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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

WHERE ARE THE LADIES OF YESTERYEAR?

Sotheby's Cherchez la femme: Women and Surrealism exhibition. Courtesy Sotheby's.
The original outsider was a 15th century French poet. When François Villon wasn’t killing people in barroom brawls, he wrote “The Ballad of the Ladies of Olden Times.”

The famous refrain asks, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ And in 2015, the answer is--at Sotheby’s, with a stimulating, stunning “selling exhibition” called “Cherchez la femme: Women and Surrealism” (through October 17).

Once again, I’m sorry to report on a show only days before its closing.

In this case, my tardiness is inexcusable as I knew about this show before it opened, and got to it for the first time two days after the opening.

My only defense is that “Cherchez la femme” provoked more than the usual amount of thought upon my part, and wound up leading me to revise one of my long-cherished positions—partially, anyway.

As a result, you will find me cogitating on two fairly deep questions. The first is, is there such a thing as “a feminine style?” The second: what is “surrealism,” anyway?

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL INSTALLATION IN YEARS

Before I deal with them, let me say that this show is much more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, the installation is the most beautiful that I can recall having seen.

(By this, of course, I mean not an “installation” in the Chelsea sense of a self-sustaining artwork, but rather the way that an exhibition of many works has been installed in order to show off all those artworks within it.)

The 98 items by the 22 “women surrealists” in “Cherchez la femme” – mostly paintings, photographs, jewelry and mixed-media objects – are arrayed against charcoal-black walls and lit with spotlights, like a Tiffany window display.

Many works are juxtaposed with or placed upon antique European tables, stands, desks, etc.

These pieces of furniture date from the 19th century but mimic styles from the ancien regime, with many more inlays, gilding, and scrollwork than you’ll ever see on eBay.

On the floors lie richly-patterned Persian rugs, and every available projection is festooned with high quality artificial ivies, ferns, mosses and grasses—sprouting, drooping, dangling and combining with the spooky lighting to create a mystical mood.

This installation resembles (and may have been inspired by) that part of the 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris which included a real pond, real reeds, real lilies and a big bed along with the paintings on view.

With lighting designed by Man Ray, that 1938 installation created what one art historian has called “a gloomy-absurd ambience less exhibition hall than cave or womb.”
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What could be more appropriate for a show of women artists than a womb?

WHO ARE THE STAR WOMEN SURREALISTS?

Only two of the 22 artists in this show are stars in their own right, and one of them is famous only for one work. This is Méret Oppenheim (1913-1985).

At the age of 23, she created the celebrated fur-lined teacup originally called “Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure)” (1936).

Am I the only person who has seen this quintessentially surrealist object at MoMA and never realized that it was created by a woman? I bet not.

Alas, it seems to have been such a success that Oppenheim couldn't figure out what to do for an encore.

With war clouds gathering, she went left Paris in 1939 for her childhood home, neutral Switzerland, where she may (or may not) have gotten married (the only website that says she did is one that I don’t absolutely trust).

She returned to Paris in the 1950s or 1960s, to create – and/or recreate – more baffling but decidedly droll objects. Five are on view at Sotheby’s, three of which date back to the 1936s in concept (though not execution).

My favorite is “The Queen of Termites” (1975), a lean and cleverly painted automobile exhaust pipe.

The other independently famous artist in this show is Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). The fact that she was married to Diego Rivera, the distinguished Mexican muralist, once seemed important, but in recent years, her fame has come to rival or even surpass his.

To be sure, Kahlo didn’t consider herself a surrealist. She thought of herself as painting out of the Mexican folk-art tradition, and the robust, earthy nature of her output substantiates this conviction.

Still, here she is in “Cherchez la femme,” represented by six items.

One is a tiny (2 x 1 5/8 inches), undated oval self-portrait, reverently displayed (not surprisingly, as she’s most famous for those unibrow self-portraits). This one hangs, like an icon presiding over a shrine, above & behind a small table overflowing with greenery, two fat white votive-like candles and a small round flaming-red cactus.

A second Kahlo entry is a group of memorabilia, displayed is the biggest, most spectacularly embellished secretary desk that you can imagine.

The remaining four entries are small, bristly pencil drawings. The standout is a 1947 portrait of Irene Bohus, an artist of Hungarian extraction who may (according to another of those websites that didn’t strike me as overly trustworthy) have slept with Rivera, and/or Kahlo herself.

