PRINT November 1975

Eros or Thanatos—The Surrealist Cult of Love Reexamined

IMAGES OF WOMAN DOMINATE Surrealist literature and painting. Male Surrealist artists inherited from the late-19th-century Symbolists a polarized view of woman embracing both the creative and the subversive powers of the love instinct. Simultaneously goddesslike muse and femme fatale, the Surrealist woman was located by the dialectical world view of Hegel and Marx. It was a world view in which the artist could align the polarity of the female with the other contradictions that Surrealism sought to resolve: life and death, the conscious and the unconscious, dream and wakefulness.

In his study of this dominant aspect of Surrealist imagery, Xavière Gauthier isolates and explains these contradictory attitudes toward the female and explores the multiple roles assigned her in Surrealist productions: muse, virgin, child, celestial creature, on the one hand; prostitute, devourer of men, object of sexual perversions, on the other.1 In organizing these variegations along lines which, either openly or by implication, idealize or debase the woman, Gauthier concludes that the imagery which reflects the woman’s destructive power invariably arises from a sexual context in which she is unconsciously perceived as a physical threat to man’s potency. “This need to desexualize the female arises as a defense against a severe castration anxiety,” he writes.2 It was Freud who had thrust woman into the psychological role of the castrating female who, with her penis envy unresolved, fights back sexually in a vain attempt to regain the social, economic and political power that she fails to possess, but sees symbolized in the male organ. His own ambivalence toward women had its roots in the same 19th-century attitudes that formed the theoretical basis of Symbolist, and later Surrealist, imagery. “What sorceresses you women are,” he wrote to Martha Bernays in 1882,3 and in “The Theme of the Three Caskets” of 19134 he further developed what he saw as the source of woman’s dual nature—her incompatible roles as mother and the bearer of life, and as harbinger of death and destruction.5

Gauthier reiterates Freud’s formula for the rise of the male fear of castration from a fear of violating the incest taboo, a theme consciously developed among the Surrealists by Salvador Dali.6 The male Surrealists’ search for the ideal woman/love object was conducted, at least in part, independently of their wives, mistresses and liaisons: real women whose needs and fears could not be mythologized away. The language of love in the poetry of Breton, Eluard and others remains constant,while the names of the specific women invoked change frequently. This suggests that the often-cited Surrealist “cult of love” is, on one level, a theoretical abstraction—a male escape from another more immediate and less metaphysical reality.

It may be that a careful examination of the Surrealist idealization of the female image will reveal other literary, psychological and cultural forces affecting the development of Surrealist attitudes. Mired as he was in a reductive Freudian dogma—but one accepted as well, if only in part, by the Surrealists—Gauthier’s conclusion provides only one of many explanations for the Surrealist’s attitude toward the female. It cannot explain the particular symbolic transformations of female imagery that pervade the writings and paintings of Breton, Eluard, Dali, Masson, Bellmer, Brauner and others. Nor does it explain why so much of that imagery is, at least symbolically, directed either toward the womb or toward denying woman her biological procreative function, precisely that aspect of the female which would allow the “uterine Nirvana” to which Gauthier sees the male artist seeking to return.7

The Surrealists gradually redefined the creative process so that they presented themselves as competing with her biological function as a creator of life. Birth and womb imagery, a stunning metaphor for the process of the creative act, pervade Surrealist painting and writing as relentlessly as references to the femme fatale. David Gascoyne’s poem “Charity Week” celebrates “the great bursting womb of desired . . .”8 while Dali’s The Bleeding Roses of 1930 replaces the traditional metaphoric ”fruit of the womb" with a bouquet of bleeding roses, with their symbolic associations of passion, pain and death. Victor Brauner’s sculpted Number of 1943 depicts a composite male/female figure containing a tiny figure in a boxlike womb. Breton himself referred to the maternal woman as “a place sacred above all, where lies the mystery of life, of procreation, of birth . . .”9

The role of the artist, Ernst had written, was to “assist like a spectator at the birth of the work.”10 Yielding to the dictates of the unconscious, the artist theoretically allows his imagery to develop spontaneously in response to associations provoked by the results of various automatic or semiautomatic techniques. Ernst’s One Night of Love (1927) evokes both the unique potency of amorous love and the generation of specific images by means of Surrealist techniques.11 His ”night of love" produces yet another image—the bird that struggles forth from the abdominal area of the reclining figures. The act of love, then, gives birth to the work of art and also, symbolically, to the artist himself, depicted here in the form of a bird, Ernst’s well-known alter ego.

