Exploring the relationship between gender and Surrealism

When you think of Surrealism you might picture a Dali or Magritte, but what about the women artists of the time?


By Jen Newton


When you think of Surrealism, you instinctively picture a Salvador Dali or René Magritte painting with their scenes of madness. But what about the female Surrealists such as Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning who also made significant contributions to the movement?


There’s also more to the twentieth century art movement than just spindly-legged elephants and faces hidden by apples. Surrealism actually began as a literary movement, initiated by the writings of French writer Andre Breton. Based on a tumultuous and passionate love affair, Breton’s 1928 text Nadja communicates a strain of underlying ideas that would shape the visual art movement of Surrealism – and at the centre of this was gender.


Cover of the 1964 Livre de Poche edition of Nadja

Surrealist portrayals of the female form, both in literary and visual works, are consistent with post-war attitudes and have been thought of as a man’s need to recover his masculinity after the grueling and emotional effects of the First World War. The rise of the male disillusioned anti-hero character and the seductive yet villainous femme fatale can also be seen in film noir cinema after the Second World War, which tells the same story of men who want to restore out-dated hierarchies between the genders. In Nadja, Breton outlines a distinction between the minds of men and women. The woman is trapped within the limitations of her own mind while men are free to properly explore their subconscious. It is no coincidence that Pierre Faucheux’s cover design for the publication depicts a woman emerging from a presumably male hand and is without the ability to speak.


The disillusionment felt by men after the First World War saw the crumbling of previously stable gender roles, causing artists to create works that attempted to reestablish their now frail masculinity. The emasculation caused by the war saw men artists communicating misogynistic ideas in their works. In an attempt to restore his masculinity, Breton conceived the ideal Surrealist woman, the Femme Enfant, which can be described in the most basic terms as a woman who was both sexual and innocent – the kind of woman who adhered to a man's needs but would not challenge him.


But what of the women artists of this time? In her book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985), Whitney Chadwick explains that “women artists were forced either to reject this male language of female sexuality altogether, to adapt it to their own ends, or to attempt to create a new language that spoke more directly to female experience”. Photographer and photojournalist Lee Miller achieved the latter.


An artist in her own right, Miller was also the subject of the work of her lover, Man Ray. A striking difference between the depiction of Miller’s body by herself and Ray helps to communicate the underlying ideas of gender in the art of this time. Firstly look at Ray’s work, Shadow Patterns on Lee Miller's Torso. It depicts Miller’s body cropped in such a way that her limbs and head have been left out the composition. The ‘threatening’ elements of the female figure have been symbolically removed to reveal only the desirable features, to which the emasculated man can take advantage of and regain his masculinity and authority over the woman. On the other hand, Miller’s Self-Portrait allows her to represent the female figure, and herself, as a gracious and independent being. The inclusion of her head and arms within the composition shows the female figure as a whole instead of a fragmented piece with nothing binding or restricting her.



In her own representations of herself, Miller is seen as more than just the muse as she creates her own identity. In this sense, Miller’s self-portraiture can be perceived as a reaction against Man Ray’s representations. Though she does continue to be the object of his male gaze, Miller’s use of self-representation allows her to explore her place in a male-dominated art movement, as well as take control of the portrayal of her own body.


The art movement of Surrealism is riddled with complex gender ideas and power struggles. What can be taken away from this is the triumph of the women who were inspired to become a part of this movement and should be recognised for their work that matches that of their male counterparts.