Gloria Orenstein Links
INTRODUCTION TO GRADIVA’S MIRROR: REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN, SURREALISM AND ART HISTORY BY BETTY BROWN
Gloria Feman Orenstein Professor Comparative Lit. & Gender Studies University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA.
It is the summer of 2001, and as I contemplate Betty Brown’s book GRADIVA’S MIRROR: REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN, SURREALISM, AND ART HISTORY, I find myself called to consider a drawing that Leonora Carrington made for the cover of my own book, THE THEATRE OF THE MARVELOUS: SURREALISM AND THE CONTEMPORARY STAGE1 almost three decades ago. It is under the banner of this image that I would now like to present Betty’s book, for in many ways it is a marker for me of how this work by Betty Brown and those of other scholars of her generation continue to complete, refine, perfect, and ultimately transform the early seeds of a feminist analysis of Surrealism that were first launched in the late sixties. By placing her book in the context of Leonora Carrington’s drawing for my own book cover, I wish to establish a kind of spiritual geneology, for, as I hope to elucidate, her work takes its place in a lineage that I would like to refer to as a surrealist Tree of Life by making reference to the seed first planted by Carrington’s image. My thoughts take me back to the early seventies when I was still a graduate student in Comparative Literature at NYU. As I was writing my dissertation on Surrealism and contemporary theatre, I happened upon the plays of Leonora Carrington. Thinking that she was a playwright, I wrote to her about her theatrical works. Of course, she must have been astonished to realize that I did not know about her artistic work at all. Thus, she began to include reproductions of her paintings clipped from Mexican newspapers in the letters that she wrote to me. As I contemplated those astounding images, I began to understand that I had before my eyes the works of an incredible artist. Yet, I had never seen these images reproduced anywhere before. They were absent from all the books on Surrealist art history. I was faced with a conundrum, which for me, at that time was a problem that had no name. My university career had trained me to understand that all the “great” works of art and literature could be found in the library. Yet I was about to write my doctoral dissertation on Surrealism, and I had never seen these works anywhere. I was undergoing the experience of “non-compute”, an experience that had begun for me when, as a French major in undergraduate school I was told that we did not study Simone de Beauvoir because our university did not teach “inferior” writers. I want to contextualize the history of the evolution of the field now known as The Women of Surrealism in order to remind the reader that the subject matter of Betty Brown’s study simply did not exist in the early seventies. This is the extent to which The Women of Surrealism had been excluded from the predominantly androcentric art and literary criticism as well as from the courses on Surrealism taught at the graduate level at that time, which, for me, is still not so very long ago. Since then, over the years, I have been witness to the magical, but very literal and real manifestation of something that I only could have called a Dream at that time---the emergence of a field of study on The Women of Surrealism, and the development of an extensive library of creative and scholarly works in this field, leading to my present understanding that the image created for my book jacket by Leonora Carrington in 1974 has literally taken root in existence, and brought to fruition the realization of that Dream (with a capital D). Indeed, this should not be at all surprising, for it was the Surrealist Movement that taught us how dream and reality interpenetrate, and combine to create an extended and enriched “surreality”, a dimension in which The Marvelous resides. For me, now, several decades after I first received this image from Leonora Carrington, I see Betty Brown’s book as an important manifestation of the surrealist Marvelous that was called into creation by the power of Leonora Carrington’s magical work of art.
