Although the male surrealists in Paris during the1920s explored the unconscious through dreams and induced trances, their paintings did not necessarily express individual personal experiences. In this, the women differed substantially from their male
counterparts, as their art often reflected personal traumas and nightmares. For them, surrealism became a means of gaining self-awareness, exploring their inner thoughts and feelings, dealing with their experiences, and locating or constructing their true
The themes that dominated the work of women surrealists in Mexico and the United States reflected the artists’ past experiences, present-day situations, fears, hopes, and desires. The feminine dialogue
between the self and the other was distinct from the male surrealists’ outward projection of their desires. Women transformed the female body into a site of resistance, psychic power, and creative energy. They
also helped set the stage for the feminist movement by creating art that challenged established social institutions and gender boundaries.
Because much of the art of women surrealists was
self-referential in nature, portraiture was an ideal vehicle for exploring identity.
Since the time of the Egyptians, portraits have served as documents that record an individual’s likeness at a particular moment in time. While traditional portraiture provided information and clues about the sitter’s characteristics, interests,
social status, or history, women artists in the
surrealist movement approached portraits and self-portraits in a nontraditional manner, as exemplified by the works of Frida Kahlo, Rosa Rolanda, and Helen Lundeberg. Unlike the male surrealists, women artists and writers sought to reconstruct their identities through the strategy of self-representation, exploring the varieties of self-portraits through painting and through autobiographical narrative.
Objectification of women in Male Surrealist art depicted the male gaze in its darkest form, through the ideas of the uncanny, fetish, and convulsive beauty. Women were treated as objects throughout Surrealist photography and painting instead of as human subjects. Their femininity and beauty were valued to the extent of held belief that a woman’s destiny is to be beautiful and be present for the male gaze. Women Surrealists have gained notoriety in the last sixty years for their presence in the Surrealist movement and for their diligence in providing the female perspective in opposition to the male perspective.
Surrealism was a gated realm created exclusively for male artists, the majority of whom objectified and fetishized women. For a female artist to unlock this gate, she had to fulfill the male artists’ need for narrowing the role of women down to an object of male desire. This conception of women blinded male Surrealists to the fact that women were individuals with multi-faceted personalities, who wanted to be more than their muses. Because of their blindness to women’s capabilities, women “functioned within male Surrealist works at best as an idealized Other, at worst as an object for the projection of unresolved anxieties.”1 This objectification hindered women artists from joining the movement and gaining entry into the art world. Despite these stereotypes, some women did manage to become a part of the movement, but “even when they were included by Andre Breton and the male Surrealists, a full recognition of their conceptual and creative force remained lacking.”2 Being a part of the movement as a female artist did not guarantee the same amount of respect, which was given to their male counterparts. Due to these problems, artists Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun, despite exhibiting with the Surrealists and using their visual vocabulary, never became official members of the group. They used Surrealist practices, such as having dream-like images and mirrors in their art, but rather than using such practices to objectify women, they used these techniques to overcome ‘the subject-object split’, which was one of the core tenets of Surrealism. The subject-object split is the boundary between a subject, which acts, and an object, which is acted upon. To overcome it meant to treat everything as a subject, as an entity capable of independent action. The male Surrealists were not able to overcome this duality due to their obsession with “seeking transformation through a female representational object, which paradoxically reinforced the subject-object split that Surrealism was dedicated to overcoming.”3 Kahlo and Cahun, on the other hand, overcame this duality by using their art as a venue to portray themselves as subjects, and not objects. Despite being females and not being a part of the movement, Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun used one of Surrealism’s base beliefs to beat the male artists at their own game.
Due to her life-long fight against female objectification, Kahlo is an inspiration for women to break out of gender restrictions. By redressing her body and capturing it in paint, she still challenges and defies the roles and rules society placed on her. Through her art, even after death, she refuses to let her individuality be boxed, wrapped and ribboned by anyone, and does not remain silent about her identity. In her work, her gaze is never submissive. Even when subdued, it speaks against the compact, pleasurable descriptions that women are forced into. Kahlo’s self-portraits “do not employ the traditionally gendered imagery of colonization but subvert them to overthrow the binary-driven hierarchies of art and the colonizer-colonized.”8 By putting the colonizer and the colonized, the male and the female, into the same space without any boundaries, Kahlo overcomes the subject-object split that previously divided these entities. With this act, she introduces women to the fact that gender should not be inhibiting them from raising their social status to the same level as men’s.
Unlike Kahlo, who was offered a position as a member in Surrealism because of her exoticism, and declined it, Claude Cahun wanted to join the movement and make changes within it. But unlike Kahlo, Cahun pushed gender lines beyond the male Surrealists’ comfort level. This is why “Andre Breton remained relatively unresponsive to Cahun’s attempts to gain artistic affirmation from them and never embraced her as a core member of the group.”9 This goes to show the group’s hypocrisy. They were proud of admitting women into their group, but if a woman’s voice was louder than theirs, they kept her at a safe distance. For the Surrealists, Cahun was unacceptable as a woman since she could not be “treated as an object expected to serve as an inspiration for male genius nor would she allow manipulation of her body for aesthetic purposes and male sexual desire.”10 Rather, she was an intelligent subject who created art that destroyed notions of females as objects made for the pleasure of men. She wanted to be a part of Surrealism despite their hypocritical values because like the male Surrealists, she also “wished to elevate the unconscious, the irrational, and the dream as inspiration and method for her art with focus on the female body.”11 But Cahun wanted to use these Surrealist ideas to overcome the subject-object split, instead of fetishizing the female body. She started with changing her name from Lucy Schwob to Claude Cahun. Claude is not a gender-specific name, and Cahun was her Jewish grandmother’s last name12. By renaming herself, Cahun rejected gender differences and showed pride in her Jewish ancestry in spite of the dangers that Jews faced during World War II. Her self-portraits are extensions of her reality. These portraits challenge “the gaze that had become accustomed to objectifying women and subvert the social and sexual hierarchy in which the artist was quintessentially male and his material female.13 By removing boundaries dividing genders, and the lines dividing the active subject and the passive object, Cahun defied male Surrealist’s ideas while strictly following Surrealist principles. She rebelled against gender stereotypes and merged the split between subject and object without yielding into any of the Surrealist ideas for women, which is why, despite her groundbreaking work, the Surrealists never accepted her as a member of their movement.
By exploring and exhibiting her own image without idealizing it, Cahun took the power of objectifying women away from men and influenced other women to do the same. For instance, in her self-portrait with the mirror, Cahun wears a man’s coat and hair cut, and instead of looking in the mirror, she looks directly at her viewer. By doing so, “she challenges the traditional notion of a woman’s relationship with her mirror as an expression of female vanity. More importantly, she disrupts the fixed polarities of gender difference and the privileging gaze of men by showing that she is not simply the object of a gaze.”14 She asks her audience to look at her as she is, a confident, unique, transgender figure. Like Kahlo, Cahun brings “to the surface previously hidden or feared aspects of the self, thereby empowering women’s ability to create a more liberated self-definition, a definition that allows for multiplicity and paradox.”15 In this way, she owns her position as an independent and strong subject with many aspects to her personality. She portrays herself untainted by any societal or gender constraints, and in doing so, she creates a way for other women to break through the objectification that is placed on them. Cahun overcomes the subject-object split through her art, by giving the same amount of control to the model, as she gives to the photographer. In her work, she turns the conventional object into a subject, and inspires others to do the same.