Friday, 8 January 2021



A Mirror to the Debutante


While I enjoyed both issues of the new journal The Debutante[1], I do also have several problems with it, one of which is its declared nature as a journal of “feminist-surrealism”. The first issue contains a very brief “Feminist-Surrealist Manifesto” which does nothing much to clarify the editors’ relationship to Surrealism as the journal and its contributors seem to be ignorant of contemporary Surrealism.

As a man writing about a publication, almost entirely by women, and avowedly feminist, I would not wish to be disparaging about either, however, a magazine that calls itself surrealist and yet seems to have so little awareness of much of surrealism seems to me to be asking for trouble. The most obvious problem with the term ‘feminist-surrealist’ is not that it foregrounds feminism, but that it implies that other surrealists are not feminist. This is not only simply wrong, but seems to me rather insulting to the many women who have been involved in the surrealist movement over the course of a century.

What knowledge of surrealism they demonstrate is mostly historical and that mostly art-historical. They seem to want to claim a lot of very disparate women artists and some art historians as ‘feminist-surrealists’ who challenge “the patriarchal structures of canonical surrealism” [2]

At this point I have to ask “What patriarchal structures?” I see nothing in surrealism as such that is inherently male, masculinist or patriarchal. Perhaps I’m being blind here, but if so I need accurate analyses of these factors, not only to be aware of them, but in order to help dismantle them. What we do have to acknowledge is that surrealism was almost entirely founded by men, they were mostly disaffected and traumatised young men who, in the wake of the Great War wished to find, not new ways of making art, but new ways of living and understanding life, an effort that required a revolution. It is impossible to doubt that, despite their youth and their intent, they carried a great deal of cultural baggage with them. They were born at the end of the 19th century and many of the early works show, at best, a lack of clarity on gender issues. The volume Investigating Sex[3] does André Breton few favours, for instance, but many commentators have reacted as if comments made in a discussion in the late 20s were definitive of the status of women in surrealism, and the last word on the subject. This view needs to be challenged.

What is especially disconcerting about The Debutante is that they seem oblivious to Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women[4] which, over 20 years ago addressed many of their concerns and, I think I am right in saying this, in presenting the work of over 100 women surrealists, was a corrective to the biased and inaccurate account of Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. However, even Rosemont had to admit to little evidence of surrealist activity by women a hundred years ago, though there were contributors to surrealist journals such as Nancy Cunard, and we should always mention Simone Breton, who was at the centre of the original group, not merely an appendage of  André.

Successive decades of surrealist activity have shown an ever-growing proportion of women involved, and to the point where, in some groups, there is not only equity, but women can even outnumber men, and not just as artists or poets, but as theoreticians and political activists. Just as a very random sample, I might mention Emila Medkova, Suzanne Cesaire[5], Nora Mitrani, Eva Svankmajerova, Joyce Mansour, Jayne Cortez, Sarah Metcalf, Merl Fluin,  Casi Cline and , Annie Le Brun.

The last named has actually been described as an ‘anti-feminist’, which I think is a considerable misunderstanding. Le Brun wrote a number of texts, mostly published in a volume Lachez Tout[6] which lambasts the popular feminism of the time. For Le Brun, much of what passed for feminism was a sell-out and an inverted image of patriarchy, substituting an equally oppressive Matriarchy for Big Daddy. Establishment feminism could be said to point to the ‘glass ceiling’ and demand that women join the boardrooms of great corporations in much greater numbers, and while there are boardrooms, it is hard to argue against female representation there, but the point, surely, is for men and women alike to abolish boardrooms?

Put differently, for me, the point is not to dismiss identity politics as irrelevant, but not to regard identity issues as separate from the central political and social issues either. A genuinely radical movement will always be in favour of the liberation of women, ethnic minorities, gays and other sexualities, the disabled…everybody, in fact. It only works if those various groups, rather than focus entirely on their own particular concerns as black, gay, female, whatever, consider liberation as a whole, how it applies to each and every group, and to each other. Anything else fragments and fails.

