SURREALIST WOMEN: Blood, bodies and death
As a teacher for young women and father of two daughters, I have, despite the fact that I am a man, assumed I might have some understanding of how transformative it can be for a female child to suffer from the bleeding that introduces her sexual maturation and long menstrual cycle.
My oldest and artistically gifted daughter recently asked me if I could possibly could remember a movie, or a novel, that touched upon the theme. All that came to my mind was Stephen King’s Carrie and the movie Brian de Palma based on that novel.
I also remembered a relatively unknown Italian children’s book. Of course, my daughter knew about the works of King and de Palma and not the least the children’s book, which had been written by a friend of hers. She even mentioned a horror movie I had never heard of – Valerie and HerWeek of Wonders. A kind of creepy Alice in Wonderland that hinted at a girl’s first confrontation with eroticism and threatening men. Menstruation was indicated by a drop of blood that initially fell on a flower.
My daughter told me that she several years ago had seen the film in Brighton and that it had not been particularly good. She remembered it had been about vampires. Since she recalled it as a “horror movie” I assumed it might have been a movie by Roger Corman, or one of Hammer Film’s more inferior and relatively unknown horror flicks. Or maybe something like Andy Warhol’s grotesque and, to put it mildly, blood-soaked Blood for Dracula, which was in fact directed by Paul Morrissey. In that film, Dracula travels down to Italy since he assumes that in a Catholic country there must be a greater access to virgin blood, the only thing he can feed on. But he is mistaken and suffers from violent vomiting, starvation and suffering, after attacking young women who treacherously had claimed to be virgins. When Warhol was asked about his contribution to the film, he replied: “I participate in the parties.” The film was in all its madness quite amusing, the set design was OK, while the historical environment and camera work were not at all as bad as I had expected. I guess so anyway, why would I else have remembered parts of it after fifty years?
However, it turned out that I was completely wrong. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders had been porduced in 1970 and is now considered to be part of the so-called ”Czech Wave”, with masterpieces which I had enjoyed in my Swedish hometown Hässleholm, where they were part of a range of movies from the Swedish Film Institute called Film Annorlunda, Different Movies. By purchasing an unusually cheap punch card, previously unimaginable worlds opened up to me twice a week, evoked by masters such as the Brazilian Glauber Rocha, the Senegalese Sèmbene Ousmane, the Japanese Kaneto Shindō, the Indian Satyajit Ray, and not the least Eastern Europeans such as the Pole Andrzej Wajda, the Hungarian István Szabo, and unforgettable pearls from the Czech wave – Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains and Juraj Herz’s The Cremator. The latter two were based on novels characterized by the playful, though at the same time darkly tragic and absurdly quiet narrative that characterizes so much Czech literature.
Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders has several admirers, though it does in my opinion not measure up to be mentioned together with the films I mentioned above. It is admittedly made in a lyrical fashion, with exquisite scenery. The Commander, who constantly changes shape – vampire, polecat, intriguer, father, ruthless lover – plays an important role in the novel and is quite frighteningly portrayed in the film, though all through it he remains superficial, sketchy. Monsters like Dracula or Frankenstein has in all their hideousness several human traits we can identify with, though in Jireš’s movie the Commander was unable to conjure any horror, fascination, or means of identification.
Likewise, much more could have been done with the character of the eerily perverted grandmother, who on the outside was endowed with a horrid kind of attraction, though her character did also develop into nothing more than an insipid exterior.
Valerie’s open, childishly healthy face is adorable, but the thirteen-year-old girl’s captivating freshness becomes polluted by the director’s soft-pornographic gaze.
Admittedly, the movie has a more veiled, pleasing look than the one that characterized the at the same time immensely popular Emanuelle-movies, grosser sequels to the Angélique dramas of the sixties, the first part of which was released by Communist censorship in 1969, five years after its Paris premiere. In the Soviet Union, Angélique sold more than forty-five million movie tickets and also became a huge popular success in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Of course, Emanuelle could not pass The Iron Curtain and the visually erotic starving Eastern Europeans had to make to do with a glimpse of Angélique’s naked breasts and artistic movies such as Valerie and her Week of Wonders.
Jireš Valerie consists of softed, shimmering images, which occasionally degenerate into embarrassing kitsch. As mentioned above, it is also difficult to overlook the sexual allusions surrounding the young Jaroslava Schallerová, who among 1,500 girls was chosen for the role of Valerie. It may seem strange that the film institute of the puritan communist Czechoslovakian State invested so much in a film adaptation of Vitezslav Nezval’s undeniably odd novel – the reason could possibly be that the author in recent years fell into the trap of social realist depictions of Communism’s blissful effect on healthy workers. Furthermore, the screenplay was critical of the Catholic Church and general religious superstition.
It is also difficult to explain that Jireš was chosen as director for the lavish film. The year before he had his film The Joke totally forbidden, it was based on Milan Kundera’s first novel which was a reckoning with Stalinism’s damaging impact on the Czechs’ emotional lives. Perhaps this to some extent contributed to the fact that international film criticism generally demonstrated such enthusiasm for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which, despite its “lyrical” appearance, with beautiful imagary and an excellent soundtrack, in my opinion could not hide a soft-pornographic approach, as well as a quite messy and supposedly, but misapplied, “sophisticated” appearance. Especially the ending gave a silly impression through its depiction of an erotic utopia, which is entirely missing in the novel.
Luckily, I had read Nezval’s novel before I saw the film. It possesses quite a lot of charm through a combination of dream play, fairy tale, gothic mystery and dated, romantic women’s magazine serials. With subtlety and preserved fascination the novel mixes a variety of styles but nevertheless manages to preserve a logically absurd dream atmosphere, obviously inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Dracula and not the least Max Ernest’s fanciful collage novel Une semaine de bonté, A Week of Benevolence, published in 1934, the year before Vítěslav Nezval wrote his Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, although it was not published until 1945.
Already as a child, I was fascinated by the pictures in Une semaine de bonté that had found in one of the literary magazines my father used to read. After buying the book several years later, I have on several occasions sunk into its fantastic world and marveled at Ernst’s ability to cut and combine images from a variety of Victorian encyclopedias and illustrated novels, most notably Jules Marys’ melodrama Les damnées de Paris, The Damned of Paris and Gustave Doré’s overwhelmingly rich production of fantastic illustrations.
Mx Ernst’s book is imbued with the same horror-romantic, rather discreet erotic mood as Nezval’s novel and like it Une semaine de bonté may be described as a “collage” based on horror stories and gothic novels at a time when they already had fallen out of fashion, though they evoked associations to Freud's congested reception room from anno dazumal, where patients had told the shrink about their dreams and afflictions, which after Freud having published his interpretations of them eventually became essential material and inspiration for the Surrealists’ art, fantasies and speculations. Actually, Freud should have received his Nobel Prize in literature instead of medicine.
