Breton’s Nadja and my novel-in-waiting

My novel Swimming with Tigers is based on a real historical person connected to surrealism in the 1920s known as Nadja.

In this post I want to share with you how I used a combination of research and freewriting to transform this shadowy figure from history into the character of Suzanne in my novel.

I hope that along the way you’ll become as fascinated as I am with her and also get some insight into how freewriting can be directly used as a novel-writing tool.

Breton’s Nadja

In 1926, the leader of the surrealist movement André Breton met a woman who called herself Nadja on the streets of Paris and was immediately smitten with her as a person and with her entirely original way of living and seeing things.  It formed the blueprint of the surrealist principles of chance, altered consciousness and the strangeness of ordinary things.  Breton wrote a book entitled Nadja about his encounter with this elusive and unstable, visionary woman in 1928.

Breton’s portrait gives tantalising glimpses of her originality and frailty; she is a free spirit but cripplingly shy and insecure, with terribly low self-esteem.  Nadja is a fascinating document but is, in the end, about Breton himself, and Nadja exists primarily as his creation, although some of her drawings and sayings are reproduced in the book.

By the end of his account, she is in a mental institution and Breton decides not to visit her, giving his disenchantment with psychiatry as an excuse.  Instead he abandons her to her fate.

For many years there were no photographs of her except the one in Breton’s book, where her eyes are repeated in a truly disconcerting multiple arrangement.  There was even some doubt about her ever having existed at all.  She was believed to have died in hospital, in 1941.

Could I Put Nadja in a Novel?

Looking around for an idea for a novel, I wondered if I could tell Nadja’s story, drawing on Breton’s account, but using my own imagination.  I wanted to give her centre stage this time.  What a gift to a novelist!  I spent quite some time searching and expecting that such a thing had already been done, but I seem to be the first to attempt to bring Nadja to life in a new novel.

Then, when I read in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Nadja that there were rumours that she didn’t die in 1941, but was living in France and working as a typist in the 1970s, my novel started to really come to life.  I wanted to create a new myth to rival Breton’s, in which she did not die incarcerated but lived on, free and independent.

How I Did It

Using Breton’s book as a starting point, I re-named Nadja Suzanne and allowed myself plenty of time to conjure her up as a physical presence and to bring out all of the associations her story had accumulated.  Freewriting was perfect for this and allowed me to range widely and accept unintended elements into my creation.

Here is an extract from some freewriting I did on Suzanne:-

The bird girl, the butterfly girl, the hurt girl, the disowned.  The gothic ghost, the fey child, the polluted whore, the cast-off mistress, the naive poet, the schizophrenic.

The skipping girl, the coquette, the cat-like, the acrid.  The heroine, the First Cause, the one carrying it all and yet not able to steer it, or say anything to it.  The traumatised one, the delicate-featured.

The resurrected, the alive-all-along, the re-found.  Laughing and dancing, shouting in the corridor, blazing life then grey isolation.

The thin soles, the red coat, the bare legs, the messy make-up.  The one who is starved or who starves herself. Until she is fed, and befriended.  Saved.

The one with magic eyes, with mirrors, with windows.  The one with wings in the mind.

 

Gradually, my fictional Suzanne began to feel more real to me than the historical Nadja.

Writing Scenes

Next I wrote some scenes in which Suzanne makes a friend who saves her from despair.  I named this friend Penelope and mixed in details from the lives, works and appearances of several women surrealists such as Leonora Carrington, Eileen Agar, Lee Miller and Meret Oppenheim in order to create her.

Here is part of an early scene when Penelope first meets Suzanne.  By this time I knew exactly how Suzanne would appear to a stranger:-

‘Mademoiselle.’  The waiter placed a glass of red wine in front of Penelope, giving her an ingratiating smile.  She watched him take the other glass from his tray and put it down at Suzanne’s place without a word.

‘He doesn’t seem to like you,’ Penelope murmured, once the waiter was out of earshot.

‘He thinks I don’t belong here,’ said Suzanne, getting out another cigarette.