Bolus is depicted nude with bi-sexual genitalia and penises for arms.

ANY OTHERS WHOSE NAMES YOU'VE HEARD BEFORE?

Only six of the remaining 20 artists in this show had names that I was familiar with.

In four of those six cases, I was unfamiliar with their work but had long known about their existence because of their associations with famous male artists.

Thus Dora Maar (1907-1997) I knew of primarily for her brief tenure in the late 1930s as a major love interest of Picasso.

As an artist herself, she was best known for her photography. Her two photographs in this show, both portraits of female artists, are nicely done—especially the one of Jacqueline Lamda, seen looking from the window of a stone building seemingly buried beneath tall grass.

The remaining pieces by Maar, a painting and a drawing, both portray Picasso and are lamentably dependent upon his style.

Kay Sage (1898-1963) was married from 1940 onward to Yves Tanguy. She has nine items in this show.

Many and maybe most are abstractions or near-abstractions that often though not always combine hard-edged outlines with biomorphic forms. As a group, they struck me as somewhat harsh and hrill.

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) and Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) are both known for their associations with Max Ernst.

Carrington was his lover in France in the 1930s, and he married Tanning in New York in the 1940s.

In between, he married Peggy Guggenheim, but Wikipedia and even the New York Times Carrington obituary gloss over the fact that he appears to have summarily dumped Carrington in order to take up with Guggenheim.

True, he had twice been arrested, once by the Nazis’ French puppet government, once by the Gestapo.

And here was Guggenheim, with her millions and her yet more valuable American passport, offering him speedy passage to America.

But Carrington -– by no coincidence, I'd guess — had a nervous breakdown after he left, and wound up in a Spanish mental institution.

Ah well, water under the bridge…she recovered and lived to a ripe age in Mexico City.

(One of the two remaining recognizable names in this show belongs to Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), the haute couturière who commissioned surrealist jewelry and designed the occasional surrealist garment.

(The other is that of Janet Sobel (1894-1968), the Brooklyn housewife who has lately been canonized by feminist fanatics on the strength of a casual comparison that Clement Greenberg once made between her outsider art and the drip technique of Pollock.

(Anybody who looks at the three quite remarkably klutzy samples of her work here at Sotheby's must wonder, what was he thinking? Maybe a joke?)

Among the much better painters in “Cherchez la femme,” Tanning is represented with four items, and Carrington with five and a half (the half being a joint effort with Edward James, better known as a surrealist poet and patron).

Tanning’s best effort is “The Magic Flower Game” (1941), a good-sized, piquant oil centered on a tall, neurasthenically slender blond girl-child, half-nude, half-clad in flowers. One of her feet is bare, the other wears a sock.

Carrington’s best is her joint effort, “The Journeys of Prester John (A Double-Sided Work)” (1953). Wistfully, it depicts two tall, thin and eerily quaint figures, each half-human and half-beast, meeting in front of a strangely crowned figure with its head in the clouds.

IS THERE “A FEMININE STYLE”?

Both of these paintings share certain characteristics with other works (especially paintings) in this show by artists whose names were new to me.

Among the best of works by artists whose names I hadn’t known are:

1) Four small photographs of delicate but intriguing little objects or assemblages by Claude Cahun (1894-1954);

2) “Homme Noir et Femme Singe” (1942) by Leonor Fini (1908-1996), a technically accomplished, puzzling smallish oil depicting a fair-skinned, supine woman covered with curly yellowish hairs, and a slender, dark-skinned nude man kneeling beside her and holding a veil of some sort above and behind him;

3) “The Wings of Augury” (1936) by Eileen Agar (1904-1991), a totally beguiling mixed-media assemblage vaguely suggesting a winged female figure—only a foot high, but situated on a little round table of its own at the entrance to the show, and setting a standard for the rest of it only occasionally equaled;

4) “Escena Profética” (1970) by Bridget Bate Tichenor (1917-1990), a smallish oil and plaster on Masonite, both melancholy and fantastic, showing a toy-like soldier on an long-necked, toy-like rearing horse, confronting a group of howling, heavily gowned, equally toy-like women and children;