But if the image of woman extended through Surrealism as a potent symbol of creation, the source of both life and art, the Surrealist attitude toward her in this role was somewhat ambivalent. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, a number of Surrealist artists would struggle with their conflicting attitudes toward the procreative female. The imagery of birth and that of the “vagina dentata,” the devouring female, meet in Victor Brauner’s Totem of Wounded Subjectivity (1948). Here a small fetal figure is caught between two rows of sharp toothlike projections and the spread legs of the fantastic creatures which project above and below. In addition, both creatures, composed only of arms, legs, heads and teeth, grasp and squeeze disembodied womblike breasts from which milky fluid flows forth. Brauner explains, "Two evil Victors preventing the ‘little’ Victor from living.”12 Brauner confronts the images of the life-giving breasts and womb directly, if negatively; at other times Surrealist hostility toward the female found only symbolic expression, as in recurrent images of the female praying mantis which post-coitally devours her mate,13 or in references to de Sade’s Justine and Juliette, in which sustained physical abuse is heaped upon the unfortunate female victims.

One of the most violent attacks on the female’s natural procreative functions was that motivated by the writings of the Marquis de Sade, to whom Breton referred in the Second Manifesto as “Surrealist in Sadism.” De Sade, who regarded the female body as an instrument on which to provoke a divine ecstasy of destruction, favored sodomy, the most antifemale of the perversions in that it obliterates physical differences between the sexes and most directly replicates animal copulation. The abuse heaped on the bodies of de Sade’s victims renders them objects, their wombs and breasts tortured and destroyed, their bodies torn apart and recreated. From its earliest days Surrealism had sought ways to transcend the particular, to define a level of existence in which the contradictions of everyday life were resolved. Drawn to de Sade for the same reasons that they were drawn to the orphic cults of Dionysos and the erotic excesses of Don Juan—the search for an all-consuming passion that would carry within it the seeds of a new reality—they managed to abstract a philosophical message from a frenzied lust.

The Surrealists’ attachment to de Sade is dependent on the wish to debase and torment women’s bodies—an essentially male philosophy which underlies all de Sade’s writings, and which the Surrealists never questioned. The ravaged female, denied her normal sexual, emotional and procreative functions, became the theoretical basis of the Surrealist object and the word-images of Magritte. In both cases the traditional relationships between word and image or object and function/meaning are destroyed in order that a new, more brutal meaning might emerge.

In the Dolls of Hans Bellmer, the idea of corporeal metamorphosis finds its most concrete and literal expression. Stimulated by the writings of de Sade, Bellmer began in 1934 to transform the bodies of dolls into frankly erotic reconstructions. The first Doll contained a hollow womb filled with a series of six “scenes,” which could be activated by pressing a button on its breast; among them, a boat sinking through the ice of the North Pole, a handkerchief supposedly adorned with the spittle of little girls, and several illuminated pictures. Bellmer added the panoramic womb to the first doll in order to overcome his distress at the figure’s stiffness and lack of an “inner life.”14 The articulation of the figure around a “central sphere” in the second Doll (1936) provided Bellmer with a means of rendering his dolls mobile and thus more lifelike and derived from an experience in which:

. . . Bellmer discovered at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin a couple of dolls, of the school of Durer, which were articulated around a womblike sphere (author’s italics) . . . Bellmer seized upon this type of mobile joining in order to construct his second doll in defiance of nature: around this central sphere he could articulate two pelvises and two pairs of legs while the reversible pelvis can itself evoke either the tops of thighs or breasts, surmounted, or not, by a head.15

Bellmer’s second Doll focused attention on the origin of form in a womblike structure. The general preoccupation with this particular female organ and a series of themes which are specifically directed toward the symbolic transference of the control of the procreative process from the female to the male, or from a biological to a spiritual plane, isolates this problem as one of central concern to Surrealism. Surrealist ambivalence toward the process of birth and gestation clearly springs from deeper sources than the sexual libertarianism they frequently extolled as a means of freeing man from the constraints of family and bourgeois parenthood. At issue is the whole question of the source and mechanisms by which artistic creation is made possible in a Surrealist context.

As early as 1928 Breton, in his essay “Surrealism and Painting,” clearly elucidated what by that date had become the primary impetus in the domain of pictorial Surrealism—the replacing of the image derived from nature by that drawn from an interior model (Breton’s italics). The work of art would exist, not as an esthetic end, but only as a means to the exploration and expression of an inner psychic reality. By 1929 all of Surrealism’s concerns had been subsumed under the general problem that the movement sought to raise: “that of human expression in all its forms.”16 Automatic writing and drawing, the narration of dreams, collage, the object functioning symbolically, and other Surrealist techniques of the earlier years were to serve as the means of liberating the image from its traditional relationship to the objects of the exterior world. These means generated new psychological and emotional forces which intensified that image. The validity of the painting or poem lay not in its independent existence as an object of esthetic contemplation, but in the extent to which it revealed the psychological state of mind of its creator. It is precisely this fact which distinguishes the collages of Max Ernst from those of Braque and Picasso, as the esthetic of Cubist painting gives way to the Freudian techniques of juxtaposition, displacement, and the condensation of images, all serving to free the image from conventional reality.