Penelope looked at Suzanne dispassionately for the first time.  Her clothes were cheap.  The felted red coat with a dropped hem had fallen open to reveal a much-washed black crepe dress and her shoes were in ruins.  Her face could do with a wash and there was a feint smell of tomcat about her, vying with a cheap, sharp perfume.  Did Suzanne look like a prostitute?  Was that what the waiter thought she was?  What would Penelope’s mother say if she knew that her precious debutante was out in public with a woman of dubious reputation?

Suzanne was shifting awkwardly in her chair.  No, she didn’t look like a prostitute, not exactly; she looked displaced.

Keeping Going

I also used freewriting to gauge and harness my personal investment in the character.  Nadja said of herself (according to Breton) “I am the soul in limbo” and in the past so many gifted, creative women have remained in limbo, unknown and unacknowledged.

Much of my work as a university lecturer in literature and women’s studies has been devoted to the feminist enterprise of rescuing women writers and artists from obscurity and reassessing their place and contributions.  It was this that originally drew me to Nadja.

I used freewriting throughout the composition of the novel to keep my motivation in focus and to power me through the inevitable difficulties and delays.  Even now, some years later, Swimming with Tigers has yet to find the right publisher (although the manuscript was long-listed for an international prize).  My commitment, however, to making the women surrealists better-known remains stronger than ever.

Who Is She?

Since I began the novel, more has emerged about Nadja including her real name which was Léona Delcourt.  There is now a photograph to look at and a biography (in French).  But no amount of hard fact will ever entirely banish the deeply mysterious aura around this strange and compelling woman.

In my own novel, a parallel story sets up the possibility that another character is about to meet the actual, historical, Nadja.  But the Nadja of my novel is already fictionalised as Suzanne and remains, like a true surrealist ghost, both real and imaginary at the same time…

If you would like to read more on Nadja, here are some articles available on the web:-

Hysteria and Surrealism

“Something Wrong” Women Who Crash

Nadja: Surrealism’s Absent Heart

[Some of this material appeared in an earlier post.]

Tanning at the Tate!

The artist Dorothea Tanning lived to the age of 101.  Her long career as a painter, sculptor and writer is being celebrated now at Tate Modern in London.  And what a celebration!  For as long as Dali is better known than Dora Maar and Man Ray outstrips Lee Miller in terms of fame, the mounting of retrospectives for women can look like merely political correctness: it isn’t.  There was not a hint of tokenism in this latest solo exhibition of one of the women artists associated with surrealism.

Instead the Dorothea Tanning event showed an authoritative vision, and the development of style and theme through a sustained career, with work that spanned the truly disturbing all the way to the warmly good-humoured.  I am not an art critic and I have no training in art.  What I love about the surrealist women (and I love them so much that I wrote a novel about them) is the immediate, accessible joy I find in their work.  My definition of good art is that it should be inspiring, provocative and amusing: Tanning’s work was all three, and sometimes all three at once!

Like Leonora Carrington (see my review of her Tate retrospective here) Tanning, an American born in Illinois, was enraptured by surrealism at a young age and sought out its (male) practitioners.  Unfortunately she reached Paris in 1939 when most of the surrealists had fled to America or elsewhere due to the war, so it was to be in New York that she encountered Breton and the others, most significantly Max Ernst who she married and lived with until his death in 1976.

The story goes that he selected a painting of hers for exhibition and named it Birthday to signify the day of her birth as a surrealist.  This sort of older male legitimisation of young and sexy girl wannabe is repeated again and again in the lives of the surrealist women.  Tanning might well have needed the “in” to the surrealist group but her talent was already formed as is clear from this astonishing picture.

Birthday is the one of a series of artworks featuring doors in Tanning’s work that stretch from this (in 1947) to Door 84 (1984) and doors occur in the best known of her paintings Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943).  The little girls in this work are caught in a tornado of adult sexuality.  These are indeed the femmes-enfant I discussed in a previous post but they are not sexualised for the pleasure of the viewer.  Similar little girls appear in Children’s Games (on a canvas much smaller than I had imagined) and they are tearing down the wallpaper but finding only the bodies of adult women behind the walls.  All these are children wrestling with the onset and demands of adult sexuality: their De Sade knee boots or heeled shoes are combined with undeveloped bodies and fear.  For what indeed is behind the doors of the plush hallway in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and what threat is posed by the predatory sunflower snaking up the stairs?

