Women at the Verge of an Artistic Movement

by Florence Sunnen

“Key to Surrealism, a movement that devoted considerable energy to theorizing about the role of Woman in the creative process, was the image of the femme-enfant, the naive woman-child whose spontaneous innocence, uncorrupted by logic or reason, brings her into closer contact with the intuitive realm of the unconscious so crucial to Surrealism. [André] Breton exalted Woman as the prime source of artistic creativity, saying, “The time will come when the ideas of woman will be asserted at the expense of those of man.” However, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in her discussion of Breton in The Second Sex, such theories present woman as an object of male definition, as Other rather than Self, leaving little place for the real women among the Surrealist group to develop independent creative identities. Thus, the women of Surrealism, as Gloria Orenstein has suggested, had to struggle against limitations placed on them by the very concepts of Surrealism itself.
Although Whitney Chadwick reports that the majority of women associated with Surrealism have cited Breton and the others as supportive and the movement as a sympathetic milieu, she goes on to point out that the women saw themselves as functioning outside Surrealist doctrine, which was generally formulated in their absence. Especially difficult was the cruelly ironic image of the femme-enfant, which, in equating woman’s creativity with youth and innocence, left little room for maturity or the aging process among the women artists in the group.”


Janet A. Kaplan – Remedios Varo. Unexpected Journeys. 


Remedios Varo – Harmony (detail) 1956. Oil on Masonite. Private Collection.

Remedios Varo – Harmony (detail) 1956. Oil on Masonite. Private Collection.


“Beat women… At the turn of the century in Paris, Rilke sighted their predecessors – the girls who came by themselves to the Cluny Museum to sit in front of the Unicorn tapestries and make small drawings of needlepoint flowers. “The main thing is just to keep drawing,” he wrote in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “for that is the reason they left home one day rather violently. They came from good families. But when they lift their arms as they draw, it appears that their dress isn’t buttoned in back, or at any rate not completely. There are a few buttons that they couldn’t reach. For when the dress was made, no one had imagined that they would suddenly go away, alone.”
For Rilke, it is a foregone conclusion that nothing much will come of all that drawing. Everything is changing, and these vulnerable, penniless, slightly disheveled young girls will become victims of change. They will meet the wrong men – artistic types – and throw themselves away. “They are on the verge of abandoning themselves … This seems to them like progress.”
In the late 1950s, young women – not very many at first – once again left home rather violently. […] Naturally, we fell in love with men who were rebels. We fell very quickly, believing they would take us along on their journeys and adventures. We did not expect to be rebels all by ourselves; we did not count on loneliness. Once we had found our male counterparts, we had too much blind faith to challenge the old male/female rules. We were very young and we were in over our heads. But we knew we had done something brave, practically historic. We were the ones who had dared to leave home.
If you want to understand Beat women, call us transitional – a bridge to the next generation, who in the 1960s, when a young woman’s right to leave home was no longer an issue, would question every assumption that limited women’s lives and begin the long, never-to-be-completed work of transforming relationships with men.”


Joyce Johnson – Minor Characters. A Beat Memoir