From a historical point of view, the concern with the work of art brought into being through a process closely identified with that of childbirth is not unique to Surrealism. But the self-consciousness with which that movement attacked the problem of the sources of artistic creation isolates this factor as one of paramount importance in a growing body of theory.17 Among the Surrealists, Arp had chosen the creative process as a metaphor for the generation of life itself, writing in 1948 that “art is a fruit that grows in man, like a fruit on a plant or like a child in its mother’s womb.”18

The Surrealists had generally accepted Freud’s model of psychosexual development—a model which sees artistic creation in terms of pleasure principle and the therapeutic release of repressed material into fantasy and art. And although they were less interested in Freud’s explanation of infantile sexual development than in his writings on the dream and the unconscious, they shared with him, and turned to their own artistic ends, what the analyst spoke of as “the most lovely thing the world has to offer us: our ideal of womanhood.”19 But the biological determinism that had shaped Freud’s theories about the role of the penis in both male and female development was replaced in Surrealism by a more intuitive preoccupation with generative forces. An idealized view of woman as muse and mediator did not resolve their conflicting responses to her spiritual role as an inspiration for male creativity and her biological role as the actual generator of life. No evidence has emerged to suggest that Breton and others were aware of existing psychoanalytic writings on the phenomenon of birth envy, writings which generally view intellectual or artistic creation as a specifically male response to an inability to create biologically.20 As Fromm explains:

In order to defeat the mother, the male must prove that he is not inferior, that he has the gift to produce. Since he cannot produce with a womb, he must produce in another fashion; he produces with his mouth, his word, his thought.21

A series of recurrent themes—among them Pygmalion, the myth of androgyne, Oedipus and the sphinx—reveals Surrealism’s continuing attempts to resolve artistically some of the issues surrounding the polarization of the female image and the conflict between male and female creativity.

For the Surrealists, the myth of Pygmalion functioned as a metaphor for the transforming process which wedded apparently polarized states—dream and waking, the conscious and the unconscious, life and death. Masson’s Pygmalion of 1938, a disjointed and unsuccessful painting from an artistic point of view, is nevertheless one in which the artist’s ideas about fertile eroticism, generation and artistic creation are contained within this larger mythic structure. The gaping shell-like vagina and the raw beefsteak torso metamorphically attest to the animalistic vitality and regenerative potential of human sexuality.22 In a somewhat different context Masson would argue that the practice among many contemporary painters of attempting to reduce the world to a series of disconnected objects is only a way of stripping that world of the forces of life, growth, metamorphosis and death:

What do we see if not the generalized undertaking of a Pygmalion in reverse, striving toward total inanimation? In stripping away all reference to the physical world he removes all spirituality.23

In the ancient Greek myth Aphrodite interceded in response to the prayers of the sculptor Pygmalion and breathed life into his beloved marble creation. But in the same theme, as executed by the Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux in 1939, the sculpture is that of a young boy caressed and held by a nude female figure. Here the lifeless image of man is implicitly brought to life in response to a woman’s embrace. Delvaux’s Pygmalion visually reveals two prominent Surrealist attitudes toward the female: her power to intercede dramatically in the life of man and her specific qualities as a salvational heroine. Recognizing this latter aspect of the female, Dali bestowed upon his wife Gala the sobriquet Galatea in reference to Pygmalion’s ivory maiden. At the same time he credited her with saving him from the attacks of hysterical laughter from which he was suffering when they met in 1929, subsequently enabling him to achieve his Surrealist successes.24

In Surrealist hands, the Pygmalion myth takes on new meaning, since the power to bestow life and to move the male Surrealist artist toward greater and more responsive creativity is removed from the realm of the goddess Aphrodite and bestowed on those mortal women loved by various male Surrealists. Manifestly a myth of metamorphosis, the Pygmalion theme also functions as a myth of creation, in which man produces the forms of life with his own hands and woman intercedes spiritually to breathe life into his creations. In removing woman to this level in the creative process, man both excludes her unique biological role (one which he is physiologically denied) and gives her spiritual creative powers of a kind which he may also share, since creation by thought or mind already lies within his powers.

