Art is an “expression of the human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture.” Art captures time and is presented by many standpoints that have been expressed in a visual form for us to interpret. Art teaches us perspective as we look at a work of art we try to see into the minds of artists and why has the artist used specific color schemes or shapes to represent what he was thinking of the time. Many artists use their form of artwork to pass along their views and feelings hence the images produced by them can express an innovative way of seeing the world from their perspectives.
In my essay, I will be focusing the art movement of “Surrealism”. It is a style in art and literature in which ideas, images, and objects are combined in a strange way, like in a dream. The Surrealists attempt to channel their unconscious state of mind as a means to unlock their power of the imagination. Therefore this topic boils down to one question, How Did Female Surrealists Aim to Subvert the Male Gaze within Surrealist Photography?
Surrealism began in Paris in 1924 and was later moved to Mexico and the United States and it had a huge impact on women artists. The tale of surrealism in the United States started by including two women artists, Lee Miller and Rosa Rolanda, who appeared from different sides of the country (New York and California, respectively) and discovered themselves in 1920s Paris modeling for an artist and photographer Man Ray (the United States, 1890–1976). Both women were decided to build their own uniqueness, and they used innovative methods in photography to begin an investigation of their imaginary worlds and themselves.
Unconsciously, surrealism became the beginning of two tides of creativity: the imagined, which arose from intelligence and was created originally by men, and the intuited, which arose from the artist’s experience and was generated mostly by women. The women’s art reflected the female psyche as beauty and it surprisingly began a new conversation between the different artists that increasingly modified the relationship between the genders.
Although the male surrealists in Paris during the 1920s examined the unconscious within dreams and their paintings did not significantly expose the individual experiences. In this, the women differed considerably from their male counterparts, as their art often reflected personal wounds and tortures. For them, surrealism became a means of increasing self-awareness, searching their inner thoughts and feelings, dealing with their experiences, and discovering or building their true identities.
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 exchange between the self and the other was distinguished from the male surrealists’ outward projection of their motives. Femininities transformed the female body into a site of protection, psychic power, and creative energy. They also improved set the stage for the feminist evolution by creating art that inspired social institutions and gender boundaries.
Since the time of the Egyptians, portraits have served as reports that record an individual’s likeness at a particular moment in time. While conventional portraiture provided information and hints about the sitter’s characteristics, interests, social status, or history, because many of the art of women surrealists were self-referential in nature, portraiture was an ideal vehicle for exploring identity.
Objectification of women in Male Surrealist art depicted the male gaze in its darkest form, through the ideas of the uncanny, obsession, 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 perseverance 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 fetish zed 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 characters, who wanted to be more than their inspirations. 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.”
Being a part of the movement as a female artist did not prove the same amount of respect, which was given to their male equivalents. 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 male Surrealists were not able to defeat this duality due to their fascination with “seeking transformation through a female representational object, which paradoxically reinforced the subject-object split that Surrealism was dedicated to overcoming.” Kahlo and Cahun, on the other hand, defeated this duality by practising their art as a venue to characterise 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 assumptions to knock the male artists at their own game.
Due to her life-long argument against female objectification, Kahlo is an inspiration for women to break out of gender stipulations. By rectifying her body and apprehending it in the paint, she still summons and flouts 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 uniqueness. In her work, her gaze is never tractable. Even when subjugated, it speaks against the compact, pleasurable descriptions that women are forced into. Kahlo’s self-portraits “do not employ the traditionally gendered symbolism of establishment but subvert them to overthrow the binary-driven hierarchies of art and the colonizer-colonized.” By putting the colonizer and the colonized, the male and the female, into the same space without any boundaries, Kahlo overwhelms the subject-object split that previously divided these entities. With this act, she interjects women to the fact that gender should not be inhibiting them from raising their social status to the same level as men’s.
Surrealist concepts to overcome the subject-object split, instead of fetishizing the female body. She commenced 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 name. By renaming herself, Cahun renounced gender differences and bestowed self-confidence in her Jewish ancestry in spite of the dangers that Jews faced during World War II. Her self-portraits are arms of her reality. These illustrations request “the gaze that had become conventional to developing women and subvert the social and sexual authority in which the artist was quintessentially male and his material female.
By removing barriers dividing genders, and the lines separating the active subject and the enduring object, Cahun defied male Surrealist’s ideas while rigorously following Surrealist principles. She rebelled against gender stereotypes and joined the split within 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 examining and exhibiting her own image without admiring it, Cahun took the power of substantiating women away from men and persuaded another woman to do the same. For example, in her self-portrait with the mirror, Cahun wears a man’s coat and haircut, and instead of seeing in the mirror, she looks directly at her viewer. By doing so, “she challenges the conventional notion of a woman’s relationship with her mirror as an expression of feminine vanity. More importantly, she disrupts the fixed contradictions of gender difference and the privileging gaze of men by explicating that she is not simply the object of a gaze.14 She asks her readers 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 s for multiplicity and paradox.”15 In this way, she owns her position as an independent and strong subject with many aspects of her personality. She portrays herself as untainted by any societal or gender restrictions, and in doing so, she builds a way for other women to cut through the objectification that is set on them. Cahun overcomes the subject-object split through her art, by providing the same amount of power to the model, as she gives to the photographer. In her commitment, she turns the ordinary object into a subject and inspires others to do the same.