5) A small, untitled black bronze (ca. 1950) by Maria Martins (1894-1973), viscerally abstract but evoking notions of an acrobat bent so its legs rise above its head, and endowed with either three sharp phalli or a vagina dentata;

6) “Les Mouettes” (1945) by Suzanne Van Damme (1901-1986), a medium-sized semi-abstract oil in pale tans and creams, showing three somewhat cubist, humanoid, fishlike and/or perhaps birdlike figures, swimming about in what could easily be amniotic fluid;

7) A practically perfect small photograph “Portrait of Joseph Cornell” (1933) by Lee Miller (1907-1977), collaging the pensive head of the subject artist with a toy sailboat and what could be a horse’s tail;

8) And finally, “La Guerre” (1945), a poignant, politically-charged oil by Toyen (1902-1980), dominated by the bee-covered head and upper half of a slender female torso, parked on a pole and presiding over a field of bust-topped (male) gravestones in the distance.

A DIFFERENT SENSIBILITY?

What do all of these works – from the Tanning to the Toyen – have in common? Well, to me they were all on the small side, modest and unassuming.

This could merely be the result of curatorial selection, but I felt as though it might be at least as much because these artists generally felt most at ease working small.

As a rule, I didn’t get that aggressive, egotistical drive to hammer a point home, the way that I do with male surrealist work, be it by Magritte, Ernst, Tanguy, Dali – or even (with due apologies) by Miró.

With “Cherchez la femme,” other adjectives that also sprang to mind were “delicate,” “sensitive,” “fastidious,” and “elegant.”

I saw figural types in these pictures (mostly of women but even some of men) that I’d call “slender,” “attenuated,” “graceful,” or even “wraithlike.”

I won’t say that Sigmund Freud—patron saint of surrealism—is altogether absent, but I saw much more fable and fantasy than Freudian fascination with SEX.

Charming as the best of this show is, I saw relatively little in it that I’d call “powerful” or “commanding.”

And, although I’m not going to cite any specific examples here, I did see quite a lot of tentative, self-effacing work that made me think of shrinking violets, and failed to impress me as good art.

In other words, what I saw was almost all of it very ladylike. Sometimes for the best, sometimes not.

It looked to me like the handiwork of women whose image of themselves as ladies (rather than girls or women) had been instilled in them by anxious mothers (and/or governesses and/or nannies) even before they’d been taught what we used to call “the facts of life."

And even longer before any of them began to think about making art that was -- for its time -- daring, radical, outrageous and unconventional.

This undercoating of the ladylike doesn’t necessarily lead to bad art in “Cherchez la femme.” It does lead to different art, and as such, art that requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, a willingness to adjust one's perceptions and values just a bit.

To that extent, putting all this female art together – and omitting male art – may make more of it easier to respond to.

What I saw -- or perhaps I should say, felt --was an unfamiliar sensibility at work here, and it brought me up short against an attitude that I have long maintained.

In the past, I have always disliked what I call “the ghettoization of women.”

By this, I mean all-woman exhibitions. I have felt that any recognition gained within such shows matters less to the world at large than recognition gained in exhibitions that also included men—and this is in line with my own ambitions.

As I have already said elsewhere, I never wanted to be known as a good woman writer. I have always wanted to be known as a good writer, period.

In my youth, I used to hear references to women novelists with "a feminine style,” but my adult experience has been that my writing can’t by many and maybe most readers be told from that of a man.

With the aid of a first name that only Hungarians are apt to recognize as a woman’s name, I have over the years received much mail (and email) from people who know me only through my writing, and address me as “Mr. Piri Halasz.”

But you know, reflecting upon the ladylike art in “Cherchez la femme,” both the best and the worst of it, I realized that all of the women in that show were born long before I was. And times have changed.

From the references to finishing schools, convents and similar educational institutions at websites discussing some of these artists, I gather that few if any of them had the advantages that I had in attending a progressive boarding school where girls were treated very much like boys.

Far from trying to turn out little ladies -- or little gentlemen -- this school aimed to instill "ruggedness, resourcefulness and resiliency" in every child.

From this experience, I have found as an adult that there is no biological reason that a woman must write -- or paint --- other than the way a man does.

But biology isn't everything, is it? Besides nature, we have nurture. Besides genes, there is the environment.

In times past, there was indeed for many (if not all) women "a feminine style," no matter how daring and radical they c0nsidered themselves.

