Nobody's Muse

Whitney Chadwick, The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism

Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £24.95, ISBN 9780500239681

reviewed by Xenobe Purvis

Look through the work of the male surrealists in the first half of the 20th century and you will find a wealth of female bodies. An orgy of them. They are objectified by the artists’ lustful gaze. They are sliced up, decapitated, and distorted. They are reduced to children, to Alices in Wonderland. Over and again, we see how significant women were to the surrealist movement – as muses, giving their bodies up to be picked over by the men. Max Ernst’s collage novel Une Semaine de Bonté, for example, depicts a number of wasp-waisted women, their faces often obscured, their bodies draped in luxuriant silks. In several of the images these women are violently assaulted by male figures wearing disturbing animal heads. Some of Man Ray’s best work is centred on the body of his lover Lee Miller. In creating his Indestructible Object, he affixed an image of Miller’s eye to a metronome. Her lips fill the sky in Observatory Time: the Lovers. Elsewhere, he used her naked body as the focus for many of his photographs, occasionally cropping her face out of the frame and closing in on her breasts.

Perhaps in response to Ray’s fixation with her body, Miller photographed a startling pair of images in 1930 – Untitled (Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy) – which depict a grotesque lump of flesh (the breast of a friend, stolen after a mastectomy) served on a plate. Beside the plate, cutlery has been placed in preparation. The images make a clear comment on the objectification of the female body, laid out like meat to be consumed by men, as well as satirising the kitchen-bound space conventionally inhabited by women. (Later in life, Miller would both assume and manipulate just such a domestic role in her marriage to Roland Penrose. She created wildly imaginative menus for her guests at Farley Farm in Sussex: blue spaghetti, green chicken, and – of course – pink cauliflowers in the shape of breasts, garnished with edible nipples.)
Miller was not the only surrealist muse to make her own work, and – in doing so – escape and respond to the role defined for women by the men of the movement. In her engrossing book, The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism, Whitney Chadwick charts the passage from muse to artist forged by Miller and her female contemporaries. Another such artist, linked to Miller through a mutual husband, was the poet and collagist Valentine Boué. On their wedding day in 1925, Valentine gave Roland Penrose a drawing entitled To My Husband, in Gratitude (as you might say), which ‘bristles with irony and resistance’, in Chadwick’s words. In the lower right-hand corner of the drawing, a man clutches at the naked breast of his bride, ushering her towards images of a kitchen and sitting room.

The wives and lovers of surrealist men were often dismissed to the domestic sphere, habitually excluded from the movement’s essential conversations. While André Breton and Leon Trotsky talked art and politics (discussions intended for publication), the women in their circle – Jacqueline Lamba, Breton’s wife, and Frida Kahlo – were ‘left to their own devices’, Chadwick notes. Through this exclusion, Lamba and Kahlo ‘created a rich and nurturing environment that sustained their growing friendship’, writes Chadwick, cultivating a shared visual language and an interest in self-representation and identity. The friendship invested both women with the confidence to embark on the world of surrealism as artists in their own right, a confidence on Lamba’s part so often denied her by her husband. Lamba observed that Breton introduced her to his friends as a ‘naiad’ because it seemed to him ‘more “aesthetic” than a struggling painter: He saw in me what he wanted to see, but he didn’t really see me.’ Kahlo was later furious when Breton ‘claimed’ her for surrealism; ‘I never knew I was a surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one,’ she wrote with barely disguised sarcasm to a friend.

Not only was the woman’s place in political discussion contentious for the surrealists – the depiction of the female body represents another area in which the views of the men and women in the movement were often in conflict. Repeatedly, the female surrealists attempted to counter the men’s fetishising gaze with artistic statements of their own. Chadwick quotes the following lines from a poem by Alice Rahon Paalen, close friend to Valentine Penrose, in which a woman erases her features to safeguard her identity:

A woman who was beautiful

one day
removed her face

her head became smooth

blind and deaf

safe from the stares of mirrors

and from looks of love.

Meanwhile, Valentine’s collages in Dons des Féminines create, Chadwick remarks, ‘a sensuous world in which sight, smell and touch evoke the loved woman’, a far cry from Max Ernst’s misogynistic collage novels of the 1930s.

Such pieces remind us that the surrealist women frequently seemed to be working in reaction to the men. Indeed, the book itself has a reactionary agenda: it opens with an interview with Roland Penrose and his suggestion that Chadwick should not embark on her intended project. ‘Of course the women were important,’ he said, ‘but it was because they were our muses.’ Chadwick attempts to prove Penrose wrong, but still The Militant Muse cannot escape the gatekeeping role played by the men of the surrealist movement.
Breton, for example, took on the part of censor as well as lover, shaping the legacy of the woman he married. Lamba, proposing to divorce Breton to pursue an affair with American artist David Hare, gave him a drawing entitled For André Breton, Design for Living, a thinly veiled allusion to Noel Coward’s 1933 play portraying a complicated love triangle. ‘If you leave me, I will destroy you,’ Breton told Lamba in response. After Breton’s death in 1966, Chadwick writes, Lamba

‘asked his widow to search for the work she had left in Paris when the couple left France. Nothing was found in Paris, and she remembered Breton’s words: ‘that he would destroy me – as we had never settled, he and I, on another plan I had forgotten these words. . . these works are not to be found.’ The artworks were never seen again.’

The censorial behaviour of Breton et al. is underscored throughout The Militant Muse. There are moments in the book, however, in which the gatekeeping male surrealists take a back seat. The chapter on the self-styled Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore is remarkable, cataloguing the bravery of their insurgent acts of creativity during the German occupation of Jersey. The moving passages on Miller’s wartime photography also portray an artist navigating a traumatised world entirely alone.

A wonderful line by Leonora Carrington becomes a kind of guiding mantra in the book (it is quoted in the preface, the closing paragraph, and on the jacket): ‘I didn’t have time to be anyone’s Muse,’ Carrington told Chadwick, ‘I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.’ ‘It is as artists and friends that we remember the women of surrealism today,’ The Militant Muse concludes. We are moving towards this understanding of the surrealist women, slowly seeing beyond the work of the men they shared their lives with. And this book will surely go a long way to cementing their fascinating legacy.