In the 1920s, Nezval was a leader within Czechoslovak modernism and founded, together with Karel Teige and the future Nobel laureate Jaroslav Seifert, the left-winged society Devětsil, which published a number of cultural magazines and arranged exhibitions and happenings. At first, Devětsil was inspired by Dadaism and German “magical realism”, but gradually became more “Surrealistic”.
The members of the society questioned generally accepted thinking, while praising a change that they considered to be in harmony with innovative science, architecture and industry. Their watchwords were “Make it new!”, interpreted as everything old and outdated had to be studied, recreated and reinteroreted. The “poetry” behind each object would be evoked, simplicity deepened. According to Jaroslav Seifert, artists and writers should act as cameras, openly and unreservedly registering their surroundings, describing them as a photographer chooses camera angles, or how a director edits a film. They did not strive for originality, but a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at everything around them. This was the reason why Seifert declared that “art is dead”, a statement that Karel Teige clarified by his declaration that “the most beautiful paintings that exist today are those painted by no one.” By this he meant that artists should compile things that already existed around them – newspaper illustrations, posters, kitchen utensils, machines – and thus evoke associations that would deepen our attitude towards the world. An illustration of such thinking may be a picture by the Devětsil member Adolf Hoffmeister, who compiles looting soldiers, death, humor and war in the form of a wallpaper, i.e. an item found in most homes.
Teige and other members of Devětsil pondered on the inner nature of language – could it maybe be a conglomeration of abstract and actual depictions of our thinking and environment? Random imaginings of concepts and things? Just as texts are constructed by different small, limited units, like letters and morphemes, which obtain meaning through general consensus, art is composed of the arrangement of various elements, colours and texture. Seven notes build up an immense multitude of musical tunes; symphonies, chorals, songs. A movie is composed of single picture frames. Most poets and artists affiliated to Devětsil created ”picture poems” by combining cut-outs and photos into collages, at the same time as they experimented with photography, theatre and film. Below is a picture poem by Karel Teige:
Devětsil, Nine Forces, is the Czech name for a plant, which in English is called butterbur, butter container, due to the fact that its huge leaves once were used to package butter. The Czech denomination reminds that the plant since ancient times had been used to amend and cure a large variety of diseases and ailments, such as fever, lung diseases, spasms, migraine and various allergies. Members of Devětsil intended to, like the multifaceted plant, cure several of the wrongs and illnesses harassing our modern society, hoping that a conscious combination of various “elements and forces” inherent in words, musical notes, gestures and other body movements based on age-old traditions, though reinterpretation and “modernization” would eventually change human existence to the better.
An unusually gifted member of Devětsil was the Russian philosopher and linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982). Between 1920 he 1939 he shared his time between the universities of Brno och Prague, in the latter town he founded the so-called Prague School, or as its members preferred to call it – The Prague Linguistic Circle, which carried out epoch-making language studies within fields such as syntax, morphology, semantics and language education. Jakobson’s theories have had a huge impact on various means of communication – cybernetics, poetry, music, art and film, just to mention a few.
As a Jew, Jakobson was forced to leave Prague when it in March 1939 becme occupied by German armed forces and a relentless hunt after, and the consequent extermination of Jews was initiated. During 1940 Jakobson lived in Sweden. However, fear of an expected attack on Sweden convinced Jakobson and his wife that they had to leave and by the end of May 1941 they left for the US with the Atlantic cruise ship M/S Kungsholm, ten days later they arrived in New York. In his memoirs Jakobson wrote:
Without the obliging assistance from the University Clinic of Uppsala and the comprehensive library of the Karolinska Institute of Stockholm I would not have been able to conduct any comparative studies of linguistic and neurological syndromes, and in particular carry out a thorough classification and application of therapeutic methods to figure out the reasons behind aphasia, something which today increasingly has proven to be the basis for research related to children’s language development, as well as aphasia.
Aphasia occurs through damage to the brain’s language centers and impedes the ability to speak, write and understand language. Jakobson ended his career as an internationally respected professor emeritus at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His extensive research and discoveries have been of great importance for such diverse fields as philosophy, linguistics, social anthropology, pedagogy, psychology and not least literature, art and film.
In addition to communication in the form of art, music, literature and film, several Devětsil members were fascinated by humans as sexual beings and artists and writers who joined the movement generally linked sexuality to artistic creativity. They regarded the genitals and the pleasure they gave rise to as the focal point of a life-affirming vitality. Most extreme in this regard was the uninhibited poet Jindřich Štyrský. Like many other contemporary Czech artists, he tried to create "poetry without words", expressed in abstract art and complicated collages, often filled with a promiscuous humor that combined pleasure with pain, masochism with sadism.
Like his wife Marie Čermínová, Štyrský was a skilled artist working with a variety of artistic means of expression. With Čermínová he shared a strong erotic interest and she contributed with erotic drawings to her husband’s Erotická Revue, a magazine published between 1930 and 33 and financed by a secret circulation of 150 copies. Most of Čermínová’s and Štyrsky’s illustrations were collages of a quite scabrous nature, but Čermínová also contributed with disturbing and often eerie works, such as this illustration in which death embraces a louse.
The couple worked intimately together and lived between 1924 and 1930 in Paris where they hung out with leading surrealists like André Breton and Paul Éluard. Members of radical Parisian artist circles had close contacts with most of their like-minded Czech colleagues, not least Teige and Nezval, who in 1938 wrote an admiring monograph on Štyrsky’s and Čermínová’s art and poetry.
The growing surrealist influence was one of the reasons why Devětsil was dissolved in 1930 and several of its members went separate ways, some of them immersed themselves more in the art and manifestos of surrealism, others disapproved of the group's connection to communism, which was increasingly overshadowed by Stalinist totalitarianism.
Marie Čermínová (1902-1980), who eventually adopted the name Toyen, was in many aspects a central personality within the Devětsil circle and later on the Czech surrealism. Already before she in 1922 had joined Devětsil, the poet Seifert had been wondering about the seventeen-years old worker from a nearby soap factory, who after breaking up with her parents lived with her sister in an apartment building at the opposite side of the street in front of Seifert’s home:
In front of our house in the former Husova třída in Žižkov, usually at the time when workers from the Karlín factories were coming home, I often encountered a strange but interesting girl. At a time when women’s attire resumed to skirts and dresses, the girl wore coarse cotton pants, a guy’s corduroy smock, and on her head a turned-down hat, such as ditch-diggers wear. On her feet she had ugly shoes.
It was typical for Seifert to pay attention to Čermínová’s way of dressing. True to Devětsil’s manifestos he was fascinated by how things shape people’s thoughts and behaviour – especially when it came to clothes and he often used them to describe people, as in his eerily beautiful poem Song at the End in which he remembers a Jewish friend, murdered in a Nazi death camp:
Listen: about little Hendele.
She came back to me yesterday
and she was twenty-four already.
And as graceful as Shulamite.
She wore an ash-gray squirrel fur
and a pert little cap
and round her neck she’d tied a scarf
the colour of pale smoke.