The shifting of the creative act from a physical to a spiritual realm also forms one element of the long Surrealist search for the perfect androgyne, a myth that haunted Breton for many years. The eleventh issue of Minotaure, which appeared in the spring of 1938, contained an article by Albert Béquin on the history of this double being.25 The Surrealists were attracted to the idea of the androgyne as a means of resolving the duality of the sexes and as a celebration of love and fecundity. “My wife and I always the same,” Aragon would write of his life-long love for Elsa Triolet.26 And Breton, describing one of his own amorous encounters suggests that it was

Chosen perhaps
From man and from woman . . .
This meeting
With everything that from a distance is fatal in it
This rushing together of two systems considered separately as subjective
Sets off a series of very real phenomena
That take part in the formation of a distinct world
Of a kind to bring shame on what we would perceive
Without it.

Although the Surrealist androgyne had its original source in Plato’s description of the third sex, it was also clearly identified with alchemical and 19th-century transformations of the ancient myth. A reference to Balzac’s Seraphita/Seraphitus accompanied a reproduction of The Androgyne published in the First Papers of Surrealism in 1942, and identifies one of the 19th-century literary sources for this particular aspect of the Surrealist myth of love.28 Throughout that century the myth of “the man/woman” figured prominently in the works of Balzac, Gautier, San Peladan and the Dumas brothers in France, and the German Romantics for whom it emblemized the perfect man of the future. Ritter, describing it in his Nachlars eines jungen Physikers, does so in alchemical language, relating the androgyne to the double nature of the “Rebis” or Philosopher’s stone.29 Geoffrey Hinton has convincingly demonstrated the psychoanalytic and alchemical sources of the joined male/female figure in one of Ernst’s first Surrealist paintings, Of This Men Shall Know Nothing of 1922, and notes that

A copulating couple suspended in space is a common alchemic symbol of the coincidentia oppositorum and they are often represented together with the sun and the moon.^^30

Ernst’s The Couple of 1924 also refers to this myth, with the position of the figures indicating the sexual joining of the male and female figures as the source for their metaphysical transformation into one being.

Balzac had derived the myth of the androgyne from Swedenborg and developed the character of Seraphita/Seraphitus into a dual being who lived only to purify himself and to love. It is this aspect of the myth that later attracted Paul Gauguin, who wrote in 1903, “. . . Seraphitus, Seraphita, fertile souls constantly coupling, who leave their boreal haze in order to travel through the universe learning, loving and creating.”31 The final stage in an evolutionary process, Balzac’s androgyne is incapable of physical reproduction, but the author concludes that man can, through the power of poetic transformations, metamorphose himself. As a glorification of spiritual fecundity, the myth of the androgyne becomes a celebration of spiritual procreation. Unsatisfied with the human condition, Balzac puts all his hope into the gestures of love and the poetic imagination into which he assumes the human as the creator of life.32 Unsatisfied with the exclusively spiritual generative potential of the androgyne, Brauner presents, in his Number, a gravid androgynous figure. Here male and female sexual organs are attached to the ends of a boxlike womb, in which resides a tiny sculpted figure. For Brauner, as for the other Surrealists, the metaphysical fusion of male and female into the perfect being had a physical and spiritual counterpart in the sexual act—an ecstatic union which blurred the distinctions between the sexes and moved the male artist to greater and greater creativity and the female into the cycle of gestation and birth.

The Pygmalion and androgyne themes function in Surrealism as symbolic expressions of major theoretical preoccupations—metamorphosis as a dialectical resolution and the actual fusion of male and female powers. As historical themes, their existent content could be fused with contemporary psychological and Surrealist theory. For Breton, as for Levi-Strauss, the value of myth, a device which transcends time and space, lay in its multiplicity, with all versions of the myth contributing to its total meaning. The theme of the androgyne, the perfect fusion of male and female with its resulting spiritual fecundity, lies behind Surrealist use of the Oedipus myth, a theme worth examining in some detail for the light it sheds on the particular use and transformation of Surrealism’s sources.

Ernst’s Oedipus and the Sphinx of 1935 was reproduced in a number of Surrealist publications after that date, and serves as an important example of the particular way in which Surrealism sought to amalgamate a series of pictorial images and an accompanying body of theory. Surrealist pictorial myths are private myths, inaccessible except to a group of initiates familiar with their multiple literary and philosophical or psychological sources. Ernst’s collage depicts a nude human body, its head replaced by the head, wings and breast of a sphinx. The front of the seated figure’s torso has been removed, taking with it any indication of the figure’s primary sexual characteristics. The body, due to its relative size and massiveness in relation to the sphinx, appears to be that of a young male, but alterations in the physical proportions (the arm and leg are significantly enlarged in relation to the upper body, the sphinx’s head is reduced in scale) lend an androgynous quality to the composite figure.