The drawing shows a tree emerging from a woman’s head on top of which is perched, or, from which emerges a Bird-Woman who has laid an Egg. Her head is crowned with serpent-horns in the shape of a harp. Unique to the depiction of this female head from whose crown chakra The Bird-Woman/Goddess’ Tree of Life is growing are the four hands sprouting from the woman’s face, reaching down into the Earth in which her head is embedded. When Leonora Carrington made this image for me, I asked her what it meant. She said it meant that a whole world had sprung forth from my mind. Indeed, the image was not only representative of the fact that I had written a book, which included one chapter on The Women of Surrealism, but over the years it has come to accrue a host of other meanings, and to reveal a much broader significance in terms of the direction that my own scholarship would take as well as in terms of the ongoing elaboration of the work of future generations of scholars whose research would uncover more of the reasons for the absence of The Women of Surrealism from previous art history as we knew it then. This new research would also lead to the inclusion of The Women of Surrealism, not only in a feminist re-vision of this specific field, but also in a total reconstruction and reframing of western art history, in general. By a strange twist of fate, the artist of the book jacket, who used this image to create the cover for my book, extended it so that instead of just one head crowned by a Tree of Life and a Bird-Woman/ Goddess figure, there are four women’s heads crowned by a Tree of Life upon which sits a Bird-Woman/Goddess figure who has laid an Egg. The implication is that from the one tree numerous and limitless other women’s minds sprouting Trees of Life crowned by the Bird-Woman Goddess figure will issue forth, and from each new head/mind there will emerge a new Bird-Woman/Goddess Tree of Life, and so on ad infinitum. A few days later, when, filled with trepidation, I showed the publisher’s altered image to Leonora, she said: “You know, Gloria…I almost prefer it to the original, single image. Go ahead and use it that way.” So it happened that via a mysterious chance occurrence, we feminist scholars of The Women of Surrealism are not only the roots and branches, but also the very Trees of Life from whose minds ever more manifestations of the Marvelous will continue to be birthed, to take root and to flower in reality. Betty Brown’s book GRADIVA’S MIRROR, is one of these new Trees of Life in the lineage of the Bird-Woman Goddess, whose Egg contains the germs of life of the new surrealist feminist visions now emerging. As I see it, the sacred flowering of the Tree of Life that evolves from the study of The Women of Surrealism leads directly to the Egg of Rebirth whose mother is the Bird –Woman /Goddess. We, feminist scholars, are the Women of the Earth. We reach deeply with our spirit-hands (aligned with our minds) into the Earth, our physical Mother, to encounter, spiritually, (with our minds) the Great Mother/s of our creative matrilineage— both mythic and real —our Mothers of Creation be they goddesses, writers, artists, scholars, or teachers, both alive and dead--all our mothers of physical birth and spiritual rebirth. Each new work of re-search contributes a new branch to the geneology of the sacred Tree of Life of female creation. Since the early seventies when The Women of Surrealism was first launched as a field of study2, many important recoveries, discoveries, reclamations, re-visions have been made by scholars in both literature and the visual arts, which have added to our new knowledge of the Surrealist Movement, and have contributed to a completely new understanding of the importance of the roles played by women in Surrealism, worldwide, and of the contribution they have made to the development of this movement in a variety of esthetic media. While most scholars pay visits to libraries, archives, galleries, museums, universities, and academic authorities to obtain knowledge of their subject matter, Betty Brown has uniquely combined this academic methodology with what I call “the Methodology of the Marvelous”, as exemplified in the creative process of the Surrealists. Betty Brown has meandered through the streets of Europe and America, and revisited the important “sites” of surrealist encounter in a manner identical to the way in which the Surrealists, most notably Andre Breton, visited certain “sites” that called out to them in relation to their dreams and inner musings, allowing the images they gathered to co-mingle so that dream and reality would become inextricably intertwined in a relationship that Breton called “communicating vessels”. Betty Brown has undertaken her surrealist journey under the emblem of GRADIVA, She- Who- Advances- With- Courage. Whereas for the Surrealists Gradiva was the figure of the Muse—(the female Muse for the male artist), for Betty Brown, Gradiva is the figure of the surrealist woman artist birthing and enhancing the many branches on the sacred Tree of Life of female creation. When a contemporary feminist scholar revisits the legendary haunts of the Surrealists, from the cafes where they collaborated on their collective creations and the restaurants where they encountered “l’amour fou”, to the apartments where they lived, and ultimately the cemetaries in which they are buried, she experiences revelations that nourish her scholarship. Like Breton, she “haunts” these magical sites of inspiration. Often what she finds is how, over time, they have been corrupted. When she visits La Place Blanche , she writes: “I am looking for the old Surrealist hang-out at Place Blanche. There are several restaurants circling the irregular square, but none bears the name Café de la Place Blanche. “When I began looking for traces of Breton, in 1997, I thought that the Batifol must have been the former Café de la Place Blanche. It was a turn-of- the-century bistro-style restaurant