Hendele, how well this suits you!
I thought that you were dead
and meanwhile you have grown more beautiful.
I am glad you’ve come!
How wrong you are, dear friend!
I’ve been dead twenty years,
and very well you know it.
I’ve only come to meet you.
Sulamith is Solomon's beloved in the Bible’s Song of Songs.
Čermínová's dress was also noticed by another Devětsil member, the architect Karel Honzík, who described how Čermínová wore
a man’s suit, a man’s shirt, and a beret on her head, her hands in her pockets most of the time and perhaps a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. Her careless, swaying gait seem[ed] to say: “I don‘t care what you all think of me.”
However, this did not prevent Čermínová from gaining great esteem within Devětsil. She was undoubtedly one of the foremost artists in the group. Vítěslav Nezval described her:
She unites gentleness with eccentricity, ingenious charm with bizarre imagination, pure form with magical improvisation.
Like so many others of Devětsil’s followers, Čermínová was fascinated by how things, not the least clothes, create people. In her painting Parveny she portrayed a faceless, female creature who by means of two butterflies seems to have been united with a shadowy male figure. It is only the seductively shaped panther dress that suggests that it is a female figure, in front of the place of her sex, a panther gap opens, which in the painting is surrounded by a pair of crimson red women’s lips, formed by painted plaster.
Like many other men, the poet Jaroslav Seifert was fascinated by Marie Čermínová, who below by her husband Jindřich Štyrský is presented with a tear under one of her eyes.
Like Seifert, and several Devětsil members, not least the above-mentioned language revolutionary Roman Jakobson, Čermínová was sensitive to the nuances of the language and well aware of her own language use. In Czech not only the first name but also the end of the surname determines a person’s gender. It is an extremely gendered language and Čermínová, who felt limited by expectations and obligations generally applied to a woman, believed that the role of women, among other things, was determined by language and in her speech she did accordingly make an effort to always use the Czech masculine singular form.
Seifert wrote that Čermínová did not like to be treated differently as a woman and when they one day sat together in one of Prague's many cafes, she asked him to find a gender-neutral name for her. Seifert wrote down several morphemes on a napkin and then arranged them in a variety of compilations, when the letters formed the gender-neutral “Toyen”, Čermínová adopted the word as her name. She later explained that she was appealed by the association with the French word citoyen, citizen, and seized the latter part of the word for herself.
After the Nazis after 1939 kept Prague within their suffocating grip, Toyen’s life became difficult. Her partner Jindřich Štyrský died of pneumonia in 1942 and by then the couple had the Jewish poet Jindřich Heisler hidden in their apartment, where he spent most of his days and nights in their bathroom. At first, Heisler had been hidden by his sister and Teige, but when they were close to fall into the hands of the Gestapo, he moved to Toyen and Štyrský and did for four years not leave their apartment. Below, Toyen, Heisler and Teige can be seen sitting in an outdoor café in Prague, just before the city became occupied by the Germans.
Heisler published his first poem in 1939, with five drawings by Toyen and a cover by Štyrský. Fifteen copies were printed in Czech and 40 in German, the later books were noticed by the Gestapo and Heisler had quickly to go underground. In order to occupy themselves and the increasingly claustrophobic Heisler – Štyrský’s health got worse and he died a year after Heisler had moved in with him and Toyen – the three poets/artists wrote and drew continuously a number of small books. After Štyrsky’s death, Toyen and Heisler continued to create what eventually became a large number of illustrated books. All her life Toyen was occupied with creating such books and by her death in 1980 she had created more than five hundred strange books, each of which can be considered a work of art.
As part of a domestic resistance movement Toyen and Heilser did during the entire German occupation distribute their works, without specifying a publisher or printing place. At first Heisler wrote poems and Toyen illustrated them, though their activities became increasingly multifaceted.
Through The Kasematt of Dreams, they did in 1941, just after Štyrský’s death, create their most famous, joint work. Casemate is a room in a bastion where cannons and other artillery pieces have been placed.
On the book pages Heisler’s typewritten words were surrounded by photo montages, collages, drawings and “materialized poetry”, i.e. photographs of various objects that Toyen and Heisler had arranged in the apartment.
All stairways are shut. All mouths are
muffled from within.
No grain pecking anymore. The hens have been
choked to death and the fire extinguished.
A half chicken and a wet piece of bread
send their last pellets upward, where a
transparent umbrella of liver skin is
At the Moderna Muséet in Stockholm, we find Toyen’s painting The Myth of Light. We see Heisler’s shadow cast upon the bathroom door to the confined space where he hid from the Gestapo and the watchful eyes of curious neighbours. He hands out an uprooted plant – an attempt at contact with the outside world? Perhaps a “materialized poem” reminiscent of his longing for light, freedom and nature? A pair of gloved female hands form a shadow image – a wolf´s head? Or maybe one of the Gestapo's dobermann dogs? Is it a warning, or is the shadow a foreboding of an impending betrayal?
However, back to the introduction – does Vítěslav Nezval’s Valerie and Week of Wonders really deal with a young woman’s first menstruation? Through its symbol-saturated plot, filled to the brim as it is with blood, underground labyrinths and tombs, musty religiosity, virgins, vampires and threateningly enticing eroticism, the novel is undeniably about a young woman’s sexual awakening.
Nezval’s novel begins with Valerie who hidden in a covered carriage witnesses how the Commandant, in the shape of a polecat, tears apart her grandmother’s chickens. She looks away and in the moonlight gazes at her bare feet:
As she was examining them, she felt that a tiny spider was spinning a thread down the inner side of her thigh. She raised her eyes to the sky and thought no more of the unusual sensation.
Valerie turns her gaze and ones again witnesses how the polecat tears the head of a hen. Somewhat later, she is in the process of sneaking out of the carriage, casting a worried look towards the lantern above the hen-house door.
Another cock chimed up, answered by two others from far away. But the night remained unchanging. When the girl glanced back to the door she saw about ten moths obstinately circling around the lamp. She felt the little spider had reached the ankle of her left foot. She glanced down at it and saw to her great dismay a thin stream of blood trickling over her ankle.
And Toyen? It would not surprise me at all if a woman like her, someone who had been thinking intensely about femininity and eroticism, captivity and freedom, had not touched upon themes connected with menstruation, blood and femininity. Perhaps such thoughts may be traced in Toyen's desolate and quite creepy Sleeper from 1937.
A girl with a butterfly net looks out across a sterile field under a dark sky. Is it the light of dawn or dusk that may be seen by the horizon? A girl, by the way? What the viewer is confronted with is actually not a human being at all, only an empty dress. Dress? Rather a kind of cone shaped metal sheet hovering freely above ground and crowned by a wig. It appears that the empty shell has been soiled, or oxidized. Are the black streaks on the right side signs of decay, or are they some kind of pollution? They may just as well be something completely different. Maybe feathers, hinting at a wing. The butterfly net is empty. Toyen often depicted butterflies, though in the Sleeper there is no life at all. Is her painting dealing with grief of a lost childhood? If the growing woman here regarded as an empty shell, without anchorage – unless she is married, or wealthy – and thus forced to face a threatening and uncertain future without any kind of protection?
