation to Rosalind Krauss’s analysis of the modernist grid. Conley argues that Hiller’s use of a negative cruciform shape combined with the emotional state of automatism defies the fixity of the grid and moves from abstraction to the materialism of surrealist photography. I am less convinced by the second part of this argument, though I would note that the broader context of feminist art in the UK is helpful. Crucially Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, 1973–79 (exhibited in part in 1976), presented constellations of indexical, iconic, and symbolic signs as a means of analyzing unconscious processes in the production of (maternal) identity. Here too, indexical traces were aligned with the prelinguistic, the corporeal, and the unconscious. The potential for a broadening of Conley’s analysis, given Hiller’s later surrealist influenced work, is intriguing.
Essays on Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning explore their fascination with states of liminality to counter essentialist, modernist configurations of femininity as alterity. Regarding Carrington’s novel The Stone Door, written during the 1940s, Victoria Ferentinou argues that the artist mobilizes the collapsing of differences in the surrealist embrace of the marvellous to explore hybridity as a state of liminality rather than duality. Carrington reworks the theme of the “quest” in a perpetual deferral of union or resolution between gendered entities, countering then-current models of romanticism—the search for the ideal woman— embraced by Breton. Ferentinou relates Carrington’s suspension of identities in transition to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of becoming as a permeable boundary “connecting multiplicities,” and calls for a re-examination of the political and social meanings in the artist’s texts and images. Catriona McAra’s criss-cross reading of Dorothea Tanning’s soft sculpture Emma, 1970, with the literary character Emma Bovary positions the sculpture as an intermedial visual object that evokes, in its material specificity, the fetishization of the female character in Gustave Flaubert’s novel and the navel as (maternal) signifier. As an example of Mieke Bal’s “theoretical object” or an art “that thinks,” Tanning’s Emma disrupts modernist and surrealist codes of femininity and art making.
Patricia Allmer examines Lee Miller’s documentation of textual surfaces in post-war Germany, focusing on views of an advertising pillar photographed in Bonn in April/May 1945. She draws analogies between the fragmentation and layering of words on the weathered surface of the pillar and the breakdown of Nazi discourse. An allegorical reading, after Walter Benjamin, of these fragments evokes the many images of modernism deemed degenerate by Nazi ideology—dada and cubist collage, the surrealist decipherment of traces and chance encounters, Bauhaus typography—a palimpsestic reading of the ruins of the Reich framed as the return of the repressed, suggesting Nazi ideology’s alienation from within. This is a nuanced reading that invites a different interpretive gaze than the insistent superficiality of Nazi aesthetics. Millar’s gaze here is less concerned with issues of identity and desire and more with the recuperation of an aesthetics of vision associated with her own artistic milieu, surrealist and modernist, many of whom were targets of Nazi oppression. It is a vindication of these values that privileges the persistence of palimpsestic memory over brute monumentality, made all the more pointed in the nightmarish afterimage of Miller’s photos of Buchenwald.
The final chapter, Emma West’s essay on Elsa Schiaparelli, tackles the seemingly antithetical practices of fashion design and surrealist or modernist art. She avoids tedious debates about fashion versus art by insisting on the permeability of their categorical differences and views Schiaparelli’s traversing of realms—modernist aesthetics (coded male) and the realm of fashion (coded female)—as ultimately destabilizing. In particular, two fascinating works that precede Schiaparelli’s collaborations with surrealists such as Salvador Dalí are considered: the perversely fetishistic gender trouble of Cocktail Hat, 1934, a cap of black ostrich feathers resembling a boyish haircut, and Belt, c. 1938, a plastic belt configured as a scroll to evoke Classical architectural ornament. West observes that Belt combines the disjunctive trompe-l’oeil effects beloved by surrealists with an undercurrent of violence through the emphatically pointed prong of the buckle that tightly cinches the waist. West’s framing of Schiaparelli’s fashion statements as “cultural translations” reimagines the political valence of women’s bodily display. Further, the capacity of fashion for embodied display—the performance of multiple identities—and the designer’s wildly disruptive and dark-humoured bricolage (a swarm of insects on the collar of a smartly tailored suit as memento mori) unpin the fixity of both surrealism and modernism.
Like Allmer’s earlier editorial project Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, 2009, this collection underscores that women artists cannot be constrained by the historical configuration of surrealism sanctioned by André Breton. The essays in Intersections are rich with insights into the workings of desire in women’s work and the crucial significance of a psychic elsewhere in negotiating gendered subjectivity. Overall, the fluidity of interpretation opened up by the model of intersectionality is demonstrably productive within the close reading of individual artistic strategies, though overarching conclusions remain elusive, given the sheer heterogeneity of the material spanning more than a century of art making.
One difficulty is posed by the non-chronological organization of the essays that implicitly privileges themes of surrealism over historical shifts in modernism. In some cases this aptly reflects the marginality and sense of belatedness associated with women artists. In her informative essay on the recent work of Aube Elléouët, Elza Adamowicz writes that these collages are freed from “historical” surrealism (from the publication of the first manifesto in 1924 to the official ending in 1969) and embrace “eternal” surrealism, a pan-historic liberation of the mind. Certainly, they do not provoke the kind of conceptual disjuncture, much less shock, characteristic of the earlier avant-garde and are indeed more aligned with strategies of play and transformation. Yet, without a contextual analysis of gender and generation, Elléouët’s collages seem anachronistic within the ubiquitous cut-and-paste aesthetic of twenty-first century digital remix culture. Alternatively, there is Colin Rhodes’s claim that the “outsider” art of Smith, Corbaz, Zemánková, and Zürn was resistant to the “fashionable and political dictates” of art institutions, allowing for the interest such art piques in viewers today.
Still, thinking beyond these spaces of marginality, there is reason to insist on the significance of both the women’s movement of the 1960s and contemporaneous challenges to modernism, for women artists working after historical surrealism. Susan Hiller, Dorothea Tanning, Birgit Jürgenssen, Helen Chadwick, and Louise Bourgeois are all discussed here in relation to works made from 1970 onwards. While the political context of the women’s movement is variously apparent in these essays, the specific ways in which feminist analyses intersected with and contributed to contemporaneous debates in art is less so. The indexical turn in the context of conceptualism’s privileging of language and the refusal of the indexical gesture encoded in the industrial procedures of minimalism (Dan Flavin’s neon cross Untitled (to Barbara Nüsse), 1971 is an apt example vis-à-vis Susan Hiller) are but two threads that could connect this work to a reconceived modernism (postmodernism) in which their visions are critical interventions, not marginalized practices. The rereading of Freud and the revisions of psychoanalytic feminism that emerged in the 1970s is another. Put another way, the 1970s mark a critical break in the contested field—surrealism/modernism—that underwrites this collection, with implications for practice that beg our attention.
These reservations aside, the fluid navigation of diverse theoretical writing and close reading of lesser-known works makes this volume both thought provoking and pleasurable. I am left with the afterimage of Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1968 photograph of Louise Bourgeois, discussed in Guy Reynolds’s essay, in which she confronts us with a knowing grin. Clasped securely under one arm is her sculpture Fillette, a constellation of multiple signifiers—phallus/female/meat—emblematic of the complexity of desire in these essays.
Dr. Christine Conley is an art historian and independent curator with expertise in issues of feminism and gender, the ethics of difference, cultural translation, political violence, and armed conflict.