Missing Female Artists: Gender Inequality in Surrealist Art History

by The Dyás Admin

Surrealism is a literary and artistic movement first championed in 1920’s Paris by André Breton. A philosophical and anti-establishment movement that aims to revolutionise the human experience through art, surrealism combines ideas that challenge social orders with symbols of the subconscious. It was, and is, a movement of artists expressing themselves in defiance of any sense of control - and allowed women to visualise “the female psyche as it had never been shown before.” 

Breton, like many early surrealists, was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s research into the subconscious and the concept of the uncanny. In particular, Freud’s dream theory (the idea that dreams are representations of unconscious desires) was a point of fascination for Breton who would define surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state” in his Surrealist Manifesto. Attempting to subvert conscious desires led many artists to confront class, race, sex, and gender in their work (as did the political reality of Europe in the 1920s and 30s) and yet the role of women in the history of surrealism has been played down by many writers. 

Even though Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Leonora Carrington, Dora Maar, and Dorothea Tanning are all names that ring bells with artists, there’s a lot of art history you can read that portrays these women as if they were exceptions. But in reality, women have always had a place in surrealist history. The first surrealist film, according to many, was Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman, and early female surrealists like Toyen, Bridget Tichnor, Alice Rahon, Kay Sage, and Ithell Colquhoun were intimately connected to the world of Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and René Magritte. According to Robert Short, author of Surrealism and Dada, “no one comparable movement, outside specifically feminist organisations, has had such a high proportion of active women participants [as Surrealism].” In fact, there’s an argument to be made that surrealism wouldn’t exist without women, as the movement’s father Andre Breton was financially supported by a number of women throughout his career (including Valentine Hugo). 

Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman

But what’s more is that surrealism is, itself, fundamentally feminine because it rejects the patriarchal and masculine-coded structures of imperialism and capital. In other words, by attempting to “eradicate social paradigms and radically challenge traditional ideas about gender and identity,” surrealists question the predominant status of masculine ideas and instead put forward alternate framings of reality that are necessarily and decidedly feminine. Depictions of the “exquisite corpse,” collaborative artworks, automatic writings, depictions of mythical creatures, and landscapes of the subconscious all thus become ‘feminine’ in the context of their rejection of the masculine norm. So why is it that the role of women in surrealist history tends to go overlooked? 

In 1944 Breton said that it was “high time for woman’s ideas to prevail over man’s, whose bankruptcy is clear enough in the tumult of today. It is up to the artist, in particular, to privilege as much as possible the feminine system in opposite to the masculine system, to draw exclusively on woman’s faculties.” That, very obviously, hasn’t happened - at least not outside of some particularly progressive corners of our society. Accordingly, art made transgressive by its rejection of masculine norms is still transgressive to this day. 

If you look at Claude Cahun’s piece I am in training, don’t kiss me, alongside many others, we see an evident discussion on gender and identity, as well as playful self-reflection. In this portrait, Cahun’s androgyny and fluidity are encapsulated by the carefully curated masculine and feminine aspects of the portrait’s mise-en-scene, such as the hair and makeup, pose, costume and props. Back in 1930, Cahun described ‘neuter’ as the only gender that suited them and “was the only artist within the Surre­al­ists orbit to publicly express a gender that we would now call ‘non-binary.’” Cahun’s clear commentary was both powerful and necessary in a time in which conversations on transsexuality, non-cisgender identity and gender fluidness was absent. 

Claude Cahun’s I am in training, don’t kiss me

Cahun’s expression of an identity that both rejected and ignored social boundaries was only made possible by the free expression of the surrealist movement. However, the same raw expression that made their work so powerful is what marked it as a transgressive piece of art - and something that could not be neatly folded into any teleological narrative about the progress of art or people. 

Surrealist art is a reflection on societal norms, and borne out of a desire to break them. However, many of the themes discussed in the art of early female surrealists - such as the socially alienating experience of femininity - remain relevant for women today. In a sense, the art of someone like Cahun stands as a testament to just how little has changed, and harsh realities like that are never popular. 

If you are interested in Surrealist art and want to see some of the great works of this movement in person there is an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London until late August 2022 called Surrealism Beyond Borders. Be sure to check it out! 


By Scarlett Brice-Adams



1 comment

  • So interesting!

    Michelle -

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