I have previously stated that when I am writing blog post, books and articles tend to emerge out of the blue, affecting my writing. When the English book shop closed down (COVID-19 has been hitting hard on Rome's bookstores, while favouring Amazon and other delivery companies), I randomly picked up an unusually strange novel – China Miéville's The Last Days of New Paris.
In this book, John Whiteside Parsons finds himself in Marseille in 1940, where he makes contact with a group of Surrealists who are waiting for a boat to take them away from nazi-occupied and Vichy controlled France. Unbelievably, Parsons was actually a real person; a pioneering rocket engineer, while at the same time leader of the Thelemic Ordo Templi Orientis founded by the mad occultist and sexual mystic Aleister Crowley.
As a matter of fact, Parsons was not in Marseille in 1940, with the exception of visiting France as a thirteen-year-old in the company of his mother and wealthy grandparents, he never again traveled outside of the United States. Nevertheless, apart from that, Miéville's choice of Parsons as the protagonist in an insanely surreal tangle is well thought out. An ingenious, largely self-taught chemist, rocket scientist, science fiction fan and more than nutty occultist, without whose efforts future lunar missions and satellite launches would have been impossible – Parsons is almost too fantastic to be true. Since he in 1952 happened to blow himself up Parsons would not experience the triumph of seeing any huge spacecrafts fueled by his inventions. By his death he was entirely immersed in occultism and lonely experimentation with dangerous chemicals, while suffering from
some form of psychosis that as Parsons’ emotional life had been thrown into chaos and his professional achievments retreated further into the past, he should cling to his magic as it were a raft on a raging sea.
In Miéville's novel, Parsons is in Marseille searching for Ithell Colquhoun, another Crowley supporter – artist, writer, occultist and magician. However, he finds that Ithell has been expelled from the surrealist group due to her crazy beliefs and strange behaviour, not unlike the circumstances that had led to Parsons being removed from the company Aerojet, which he had co-founded, after it had been revealed that he was under constant supervision by the FBI, which had compiled a huge dossier about his leadership of a sex-magical sect, his friendship with suspected communists, as well as his “hazardous workplace behaviour”.
Ithell Colquhoun, who in fact never had been in contact with Parsons, was not only a skilled artist but also the author of bizarre novels, such as Goose of Hermogenes in which the narrator ends up in her uncle's labyrinthine mansion on an isolated island and there becomes entangled in alchemy and magic. In Miéville's confusing novel, Parsons search for Colquhoun to obtain her help while trying to materialize harmful thoughts and with his rockets send them to Berlin to create chaos and confusion that hopefully would lead to the collapse of The Third Reich.
Varian Fry, who in fact helped a large number of writers and artists to escape from the Nazi terror, introduces Parsons to a group of surrealists living in a run-down eighteen-room mansion, Villa Air-Bel, located in one of Marseille’s suburbs, where they are awaiting visas to the USA.
The Surrealists spent their time painting, engaging in strange, self-invented board games, designing playing cards and creating cadavre exquisite, exquisite corpses, which meant that the collectively creative artists added a section of a drawing, or a collage, without seeing what the others had previously accomplished. They also wrote poems and novel fragments, which they read aloud to each other.
All this coincides with reality, but not that Parsons, who felt excluded from the illustrious group, discreetly collected drawings, poems, novel fragments and images of surrealistic paintings and through occult, alchemist processes succeeded in transforming them into a kind of matter, which the Marxist influenced Parsons enclosed in a device he intended to send to Berlin by means of a rocket to explode over the city and spread mayhem all over the place.
Unfortunately, Parsons’ contraption was stolen and exploded in a café in Paris, instead of above Berlin. In this undisputed Capital of Art, a number of insane manifs were thus released, i.e. tangible “manifestations” of surrealist art – such as airplane-eating plants, wolf tables, humanized bicycles, shaky cadavres exquises and a bulletproof pajamas. In this chaos, French resistance fighters, many of whom were actually surrealists, fight against German army units, supported by French defectors and SS scientists, who have priests, German occultists and artists in their service. By dissecting surrealistic manifs, the SS and the Gestapo create their own monsters, based on Nazi muscle men created by such sculptors as Thorak and Breker.
The German scientists and occultists even brought into life an actually existing self-portrait of the young Adolf Hitler, in which he had depicted himself as sitting on a stone bridge with his feet dangling above a red river. Perhaps a premonition of the carnage he would soon drown the world in. To indicate that it was a self-portrait, the young Adolf had marked the figure with an X and next to it written his signature “AH”.
It was not only surrealistic works of art that Parsons loaded his bomb with, but also a variety of poems and other writings. The bulletproof pajamas was for example based on a poem by Simone Yoyotte (1910-1933), who with her brother arrived in Paris from Martinique, where they became members of a group of black surrealists from the Caribbean and Madagascar, who published a magazine called Légitime Défense, Legitimate Defense, which in poems and articles attacked French colonialism. A prose-poem by the now relatively unknown Yoyotte, who died young and was a bold advocate of feminism and anti-racism:
Pale blue line in a forced episode: I cut a hole in the flag of the Republic.
My beautiful bird in the eternal flow of the downspouts, I call upon you but don’t think about coming back. The feathers of a beautiful surname won’t fail to admit my fear of the wind in the glaciers. My beautiful bird of the thunder of all my desires, the satisfaction of a sun already set, and of all my confused thorns within an undifferentiated anguish of a sojourn I did not wish to impose upon you, my bird. […] I have wandered through the temples of desolation, by night and by day, at the setting of all the great sorrows and everywhere, beautiful bird, I saw you [...] The call of the rhododendron at the edge of April resembles the music of your own shadow, my useless bird, who only knows to revolt with all the great trees of the avenues and all the boulevards, when the trumpet of the banquet halls resonates under the windows of the woman you do not yet love.
Among a lot of other details that fascinated me in Miéville's bizarre novel was the large number of female surrealists appearing within it. The author made me realize the crucial role women had in Surrealism – both as inspiration for the often extremely self-centered men who dominated the movement, overshadowing female contributions and as surrealists in their own right. Women were far from only being as inspirators for male artists, they were actually independently creative individuals of crucial importance for the movement’s growth and survival. Women who, despite their art being at least as revolutionary, expressive and skilled as the one of male surrealists, have nevertheless been almost completely ignored at the expense of the by now well-known and widely acclaimed men.
It is only recently that masters such as Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Meret Oppenheim and Leonor Fini have attracted the attention of a larger audience, though these extraordinary ladies are just the visible part of a huge iceberg and as is the case with all significant surrealist art that iceberg has branches deep down into the subconscious mind of humanity. It is largely only in recent decades that one or another occasional group exhibition has been devoted to surrealist women. An entrance to this treasure trove of profound, feminist art was, for example, the 2020 Fantastic Women exhibition in the Danish Humlebaek’s Lousiana Museum for which Leonora Carrington’s Catwoman might stand as an emblem for the strange and hitherto largely unknown world that was opened up there.