We know from the original myth that at the time of his arrival in Thebes, Oedipus had just reached manhood, but Ernst’s representation casts doubt on the distinctions which defined the roles of the protagonists in the Theban myth. The dislocations are first manifested physically and derive from the collage technique through which man and sphinx become a single creature. But the disjunctions which alter the shape of reality also have a psychological dimension, which imbues the image with its specifically Surrealist content. The fusing of male and female in the androgynous figure is extended here to the joining of human and sphinx, and suggests that the ancient confrontation between man and the virginal monster who holds his future in her hands has been internalized and is now as much psychological as physical. Breton had used the image of the Cretan labyrinth as a potent symbol of the unconscious, into which man descended on a tortuous journey to self-knowledge. Ernst’s representation likewise implies that the answer to the riddle of man’s existence is psychological in origin.

The Oedipus theme had been a favored subject in Symbolist painting, the sphinx representing either the alluring fatal charms of the female or, in works like Fernand Khnopff’s Art or the Caresses of 1896, serving to connect man to that otherworldly realm of being to which he is transported through sleep and the dream. Alain Mousseigne has convincingly demonstrated the psychological content of this theme in Picabia’s Dada work Oedipus and the Sphinx33 while among the Surrealists, Ernst’s seminal Oedipus Rex of 1922 also deals with it.

Additional transformations of the imagery in Ernst’s collage indicate the extent to which, by the mid-1930s, the Surrealists were using myth construction as a structural device through which specific Surrealist ideas and attitudes could be communicated. Freud had traced the origin of myth to a period of time when man began to express through fantasy the dreams and impulses which had originally controlled his behavior, but which gradually became repressed as social institutions evolved and societal restraints became substituted for the personal. For Freud, then, fantasy, dream, art and myth all contained, in a disguised form, certain psychological truths. Myth, like the dream, demanded a symbolic interpretation. Ernst’s work suggests the internalization of myth, its value lying not in its external narrative form, but in the psychological truths which find their expression in its symbolic content. Here the sphinx’s riddle has become an intrinsic part of man’s psychological makeup.

Thus it is not surprising that in Surrealist hands the sphinx’s question about man’s existence would often be transformed into a query about love, a primary obsession among all the Surrealists during these years. The sphinx appears in Breton’s essay “Le Chateau etoilé” of 1936 as a guardian beast before whom all who wish to enter the chateau (the Surrealist world) must answer a question about the future of love. Her riddle tests each Surrealist’s commitment to love’s liberating power. “Every time a man loves, nothing can prevent his taking on himself the feelings of all men,” Breton himself answered.34

On yet another level, Ernst’s Oedipus and the Sphinx serves to translate symbolically historical fact into Surrealist substance. The lion’s head appears in a number of collages from his Une Semaine de Bonté, published the previous year. In each representation it is attached to a human figure in military dress. In one, the inclusion of a Napoleon-like figure strengthens the military association. Ernst identifies the lion as the Lion de Belfort, a reference to the bronze statue of a lion standing in the Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris and commemorating the siege of Belfort during the Franco-Prussian War. The territory of Belfort had a long and complex military history as an area claimed by both France and Germany. Recognizing the military significance of this image, it is not surprising that Ernst included it in his representation of Oedipus and the Sphinx, since when Oedipus first encountered the sphinx, the city of Thebes was under control of this strange monster. Belfort, fought over by German and French armies, did not finally come under French control until after 1871. Among the Surrealists, Ernst and Paul Eluard were fond of relating that during World War I, while still strangers to each other, they had fought on the same front but for different sides. A few years later they would become friends and brothers under the aegis of a movement that sought to transcend the territorial and nationalistic concerns that it viewed as inimical to its goal of mental liberation.

But the image of the sphinx also existed as a powerful symbol of the female principle: the source and destroyer of man. She had entered Greek mythology carrying with her the earth/mother/female/life/death associations of her Near Eastern origins. Under her domain the earth lay fallow and drought covered the land. In one representation from Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté she appears at an open train window surrounded by images of decay and desolation: an arid desert, rotting corpses and the rats that fill the lifeless carriage.

