Chicago Surrealism, Herbert Marcuse, and the Affirmation of the ‘Present and Future Viability of Surrealism’
- Susik, Abigail (Author)
The Journal of Surrealism and the Americas focuses on the subject of modern European and American intellectuals’ obsession with the “New World.” This obsession—the very heart of Surrealism—extended not only to North American sites, but also to Latin America, the Caribbean, and to the numerous indigenous cultures located there. The journal invites essays that examine aspects of the actual and fantasized travel of these European and American intellectuals throughout the Americas, and their creative response to indigenous art and culture, including their anthropological and collecting activities, and their interpretations of the various geographic, political, and cultural landscapes of the Americas. We furthermore intend to investigate the interventions / negotiations / repudiations of European/American or other Surrealisms, by indigenous as well as other artists, writers and filmmakers. Original publication is available at: Journal of Surrealism and the Americas
Women participated fully in what might be called the surrealist conversation, a philosophical exchange involving a process of defining, correcting, and redefining what surrealism stands for through texts and art. This special issue of the JSA devoted to women surrealists and the Americas demonstrates how scholars, too, participate actively in dialogue with one another, and have done so consistently since the landmark publications by Xavière Gauthier (1971) and Whitney Chadwick (1985) of comprehensive studies of women involved with the surrealist movement. This essay introduces the essays in the special issue.
Spanning an 80 year career and encompassing vastly different styles and media, the work of Dorothea Tanning revolves around a handful of obsessions. From an early stage, Tanning seeks to develop a visual vocabulary that draws on the subversive potential of both surrealist and gothic sensibilities to explore the physical and psycho-emotional nature of childhood and feminine experience. By doing so, she evokes many of the familiar tropes of the gothic: the motif of the haunted house, for example, with its capacity to fold the supernatural into otherwise ordinary, domestic spaces or the use of veils, doorways and wallpaper as possible sites of transformative potential that reveal or conceal alternate states of reality. Tanning has written extensively on the enormous influence of the imaginative excesses of her childhood experiences growing up in Galesburg, Illinois (where “nothing ever happened but the wallpaper”) and her love of gothic fiction. Her memoirs often use the ‘third person’, thereby deploying the stock gothic device of the ‘unreliable narrator’, reinforcing the blurring of fantasy and reality and the shifting nature of truth. In the interests of opening discussion my essay will touch broadly on the confluences between Tanning’s work and the gothic sensibility with reference to a sweep of the artist’s work from early ‘surrealist’ paintings to her novel Chasm (2004), including a sculptural installation and her later movement towards abstraction (collage in particular) as a desire to perform a more ‘postmodern’ concept of the gothic through fracture and fragmentation.
European Surrealists’ exile to the New World, mainly New York or Mexico City, during World War II or earlier, proved an enriching and liberating experience for several women involved. As artists they tended to adapt better to new surroundings, where they were appreciated and given individual exhibitions of their work, for example in New York by Peggy Guggenheim, Julien Lévy et al. (Europeans Isabelle Waldberg, Leonora Carrington and Jacqueline Lamba and Americans Dorothea Tanning and Kay Sage). In Mexico, Carrington, Remedios Varo and Alice Rahon had shows at Inez Amor’s gallery among others.
Most of these women had undergone severe traumas during or before the war and needed to express them in writing as well as through plastic art. Like their male counterparts, they usually produced interdsciplinary work, but unlike the men’s, most of their writing and much of their iconography was at least partly autobiographical. Another motivation for writing along with other creative drives, was the appreciation of new discoveries as they explored a new land: grandiose western panoramas and especially Amerindian, Mexican and Caribbean native cultures, rituals and art.
Most male Surrealists rushed back to Europe when the war was over, while many women chose to stay (Carrington, Varo, Rahon, Horna, Sage, Bourgeois), or returned later (Lamba, Waldberg).
This essay deals with the nomadism of fifteen European, American and Mexican women artist-writers before, during and after World War II and its effects on their work.
Jonathan Eburne's essay, "Leonora Carrington, Mexico, and the Culture of Death," studies Carrington's written work from the mid-1950s, when she collaborated with avant-garde groups in Mexico City, including the Poesía en Voz Alta theater group (1956-57) and the journal S.NOB (1962). In particular, it examines Carrington's adaptation of the contemporary Mexican interest in pre-Columbian cultures of death; Carrington's midcentury work, Eburne argues, develops this Mexican "culture of death" as both a response and a contribution to European existentialist and surrealist systems of ethics.
André Breton’s discovery of the art of Frida Kahlo in Mexico in April 1938 guided the path his interests would take during and after World War II: towards the indigenous and mythical. His support guided Kahlo in turn as she soon enjoyed a solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery on East 57th Street in New York in November 1938. Involvement in major international shows followed: the ‘Mexique’ show at the Renou et Colle Gallery in Paris in 1939, the ‘Exposicion Internacional del Surrealismo’, at Ines Amor’s Galeria de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City in January 1940, the landmark ‘Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art’ exhibition at New York MOMA in 1940, and the ‘Exhibition by 31 Women’, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery in New York in 1943. Kahlo stood on the borderline of Mexico, New York and Paris, uniting all three cities in their avant-garde aspirations. She offered an intensely personal and proto feminist iconography at a time of immense political and cultural anxiety and recognised and reinforced the potential of the feminine as revolutionary force. She thus played a key role in Breton’s ambitions for Surrealism but also in the geography of modernism itself. This essay considers how Breton and Kahlo’s relationship went beyond that of the once colonised (Kahlo) and the enamoured European (Breton), and argues that her appeal and feminine potential was rooted in an avant-garde internationalism and geopolitical vision which is all too often overlooked. Herein lies the real significance of the “lost secret” she could reveal.
This essay reconsiders Remedios Varo's work within the context of her lifelong fascination with science as well as the broader epistemological and metaphysical questions driving the intellectual innovations of the 20th century. Varo's commercial illustration and late painting explicitly draw on the new physics, the hidden world of microbiology, the speculations of metaphysics, the world of engineering and mechanical design, as well as the intricate labor of the domestic sciences and crafts, as a way to explore the relationship between science and art on the one hand, and the old and the new on the other. In moving beyond the familiar rhetoric mystical, inspired, dream-like, esoteric that often accompanies an appreciation of Varo's work, this essay explores her interest in a range of scientific themes and intellectual ideas which were central to the Surrealist movement's interdiscplinary engagement.