When I now read about these women’s art and literature, unusually many of them also appear to have been distinctive poets and novelists. It strikes me how so many of them viewed the world from a very specific perspective, characterized by their forced femine role. As creative artists these women were able to convey an outsider’s sharp gaze upon their surroundings and society as a whole. To a large extent their unique position was coloured by kind of affirmation of their own sense of exclusion. In manner similar to homosexual, literary masters such as Proust, Gide and James, the surrealist women created a unique literature and, like colored master writers such as Wright, Ellison and Baldwin, they convey insights into a painful and forced marginalization.
The literary and artistic world of surrealist women often conjures up an erotically coloured, often eerie and grotesque world. On closer inspection, many female writers appear to have moved within a mysterious, often terrifying world, beginning with Gothic masters like Mary Shelley, Emelie Brontë and Ann Radcliffe, through the ages up to J.K. Rowling’s work and unique, extraordinary scary ghost stories such as Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, or Angela Carter's ingenious paraphrases of Perrault’s horror stories in her The Bloody Chamber. A horror-romantic mix of the everyday with the fantastic that makes me think of Rose Nestler’s contemporary art. For example, her Weird Sisters. Search for the video online, hopefully with a soundtrack.
The deep drilling of surrealism into the “most forbidden” of the archetypal subconscious has coloured several “novels” such as Nelly Kaplan’s strange vampire worlds with their necrophiliacs, robots and ghosts, which occasionally are as distasteful as Poppy Z. Brite's depictions of a perverted and appaling New Orleans.
Or Joyce Mansour, who was born in England, grew up in Egypt and later through a wealthy husband became part of French Surrealism, whose books are characterized by unhinged eroticism and violent rage. As in Julius Caesar where a pair of twins born in Sodom live on a mountain as big as France, blaspheming God while being tormented by their fat nanny Julius Caesar, swearing “to drink all the blood in the world.”
To me, such writing goes far beyond the limits of what I can appreciate and since I do not find either sadism or masochism particularly amusing, instead I prefer to look at the surrealist women’s artwork, even though among many of them there are also undercurrents of both pent-up erotic perversions and attempts at revolt. I am more attracted to the fairy tale worlds of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varos, than many of the surrealistic “women novels” that have come my way, with the exception such cunning and pleasant stories like Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet.
I discovered Carrington and Varo (who were best of friends) during a visit to Mexico, where Carrington's large fresco in the City of Mexico's Anthropological National Museum made me seek out her distinctive art and novels.
At the same time, I did in the same city come across an extensive retrospective exhibition of the mystic art of Remedios Varos, previously unknown to me but it has since then continued to fascinate me, not least because it reminds me of the Finnish-Swedish author and artist Tove Jansson’s quirky, mysterious Moomin world, which since my childhood years for me has constituted a great joy and inspiration.
Incidentally, it was in Mexico, with its welcoming refugee policy, that several European “surrealistic” women ended up after fleeing the terror and misery on the Nazi-occupied European continent. Some of them were also on the run from controlling and mentally suffocating husbands.
They came through different channels and for various reasons. The Hungarian photographer Kati Horna came with her husband, after having fled to Paris by the fall of the Spanish Republic in 1939, but after being expelled from the Socialist Party and under a mounting threat of a Nazi occupation they escaped to Mexico. The Spaniard Remedios Varo also arrived in Mexico, accompanied by her socialist husband, both on the run from Paris before the arrival of the Nazis, a year before that they had also fled Spain after the collapse of the Republic.
The same year that Horna and Varo arrived in Mexico, Alice Rahon also came in the company of her husband, but not on the run from persecution, but at the invitation of the Mexican artist couple Kahlo/Rivera, although the unrest on the European continent made them stay in Mexico.
Alice Rahon was born in France to wealthy English parents. At the age of three, she was seriously injured and spent a long time plastered, bedridden and isolated from other children. When she recovered her weakness meant that she was often separated from childish games and experiences, exacerbated by the fact that at the age of twelve she broke her legs again. She became pregnant at a young age, but the baby was mentally damaged and died some years after birth and Alice Rahon was since then unable to conceive. Sixty-two years old, she fell down a flight of stairs and injured her spine, but refused to receive any medical treatment by stating that the doctors had tormented her enough as a child. Twenty years later, she died after spending her time virtually isolated from the surrounding world.
Unntil Frida Kahlo’s death in 1954, Alice Rahon had been very close to her. They shared their frustrations from having wounded and fragile bodies and the inability to have children, as well as their habit of using art and writing to dispel pain and frustration. They were also interested in Mexican folk art, but in Rahon’s case this interest was in later years transformed into abstract painting.
At the same time as Alice Rahon arrived in Mexico, the Italian Leonor Fini and the Spanish Maruja Mallo came to Argentina. Maruja fled after fighting on the side of the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. She had been at least as famous for her art as for her wayward behavior. For example, she had as an anarchist and anti-Catholic been arrested after cycling into a church during Mass. Maruja’s art, like so many other surrealistic expressions, was marked by narcissism, eroticism and death.
Leonor Fini was also an unusually independent and controversial person and artist. She often played out her exhibitionist and “poly-amorous” disposition in behaviour, paintings and photographs.
Several of the “surrealistic” women were startlingly beautiful and presented themselves as such in their works of art. Like Dorothea Tanning, who became Max Ernst’s companion for twenty years, until his death in 1976, after being married to both Leonora Carrington and Peggy Guggenheim.
Bridget Bate Tichenor “a glamorous, slender beauty with big azure eyes and full black hair” had worked as a model for Coco Chanel and appeared in centrefolds of Vogue. Tichenor also ended up in Mexico, but not as a refugee. Born and working in Paris, she came to Mexico from New York, attracted by the circle around Frida Kahlo.
It was not only the charisma and artistic endeavors of the Rivera/Kahlo couple that attracted other artists to them, but also the fact that they were known as devoted radicals, as was the stalwart Stalinist María Izquerido, another artist well known at the time. Like Frida Kahlo, Izquerido was cohabiting with a well-known Mexican artist, in her case Rufino Tamayo, and like Kahlo, she painted in a “primitivist” often surreal style.
Tichenor’s art often revolves around the exclusion she suffered from, despite her charismatic beauty. For example, in the painting below, where an exotically beautiful woman is trapped within block of ice, being surrounded by threatening snakes and insects she seems to send out an emergency signal, similar to the Bengali Fires lit up by shipwrecked people. The woman trapped in ice makes me think of another artist – Anna Kavan and her novel Ice. Like several “surrealist women” Kavan was a sensitive individual who sought relationship after relationship. Furthermore, she was a drug addict and often admitted to sanatoriums and mental clinics.