It is also in this role of destroyer that she appears in Dali’s satiric Shirley Temple the Youngest Monster Sacred to the Cinema of 1939. A plaque underneath the figure reads “Shirley . . . at last in technicolor,” a fitting epitaph, as Dali has given her a scarlet body, perched a violet bat on her head, and rippled the background with the variegated shades of a full-color sunrise. The sphinx’s long curving claws are as white as the bleached bones scattered around her; the skull lying face up between her front feet adds a final grotesque touch. In the distance, the skeletal hull of a sailing ship rests on the sand, and several tiny human figures make their way across the beach. Dali emphasizes the female attributes on the body of this child/woman with sphinx-pointed breasts and long curved fingernails—and then surrounds her with images of death which contradict the image of childhood innocence embodied in the young Shirley Temple. But the red of the body and the sharp line that separates it from the flesh-colored portrait head suggest that this is merely a costume—innocence playing the role of the man-eating sphinx. In fact, we know the child idol only through the roles she plays, and Dali’s representation seems to summarize all of his ambivalent feelings about this child and the woman she will become.

Dali’s use of the sphinx image is highly particularized and does not pursue the implications of the original myth. It is Breton and Masson who finally use this theme to explore the existence of woman as a primordial life principle in Surrealism. In a work entitled Oedipus Flayed, Masson depicted a flayed Oedipus in a scene of impassioned frenzy and, in the absence of the actual work, the painter explains:

Oedipus is flayed, he tries to enter a sort of vessel which is like an immense skinned beef, surrounded by flames. At the bottom appears the face of a very beautiful and alluring woman. And, in the background there is the butterfly sphinx Death’s Head; that is the game of symbols.35

For Masson, the ceaseless play between fertile eroticism and death lay at the very foundations of all life, and during the 1930s he increasingly came to view erotic or sexual struggle and combat as inevitably tied to the mythical conflict between male and female principles. He has indicated that he saw in the Oedipus theme the playing out of Bachofen’s thesis tracing the development of ancient Greece from haeterism to a matriarchal system characterized by the primacy of the blood relationship, the equality of all men, and a fundamental respect for human life and the power of love.36

In Bachofen’s view the social organization of a matriarchy rested upon the primary kinship of the blood relationship between mother and child. The male, unable to participate fully in that relationship, could control the offspring only by possessing or “owning” the female. As man gradually evolved political and social power, blood ties were replaced by the ties between man and wife, ruler and ruled. The resulting patriarchy became one of order and authority, obedience and hierarchy.

In a number of representations during the 1930s Masson graphically illustrated his belief in a powerful earth/mother/female principle which he traces to Bachofen’s writings. The Earth, an automatic drawing of 1939, depicts the sensuous contour line of a female body that is also that of the earth itself. The skeletal hand which squeezes fluid from one breast reinforces the female’s double nature, simultaneously nourishing mother and harbinger of death. That same year Masson executed a painting entitled Paysage matriarcal. Again the woman’s body, reclining in a pose redolent with sexual associations, appears as if literally constructed of the earth itself as a monumental brick edifice. Implicitly, Masson suggests that the female principle has been institutionalized, erected now as a permanent structure, through the development of a matriarchal social organization out of an earlier and more primeval conflict.

Bachofen’s thesis, although not widely acknowledged during the 20th century, served as the basis for Erich Fromm’s reinterpretation of myth in the early 1950s. Fromm chose to focus on the Oedipus trilogy as the key to the struggle between opposing patriarchal and matriarchal systems of social organization. He concludes that “ . . . in various formulations of the original Oedipus myth the figure of Oedipus is always connected with the cult of the earth-goddesses, the representatives of matriarchal religion.” In his answer to the sphinx, Oedipus defined man as the savior of the world and humanity, freeing him to rescue Thebes from the sphinx’s control. Fromm’s writings on the Oedipus myth reveal an attitude toward the subject very close to that of the Surrealists some 15 years earlier, the similarities arising from their common source in Bachofen. But the Surrealists remained haunted by the matriarchal possibilities in the myth: Ernst’s fusion of male and female into a single being, Dali’s and Masson’s concentration on the female principle that lay behind the original myth, and Breton’s replacement of the question about man by one about the role of love.