 

Tanning creates interiors that are really terrifying, or terrifying and funny all at once like Family Portrait (1953-4) in which the patriarchal power of the father is literally depicted as larger than the other members of the family, with the maid and the dog roughly equivalent in size and importance.  Hilarious, and deadly.

 

The Tate exhibition managed to show both the progression and the repeated themes of Tanning’s work.  Her pictures in the 1940s and early 1950s are often done in Daliesque “realism”, meaning that she depicts impossible things in a realistic way (as the true surrealist that she was).  For example The Guest Room (1950- 52) which features an adolescent girl standing awkwardly naked in a room which contains hooded figures, broken eggs and another child in bed with a life-sized doll.  The Mirror (1950) depicts a sunflower looking at itself in a mirror, with pin-sharp realism.  But then in the later 1950s she moved into a new style of abstract but recognisable “smoky” pictures in which figures and space merge into each other.  These pictures were not my favourites, but some were just as disturbing and involving as the starker and more figurative works.  For instance Insomnias from 1957 gives a nightmare version of mental unease.

As well as the doors, there were legs!  The out-flung limbs in her later “smudgier” pictures (by the way, to any experts reading: apologies for these amateurish terms!), seemed to me to be connected to her work in soft sculpture, which began in around the mid-1960s.  She uses flesh-pink cotton, carefully tailored to shape, and/or furry brown material to create soft entwined bodies that suggest sex, struggle or maybe just rolling about on the floor playing.

 

And there is Emma, too (1970).  Named after Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s novel the soft sculpture of a belly was placed next to a series of watercolours of mothers and babies from the 1960s along with the well-known picture from 1946-7 called Maternity.  In this painting are doors again, preventing or trapping women or perhaps holding out the possibility of escape.  The simultaneously scary and amusing element in this picture is the dog with a child’s face (there were Tibetan dogs all over the place in the exhibition: she owned them and included them obsessively in her work in different guises, sometimes scaled up to human size).

 

The door, the soft sculpture of entangled legs and the deadly interior all came together in the most exciting piece: an installation called Poppy Hotel, Room 202 (1970 – 73).  In this real-space room, bodies are bursting through the walls and morphing from the chairs.  Something rather unpleasantly grey and amorphous is emerging from the fireplace.  But the really menacing aspect is that the door is arranged to conceal whatever is beyond (or indeed whatever or whoever may be coming in).  Here you can see me furiously recording my impressions of this most eerie and compelling artwork.

The joy of surrealism is always in the humour.  At the Tate we were treated to Don Juan’s Breakfast: a soft sculpture of a tankard with bursting buttons and overflowing foam reminiscent of both female cleavage and male libertine plumpness.  Even in this joke, the vulnerability of women is somewhere in the background.  In Tweedy, however, we had just the joke: a fantasy tweed-covered animal with a little matching turd.

I came away buzzing with inspiration and my faithful companions were enthusiastic too.  My son Bryn said he had got part-way round the exhibition when he read Tanning’s statement that she hoped each piece would give something different on each successive viewing.  “So I went back to the start,” he told me, “and there was”.  My partner David also picked up on the bold adoption of new styles throughout a long career but echoed my impression in saying that it was “all of a piece”.

Tanning also produced written work: a novel, two memoirs and a volume of poetry.  These are all waiting for me to discover and I really hope that this exhibition (and this blog post too) will send many, many people to seek out and enjoy Tanning’s work for inspiration, provocation and amusement.

 

All the images included here are from the exhibition, where photography (without flash) was permitted.  They are reproduced for educational purposes only.

To see and search through nearly all of Tanning’s work, see photographs of the artist and read summaries of her life and work, go to the excellent Dorothea Tanning Foundation website here.

It’s time for Surrealist Games!

When people get together for Christmas or other festive events they often play games.  There’s Charades, especially for when a few drinks have been taken, or board games (often ending in family arguments).

Then there’s the one where you have a post-it note with a name stuck to your forehead and you have to guess who you “are” (and which led a dear friend of ours to declare he would never come to our house again if he was going to be made to play games, which was duly noted).

For the Surrealists, games were a very serious business, providing the conditions for spontaneous creativity and the element of revealing self-exposure, which might throw up new truths.  The fun, pleasure, playfulness and random co-incidence of games were at the heart of what the Surrealists were trying to do: overturn normal society and liberate the imagination.