Thus what "Cherchez la femme" is really offering us is a peek into another culture, a subtle introduction into another increasingly-forgotten way of life.

WHAT IS SURREALISM, REALLY?

As Sotheby’s is well aware – and as the press release for this exhibition emphasizes—interest has been increasing in these female surrealists in recent years.

In 2012, the LA County Museum did a huge show of North American ones, entitled “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.”

Earlier this year, Tate Liverpool gave Carrington a retrospective.

Locally, the New York Botanical Garden in Brooklyn is looking to break attendance records with a Kahlo show that juxtaposes her art with her preferences in plants.

Auction prices for paintings by a number of these women surrealists have similarly been soaring.

One by Sage sold for $7 million in 2014; another by Carrington went for $2.6 million in 2014; and a third by Kahlo was already going for $5.6 million, way back in 2006.

“Cherchez la femme” doesn’t include any such big-ticket performers; its 98 items are much more modestly priced from $5,000 to $1 million.

Not only are most of the artists in it less well-known, but the dates of the work on the checklist struck me, on the whole, as surprisingly late.

The wall text, by Whitney Chadwick, suggests that this lateness can be explained by the fact that these women were mostly younger than their male counterparts.

Also that they were so busy playing “muse” to male artists in their earlier years that they only got around to building their own careers later.

Maybe so, but I can’t help suspecting – or hoping – that at least some earlier work by some of these women survives...

.....and that if it did come to market, it would be pricey enough to put up to auction, as opposed to including it in a group show like this one.

Ever since my first exposure to surrealism (when I was on Time, and MoMA staged Bill Rubin's groundbreaking exhibition of “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage”) I have been under the impression that surrealism got its start in Paris in the 1920s, when its poet-pope André Breton first defined it as “pure psychic automatism.”

I have also been under the impression that

1) surrealism peaked in the 1930s,

2) most of its leaders fled to New York, Mexico, Switzerland or Spain during World War II, and in the New World (if not the Old) they were welcomed & fêted

3) the leadership of what might still have been called “the avant-garde” in both Paris and New York was taken over in the postwar period by younger and more abstract painters (ab-ex in New York, tachisme et al. in Paris).

Yet of the 98 items on the checklist of “Cherchez la femme,” none date from the 1920s, and only 26 from the 1930s.

Another 34 were done in the 1940s, while the remaining 33 are either undated or were done since 1950—in some cases, way after 1950.

The most recent works here are three semi-abstracts, two dated 2010 and one dated 2013.

They are by Sylvia Fein (b. 1919), a Wisconsin-born, California-based artist whose nearest brush with Parisian surrealism, from what I can tell, didn’t come until the 1940s in New York.

She was nonetheless included in the LA County’s ‘In Wonderland,” and at last reports was, at the age of 94, still painting busily away in la-la land.

Which brings me (belatedly) to the question—what is surrealism, really? And when – if ever – did it end?

The answer seems to depend on who you ask.

If you ask a traditional modernist (somebody like myself, say) you might find that surrealism is still considered an avant-garde movement that flourished in the 1920s, the 1930s, and even half-way through the 1940s, but had become part of the rear guard by the 1950s.

In support of this view, such a modernist might point to the dismal quality of the work produced after 1950 by so many of those aging male surrealists who had been leaders of the pack back in the 1930s.

On the other hand, to judge from “Cherchez la femme,” many of the women surrealists who were their contemporaries (or near-contemporaries) seem to have continued to do good work on well past the 1940s.

Actuaries might not be surprised. They know that women on average live longer and remain sprightlier later than men do.

But do we call this late work “surrealist” or not?

And exactly when do we now say that surrealism came to its end?

Wikipedia, eager to please all its readers, fudges the issue.

In its lengthy entry on surrealism, it does title its segment on the 1930s the “golden age” of the movement.

But then it goes on to say, “There is no clear consensus about the end, or if there was an end to the Surrealist movement.”

Some art historians, it concedes, still say that World War II marked the end of surrealism. Next it quotes one art historian who says that the movement didn’t end till the death of Breton in 1966, and further mentions “attempts” to link its demise to the death of Dalí in 1989.

Finally, I might add, there are all those free spirits who maintain that surrealism isn’t a historical movement, and never was. Instead, it’s "a state of mind.”

Sylvia Fein, paint on!
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