There’s another problem, the often fraught question of who is a surrealist. This is sometimes framed as a seemingly narrow question of identity and I know that Merl Fluin, for instance, has pointed out a number of times that Georges Bataille was not a surrealist. In the most literal sense, this is certainly true, and I think that Merl’s concern here is less with establishing an overly dogmatic judgement on the issue as much as defending surrealism against misconceptions such as those revealed in Hal Foster’s Compulsive Beauty[7] which posits a “Bretonian Surrealism” and a “Bataillean Surrealism” going head to head in a sort of battle for supremacy. This ignores the facts that Bataille didn’t call himself a surrealist and many of his colleagues were far from being surrealist in any way whatsoever. I have known people to attack surrealism on the basis of Bataille’s and his friends, actions and ideas rather than those of Breton and the people who actually identified as surrealists, and when one of those people associated with Bataille proposes a ‘sur-fascism’ – I hope you see my point. However, we also have to remember that not only did Breton and Bataille collaborate on Contre-Attaque, but later became friends and Breton invited Bataille to collaborate in both the 1947 and 1959 International Surrealist Exhibitions. Bataille referred to himself as surrealism’s ‘old enemy from within’, not in order to simply destroy it, but to undermine what he saw as it’s too idealistic  elements and to remake its more revolutionary and experiential components over its artistic ones. Many surrealists have considered Bataille as an expression of the surrealist spirit and even as an opposite pole to Breton in that spirit, which at the very least suggests that we should consider being surrealist in terms other than simple identity.

Another aspect of the same problem that I have often encountered is when somebody contacts me, ostensibly about surrealism, and promptly enthuses about an artist with few, if any, links to surrealism. If we include that artist’s own comments on the matter, the conversation might go like this.

Fan: “I love X, X is my favourite surrealist!”

X: “I am not a surrealist, I don’t much like surrealism.”

Me: “X is not a surrealist”

Fan: “You are SOOO narrow-minded!”

You see the problem. The easiest solution would seem to be to ask, when the person did not themselves identify as a surrealist, or participate in surrealist activities, whether they are of surrealist interest. As an example, consider Malcolm De Chazal. His religious ideas kept him separate from the surrealists, but his ideas were crucial to thinking about poetic analogy in the post-war period. He is, in many ways, alongside surrealism, there were real points of contact and influence. Like Bataille, but in a very different way, he can’t be considered wholly apart from surrealism, and surrealism would be poorer without him, but he can’t be wholly subsumed within surrealism either. It would be disrespectful to the person as well as detrimental to the truth.

The artists included in The Debutante are often asked about the ways in which they are ‘feminist-surrealists’. This presupposes that they do identify as such and I am afraid that too often their responses are not very enlightening, show little knowledge of contemporary surrealism – and usually not much of it historically either – and usually are not questioned in any depth as to what this might mean.

This might all be seen as a hostile critique of The Debutante, I don’t feel it is, however. I remember, with some embarrassment, things I said and wrote in my earliest days identifying as a surrealist. My naiveté was considerable, my heart was in the right place, and, fortunately, few saw my more stupid statements. Armed with more knowledge and slightly more intellectual sophistication, I am not sure I avoided saying anything stupid either. The question here is whether the editors of The Debutante are willing to undergo a thorough revision of their initial attitudes, or stick with what, in expression at any rate, is a fundamental misconception of surrealism.  I think that if they choose the former, a dialogue might be fruitful, not in selling a feminist surrealism, but in articulating a surrealist feminism and making that more explicit and developed could be interesting indeed.

[1] The Debutante: The Feminist-Surrealist arts journal. (2020) Issues 1 and 2. Edinburgh. (

[2] Interview with Penny Slinger. In: The Debutante (2020) Issue 1. Edinburgh. P.21-24.

[3] Investigating Sex (1992) Ed. Jose Pierre, Dawn Ades. London Verso Books.

[4] Rosemont, P. (1998) Surrealist Women: An international anthology. Austin. University of Texas Press.

[5] A pleasant surprise to see a short piece on Suzanne Cesaire on their blog:

[6] Le Brun, Annie. (1978)  Lachez Tout. Paris. Le Sagittaire.

[7] Foster, Hal (1995) Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge MA. October Books. MIT Press.

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