Feminine, Feminist and Sinister: 

Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Occult Imagery

As Subversive Narrative Strategies


III.

The same pre-occupations of Symbolist art – imagery of the occult or archaic, the expression of interior states, and the inspiring role of women – became tenets of the ideology of Surrealism. The Surrealists, however (rather than dabbling in cultish fads), created a robust intellectual framework for their beliefs, incorporating the disciplines of psychoanalysis and anthropology. Psychoanalytic theory, which posits the existence of barely accessible subconscious states, including the anti-rational Id, accounts for much of the occult emphasis in Surrealist thought. André Breton, who studied psychiatry,[1] “established the significance of the unconscious not merely as a valid approach to creation, but as the necessary tool for plumbing the depths of one’s self, spirit, and imagination, and bringing its effluvia, images, and ideas to life.”[2]Breton’s goal, in elucidating the unconscious, was to uncover the “occultation of the Marvelous”[3] and to express it in art.[4] This focus on the primal mind, irrational and unconventional, led the surrealists, inevitably, to the occult tradition. The sources for this tradition lay in the study of magical beliefs in “primitive” cultures; through books such as J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough…In the early 1920s, the surrealists began by experimenting with automatism, a technique borrowed from the spiritualist mediums; by the 1940s, we find concepts and imagery borrowed from alchemy, the Tarot, Gnosticism, Tantra and shamanism.[5] From psychology, therefore, the Surrealists followed a path through the ethnographic to the occult.

Jungian theories about archetypes, alchemy, and the integration of male (anima) and female (animus) energy to create an ideal androgyne,[6] also formed part of the psychoanalytic foundation of Surrealism’s new mythology. Jung traced the connections between psychology and hermetic philosophy, with “alchemy [forming] the bridge, on the one hand into the past, to Gnosticism, and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the unconscious.”[7]  In Jung’s decoding of alchemical language, the masculine and feminine principles assigned to alchemical substances are actually metaphors for metaphysical states, which in successful combination, lead to spiritual – rather than material – transformation. Thus, the purpose of alchemy, according to Arturo Schwarz’s interpretation, is nothing as mundane as turning base matter into gold. Instead,  the problem with which the alchemist – as well as Surrealism and analytical psychology are concerned – is to bring this shattering reality back to man's consciousness; in other words, to endow man with the awareness, the alchemical aurea apprehensio (golden awareness) of this marvelous reality: we are gods, because we all are man and woman at one and the same time.[8] In Jungian terms, the ultimate step in the process of individuation – or the creation of the self – was to integrate the whole being by relinquishing the false duality of anima and animus.[9] Consequently, the emphasis that Surrealists placed on alchemy had as much to do with its transformational aspects as with its idealistic claims to parity between the sexes.

Surrealists also developed occult imagery from contemporaneous ethnographic research into archaic, matriarchal, Western European cultures. The mythologies of goddess worship lie at the heart of both James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Robert Graves’ White Goddess. Frazer’s work specifically examines those aspects of the primordial goddess that involve the metaphor of transformation and reincarnation exemplified by the harvest and the change of seasons.[10] Graves finds affinities of poetic language and myth between Frazer’s harvest goddesses and a tripartite ur-goddess of renewal, love and strife, and death and divination.[11]  Surrealists, such as Max Ernst, eventually synthesized this mythology – overtly incorporating aspects of alchemy and the female deity in works like Men Shall Know Nothing of This (Fig. 3) - to create otherworldly imagery that “[exemplified] strange fusions of fantasy and reality, in which humans fly, metamorphose and reincarnate.”[12]         

 Fig. 3: Max Ernst,  Men
Shall Know Nothing of This (Les Hommes n’en sauront rien) , 1923 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Fig. 3: Max Ernst, Men Shall Know Nothing of This (Les Hommes n’en sauront rien), 1923

In exploring this mythological terrain, Surrealists – like the Symbolists before them – turned inward to find the adequate imagery. The central question that defined their output was posed by Breton’s query, “Who am I?”[13] Every Surrealist work of art is, in this sense, a self-portrait. To dredge up the recondite images of the subconscious, the Surrealists employed exercises such as the exquisite corpse and decalcomania, which produced randomized forms that were then imbued with psychic meaning. The collaborative exercise called cadavre exquis, or exquisite corpse, has its roots in a parlor game that generated incongruity through “chance juxtapositions and unconscious associations.”[14] Initially played by having each participant add a word to a sentence where the prior contributions had been folded over or covered, it evolved to include drawings and collage.[15] The process of decalcomania involved pressing together two leaves of paint-spotted paper or canvas that when pulled apart would leave a “semiabstract” textured surface “suggestive of natural forms.”[16] Both of these techniques, with their goals of conjuring high art from humble origins, in turn, evoke the aims of alchemy.