It is typical that female artists and writers are generally mentioned in connection with their more well-known spouses and/or lovers and cohabitants and often considered as being some kind of appendix to them. If they are mentioned at all, it is generally as “inspirators”, or that their art is characterized by its affinity to the one of male geniuses. A fact that overshadows the fact that even before they met their famous husbands, many of these women were active artists and writers and that they, like their male companions met their partners within the artistic circles where they generally moved and even though they, like Frida Kahlo, lived in the shadow of strong, male personalities and often portrayed their hurtful relationships with them, they yet had strong personalities of their own.
Another beautiful woman whose career and notoriety came to be marked by her relationship with a famous man was the Belgian artist Rachel Baes, who had shared her life with the infamous fascist Van Severen, who had been both anti-Nazi and pro-Stalinist. Joris Van Severen was in 1940 by the French executed without trial. Baes never recuperated from her loss and grief. Her former relation with Van Severen isolated her from other Belgians, who did not want to be reminded of the war and demonstrated an open contempt for people whom they knew, or suspected, to have been collaboratoring with the dreaded, occupying Germans. It was first after her death in 1983 that the art of Baes once again became known to the general public. She had then since the end of the war lived an obscure and solitary life in Bruges.
Another Belgian surrealist was the subversive, anti-clerical and Stalinist artist and filmmaker Jane Gravero. Her participation in an erotic-Freudian slapstick movie directed against the Catholic Church, that became prosecuted and banned, came to be attached to the assessment of her continued artistry. Most of Gravero’s paintings reflect the woman as an erotic object. Several are painted in a style reminding of her famous male compatriots Magritte and Delvaux, as well as the Dutch Willink and Moesman, something that made her being accused as being plagiarist, even if she had developed her art and world view in parallel with her male competitors.
Some of the woman artists and authors who came to end up in Mexico had been marginalised by their male partners. One of them was Lenora Carrington, who after great mental and physical suffering was welcomed in the “exotic” country where she eventually came to be appreciated as one of its most celebrated artists, with several prestigious mural assignments.
When Leonora Carrington in 1940 ended up in Mexico, where she to begin with was taken care of by Kati Horna, she was like an injured bird. Her beloved and admired Max Ernst had like several other surrealists through the support of Varian Fry been provided with a sanctuary in the US. However, before he ended up in New York, Ernst had twice been interrogated and interned by Gestapo. The second time looked particularly bleak and Leonora was advised to seek refuge among relatives in Madrid, where she suffered a serious mental berakdown and was forcibly admitted to a mental institution, where she was subjected to repeated electric shocks and treated with heavy drugs like cardiazole and luminal. After being discharged, Carrington was monitored by a keeper who revealed that her parents had requested that she would be transferred to a South African nursing home. When Carrington in Lisbon was to be taken onboard a ship destined for Cape Town, she managed to escape and seek asylum at the Mexican embassy, whose ambassador Renato Leduc she had met by Picasso in Paris. Leduc agreed to marry Leonora in order to be able take her with him first to New York and then to Mexico. In New York Leonora met with Ernst only to learn that he was engaged to the millionaire and art patroness Peggy Guggenheim. After arriving in Mexico Carrington soon divorced Leduc and married a good friend of Kati Horna – Emerico Weisz, who as well as Horna was a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Hungarian and photographer.
In April 1938, the “Surrealist Pope” André Breton arrived in Mexico and was there welcomed by Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. For seven months Breton lived with his wife, Jacqueline Lamba, in Rivera/Kahlo’s famous Blue House, where Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalja Sedova also were guests and residents until 1939, when they became enemies with Diego Rivera.
With Trotsky, Breton co-authored a manifesto they called A Manifesto of a Free, Revolutionary Art and in which they advocated for the creation of an “International Federation of Prominent Artists and Writers Worldwide”. After returning to France from Mexico, Breton began organizing the Federation and managed to get several well-known artists and writers such as Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Victor Serge, Herbert Read, Ignazio Silone and George Orwell to join him and Trotsky. However, the whole endeavour soon collapsed. Breton admitted to Trotsky that:
Perhaps I am not very talented as an organizer, but at the same time it seems to me that I have run up against enormous obstacles.
Persecuted as he was by Stalin and his loyal henchmen around the world, Trotsky (who, despite his impressive intelligence hardly was one of God’s best children) had asked Rivera to replace him as signatory of the globally dispersed manifesto. From Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges grumbled:
I believe and only believe that Marxism (like Lutheranism, like the moon, like a horse, like a line from Shakespeare) may be a stimulus for art, but it is absurd to decree that it is the only one. It is absurd for art to be a department of politics. That, however, is precisely what this incredible manifesto claims … A poor independent art they are imagining, subordinate to the pedantries of committees.
In a photograph, the three artistic and political giants Breton, Ruvera and Trotsky turn to Breton’s young and delicate wife, Jacqueline Lamba, who like Trotsky, eventually sought Frida Kahlo’s embrace. Even before she became Breton's second wife, Jacqueline was a prominent artist. Breton later remarried once more and had throughout his life many mistresses. Jacqueline divorced Breton in 1943, tired of “remaining nameless and always referred to as 'her' or as 'the woman who inspired, Breton', or as 'Breton's wife'.” Throughout her life, Jacqueline painted in different styles, but usually almost abstract landscapes.
During her time together with Jacqueline, Frida Kahlo painted a still life with different fruits, though when Jacqueline and Breton divorced in New York four years later, Frida repainted her nature morte by including a doll figure representing Jacqueline Lamba and painted the papaya as opened up, this reminding of female genitalia. Below the painting, Frida wrote La novia que se espanta de ver la vida abierta, the bride terrified by seeing the world open.
The Portuguese artist Paula Rego has accurately portrayed women as maids to her husbands and it seems that many artistically gifted individuals have been, and are, quite often extremely self-centered.
'A handsome womanizer and accurate aesthete like Breton could often appear to be both despotic and aggressive, not least in his numerous relationships with women. Someone who got to experience this was Valetine Hugo, creator of a well-known group portrait of the surrealists Paul Éluard, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Benjamin Péret, René Crevel and René Char, which she called the Star Constellation of Surrealism. As often is the case, this work is often reproduced without providing the name of its female creator.
Hugo’s relationship with Breton became “physical” for a time, and between July 1931 and May 1932, they lived together in extremely tumultuous and often violent circumstances. After an extraordinary aggressive incident, Hugo tried to take her own life, while dying she called Paul Éluard who at the last second got her under medical treatment. After they divorced, Breton never mentioned Valetine Hugo and she does not appear in his basic book about Surrealism – Le Surréalisme et la Peinture.
However, several other “surrealist women” were far from being as submissive to their husbands as Valentine Hugo. An example of a strong-willed and not particularly well-liked surrealist was the wealthy American artist and poet Catherine Linn Sage, known as Kay Sage. In Paris, she became known in Surrealist circles as The Princess, generous in her support of poor artist colleagues, though several of them nevertheless openly despised her because of her wealth and “superior attitude”. Breton’s friend Yves Tanguy fell violently in love with Kay Sage and left his wife for her sake, as well as he broke up his friendship with the jealous Breton. When the war broke out, Kay and Tanguy left Europe and settled in Reno, USA.
