During my recent trip to London, I was lucky enough to visit the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey, where I saw what I am now referring to as “my favorite” art exhibition ever — or my favorite, at least, of those I’ve managed to see in person. I have only the friend I was staying with to thank for this experience, because it was her idea to take me to the show. Prior to my visit, I didn’t even know that White Cube Galleries existed, but since my return to New York I’ve already seen one random train stranger with a White Cube tote bag, which further confirms my suspicion that I am probably just an idiot who needs to put more time into keeping up with the contemporary art scene. It’s been quite a while since art school, folks.
Anyway, the exhibition: ‘Dreamers Awake’ is a group show which explores the “enduring influence of Surrealism” through the work of more than 50 female artists. The show spans a period of nearly 100 years and features pieces from women all across the canon, from legendary Surrealists like Leona Carrington and Lee Miller to contemporary and emerging artists (many of whom cite Surrealism as a major influence).
What I found most striking about ‘Dreamers Awake,’ and what I have continued to think about daily in the weeks since I saw the show, is the above stated concept, which despite its seeming straightforwardness — women and Surrealism — is actually incredibly complicated. In her essay entitled ‘The Form of the Flower is Unknown to the Seed,’ the show’s curator Susanna Greeves writes:
“Woman has a powerful presence in Surrealism. She is the object of masculine desire and fantasy; a harpy, goddess or sphinx; a mystery or threat. Often, she appears decapitated, distorted, trussed up. Fearsome or fetishized, she is always the ‘other’. From today’s perspective, gender politics can seem the unlikely blind spot of a movement that declared war on patriarchal society, convention and conformity. Nonetheless, from its earliest days female artists have been drawn to Surrealism’s emphasis on personal and artistic freedoms and to the creative potential that the exploration of the unconscious offered. By focusing on the work of women artists, ‘Dreamers Awake’ hopes to show how, through art foregrounding bodily experience, the symbolic woman of Surrealism is refigured as a creative, sentient, thinking being.”
Refigured. For me, this is the key word here, because this is a show about Surrealism the way we are rarely taught to think about Surrealism: from the perspective of the woman.
(More art n stuff after the cut!)
I was sold on the idea of this show before I even stepped inside the gallery. I have always found Surrealism to be an endlessly fascinating movement. As a child, I took great joy in saying that my favorite artist was Salvador Dalí. Out of the ‘greatest hits’ artists one learns about in elementary school, he was by far the strangest, and when I was a kid, that was all I really wanted to be: strange. In middle school I learned about Frida Kahlo, and I fell in love with her, too; in some ways, she frightened me, but there was something beautiful behind even the most grotesque imagery in her work that spoke to a part of me I wouldn’t be able to truly access or understand until I was older.
For all of the thinking and writing I’ve done about women in art since those early days, for some reason I’ve never really thought about the contradictions inherent in my love of Surrealism. Not until I walked into White Cube and was immediately confronted by this starkly typeset quote on a blank white wall:
“Headless. And also footless. Often armless too: and always unarmed, except with poetry and passion. There they are, the surrealist women so shot and painted, so stressed and dismembered, punctured and severed: is it any wonder she has (we have) gone to pieces?” —Mary Ann Caws
I started to think, then, about the images I was most familiar with in Surrealism. All of those headless female torsos, the melting breasts, the lithe, disembodied limbs, dark lips and spider-leg eyelashes with tears made of glass… so many images of women, yet most of them composed by men. For men.
Setting the stage with the Caws quote was ingenious — not because a gallery audience needs things blatantly explained, but because a quote like this gives the show a sense of context, a lens through which to thoughtfully consider every piece. As a viewer, approaching the work with Caws’ words fresh in my mind made the experience all the more powerful, because I was acutely aware not just of the images the artists had so lovingly rendered, but also of the images they were subverting.
One of my favorite examples of this subversion is the work of photographer Jo Ann Callis. In “I Do Not See the Woman Hidden in the Forest: Surrealism and the Feminine,” an essay published in the ‘Dreamers Awake’ exhibition catalogue, art historian Dr. Alyce Mahon points out the way images from Callis’ Early Color Portfolio (1976) echos the work of Hans Bellmer, a male photographer known for his manipulation and rearrangement of the female form. Mahon writes, “And yet, where the clinical documentary mood of Bellmer’s intimate images is augmented by his black-and-white film, a kitsch commercial quality emerges in Callis’ use of colour and props. She continues [...] Bellmer’s use of photography as fabrication, challenging its ‘truthful’ status in highly staged images.” Of course, Callis’ photographs function as more than just a response to the work of men. Her work manages to strike the rarely occupied space between playful and nightmarish, and for me, the images are somehow as pleasant to look at as they are unsettling.
I said "one of" my favorite examples because there are far too many beautiful things on display throughout this exhibition for me to elaborate on all of the pieces I responded to. It seemed like every time I turned the corner walking through ‘Dreamers Awake,’ I lost my breath again, from the flowery, wild-limbed porcelain sculptures of Rachel Kneebone to the large-scale, ghostly-sweet paintings of Tomoko Kashiki. Ultimately, all I can do is provide some pictures throughout this blog post and hope that you’ll click through to check out more of these wonderful artists.
If you happen to be in London any time between now and September 17th, I sincerely urge you to run, not walk, to White Cube Bermondsey and check out ‘Dreamers Awake’ for yourself, because as a whole, it is really quite a curatorial feat. Despite the vastness of subject matter, media, and style on display here, every work in this exhibition is its own form of ‘refigured’ Surrealism, every artist performing her own act of reclamation — a taking back of the presence and the body of that ‘woman’ the men of Surrealism spent lifetimes dreaming about and asking, finally, “what does she dream about?”
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.