Everyone knows that play is part of art-making, and the fun that the artist or writer has in creating art can seem a little suspicious in our economically-driven, status-obsessed world.  It was precisely the subversive aspect of games that the Surrealists liked so much.  To play is to abandon the adult world, pleasure is the aim and there is no material reward guaranteed.  Playing means ignoring what is serious, or urgent, or economically productive, and it is a great leveller.  It conquers time, too, because a game ends only when the players are ready to stop, meaning that normal life or work is suspended.

Artists play with their materials: paint, colour, line, brush, knife, wood or stone.  Writers play with stories, words, and the sound of words.  To be creative is to play; it is to work at playing in the sense of doing on purpose, and in a sustained way, what the child (if happy, healthy, etc) does spontaneously when alone or with others.

In the creative writing course I ran for the now defunct Lifelong Learning at Bangor University we played a lot of Surrealist games and the sense of freedom and permissiveness created a mood and space in which laughter and creativity were blended together.  The group were brought together by the games played in teams and the risks that were required in terms of individual contributions.  Unfortunately when I tried to induce the full-time students to play games in class they seemed to be, at 19 or 20, unwilling to throw off the dignity of adulthood (unlike my “mature” students who were game for anything!).

Most of the games played by Surrealists, from the days of the Paris group in the 1920s to the very recent Chicago group were never recorded, but much survives in various publications and manuscripts.  One of my most treasured possessions is “Surrealist Games” by Alistair Brotchie: a wonderful box of delights which contains a book, board game, Surrealist dictionary and what seems to be an iron-on transfer.  In it, after an excellent introduction by Mel Gooding, are instructions and examples of Surrealist games grouped together under headings such as “Language Games,” “Visual Techniques” and “Re-Inventing the World”.

The best-known collective game is The Exquisite Corpse which grew out of the game Consequences.  On a piece of paper, write “a” or “the” and an adjective (such as “exquisite”) then turn down the top of the paper to hide what you have written and pass it to the next person.  He or she adds a noun (e.g. “corpse”), hides it in the same way and passes it on again.  The next person contributes a verb, then it’s “a/the” plus an adjective and finally another noun.  The paper is then unfolded and read aloud and curious “poems” are discovered to have been collectively written, such as the first which was “The exquisite/ corpse/ shall drink/ the new /wine” which gave the game its title.  Visual “Exquisite Corpses” can also be made.  Here is one from 1927 by Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro, Max Morise and Man Ray.

There are other “chain games” in the Brotchie box which have the same method of writing then concealing what you have written then passing it on, and the idea is that a sort of collective unconscious takes over.  We certainly found that a sort of synchronicity was occurring in the classroom with either weirdly “logical” collective creations or unexpectedly beautiful combinations.

Conditionals is a chain game using the folded-over technique that’s easy to play (and I have a scene in my novel where it’s played by the characters).  There are only two stages.  The first person writes a sentence beginning with a hypothetical idea starting with “if” or “when” and turns down the page.  The next person writes a sentence beginning with “then” or casts it in the future.  Here are a couple of the ones in Brotchie so you can see how it works:

“If there were no guillotine

Wasps would take off their corsets”

 

“If octopi wore bracelets

Ships would be towed by flies”

The game of “One Into the Other” might be one you could play at Christmas parties.  You need at least three players, more is better.  Here are Brotchie’s instructions:

“One player withdraws from the room, and chooses for himself an object (or a person, or idea, etc.).  While he is absent the rest of the players also choose an object.  When the first player returns he is told what object they have chosen.  He must now describe his own object in terms of the properties of the object chosen by the others, making the comparison more and more obvious as he proceeds, until they are able to guess its identity.  The first player should begin with a sentence such as ‘I am an (object)…’”

Here is Benjamin Péret who chose the Milky Way as his object and was asked by the others to describe it in terms of a breast:

“I am a very beautiful female breast, particularly long and serpentine.  The woman bearing it agrees to display it only on certain nights.  From its innumerable nipples spurts a luminous milk.  Few people, poets excepted, are able to appreciate its curve.”