Bachofen’s ideas seem to have entered Surrealism by several different paths. Masson had read the German author and identifies him as an important influence on both Sartre and Jacques Lacan, a friend of the Surrealists whose psychoanalytic writings on paranoia were published in Minotaure and influenced the development of Dali’s paranoiac-critical method. But Bachofen’s ideas had been anticipated by both Hegel and Goethe, and the Surrealists were also familiar with them from these sources. Hegel viewed the two orders as the thesis and antithesis of a dialectic for which his philosophy would provide the synthesis. Writing about the conflict which he recognized in Antigone, he remarked that “the gods, however, which she worships are the gods below, the gods of Hades, the inner gods of emotion, of love, of blood, and not the gods of the day, of the free and self-conscious life, of the nation, and the state.”37 Similarly, Goethe, in Faust, writes of the dread of the mysterious mothers who belong to an ancient world which is now banned from the light of day, from consciousness. In a 1942 article on Yves Tanguy, Breton invoked Goethe’s mothers, suggesting that ”painting and poetry, each in its own sphere, had inevitably to make an attempt one day to rediscover the path leading to the Mothers in the very deepest depths.”38

Bachofen’s description of a social organization based on the principles of equality, respect for human life and the power of love advanced one alternative to the deeply entrenched patriarchal social and political order which had shaped the Surrealist revolt. Freud and Marx offered Surrealism new forms of psychological and political indoctrination; Bachofen seemed to hold forth historical precedents for the mental liberation the Surrealists so eagerly sought.39 Since Bachofen’s analysis was primarily historical, it remained for the Surrealists themselves to formulate a contemporary solution—to unite the patriarchal and matriarchal models so that life and art might flourish.

For the Surrealists, the female principle governed creation. Breton’s insistence that painting and poetry must belong to the “inner gods” forced man to find a way to participate fully in this inner, more fecund, realm of being. It is in his last major work, Arcane 17, written during the summer of 1944, that Breton finally defined the artist as the unifying figure in the male/female polarity.40 Arcane 17 became Breton’s final synthesis, a mystical and alchemical homage to the redeeming power of love and the final reconciliation of opposites. Combining the themes of love, war and resurrection he drew his analogies from myth, science and the occult. Again invoking Goethe, he clarifies the need to resolve the inherent conflict between male and female principles. Finally, it is the artist who will effect the synthesis; for he (Breton clearly refers here to the male artist) alone has access to both realms of being:

. . . the time will come when the ideas of woman will be asserted at the expense of those of man, the failure of which is already today tumultuously evident. Specifically, it rests with the artist to make visible everything that is part of the feminine, as opposed to the masculine, system of the world. It is the artist who must rely exclusively on the woman’s powers to exalt, or better still, to jealously appropriate to himself everything that distinguishes woman from man with respect to their styles of appreciation and volition.41

The series of images and themes examined in the present context represent only a small selection of the numerous representations of the female in Surrealist art. And yet, even this small sample begins to reveal the extent to which the Surrealist obsession with love sometimes masked the deeply rooted conflicts and ambivalences of the Surrealist attitude toward woman. The decade of the 1930s reveals Surrealism caught between the mythical search for an all-consuming and deeply inspirational love, and an unresolved fear about woman’s power and role in a male-dominated universe. Representatives of an artistic avant-garde, the Surrealists were nevertheless constrained by the patriarchal male-oriented view of life that they had inherited from Freud and other 19th-century figures. The development of a series of myths during the 1930s allowed them to play out on a symbolic level the conflicts which could not be directly attacked. By the time Arcane 17 appeared, with its call for the transcendent power of the artist, Surrealism as a movement was all but finished. The war had separated many of the group’s original members. When those Surrealists who had spent the war years in New York, among them Breton and Masson, returned to Paris, it was to find themselves regarded as an older generation—replaced by the young intellectuals who flocked around Sartre and the Existentialist banner. The final Surrealist resolution would remain shrouded in the hermetic language and occultism of Arcane 17.

Whitney Chadwick is assistant professor of art history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



Part of this material was first presented in a seminar on Sexual Politics and Design organized by Professor Dolores Hayden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in January, 1975. I am grateful to Ms. Judith Lebow, who assisted with the research and typing, and to my friends and colleagues who have read the manuscript and offered valuable comments and criticism. Special thanks go to Professor Wayne Andersen, who has written widely on transformations of female imagery in 19th-century painting, and whose insights and encouragement have led me to probe further into the dynamics of Surrealist painting.

1. Xavière Gautier, Surréalisme et sexualité, Paris, 1971.

2. Ibid., p. 271.

3. The Letters of Sigmund Freud, ed. E. Freud, trans. T. and J. Stern, New York, 1960, p. 9.

4. E. Jones. ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London, 1957, vol. 12, pp. 291–301.

5. Freud’s references to the destructive power of woman are veiled by mythological references to her historical earth-mother/underworld connections. In reality he saw the two opposites forming a unity in the unconscious when in puberty the male child learns about sex and prostitution and begins to think of his previously pure mother as a whore for sleeping with his father; see Freud, Standard Edition, vol 11, pp. 165–175.

6. Gautier, p. 192; compare Dali, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, trans. H. Chevalier, New York, 1961.