located right up the street from Breton’s apartment on Rue Fontaine. In the summer of 1999, that space was transformed into Buffalo Bill, a Texas-themed restaurant serving thick steaks, fries, and American beer. Breton would have appreciated the Surreal irony of the change, but I am disappointed. I cannot sit inside Buffalo Bill, with American country music wailing around me, and imagine Breton drinking chartreuse and pontificating. I cannot imagine them reading poetry and arguing, debating the merits of this Surrealist painting or that Surrealist film. I begin to fear Breton has disappeared from Paris, and with him the whole Surrealist revolution.”3 Whereas it was American commercialism and machismo that erased Surrealism’s traces by superimposing a Buffalo Bill –themed restaurant over the café where the Surrealists once gathered, it requires the vision and dedication of an American woman to restore and enliven the memory of Surrealism’s legacy in Paris. This time the picture will be tinted in a feminist hue. Via her pilgrimage, Betty Brown brings these sites to life again, excavating them from the oblivion to which they have been relegated. She does precisely this kind of excavatory work in order to exhume the lives of The Women of Surrealism that she uncovers, perceiving them through the feminist lens of a new generation of scholars of Surrealism. Coming to the field some twenty-five years later, she is empowered to question the legacy and legitimacy of legends that have mystified and confounded us, which even feminist scholars of earlier generations had absorbed or taken at face value. By revisiting the “sites” of Surrealism, Betty embodies and enacts the gesture made by Leonora Carrington’s image of the “hands reaching into the Earth”. She does this in a variety of ways, always deploying original literary and art historical strategies ranging from the Sacra Conversaziones that she uses to engage in dialogue with these women artists to journal entries, dream recall, visionary sequences and empathic meditations. An intensely personal form of reaching out to recover the ineffable secrets of the past as they relate to our contemporary Gradiva- Selves is the way in which Betty relates her personal experiences to the emotions expressed by the Women of Surrealism whose lives she revisits. For example, when presenting her insights into Remedios Varo’s relationship with Nicolle, a man who was fourteen years younger than she was, Betty recalls a relationship she had with a much younger man, and validates the parallel ways in which their relationships with younger men empowered their creative work. Or, when considering Gala’s role in facilitating Dali’s career, Betty talks about the ways in which she, too, facilitated the careers of several men in her life, and she interprets the events that ensued with psychological perspicacity. She concludes her analysis by recognizing the many ways in which women in the arts have often crippled themselves in order to please the men they loved. Many of these examples become extremely poignant when we realize that the author is speaking to us from the lessons learned through her own personal experience. While certain passages of this work of scholarship are in the form of a literary pilgrimage, others are in the form of a memoir, journal, diary or autobiography. Just as the Surrealists crossed genres in works such as NADJA, which includes photo documentation and personal narrative, so Betty’s pilgrimage leads her to understand the mysteries and conundrums in the lives of the Women of Surrealism by relating their personal lives to her own, and then submitting both to a feminist analysis expressed in a collage of literary genres. I would called this feminist scholarship “enriched” scholarship, for it poses new questions and hypotheses based upon intuitive connections that are always grounded in solid scholarship. Thus, the more we come to know the lives and works of The Women of Surrealism, the more we come to know the author, and reciprocally, the more Betty studies the Women of Surrealism, the better she comes to understand herself. Here author and subject become “communicating vessels” to each other. Each enriches and enhances the meaning of the other’s life and work. This is the kind of criticism that the original members of the Surrealist Movement would have appreciated, for it dreams the dream forward, always allowing the unexpected to be revealed. An important literary strategy that embodies the meaning of the image of the “hands reaching out” from Carrington’s drawing is the SACRA CONVERSAZIONE that Betty Brown first encountered in Veneziano’s painting, MADONNA AND CHILD WITH SAINTS, known as the St. Lucy Altarpiece (c.1445). Betty tells us that this painting was identified as a SACRA CONVERSAZIONE, a form in which “scholars pondered, and expounded on, what various religious figures might say to each other when joined to converse in heaven”4. Brown’s SACRA CONVERSAZIONE is used to converse with the Women of Surrealism, both living and dead. She tells them of her dreams, and they offer a variety of interpretations. The idea of speaking directly with these women in order to gain insight into how their minds function and to imagine how they must have felt, is a method that calls upon the right brain faculties of intuition and empathy to be added to the left brain faculties of logic and research. Her psychic speculations and explorations are based upon a melding of these two kinds of mental faculties, which are used to probe her subjects’ minds in an original approach that is productive of a diversity of both humorous and serious interpretations of her own dreams and musings. Betty has captured the spirit of these artists through her lively use of dialogue, for I have known some of them (Leonora Carrington and Alice Rahon), and can attest to the feeling of authenticy I experienced when I read her portrayal of their personalities and styles of conversation.