Not all Surrealist games require a group of players but the playful aspect of group games permeates Surrealist art and writing that has been created by individual effort.  Automatic writing is the pre-eminent Surrealist game-for-one and you can find instructions at http://www.freewriterscompanion.com/howtofreewrite/.  Brotchie includes another of the many possible ways of doing automatic (or free) writing in the game Simulation, much beloved by Salvador Dali, in which you write as if in an unusual mental state.  Dali liked to simulate madness but what about trying to write as if in the grip of illness, drunkenness or zero gravity?  As an animal, or object?  Or even as another person.  After all, that’s what fiction is all about…

Making a story or poem can be turned into a game by following the Dada cut-up procedure.  Take a magazine, newspaper or book (if you can bear to destroy it!) and cut out parts of printed sentences.  Put them in a bag and shake them up.  Draw them out of the bag and construct a new piece by placing them in the new order as they emerge from the bag.  Or you could try a digital Dadaist poem like this Wikipedia Dadaist poem in which I cut-and-paste at random from Wikipedia pages on Beauty, Truth and Love:-

A Dadaist Wikipedia poem

An “ideal beauty” is an entity  people and landscapes considered beautiful  thus associated with “being of one’s hour”  localizing the processing of beauty in one brain region  computer generated, mathematical average of a series of faces  the opposite effect was observed when the alleged crime was swindling, perhaps because jurors perceived the defendant’s attractiveness as facilitating the crime

Some philosophers view the concept of truth as basic  it is still a metaphysical faith on which our faith in science rests  by adulthood we have strong implicit intuitions about “truth” that form a “folk theory” of truth  as Feynman said, “… if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong”  when one says ‘it’s true that it’s raining,’ one asserts no more than ‘it’s raining’

the love of a mother differs from the love of a spouse differs from the love of food  romantic attraction determines what partners mates find attractive and pursue, conserving time and energy by choosing  the altruistic and the narcissistic  the “feeling” of love is superficial in comparison to one’s commitment to love via a series of loving actions over time  Mozi, by contrast, believed people in principle should care for all people equally

In such a serious world, the openness and joy of play, with its potential for new ways of thinking and new ways to solve problems and be creative, and especially in the trust that is created by playing games with other people, surely Surrealist games should be played by all.  I hope you have an imaginative, play-filled winter holiday.

 

Illustration credits:

https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/surrealism/tapping-the-subconscious-automatism-and-dreams

http://gameonfamily.com/how-to-play-charades/

The Surrealist Muse

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a muse as “a person (often a female lover) or thing regarded as the source of an artist’s inspiration”.

Here is one of the muses of Surrealism:

The image appeared on the cover of the group’s journal La Révolution Surréaliste in 1927 and the title is “L’Ecriture Automatique” (automatic writing).

This is the muse as a sexy schoolgirl, dressed in a mix of school uniform and contemporary fashion and, peculiarly, legless (although the white flesh of her knees shows enticingly through her clothing).  She is in a trance, taking dictation from the unconscious, with dark eyes and rosebud mouth.

To say that the Surrealists’ attitude to women was complex is something of an understatement.

On one hand, Surrealism was the first art movement to include women as artists in significant numbers.  For the women artists themselves, on the other hand, the ideal of Woman as childlike, close to nature or in touch with other realms, did not always help them when it came to living and working as active, creative artists.

The male Surrealists were inspired by the ideal Woman’s desirability, irrationality, and mystical rapport with dreams and the unconscious and they admired the bold freedom of the girl child in particular (as shown by the image above).  But the function of the Surrealist feminine was to give access to the surreal (or the “Marvellous”) for the male artists, functioning as a muse is supposed to do.

A photomontage  (see below) from a 1929 edition of La Révolution Surréaliste shows the Surrealists with closed eyes arranged around a painting by Magritte which contains the words “I do not see the …. hidden in the forest”.  The word ‘woman’ is replaced by a conventionalised fine art nude.

This image neatly illustrates the sexual politics of the 1920s Surrealist group.  The men are recognisable individuals (such as the leader André Breton, poet Paul Eluard, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dali); the woman is an archetype.  They are clothed; she is naked.  In fact there were no signed-up women members of the Surrealist group at this time and the position of Woman was as in this picture: a muse, inspirational ideal, and stand-in for male creativity.  She also seems to represent the male unconscious.