The portraits generated through Surrealists techniques were also replete with gendered meanings. As Patricia Allmer contends in Angels of Anarchy, “Self-portraiture has served the male artist to affirm his identity as subject, ‘masterful creator’ and ‘tortured soul’, whilst women have been mostly represented as objects.”[17] The influence of the Symbolists, the Jungian androgyne, and the archaic goddesses, all led to the centrality of the female in the process of creation, and many self-portraits by men also include a female double. [18] Alternately, in their portrayal of the female body, as in André Masson’s Mannequin (Fig. 4), male Surrealists notoriously “created images of broken, torn, dismembered, mutilated, violated, and punctured female bodies.”[19] Nadia Choucha explains this misogynistic phenomenon: "[Whitney] Chadwick discusses how in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir used the analogy of the mirror as the key to the feminine condition. Women concern themselves with their own image, men with the enlarged self-image provided by their reflection in a woman."[20] The issue of why women looked to “their own image” will be addressed later in this essay, but the prominence given to interior states provided an opening for them to create, through “diverse images of embodied femininity…  their most powerful and pervasive legacy to subsequent women artists.”[21]

The often violent representations of women in Surrealist art belied their claim to value equality among genders,[22] as did the roles relegated to the women within their circle. Women were kept out of the decision-making process that formulated Surrealist doctrine,[23] in spite of being intimately connected to the main figures of the movement. (Among several notable examples, Carrington was Max Ernst’s partner and Varo was Benjamin Péret’s wife.) In their personal lives, they continued to be subject to the traditional “male prerogatives of home life” that included “a different code of morality for men and for women,” requiring virtue of the women, while the men were free to womanize.[24] Though male Surrealists purported to value actual women equally, they instead put a theoretical feminine type on a pedestal.

For Surrealists, the ideal female was the femme enfant: a young woman who, due to her naiveté, had special access to the realms of the unconscious and the natural world, and could act as muse or guide for the masculine creator.[25] The alternative role for women, the femme sorcière, was similar to the Symbolist’s femme fatale. Typically reserved for women who were creators in their own right (Breton called Leonora Carrington a “beautiful divine witch”[26]), this type “needed no translators” or muses to guide them, due to their “own connection with nature.”[27] Both of these formulations ultimately proved detrimental to the position of women within Surrealism by marginalizing the worth of their output. Under this ideology, women either had no claim to actual creations of their own, or were simply conduits of an intuited channel to the subconscious.

This idealization of women’s role in art, in fact, masked a profound sexism. Firstly, the notion of the femme enfant minimized the role that a wise, mature woman could play, by equating “creativity with youth.”[28] Furthermore, it also assumed that a woman’s creative potential was best expressed through her usefulness to a man. Most importantly, both the femme enfant and the femme sorcière perpetuated the “long and troubled representation of femininity within Western aesthetic and philosophical systems”[29] that in giving women special powers over the realms of nature and the chthonic, marginalized them as primitive, morally deficient, and only a degree removed from animals.  Later feminist scholars such as Annette Shandler Levitt continued to promulgate this problematic idea of women as creatures especially connected to natural world, or to the impulses of the subconscious, who therefore have special access to the realms of the magical in their art. In reality, while many of these women Surrealists used imagery of “the mysterious, [and] the animal,”[30] the reason for this iconography was not because of some instinctive connection, but rather as a deliberate strategy of self-identification with anti-patriarchal imagery.

Surrealist ideology – with its claims to gender equality and the centrality of the female muse within its creative mechanism, its influences from the occult and the goddesses of pagan mythology, and its openness to taboo-shattering imagery dredged from the unconscious – seems like fertile ground for the practice of female artists. The reality, however, did not live up to the ideal. Goddess worship masked the subjugation of women at home, its receptiveness to unconscious thought left behind a legacy of violent images, and while women were an integral part of the creative process, they were not particularly valued for their own creativity.

 

[1] Katherine Conley, Automatic Woman: The Representations of Woman in Surrealism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 5.

[2] Shandler Levitt, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, 2.

[3] Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 96.

[4] Natalya Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Sydney: University of Sydney Press, 2007), 16; also Rabinovitch, Surrealism and the Sacred, 5.

[5] Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult, 3.

[6] Arturo Schwarz, “Alchemy, Androgyny and Visual Arts,” Leonardo 13, no. 1 (1980):  57; and Janet Sayers, Freud’s Art: Psychoanalysis Retold (New York: Routledge, 2007), 34.

[7] Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, ed. Aniela Jaffé (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 201.

[8] Schwarz, “Alchemy, Androgyny and Visual Arts,” 57.

[9] Murray Stein, “Individuation: Inner Work,” Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice 7, no. 2 (2005), 9, under “Archived Issues,” http://www.junginstitute.org/pdf_files/JungV7N2p1-14.pdf  (accessed September 30, 2012).

[10] James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Volume 1, Abridged Edition (New York: Collier Books, 1985), 462.

[11] Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001), 67-70.

[12] Louise Tythacott, Surrealism and the Exotic (New York: Routledge, 2003), 70.

[13] Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 4.

[14] Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 38.

[15] Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 38.

[16] Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, 154.

[17] Patricia Allmer, “Introduction: Of Fallen Angels and Angels of Anarchy,” in Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, ed. Patricia Allmer (New York: Prestel Publishing, 2009), 16.

[18] Dickran Tashjian, “Marcel Duchamp and Transgender Coupling,” in Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation, ed. Whitney Chadwick (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 36.

[19] Deborah T. Haynes, “The Art of Remedios Varo: Issues of Gender Ambiguity and Religious Meaning,” Woman’s Art Journal 16, no. 1 (1995): 26.

[20] Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult, 96.

[21] Whitney Chadwick, “An Infinite Play of Empty Mirrors,” in Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation, ed. Whitney Chadwick (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 13.

[22] Penelope Rosemont, “Introduction: All My Names Know Your Leap: Surrealist Women and Their Challenge,” in Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, ed. Penelope Rosemont (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), xxx.

[23] Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 57.

[24] Ibid., 67.

[25] Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult, 69.

[26] Ibid., 30.

[27] Shandler Levitt, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, 68.

[28] Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 57.

[29] Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 14

[30] Chadwick, “An Infinite Play of Empty Mirrors,” 12.

 Fig. 4: André Masson,  Mannequin , 1938 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Fig. 4: André Masson, Mannequin, 1938