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. (1, lamca)
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. (1, lamca)
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.” (3, frieze)
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.