Several examples of new questions Betty Brown has posed stunned me when I first read them, for they seem so obvious to a feminist investigator in art and literary history, and yet, they remained unspoken until now. Brown notes that although Gala Dali was an artist and a creator in her own right, even feminist critics from Whitney Chadwick to Penelope Rosemont have said that Gala was neither a writer nor an artist. Since Gala had contributed to the group creation of Cadavres Exquis (Exquisite Corpses), and also made surrealist objects of her own, Brown asks whether Chadwick, for example, might be exhibiting a bias against surrealist collective creation when she notes her participation in these group activities yet maintains that Gala was not an artist. Pointing out that Breton curated the Exposition Surrealiste des Objets” at the Charles Ratton Gallery in Paris in 1936 in which Gala contributed a maquette for a surrealist apartment, and that Gala also had work in the 1938 Surrealist exhibition, Brown writes: “So why does Chadwick say: Though not an artist, Gala became the first incarnation of the Surrealist muse?” Why assert that Gala was not an artist, when she created art for several major Surrealist exhibitions? Why does Penelope Rosemont repeat “Gala was a presence in the movement from the start but neither as a writer nor artist”? 5 Brown’s conclusion brings new insight to the situation of surrealist women artists: “Although collaboration was celebrated as revolutionary for male Surrealists, the fact that Gala created most of her art work in collaboration has resulted in her identity as an artist being erased to history.”6 Thus Brown also scrutinizes previous feminist criticism, forcing us to probe further, to leave no stone unturned. Continuing to explode these legends, Brown asks why Breton could not see that his wife, Jaqueline Lamba created valid art work that corresponded to all the tenets of what Surrealism had called for. She asks why he omitted all mention of her work, and only considered her to be a Muse, but never an artist. She wonders why he never wrote about her art. She ponders about why we continue to perpetuate the myth that Leonora Carrington was a “mad” woman artist when she has continued to create an important oeuvre well into her eighties without experiencing any breakdown. Brown is one of the first feminist critics of Surrealism to ask these new questions. Presently more work is being done on Leonora Carrington’s years in the mental asylum in Santander that establishes without question that according to her Psychiatrist’s professional opinion she suffered only from a war trauma, but was never mentally ill.7 Betty Brown has asked many obvious questions that simply never had occurred to me . As I read her chapter on Alice Rahon whom I visited on numerous occasions in Mexico City in the early seventies, I recalled that I, too, had seen the catalogue of the Exposicion Internacional des Surrealismo that opened on Jan. 17, 1940 at the Galeria de Arte Mexicano. Betty realizes that although the catalogue lists Andre Breton, Cesar Moro and Wolfgang Paalen as exhibition curators, and although Alice Rahon was married to Paalen at the time, she “contributed to the genesis and execution of the exhibition, but is not credited in the catalogue.”8 I was moved to deep regret as I remembered sitting with Alice Rahon as she showed me numerous catalogues including this one, and how it did not occur to me then to inquire about why she did not appear in the catalogue. Alice Rahon invited me back many times. She told me all about the men in her life, but also showed me her own work. I was caught up in androcentric art history, and I did not ask the most important questions, those about her omission from art history. It must have been as though I did not dare to question the authority of those well-known male artist-curators, who had obviously determined that she should not be included in the show (for some good reason?). Why did I not question this? Early in the seventies I had met Jane Graverol, a Belgian surrealist painter, in Paris. She was married to Antonin Artaud’s Psychiatrist, Dr. Ferdiere. She was most gracious to me, but over the years I was too timid to inquire about why her letters had to be written by someone else, why she was too debilitated to write to me herself. Eventually I went to visit her at her home in Fontainebleau, shortly before she died. She was obviously on heavy sedative medication. Yet she tried to communicate something to me with great urgency. She beckoned me to go upstairs to her studio to see her most recent painting. Her husband tried to prevent me from going there. When I saw it, I was almost in a state of shock. There it stood