Then, in the 1930s, there was an influx of young women into the Surrealist group, such as Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington and Lee Miller.  All three joined the group as friends or lovers of the established male artists and were some ten or fifteen years younger than them.  It was as if the sexy schoolgirl muse of automatic writing had come to life!  There was even a real schoolgirl, fourteen year old Gisèle Prassinos, who wrote poetry which the Surrealists considered with great seriousness.

So the image of the femme-enfant, or child-woman, came more and more to the fore, sometimes connected to Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  The femme-enfant was a sexually attractive young woman with childlike freedom and distain for rules, and indeed for women like Carrington, who had fled from her stifling upper class upbringing, a rebellion against family and propriety was the only possible route to becoming an artist.  But the image of naive, sexy child is a male invention, serving masculine needs (and now, of course, we are more likely to question such images as paedophilia, in particular, Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée series http://www.thesurrealists.org/hans-bellmer.html)

Feminist writers on Surrealism are divided over the femme-enfant.  Whitney Chadwick regards it as an “albatross” around the neck of the actual women artists and says that it worked to “exclude women artists from the possibility of a profound personal identification with the theoretical side of Surrealism”.  Catriona McAra, on the other hand, stresses that curiosity (Alice in Wonderland’s greatest asset) is a wholly positive attribute in Surrealism, and that the femme-enfant seeking knowledge has been an inspiring model for women.  Likewise, Penelope Rosemont says:- “from the surrealist point of view, childhood is not a demeaning category…Far from being infantilized and helpless, the surrealist child-woman is a proud and defiant being who refuses to surrender the child’s boldness, curiosity and spirit of adventure”.

Defined as muses and depicted as children, how did women artists respond?  Whitney Chadwick remarked back in 1985 on the prevalence of self-portraits by women surrealists.  It is as if the women needed to define their own image in place of the male-authored abstractions of them.

Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington’s brief, intense and transformative relationship contains elements of the child-woman pattern.  Aged 20 to his 46, Leonora was the third younger woman in his life.  In his Preface to her collection of stories “The House of Fear” (1938) he writes of her as “the bride of the wind”:

“Who is the bride of the wind?  Can she read?  Can she write French without mistakes?  What wood does she burn to keep herself warm?  She warms herself with her intense life, her mystery, her poetry.  She has read nothing, but drunk everything.  She can’t read.  And yet the nightingale saw her, sitting on the stone of spring, reading.”

Here again is the child-woman of Surrealism.  Carrington, like the schoolgirl writing automatically without will or understanding, is invested with magic and the ability to grant access to the Marvellous.

The uncomfortable truth is that without her association with Ernst, Carrington’s stories and paintings might not have been received, but the price is to be presented as a sort of infantile idiot savant.

Carrington’s self-portrait from around the same time, “The Inn of the Dawn Horse,” contains a child’s toy: a rocking horse.

It also features a lactating hyena, which has been conjured up by the Carrington figure out of a puff of smoke (or is it ectoplasm?).  The toy rocking horse is echoed in the wild, free horse that gallops outside of the confines of the room and Carrington, with her wiry mane of hair, is sitting (manspreading?) on a chair with exaggeratedly feminine arms and feet.

She is dressed for riding the horse across open country, and not for remaining in the room of children’s toys.

 

 

image credit: “Inn of the Dawn Horse” https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/492697

other images public domain, see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_R%C3%A9volution_surr%C3%A9aliste,_n09-10,_1927.djvu for the muse of automatic writing as part of the cover of the journal

Truth Versus Fiction: the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition in Paris

My novel about the Surrealists, Swimming with Tigers, is loosely based on real people and events, but having the latitude to adapt, recombine and invent elements and individuals within the movement made it possible for me to recreate key moments so that they reflect the guiding themes of my book.

One of the things I wanted to do was to explore what Surrealism meant for women: whether it provided a rare opportunity in history for women artists to work as equals in collaboration with men, or whether the movement was male-dominated in its membership and in the content of the artworks.

A significant scene that occurs fairly on in my book brings all these questions to the fore.

The scene depicts the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, 1938.  This exhibition was a landmark in art history because, instead of following the traditional white walls format, it used the whole environment of the gallery as a canvas and represents an important stage in the early development of installation art.