7. Gautier, p. 194.

8. The poem, written in the early 1930s, is dedicated to Max Ernst; it is reprinted in his Collected Poems, London, 1965, p. 9.

9. André Breton, “Lettres aux voyantes,” in La Revolution surrealiste, 15 October 1925, p. 20.

10. Max Ernst, “Histoire naturelle,” Cahiers d’art, special number, 1937, p. 22.

11. Here the imagery is suggested by the patterns resulting when a piece of string is flung down on a flat surface.

12. Cited in Victor Brauner, exhibition catalogue, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, 1972, no. 90.

13. See W. Pressley, “The Praying Mantis in Surrealist Art,” The Art Bulletin, December, 1973, pp. 600–615.

14. A. Jouffroy, Bellmer, William and Norma Copely Foundation, London, n.d.

15. C. Gelinski, Les Dessins de Hans Bellmer, Paris, 1966, p. 8.

16. André Breton, “Second manifeste du surréalisme,” Manifestes du surréalisme, Paris, 1962, p. 108.

17. See R. Graves, The White Goddess, New York, 1948.

18. J. Arp, Arp on Arp, ed. M. Jean, trans. G. Neugroschel, New York, 1969, p. 241.

19. The Letters of Sigmund Freud, p. 76.

20. Though male envy has not gone unrecognized, it has received relatively little attention in psychoanalytic literature, at least in relation to penis envy, which remains the cornerstone of Freudian explanations of female sexuality. See M. Chadwick, “Die Wurzel der Wissbegierde,” Internationale Zeitschrift für psychoanalytische Pädagogik, vol. 5, 1931, p. 178. More recently, B. Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds, New York, 1962, and M. Mead, “On Freud’s View of Female Sexuality,” in Women and Analysis, ed. J. Strouse, New York, 1974, p. 118 and passim.

21. Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language, New York, 1951, p. 233.

22. Several years later, in his Mythologie de la nature, New York, 1940, Masson placed the loved woman at the source of both his life and his art.

23. André Masson, Metamorphose de l’artiste, 2 vols., Geneva, 1956, p. 88.

24. Salvador Dali, Diary of a Genius, New York, 1965, dedication. This aspect of the Surrealist woman is more fully discussed in my previous article, “Masson’s Gradiva: The Metamorphosis of a Surrealist Myth,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 50, 1970, pp. 415–422.

25. Albert Béquin, “L’Androgyne,” Minotaure, spring, 1938, pp. 10–13.

26. Louis Aragon, Le Fou d’Elsa, Paris, 1951, p. 225.

27. André Breton, “L’Air de l’eau,” Claire de Terre, Paris, 1966, p. 176.

28. André Breton, “De la survivance de certains mythes et de quelques autres mythes en croissance ou en formation,” First Papers of Surrealism, New York, 1942.

29. See M. Eliade, Mephistopheles and the Androgyne: Studies in Religious Myth and Symbol, trans. J. Cohen, New York, 1965, pp. 98–103.

30. Geoffrey Hinton, “Max Ernst: Les Hommes n’en sauront rien,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 117, 1975, p. 294.

31. Paul Gauguin, Avant et après, Paris, 1923, p. 223.

32. See M. Eliade, Mephistopheles and the Androgyne, p. 98–99.

33. Alain Mousseigne, “Francis Picabia et le sphinx,” Gazette des beaux-arts, vol. 53, 1972, pp. 305–311.

34. André Breton, “Le Chateau etoilé,” Minotaure, vol. 8, 1936, pp. 25–39.

35. Cited in J.P. Clébert, Mythologie d’André Masson, Geneva, 1971, p. 39. No photograph of the work exists, and Masson explains that due to its disagreeable imagery, he kept the work in his possession.

36. Ibid., p. 38. 1. Bachofen, a friend of Nietzche’s, first published his Mutterrecht in 1861; see Bachofen, Myth, Religion and Mother Right, trans. R. Manheim, Princeton, 1967.

37. Hegel, Aesthetik, Berlin, 1955, vol. 2, no. 2, chapter 1.

38. André Breton, “Yves Tanguy,” 119421, reprinted in Surrealism and Painting, trans. S. W. Taylor, New York, 1972, p. 176. Compare J. W. Goethe, Faust, trans. B. Taylor, Boston and New York, 1870, Part 2, Act 1, p. 65.

39. It should be noted that the Surrealists turned to Bachofen in the 1930s, a time when Surrealist disillusionment with communism had reached a peak.

40. André Breton, Arcane 17, Paris, 1957.

41. Ibid., p. 88 and passim.