Is Surrealism Misogynistic?

by Srihita Mediboina, March 27, 2021

Two years ago, I took a trip to the Modern Museum of Art for an assignment for an introductory art history class. We had learned about a few art movements including surrealism. So, I decided to write my paper on a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, perhaps the most famous female surrealist artist. While studying the painting, I was trying to block out a sculpture in my peripheral vision. It was a piece by Hans Bellmer. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous to have an internal feud with a German surrealist artist, but I did. Bellmer primarily created sculptures that, in my opinion, were blatantly misogynistic. For instance, Bellmer created a doll where the torso is actually a second pelvis. Accompanied photographs were “taken below in a way that emphasizes the doll’s breast and genitals, while her face is partially obscured”(Bottinelli, 2004). Yeah, it was pretty gross.

While Bellmer was one of the worst offenders, he was not alone in his depiction of women in surrealist art. Many famous artists, including “Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, and Rene Magritte, created imagery that, in its sexual abandon, often objectified women; they chopped off female arms and legs, replaced their faces with genitalia, or, as in the case of Ernst, rendered them headless”(Thackara, 2018). This comes as no surprise since Andre Breton, the author of the Surrealist manifesto, based much of the underlying themes of surrealism on the research of Sigmund Freud. Freudian techniques, meant to reveal the unconscious, were common inspirations of Surrealists. These “theories on hysteria and animalistic impulses, rooted in cultural misogyny, had negative repercussions on the movement” as we already have seen (Botinelli, 2018). As much as I wish it stopped there, it doesn’t. “Freud’s psychoanalysis theorizes that unconscious thoughts and motivations, rooted in primitive drives toward sex and aggression, are the underlying cause of human behavior”(Bottinelli, 2018). 

The misogyny inherent in surrealism is not a new idea. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, in  The Second Sex, that Breton “never talks about Woman as Subject”(Beauvoir, 1949). But this view was not unanimous amongst feminist scholars as I had presumptuously expected. In Automatic Woman, a text further exploring the relationship between feminism and surrealism, Katherine Conley introduces a perspective I had not considered. “Maryse Lafitte argued against reading surrealist depictions of women as unremitting antifeminist, as has Rosalind Krauss”(Conley, 1996). Further, Conley argues for a new perspective on surrealism. Conley brings up two female artists : Leonora Carrington and Unica Zurn. Zurn and Carrington served as muses for Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst, respectively, before becoming Surrealists artists in their own right. Conley argues that this placing of a woman at the center, albeit as a muse, creates “the potential to step down from her pedestal and to create on her own”(Conley, 1996). They argue that even if women were only in the unconscious, placing them there necessitated a feminine, if not feminist, perspective.

This argument made me uncomfortable initially. It felt like Conley was trying to justify the actions and beliefs of male surrealists. However, to say surrealism was misogynistic would be to ignore the decidedly feminine parts of it. Kate Brown, writing about a Frankfurt exhibit, highlights how “the quantity and diversity of their work shows how a female perspective was central to surrealism from its birth in the aftermath of World War I”(Brown, 2020). In recent years, there has been an uptick in the demand and auction prices for art by female surrealist artists. Like most research, delving more into the issue of misogyny and Surrealism left me with more questions. What struck me while walking through the Surrealism exhibit that day was the stark disparity between the number of female and male artists. I don’t think that the depiction of women by male surrealists can necessarily be justified. Some might argue that it was the thinking of their time or that the unconscious that produced these images cannot be held responsible. One thing is undeniable; surrealism needs to be depicted holistically. Regardless of the forces that shaped it at the time, museums should be held responsible to depict the art movement as it was, which had decidedly feminine components.


References

Beauvoir, S. D., Borde, C., Malovany-Chevallier, S., & Rowbotham, S. (2011). The Second Sex. London: Vintage Books.

Bottinelli, G. (2004, September). ‘The Doll’, Hans Bellmer, c.1936. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bellmer-the-doll-t11781

Bottinelli, K., & Laxton, S. (2018, May 24). Psychoanalytic feminism and the depiction of women in surrealist photography. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9vr8m90t#author

Brown, K. (2020, February 18). Surrealism was a decidedly feminine movement. so why have so many of its great women artists been forgotten? Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/kunsthalle-schirn-surrealist-women-1779669

Conley, K. (2008). Automatic woman: The representation of woman in surrealism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Editorial, A., & Thackara, T. (2018, September 26). Collectors are clamoring for surrealist women’s erotic dream worlds. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-market-female-surrealists-finally-reached-tipping-point

Petersen, A. J., & Conley, K. (1998). Automatic woman: The representation of woman in Surrealism. SubStance, 27(1), 138. doi:10.2307/3685723