The exhibition consisted of three main arenas, each designed to disorientate the viewer.  The first was outside, in the courtyard, where Salvador Dali’s Rainy Taxi (now kept permanently at the Dali museum in Figueres) was situated.  It is a real black taxi with an interior water-system, and contains life-sized models: the driver has a shark’s head and the woman passenger in the back is surrounded by lettuce and has live snails crawling on her.  In my novel I have added live frogs, which Dali did indeed plan to include, and a pile of eggy liquid in the woman’s lap to anticipate the literally sickening conclusion to the scene.

The second environment of the exhibition was a pitch-dark “street” (indoors), lined with female shop mannequins which had been dressed with strange objects and fabrics by individual Surrealist artists such as Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and André Masson (of the sixteen mannequins displayed, only one was dressed by a woman, Sonia Mossè).  Spectators walked along this dubious parade of provocative “women” scanning each one with the hand-held torches that were provided as the only light source.

The street of mannequins led into the third area, a large grotto containing four large beds, and the similarity to a visit to a brothel was intentional.  In this last room, Surrealist artworks were displayed under a ceiling (designed by Marcel Duchamp) of 1,200 low-hung coal sacks.  The floor was covered in dead leaves and there was also a brazier and a pool of water.  A recording of laughter increased the immersive, unsettling effect of the environment.  On the first night a Surrealist dance was performed by Hélène Vanel, who tore her clothes, wrestled on the beds with a cockerel, and ended by wallowing in the pool.

I kept all these details in my fictional account (although I made up some mannequins of my own).  The exhibition is described from the perspective of Penelope, an artist and member of the group whose work is included but who has had no involvement in putting the exhibition together.  She wanders through the different spaces with growing disquiet and is sexually assaulted next to the parade of women mannequins on offer to the spectators.  She then discovers that her own Surrealist object has been exhibited under a title that has been given to it by another, male, artist.

The experience of having one’s work appropriated is drawn from the life of Meret Oppenheim, whose teacup, saucer and teaspoon covered with fur, one of the most famous and recognisable icons of Surrealism, was renamed by André Breton, the leader of the movement.

Oppenheim’s title for her arresting creation was simply “Object”.  In a transgressive act, she turned a domestic item into a fetishistic object, challenging restrictive definitions of femininity.  However, when it was exhibited Breton gave it the title Le Déjeuner en Fourrure (Luncheon in Fur) in a deliberate allusion to Edouard Manet’s painting of 1863 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass).  In Manet’s well-known painting, set in the countryside, a naked woman is surrounded by fully-clothed men in a coded reference to prostitution in the Bois de Boulogne just outside Paris, and as part of a tradition in fine art painting in which women’s bodies are shown as sexually available and allied to nature.

In my version, the fur cup has been renamed “From One Hand to Another”: a title meant to reflect the exchange of women as objects between men, and the extension of this to the works of women artists.  It would be giving away too much to describe what impact this experience has on my fictional woman artist, Penelope, but suffice it to say that she does not tolerate this level of control for long.

Surrealist exhibitions such as this one in 1938 gave many women (often very young, such as Leonora Carrington who was only 21) the chance to make and exhibit work alongside men.  Opportunities for women artists were certainly greater than in any previous (and several subsequent) art movements but the sexual politics of the art was often retrograde and the characteristic tactics of shock and outrage frequently drew on the definition of woman as sexualised object rather than artistic equal.

In my novel, I’ve tried to recreate the liberation and excitement that the women artists might have felt at being part of a movement that actively included them, but also their frustration with the regressive sexism that restricted and defined their place.

Sex and the Surrealist Image

What is your definition of beauty? Have you got a favourite line of poetry that describes beauty by using an image to suggest it? If you have, it’s probably not this often-quoted Surrealist simile:

“As beautiful as the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.”

The author is Isidore Ducasse (the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont) and it’s from The Songs of Maldoror, a prose poem of 1868. Lautréamont’s work, and this line in particular, was so popular and important to the development of Surrealism that Man Ray created a ready-made inspired by it.

Man Ray EnigmaI thought it might be interesting to “unpack” Lautréamont’s simile, and see if it could be used as a model for creating new Surrealist images.