Tanguy’s and Sage’s relationship was violent to say the least. Tanguy was a strange, impulsive man, he was for example known to violently bang his own head against those of other men, even those he liked. He often attacked Kay Sage, both physically and with brutal language. On several occasions he threatened her with a knife. Tanguy did not appreciate his wife’s artwork and disliked when it was met with appreciation. At the same time, Kay Sage was often described as “difficult”; moody and haughty. Her art is more “reality-based” than her husband’s and I like it more than Yves Tanguy’s work, especially since Sage’s art generally opens up to different interpretations.
Tanguy’s death caused a severe depression in Kay Sage. She often declared that “Yves was my only friend, he understood everything.” After her husband’s death, Kay painted less and less, probably due to downheartedness, but also to an increasingly impaired vision. Instead, she wrote strange poetry in the partially invented French that she and Tanguy had used among themselves. Kay Sage also devoted herself to securing her husband’s legacy by arranging a number of exhibitions of his art and compiling a complete catalog of his works.
There are several other examples of close-knit artist couples who have mutually inspired each other and kept their lives togetherdespite widely differing characters. One such couple was the Americans Margaret Marley Modlin and her husband Elmer Modlin, who both dreamed of success, but who when they could not obtain it isolated themselves within a quite wretched, Spanish hippie existence. Elmer had had supporting roles in the TV series Bewitched and in Polanski’s Rosemary's Baby, while Margaret had marginally acted in films such as Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing and March or Die. However, above anything else, Elmer wanted to be known as a poet and Margaret as an artist. Although Elmer never got a poem published and Margaret did not sell a single painting. Something that does not mean that Elmer was a bad poet, or Margaret a second-rate artist. In fact, in their Spanish isolation they transformed their lives and their surroundings into a kind of universal work of art. Margaret devoted most her painting to portray Elmer and his poetic visions and the fantasy world she shared with him.
Another far more successful pair of artists is the filmmaker and artist Jan Švankmajer and his wife Eva Švankmajerová, although Eva is more of a visual artist than her more sculpturally gifted husband. Despite the fact that they collaborate in all projects, Eva is still significantly more unknown than Jan Švankmajer. Like several other surrealist women’s do, Švankmajerová depicts women’s bodies and death.
However, not all artistically gifted women are privileged enough to share their lives with creative, inspiring men, who provide them with an opportunity to create their own art. For example, it took the French-American painter Fanny Myers Brennan twenty years after the birth of her children before she could resume her painting. One of her paintings seems to allude to how life, or fate, place obstacles in the way of a creative woman – one of the renown, open highways of the American West is unexpectedly blocked by a mountain range.
Some surrealist women have managed to combine a successful professional life with their art. One such example is Grace W. Pailthorpe, who worked as a surgeon in the trenches of Flanders and later at a women’s hospital in Thessaloniki and as a general practitioner at a women’s prison in London, devoting herself to research of criminal behavior, about which she wrote scientific articles, published in the reputable medical science magazine The Lancet. In her art, Pailthorpe often portrays soft, organic forms that possibly are associated with her work as a surgeon and psychologist, for example her A Tale of Mother’s Bones.
Several female British surrealists managed to make a living from their art, like Edith Rimmington, whose work depicts difficult-to-interpret dream worlds with associations to ancient religions and/or fossilized creatures combined with modern clothing and habits.
Marion Adnams divided her time between Provence and her hometown around Derby. Her landscapes are often inspired by Derby’s surroundings, or the English coast, within which she places solitary female figures, and quite often different skeletal parts.
Perhaps because women to a greater extent than men live within their bodies; through menstruation and childbirth and not least the fact that their bodies are viewed and judged through men’s lustful glances. Someone who almost exclusively devoted her art to the depiction of female body parts was the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, who spent her difficult youth first in the ghettos of Pabianice and Ƚódź, then in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Theresientadt. During the rest of her life, Szapocznikow rarely spoke about her war experiences, traces traces of them are discernible in all her art, which often is expressed as what she called “human landscapes”.
Female surrealism is far from being a unique European and American phenomenon. In Japan, for example, we find Toshiko Okanoue, whose photographic montages seem to reflect the work of Max Ernst and the Czech surrealists, though with allusions to Japanese war experiences and a “feminist” universe.
Several modern “manga artists”, such as Takano Aya might also be included among female surrealists. In contrast to the much older Toshiko Okanue, Takano Aya is in her paintings inspired by the unusually rich Japanese, traditional monster/folk culture.
In India we find Ganesh Pyne Savitri’s dark and often macabre art, which like its European counterparts depicts death and female reality, though firmly rooted in Indian religiosity and folk art.
Amy Nimr was in 1898 born into an Egyptian upper-class family of Lebanese, Syrian, English and French descent. She spent her time between Egypt, England and France. During World War II while her family was on a picnic in Saqqara, her son was killed by a landmine. For a time Nimr was unable to paint, but when she resumed her art it was filled with corpses, skeletons and mutilated bodies. Apart from being a unique artist Nimr was a significant poet and literary critic.
After the Suez crisis in 1956 and the emergence of an increasingly pronounced Egyptian nationalism and xenophobia, Nimr and her husband moved to Paris, where she remained until her death in 1974.
With some exceptions, such as West African sign painting, Senegalese glass painting and paintings made with bicycle lacquer in Tanzania, easel painting has only recently gained entry on most of the African continent, but in many places there is a long tradition of various forms of carvings, expressing conceptions of life that might be described as surrealistic.
When it comes to African “surrealist” female artists, they have also recently begun to express themselves through paintings. Several of them have worked in their respective home countries before the market value of their art was discovered and they gained an opportunity to travel to Europe or America, where they had greater opportunities to expand and refine their means of expression. One of the women who has found such an opportunity is the Kenyan Wangechi Mutu who is now active in the United States. She engages in installations, performances and a collage-like painting in which she, like so many other female surrealists, expresses a female body consciousness, often in grotesque forms influenced by disease, cultural trauma and gender constructions in a manner that can be both mysterious in accordance with ancient traditions and critical in a more modern sense. Mutu’s art can often seem to be both repulsive and strangely appealing.
Virtually every country appears to have its more or less famous surrealist women. Sweden has, among others, Greta Knutson Tzara who in 1924 in Paris met the already well-known and in some circles infamous Romanian poet Samuel Rosenstock, who had taken the name Tristan Tzara and found himself by the sources of both Dadaism and Surrealism. They married the following year and Greta used the inheritance from of her wealthy parents to order a “Cubist/functionalist” house from the Czech architect Adolf Loos. The Tzara couple’s home soon became a gathering place for radical artists and writers and in 1927, after an unusually difficult and extremely painful birth, their son Christophe was born.