before me—a wild animal in a cage, with the bars of the cage going through the body of the animal. She tried to speak very quickly, as if she wanted to narrate her whole life story in those few minutes, but her husband forced me to go back downstairs, saying that she was just babbling a lot of nonsense. Today, in retrospect, I have come to understand that image as a symbolic self-portrait, and I only wish that I could have had the presence of mind, the Gradivian woman’s “advancing forward with courage” self- confidence to insist on speaking with her privately. We, first generation scholars of The Women of Surrealism, women of the Second Wave of Feminism, often blasted the bastions of patriarchal tradition, but frequently we left the shards of the explosion behind us, back at the site of revolution,…. and often we did not manage to retrieve all the lost pieces in our efforts to remake the mosaic. It has taken the fresh vision of a feminist from a younger generation like Betty Brown to see anew certain things that we had been staring at all along, but that we were often too numb or too intimidated to piece together. Although I did not know of the genre called SACRA CONNVERSAZIONE at the time I wrote my article on NADJA in 19789, I did feel that it was necessary to let Nadja speak to us in her own language. Thus, I set out to interpret the symbolic meaning, both of her own meanderings in Paris, and of the series of drawings she made that Breton included as documentation in his novel, NADJA10. My conclusion was as follows: “What I see sketched in the visual hieroglyphics of Nadja is the disclosure by a female visionary of the sacred knowledge of her ancient psychic powers and of her lost matriarchal heritage connected with the Celtic mythological tradition that she identifies with, particularly in her choice of Melusine as a symbol for herself. In Jean Markale’s WOMEN OF THE CELTS we read that Melusine “is a primordial deity who has retained the nature of the originally female and later decidedly male god who presided at the birth of the world, its construction and organization….We are bound to look upon this traditional character as one of the most compelling images of the mother goddess of gynaecocratic cults. Melusine’s imprisonment of her father, Elinas, can be explained only as the last rebellion of femininity against a society that had recently become male-dominated.” Nadja, then, presents a plea for the return to a reverence for the mother goddess as the primary deity, and for a return to the matriarchal version of the creation myth in explaining the universe and woman’s place in it as supreme creatrix. Nadja’s madness, therefore, is her last refuge in that inner world where she could dwell alone among the symbols of her own matriarchal truth that were neither accepted nor recognized by the dominating patriarchal order of her time.”11 Betty Brown has concluded her study with a SACRA CONVERSAZIONE among Alice Rahon, Frida Kahlo, Maria Izquierdo, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington and herself on the Myth of Melusina. Each artist speaks in her own voice about the meaning of this mythic mermaid figure in her own life. Alice Rahon loved the Melusina myth, for it sustained her through the invalidism of her childhood. “Again and again, I imagined that my own human legs, legs which did not work , which would not walk, were magically12 transformed into a fish’s tail or a serpent.” Both Rahon and Brown see Melusina as a symbol that represents Surrealism’s daring to transcend all dualisms by bringing together in fresh new images “two incongruous things” in order to “watch the images that emerge from the tension between them.” For Remedios Varo, Melusina symbolizes the betrayals that she experienced with her father and husband. Remedios, too, had known loss and separation. She sees this as a story about a husband’s compulsion to invade his lover’s privacy, and to pry into her most intimate secrets. Carrington sees Melusina’s scream as a transformative cry that ultimately changes her into a Gradivian image of She-Who-Advances. Carrington asks the circle of women to reclaim Melusina as their spiritual mother, as they are reborn transformed into Gradiva. It is at this point that I would invite Nadja to join the sacred circle of the Women of Surrealism, and, if called upon, this is what I think she might say:
NADJA: Sisters of Surrealism. I have left my personal testimony for you in the form of small drawings and cryptograms. This is because I could not speak the unspeakable. I was silenced. I could not communicate that what was purely fictional, mythological for Andre, was real for me. My roots were in the Celtic world of empowered Goddesses, and I identified my psychic powers with theirs. In my final drawing LA FLEUR DES AMANTS (Plate 29) 13I have shown the utimate split between the patriarchal and the matriarchal cosmic visions. I have tried to show that each of the two separate sets of eyes in the flower has a distinct vision. By this image I meant to imply that Andre’s distinct vision was patriarchal whereas mine was a cosmic vision of a world in which the matriarchal goddess reigned supreme. Andre could never understand what I was saying, drawing, what I was being drawn to or what I was fleeing from. It was his misunderstanding that ultimately drove me over the brink, into madness. But what seemed to be insanity to Andre and to those in the institutions of his society, was the very source of my psychic sanity. I sought refuge in a world that revered the ancient power of the Mother Goddess that had been effaced from your world. I realize that what has caused your suffering is that you have not been able to claim the full range of your powers as women, or to take them seriously enough. If I were to come back to life today, I believe that I might be understood at last. And if this is the case, it is because a revolution in feminist thought has taken place since I passed away from your world. Sisters, I beseech you---do not underestimate yourselves! Yes, please follow Leonora’s advice and transform the Myth of Melusina into the Reality of Gradiva!” GLORIA: Betty and Nadja, I would like to conclude with a small confession. Although I have written about the myths and symbols of the Goddess as representative of female power, I now realize that I never had the imagination to envision the REALITY of empowered women such as those I meet today, thirty years after I first wrote about The Women of Surrealism,….the young women in my university courses. I think I may have written about mythic goddesses because I simply could not have imagined actual women with power and prestige in the real world. Today, my female students leave me thunderstruck. Their ambitions and achievements teach me that the Goddess was a myth that had not yet incarnated in our society in the form of real women of social, cultural, political, economic and creative, and spiritual power. Surrealism has taught me to make many leaps of the imagination. However, Surrealism always stressed the fact that the imaginary tends to become REAL ….that our Dreams do manifest themselves in reality. Dream objects were created in order to give tangible, material reality to those dream environments. Today I realize that the DREAM OF GRADIVA has become manifest in contemporary feminist reality, for the Mermaid has now acquired legs, enabling her to “advance-with –courage”, and , as French feminist writer Monique Wittig said in LES GUERILLERES “The women say, truly is this not magnificent? The vessels are upright, the vessels have acquired legs. The sacred vessels are on the move. “14 As I turn once more to Leonora Carrington’s drawing, I can see her Bird-Woman/Goddess with an Arachnean spider web on her body, with her exposed breasts of the Minoan Goddess, with her horns of both Celtic and Minoan mythological origin, and with her human face. I suddenly notice that she has no legs. Like Melusina, the mermaid, she is part female and part legless animal—be it mermaid or bird. The woman has hands but no legs. As I inquire into the cryptic, hieroglyphic message of Leonora Carrington’s image I see a similarity with the images made by Nadja. Both Nadja and Leonora have been interpreted as being “mad”, when they were simply taking refuge in an alternate Celtic, goddess-centered cosmology. Now I see before me the transformation of the woman whose hands “have reached out” for new knowledge. She will undergo the metamorphosis bestowed upon her by the very knowledge she has given birth to—that of the Bird-Woman/Goddess, from whose Egg the New Women will be born. Indeed, she/they/WE have already been hatched from her Egg, and it is thanks to The Women of Surrealism,… artists, writers, and scholars like Betty Brown that the sacred Trees of Life are still flowering, that the Bird-Woman/Goddess is continuing to give birth to the Egg of Rebirth, and that the New Women with outstretched hands are acquiring strong legs with which to stand firmly on Mother Earth. The DREAM OF GRADIVA is becoming REAL according to the magical laws of surrealist causality, which are mediated by the art and scholarship of the sacred matrilineage of past, present and future visionary women whose hands and minds continue to reach out in their quest for the Marvelous and for the quality of beauty about which Breton wrote in his conclusion of NADJA: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.”15