Surrealist Women’s Writing, A critical exploration

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Tuesday, 9 Mar 2021


By Anna Watz

2020 was a remarkable year for the celebration of the legacy of women associated with the surrealist movement. The impressive exhibition Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Frida Kahlo (curated by Ingrid Pfeiffer), which showed at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (13 February–5 July 2020), and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk (25 July–8 November 2020), might be considered the largest and most comprehensive exhibition to date of the work of surrealist women. 2020 also saw the publication of Victoria Carruthers’ monograph Dorothea Tanning: Transformations (Lund Humphries) and Amy Hale’s Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of The Fern Loved Gully (Strange Attractor Press), as well as the launch of the magazine The Debutante: The Feminist-Surrealist Arts Journal (edited by Rachel Ashenden and Molly Gilroy), which is devoted to contemporary arts. In spring 2021 we can look forward to, among other things, the publication of Richard Overstreet and Neil Zukerman’s major Leonor Fini: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings (Scheidegger & Spiess) and Gabriel Weisz Carrington’s The Invisible Painting: My Memoir of Leonora Carrington (Manchester University Press).


The current popular and scholarly interest in women surrealists can be seen as the culmination of the feminist project of revising the art historical canon which began in the 1970s and 1980s. This critical intervention has been instrumental in making visible and challenging the male bias that structured (and in some ways continues to structure) the discipline of art history, as well as culture more generally. The urgency of redressing critical narratives which have historically marginalised or even excluded the numerous women participants in the surrealist movement cannot be understated; this revisionary work is crucial and is still ongoing.


However, in this revision of official historiographies of surrealism, one aspect of women’s production has remained understudied: their writing. Many of the most well-known women surrealist visual artists were also prolific writers. Leonora Carrington, for example, wrote two novels, a memoir, numerous short stories, as well as several plays and critical essays; Leonor Fini published, among other things, three novels in the 1970s; Dorothea Tanning worked on a novel for most of her career, and she also wrote poetry, short stories, two memoirs and critical essays; and Claude Cahun published poetry, prose, as well as fiction. These are just a few examples; there are many more women surrealists whose writing has been crucial in shaping the contours of surrealism.


The volume Surrealist women’s writing: A critical exploration provides a critical investigation of surrealist women’s writing that does not place this genre in a subordinate position vis-à-vis visual art, but instead considers it on its own terms and merits. The volume thus aims to highlight a body of work that to date has been doubly marginalised – because surrealist women have historically attracted less critical attention than their male counterparts and, also, because surrealist writing has received less consideration than surrealist visual art. Surrealist women’s writing demonstrates the scope of this oeuvre – in terms of genres, styles as well as thematic concerns. It showcases the historical, linguistic, and culturally contextual breadth of this writing, as well as its specifically surrealist poetics and politics.


Finally, Surrealist women’s writing helps us understand the continued relevance of surrealism today, as an aesthetic as well as ethical and political project. The chapters in the volume demonstrate how surrealist women’s work intersects with and contributes to current debates on, for example, gender, sexuality, subjectivity, anthropocentrism, and the environment. Moreover, the contemporary work of American surrealist Rikki Ducornet (whose artwork appears on the cover of the volume) forcefully counters the notion that surrealism is a movement of the past; in Ducornet’s art and writing, surrealist aesthetics and ethics are indeed vibrantly alive.


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