Greta has told that throughout her life she tried to find time and peace to be able to work with her art. This was one of the reasons why she invested her money in the radical Loos building to be a home and inspiration for her and Tzara. However, Loos had worked with a vision of open spaces and with as few doors as possible, which made Greta's studio completely open to the dining room, something she thought made her life difficult. Not until after what she described as “endless struggles” was she allowed to put up a wall between her studio and the rest of the house, something that made Tzara furious – he disappeared for a week and no one knew where he had gone. It may seem like an insignificant detail, though it was Greta’s lack of freedom that made her desperate and changed what had at first been a passionate love affair and mutual inspiration into cold indifference.
During his time with Greta, Tzara wrote what has come to be considered his masterpiece. The epic poem L´Homme approximatif, the Approximate Man, which he dedicated to his wife. Through the word approximatif Tzara wanted to indicate that each and everyone of us might be perceived as an unfinished sketch for an ideal human being. Every sketch is more or less perfect, but no one is perfect and the tragedy is that we especially want those around us to be perfect and therefore suffer a hard time accepting that other people are far from being impeccable and thus are unable to perceive tall he possibilities suggested by sketch. According to Tzara, all existence is cursory, even art can never gain perfection, though that is exactly what triggers a constant inspiration – a striving to understand and try to reproduce a vision as skillfully as possible. In his quest to explain life, Tristan Tzara makes everything appear to be much more complicated than it actually is. Accordingly, his language also becomes imaginative, disorganized and imperfect:
…lives are repeated endlessly until approaching atomic thinness
and rise so high that we cannot see where they end
and we cannot discern those lives next to us,
the ultraviolet radiance of so many parallel paths,
those we could have taken,
those through which we could not enter the world,
or those that already had been gone for so long
that we have forgotten them and their time
and the ground through which the world have sucked our flesh,
salts and liquid metals that once came clear from the wells…
World War II separated Tzara and Greta. With her son Chrsitophe, she moved to Aix-en-Provence.in search of a new career. Through her friend the author René Char she did the following year join the French Resistance, becoming leader of a group that manufactured fake passports for Jews and opponents to the terror regime, as well helping to smuggle refugees across the border into Spain. It became a turning point in her life. War and occupation revealed the true nature of human beings. Greta ended up in a tangle of violence, statements and counter-statements, but also sacrifices and kindness. Tzara, who had remained in Paris, also became involved in the active resistance to the German occupation.
After the end of the war and by her return to Tzara and Paris, Greta reacted strongly to the Stalinist wave that was sweeping across Europe, a phenomenon she defined ad a “mindless café Stalinism” that “overnight” turned most Surrealists into rabid “Marxists”. After her time as organizer and active member of the resistance movement, Greta had come to realize the marginalized role that constantly was accrued to women. Within Surrealist circles, they were regarded as gentle, sweet and compliant beings, objects of an absurd worship and were generally not considered to be independently creative individuals. Within Surrealist circles women were forced to remain silent and if they said anything, no one listened to them.
Greta was a prolific writer, among other things as an art critic. Before the Second World War her critique was published in the Swedish magazine Konstrevy. Later she wrote a number of short novels and prose poems and together with Gunnar Ekelöf she translated Swedish literature into French and French into Swedish. Ekelöf, whom I consider to be one of Sweden’s foremost, if not the best, poets, had already before the war met with Tristan Tzara and Greta Knutson-Tzara in their Parisian home where he had “enjoyed himself greatly, reading his own poetry aloud, singing songs by the Swedish poet Birger Sjöberg and jojked.” Jojk is a manner of singing typical for the Sami, the Nordic indigenous people. That Ekelöf was jojking might have been due to the fact that several surrealists nurtured a romantic conception of Sami culture and spirituality.
By the end of 1942, Greta had divorced Tzara and broken with the Surrealists. However, she continued with her artistic activity while becoming increasingly interested in philosophy, mainly in its phenomenological vintage with philosophers such as Husserl and Heidegger. She kept her name and two apartments, one in Paris and one in Stockholm, and although she exhibited her art in both cities she was never accepted as equal to male artists. For example, a review in Expressen, at the time Sweden’s leading evening paper, did in 1947 describe her works of art as “coward and problem-free”, an assessment I find it quite difficult be in agreement with.
During the latter part of her life, Greta Knutson-Tzara came to describe her art as “oniric”, while depicting dreamy scenes with water, ships and fantasy figures, often monstrous, and their encounters with humans.
In psychiatry, onirism refers to a mental state, often between dream and wakefulness, when almost tangible hallucinations might occur. A so-called “oniric” movement was in 1964 established in Bucharest (Greta Knutson-Tzara was linguistically gifted and fluent in Romanian, French, German and Swedish) by the writers Dumitru Ţepeneag and Leonid Dimov, who declared “we do not dream, we create dreams”. For several years they were accepted by the Communist regime, but in 1975 Ţepeneag was deprived of his Romanian citizenship while visiting Paris. He remained in the city and dedicated himself to translating French poetry and novels into Romanian, while feeling alienated from Western commercialism, as well as communism and totalitarianism in general.
In painting and her poetry, which she usually wrote in French, Greta Knutson-Tzara expressed a dreamlike exclusion, often in the vicinity of death. As in the following poem where she hinted at the sore relationship she had had with her mother:
The dying child
Mother, I wanted to sleep under the black water,
place the burning candle by my bed under the water.
Mother, do not be angry with me, rock me to sleep.
Moon, I wanted to sleep on the Island of the Seagull,
place your candle on the cliff edge by the seagull’s nest.
Moon, rock me to sleep.
June night, I wanted to sleep between two roses,
between evening and dawn.
Roses, rock me to sleep.
Skiff, I wanted to sleep in your drifting cradle,
among the green reeds.
Skiff, rock me to sleep.
Mother, if you knew, you would not have been angry with me,
then you would have let me sleep, mother, in the bed
deep below the water.
Over the years, her feelings of isolation and exclusion got worse:
Of all the faces in thousands of cities, none shall no longer be yours – you who are alone in not knowing how the earth weighs on your chest.
Under the roots of the alder, algae grow. Dreams of the water are getting darker under the rock. Even darker is your loneliness under the hoarfrost-covered stone. No-one calls your name anymore.
Since then, ash are falling to the ground, both summer and winter. Time passes by uselessly, no longer does anyone count the days, or years, gone by.
In 1983, Greta Knutson-Tzara took her own life in Paris.
Female “surrealism” seems to a large extent to revolve around the problems of being a woman in a male-dominated world and exclusion is often interpreted in terms of a “dreamy”, alternative reality where desolation, threats and loneliness affect women trapped in and marked by their own bodies. It is not without reason that a childhood which disappeared with the bloody transformation of menstruation often haunts these women’s art and writing, many of whom had been doomed to a shadowy existence behind a male-controlled art that so far has been allowed to dominate the cultural scene.
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