‘Mirror images: Women, Surrealism and Self-representation’

The 1998 book Mirror Images: women, surrealism and self-representation was produced to accompany an exhibition exploring female approaches to Surrealism in art. This book highlights a key difference in the use of Surrealist approaches by men and by women historically, and suggests that women adopted Surrealism as a tool to look inward and explore their own realities, whilst men used it to look outward, to “bodies Other to theirs” (p4).

“While male Surrealists rooted the disruptive and creative potential of erotic desire in the masculine libido and exalted woman as muse in fetishized images that celebrate her as Other, women artists turned to their own reality” (p. iix)

Surrealist art not only held visual shock value in the content of work that was presented from the 1920s onwards, but it provided women with an opportunity to overturn the social notions of what a woman should be and should do, e.g. from religious and domestic perspectives, in a patriarchal society; a bold course for women to take.

“The young women who joined the Surrealist circle in Paris in the 1930s […] saw Surrealism as supporting their desire to escape what they perceived as the inhibiting confines of middle-class marriage, domesticity, and motherhood […] they saw Surrealism, rather than direct political action, as their best chance for social liberation.” (p5)

Photographers and artists working with photography continue to reference historical Surrealism and continue to revisit historical artworks of this movement, shifting, as only one can, its meaning into the perspective of today.  One major complication highlighted by Chadwick is brought about when a woman attempts to address her self from outside of her self.  Here, Chadwick includes a quote by author in contemporary French feminism, Luce Irigaray:

“The masculine can partly look at itself, speculate about itself, represent itself and describe itself for what it is, whilst the feminine can try to speak to itself through a new language, but cannot describe itself from outside or in formal terms, except by identifying itself with the masculine, thus by losing itself.” (Irigaray in Chadwick, p8)

Losing oneself is a theme often seen in contemporary surrealist photography, with techniques such as long shutter speeds, hiding in light and shadow, or blending into one’s surroundings so as to almost (but not quite) disappear.  In a merger with the external world, one becomes the furniture, the architecture, or nature itself. An example of this approach is the photography of Francesca Woodman (separate post to follow).

The concept of ‘disappearance’ is perhaps more understandable if we are to consider the theory that women are “… in the position of signifier for the male other, her subjectivity (or “femininity”) determined by the discourse of patriarchy”.  But how can a woman escape this?  If a woman objectifies her own body in art, it “implicates her in a masculine dynamic that projects the woman as other” (Chadwick, p8).

Visual artist Yayoi Kusama often disguises herself within art in an act of ‘self-obliteration’:

“One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe.  I felt I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.”  (Kusama in Posner, in Chadwick, p159)

There is contradiction in Kusama’s approach, as Posner points out, in that she also has a desire to attract much media attention with her work.  Is she really wanting to disappear? Or to be highly visible?  Such dualism is considered as Surrealist in nature. “The presence of mutually conflicting thoughts and feelings … is deeply rooted in the Surrealists’ wish to embrace duality and contradiction” (pp.157-158).

The Mirror by Dorothea Tanning (1952) (above) does, I feel, succeed in conveying a message of ‘the feminine’ in a Surrealist style without the above implication.  She succeeds in this by presenting us with a flower, a metaphorical ‘she‘.  The Mirror, according to Chadwick, “… collapses the imagery of flower, mirror and eye into an ironic meditation on femininity, nature and artistic vision.  No matter how intently one gazes into this compelling but disturbing image, there is nothing more to see.” (p9)  The image cleverly removes a directness of gender, whilst also creating a scene in which the idea of woman is both present and absent at the same time. Other paintings of Tanning’s are not limited to body-less subjects and she also became known for her explorations of femme-enfant through her paintings.

The ways in which women choose, and have chosen, to represent their own bodies in Surrealist art is diverse, and Chadwick highlights the manipulation of the body as being a way of assigning meaning, culturally and socially: “Bodies and body parts swell, mutate, dissolve, double, and decompose before our eyes as the body registers cultural, as well as personal, fears and anxieties” (p14).  The altering of our own bodies in visual art meets also with the Surrealist aim of rejecting the societal ‘norms’, “the classical Western notion that reason and order define individuals and society” (p158).

This publication has provided a fascinating insight into Surrealism and the self-representation of women in art but questions are growing in my mind; How can a woman present her own body without implicating herself in a masculine dynamic?  What are the consequences if she does represent her own body?  Is she challenging or contributing to the objectification of women in art?  If I were to explore my self-image, my body as a woman, with a Surrealist approach to photography, it seems that I would be situating myself in a complex and contradictory world.


Mirror Images: Women, surrealism and self-representation (1998)
Whitney Chadwick (ed)
MIT Press: London and Massachusetts


Dorothea Tanning, The Mirror (1952) Oil on Canvas
Available at: https://www.dorotheatanning.org/life-and-work/view/225/
Accessed 27th September 2018

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