The bodies without eyes, without hands, fragmented and uncanny, as portrayed by the multiple generations of female artists presented in ‘Dreamers Awake’ hijack Surrealist tropes and techniques, and both reproduce and resist the voyeuristic gaze. It is a resistance that is ambivalent but rooted in self-awareness, insofar as for female artists representing the female body necessarily becomes an act of representing the self, interestingly something that was markedly absent from the practice of male Surrealists. The ways in which male Surrealists used the image of the female body left little space for the women of Surrealism to see themselves as more than the dismembered, mutable and eroticised complements to male desire. The female body became the screen for a neurotic projection of the rapturous moment between the conscious and the sub-conscious worlds of a male painter.
Paradoxically, for a show whose two-word title includes the word ‘awake’ it is open eyes that are the rarest occurrence. But if the voyeuristic gaze is not openly met, the uncanny feeling of subjective agency emanating from body fragments and fetishistic objects persists throughout the exhibition. In Penelope Slinger’s ‘Flying Blind (The Feminine Mystique)’ (1977) the woman’s eyes are covered with white cloth, and yet her body’s assertive charge forward reveals an unexpected certainty of movement. Similarly uncanny, the female bodies in Jo Ann Callis’ photographs verge on objectified, and are yet always not quite, leaving space to read the female body, however fragmented, as a locus of agency. Such appropriation of the Surrealist approach is more confrontation than internalisation: active, enacted with humour and irony as in Mona Hatoum’s fetishistic play on words in ‘Jardin Publique’ (1993), or Helen Chadwick’s playful sculpture ‘I Thee Wed’ (1993).
A subjective self-awareness is ‘woven’ into the works of Shanon Bool, one of the contemporary artists on whom Surrealism had left a mark. In ‘Michaelerplatz 3’ (2016) reflective surfaces of ornamental marble and the mannequin invoke the mirror, historically an attribute associated with women and with vanity. An image reflected is an image that is primarily seen, not made or constructed. Its immediacy suggests an air of natural legitimacy, but, woven into a tapestry (historically the medium to which many female artists were ‘exiled’) through a laborious process, such illusion is destroyed. Critically, Bool engages with the history of female artists throughout the twentieth century, and does so through medium as well as a conscious use of Surrealist imagery, accentuating the image as a construct.
Illusion is recreated to subversive effect in the photographs of Claude Cahun, an alter ego of Lucy Schwob. Re-discovered in the 1980s, today Cahun is one of the best known female photographers of the 1930s. Her use of photographic self-portraits questions the medium’s claim to authority through staging profoundly ambivalent representations of a gendered self. Hers is a Surrealism without the fantastic, the delirious, the other-worldly. The tension of these portraits rests on the possibility of misrecognition; indeed, Cahun, who had taken a male pseudonym, was often mistaken for a man. Her rediscovery in the 1980s was largely due to the perceived closeness between her staging of gender as performance through photographic self-portraits, and the feminist discourse that was becoming more and more current.
Paradox is the red thread that runs through this show, which sees artists who have found Surrealist devices to be effective in subverting the limiting and constricting gender norms, grouped into an all-female show. Indeed, as Leonor Fini, a self-taught Surrealist painter who worked in the 1930s claimed ‘a study that is exclusively devoted to women is still a sort of exile,’ and several artists in the show, like Frida Kahlo, openly denied an identification with Surrealism.
It is indeed somewhat paradoxical that a movement responsible for perhaps the most striking examples of misogynist representations of the female body should have attracted such a large number of female artists, and, as the curator Susanna Greeves suggests, still continues to do so. But Surrealism, at least in the form in which it was conceived of in Paris of the 1930s, revealed a movement towards a dissolution of identity, not its affirmation. And so the devices used by Cahun, Bool, Hatoum and others reveal not a shared female subjectivity, and certainly not a form of ‘women’s Surrealism’, but rather a profoundly subjective take on the act of juggling, not without humour, multiple and often incompatible identities, masks, and narratives of the self that are often imposed from without.