New York

“Women Surrealists”

Jeffery Hoffeld & Company, Inc.

They say that “God is in the details?’In this revival of women Surrealists’ works from the ’30s to the ’50s the jewellike precision of the smallish paintings does give them what René Passeron calls Surrealism’s ”sacred construction," although the tone is mystical rather than religious. The sense of the miniature added to the exhibition’s mood of treasured discovery, but begged for an explanation because the traditional association of women artists with small work is so strong, and the finely wrought, even spidery quality of these works is so open to dismissal.

If these canvases suggest illuminated manuscripts—themselves forerunners of the miniature—it may be because Surrealism came out of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which in turn looked back to the Middle Ages. Their particularization may be a way of heightening the hallucinatory impact. Their Old Masterish style, of which Leonor Fini’s Os Iliaque, 1945–46—a Clara Peeters–like still life—is most representative, may be the expression of a wish to insert oneself retroactively into a restricted history. These paintings are precise, as if a misstep would spell disaster; it may be that they articulate the double bind of having to prove competence at the same time as genius, and proving genius, in the visual arts, so often means violating norms of "skill:’

But another useful explanation for this microscopic bent has to do with a dialectic between freedom and restraint. On the one hand, precision is a means of imposing order, a kind of cosmic housekeeping. There is administrative command in Remedios Varo’s Harmonie, 1956, created by assigning a place for everything—science, mathematics, music—and putting everything in its place. On the other hand, there is flight and release from the here and now The bird’s-eye view only looks small; it is actually macrocosmic. This is the case with Frida Kahlo’s Moses, 1945, an overview of recorded history with room enough left over for a couple of crowd scenes. Accustomed to feeling that she is different from what others see her to be, the woman in each of these pieces has a divided consciousness. Rather than schizophrenia, however, this distancing ability may offer freedom; the figure in Nusch Eluard’s photocollage, who holds a tiny version of herself in one palm and the world in the other, verifies this perspective.

Themes and imagery also revolve around this freedom/restraint tension. Flight—through magic and myth—functions as a means of gaining a healthy distance. Much more than the men of the movement, the women prove André Breton’s contention that Surrealism is “a continuation of alchemy” In addition to flights of fancy, there are flights back into childhood, as the cradlelike bed high above the room of the virgin/scholar in Varo’s Harmonie indicates. In turn, though, this escape allows control over the surroundings. In other works in the show, as in the unicorn myth, a virgin tames the wild. In her Self-Portrait, 1937, Leonora Carrington wears an outfit reminiscent of an animal trainer’s, and keeps a hyena casually in check with an admonitory finger.

The theme of the house as domestic prison recurs as often in these works as in literature written by women. Dorothea Tanning’s Jeux d’enfants, 1942, which shows young girls in confining 1890s dress, wildly tearing the paper off the walls of a room to reveal sexual body parts behind, could virtually be an illustration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper. The woman behind the wall or in the wall, a theme in the novelist Doris Lessing’s work, is also clearly visible in Varo’s Harmonie. Frequently these artists offer a glimpse of freedom out the door, as in the cavorting white horse in Carrington’s Self-Portrait, or the spacious sky in Tanning’s Jeux d’enfants. The persona made of cloth in Kay Sage’s Festa, 1947, represents a sort of disappearing act in front of the house on the hill; the changing-room curtain pulled to one side, the wizard’s pointed hat on the ground, and the swirling magician’s cloak all announce “vanished.” As a house for the body, clothing, also, can either bind or liberate. Wrapped like mummies, the captives in Carrington’s The Hunt, 1942, mirror the family unit of captors. Thrown off, however, cloth becomes sexual, an embodiment of energy.

One emblem of enclosure that does not convey suffocation is the shell, which seems regenerative; many times it is shown broken open like an egg, as in Kahlo’s Moses. In addition, the shell is connected with the sea, which offers freedom in painting after painting. Liberated by the sea from the grip of gravity, the individual merges with the universal, the self floats free of its moorings. Tanning’s The Civilizing Influence, 1944, is set on a beach, and an arrangement of shell-like shapes almost obliterates clocks that read 5:05—after office hours. If Dali’s melting watches indicate The Persistence of Memory, 1931, somehow Tanning’s about-to-be-effaced clocks, set significantly at an earlier time than Dali’s, suggest attenuated human memory on the shore of measureless eons. Similarly, the furled sails in Sage’s Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool, 1947, are bleak precisely because they are so far from the sea. Set on triangulated platforms in the desert, they are dry-docked, landlocked.

Far from being the “rather sugary” overrefinements dismissed by Passeron (said of Fini in particular), the works by these women Surrealists pack an expansive world into a grain of sand. Perhaps it was a way of getting that piece of grit out of their eyes.

Jeanne Silverthorne