First of all, how does it work? A conventional simile would try to find some commonality or similarity between the thing being described and the thing it’s compared to (such as the moon and a silver coin, which are both round and sort of the same colour) but likeness was not the criteria for Surrealist images, neither was appropriateness (and it was most definitely not good taste!).

The Surrealists (whether visual artists or poets) were not interested in reproducing the world as it is, the idea was to plumb the unconscious and use words to produce “unremembered, previously non-existent realities,” as Anna Balakian helpfully explains in The Road to the Absolute.

So the principle of the Surrealist simile or metaphor is the dramatic clash of unlikeness; an impossible meshing of opposites. In fact, writes Robert Short, “the power of an image was in direct proportion to the incongruity of the entities which it brought together”.

So this is all fine and dandy, but Robert Belton, in an essay from 1990, has a very specific reading of Lautréamont’s simile and large claims for its influence on later Surrealist poetry:

“The coincidence of a man’s phallic accessory and an unthinking domestic instrument on a ‘bed’ designed for bloodletting was simply too potently, aggressively, and violently sexual to be avoided…Ducasse’s simile, as the archetypal act of collage, virtually ensured that other juxtapositions would connote sexual violence for the male surrealist.”

Now I was rather taken aback by this reading of the sewing machine and umbrella as a sort of rape scene because it had never occurred to me, but the image does have a lasting power which means it is very likely to have a sexual subtext (why else do we remember that Cadbury’s Flake ad of the woman lying in the boat going through a waterfall rather than countless other television images involving chocolate bars?). But is Lautréamont’s simile really an encoded image of a pierced woman on a bloody bed?

It’s often been remarked that a lot of Surrealist visual iconography is of women in pieces: women beheaded, dismembered, partitioned, bound, gagged or blinded. Whitney Chadwick ponders this phenomenon in Surrealist art by men at the end of her book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement:

“the link [between the unconscious and reality] was often a woman…onto whose image could be projected the secret, and often forbidden, desires and obsessions lodged in the unconscious […] The erotic violence that does exist in the work of woman artists tends to be absorbed into their images of themselves rather than directed out into the world and lodged in an image of the Other”.

I’ve often wondered if the ruined umbrella and draped material in Leonor Fini’s painting of 1940 called L’Ombrelle, (The Parasol) is a reference to Lautréamont’s simile. There is a woman’s eye peering out from behind one of the slashes in the umbrella which, now I have it in my mind, rather supports Belton’s interpretation and Chadwick’s point too.

The UmbrellaSurely it’s possible to draw on the power (which Balakian describes as a sort of electricity) of Surrealist opposition without promoting sexual violence or even being restricted to the predictable territory of male heterosexuality.

Of course not all Surrealist poetic images draw on the abuse of women’s bodies. For instance, Robert Desnos’ “I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal” must be one of the tenderest love poems written (and it’s almost unbearable to know that Desnos died in Terezina concentration camp at the age of 45).

Perhaps my favourite image in Surrealist poetry is the final line of André Breton’s 1948 poem “They tell me that over there”, which describes a mythical paradise and ends with a line describing the absence of evil:

“All the flowering appletree of the sea”.

This metaphor splices two things together so perfectly that you can’t see the join. I’ve spent hours enjoying this image and repeating it to myself: it never loses its magic and suggestibility! Is the sea flowering with surf the colour of apple blossom? Is the tree like a sea of flowers? Is the apple tree from the Garden of Eden or is the sea suggesting the origin of life? It’s all of these, and all at the same time!

Joyce Mansour is a poet I’ve recently discovered. She was an athlete with Egyptian parents and joined the Surrealist group in Paris in 1954. In her poem “Remember” written the following year, she is addressing a lover and conjuring memories of their time spent together:

“Remember…
When we heard the rats jingling around
Eating poppies
You and me.”

As Mary Ann Caws (the translator) says, we do not know who is eating the poppies, the rats or the lovers, because the poem is “constructed for both possibilities”.

So why not try this yourself? Make up a simile beginning “As beautiful as…” and make sure the elements are as unlike as possible but somehow joined at a deeper level. Or create an image that has a “double” movement like Breton’s or Mansour’s, vibrating between meanings.

And watch out for that subtext!