The recent spate of high-profile retrospectives of early-twentieth century women artists suggests that the sexual politics of modernism have come under renewed scrutiny. Some instances are equally recuperative, such as the recent Eileen Gray exhibition (Centre Pompidou and IMMA in 2013), the first and long overdue survey of this iconic female artist, designer and architect. Others seek to reinvigorate the work of an already-esteemed practitioner for a new audience and
new generation: the Hannah Höch retrospective currently at London’s Whitechapel Gallery was the first major exhibition of this pioneering artist in the United Kingdom. In a bold move, at least half of this show of her sharp-witted photomontages, which commandeer mass media imagery for social critique, was made up of pieces produced after 1945, relegating her more famous Dada montages to only part of the story. Arguably, the most ambitious exhibitions are those that propose alternative narratives to existing ones, serving to diversify perceptions of an artist’s contribution to modernism. Thus Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist sought to illuminate the role of Irish history and folklore in an oeuvre permeated by syncretic mythologies, alchemy, fairy tales and the occult, expanding the Anglo-Franco- Mexican trajectory of her work to incorporate the Irish tales of her childhood. The Meret Oppenheim retrospective, meanwhile, asserted that her most significant contribution to feminist art history was her complex, androgyne persona that repeatedly struggled to confront and change social barriers and expectations.
As manifold as their contributions may be, what all of these practitioners share in art historiography is their having been overshadowed by their male counterparts, either as muses, lovers, epigones, or all three. Gray’s now-canonical house E1027 was long thought to be the work of star architect Le Corbusier, a jealous admirer of her work who painted—stark naked no less—garish cubist murals on the building’s walls after she had moved out of the premises. Höch’s contributions were famously consigned to sandwich-and-coffee conjuring in one dominant historical account of Dada (now frequently maligned for it). Carrington was known as the lover of dada-surrealist Max Ernst who painted ‘private’ pictures on the side. Oppenheim was the stunningly beautiful nude in surrealist photographs, Ernst’s lover, and renowned for a single, infamous, fur-covered teacup.
Revising history not just to recuperate or redeem but to incorporate the proliferation of artistic tactics and contributions, ranging from resistant embodiment to avant-garde tapestries, begins to illuminate the particular historical complications of being a woman and an artist in the early twentieth century. Indeed, a certain anxiety or defensiveness tends to accompany exhibitions and catalogues of Oppenheim’s art because many of her works appear either to recoup the triumph of the teacup (a problematic success for Oppenheim, as she repeatedly avowed) – fur covers gloves, festoons beer steins, swaddles masks, is awkwardly affixed to knives—or cede to a personal vocabulary of assemblages, drawings, and paintings that often lack either conviction or the productive tensions that allow works to resonate powerfully in the circumstantial beholder. Though informed by feminism, psychoanalysis and Jungian frameworks, Oppenheim’s enigmatic and searching works do not reliably issue the frisson or psychic charge that makes the work of Louise Bourgeois or Rosemarie Trockel – artists who use similar tactics – so consistently compelling. Though when Oppenheim hits the mark, the work is by turns mordantly witty, trenchantly observed, and engrossingly disturbing.
By organizing Oppenheim’s works thematically rather than chronologically, the Berlin iteration of the exhibition inadvertently reinforced the sense of feeble repetitions, as not all fur-covered objects or absurd juxtapositions are equally resonant. But the motivation behind this choice was presumably to conceal the significant gap in Oppenheim’s production that ensued from a paralyzing depression and artistic crisis that gripped her from 1937-1954. Though a protective move, this strategy inadvertently aligns itself with a heroic narrative in which the artist moves from strength to strength. But that significant gap in production is illuminating in historical rather than individual terms, a social symptom not a personal failure that is worth investigating. ‘Suicides, breakdowns, and depressions haunt the histories of the women artists in the orbit of Surrealism,’ avers Abigail Solomon-Godeau in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, noting that it was an essentially male movement with a strong internal hierarchies and collective masculine mythology. Oppenheim’s experience is the story of being a female with ambition in a man’s world. The posthumous narratives of Oppenheim as a confident, sexually liberated young woman who took Paris by storm, made the men fall in love with her, and posed confidently for outré photographs by Man Ray, tell only half the story, for the inner coordinates included doubt, marginalization and subordination. As Oppenheim later described her fifteen-year psychic immobilization: ‘I felt as if millennia of discrimination against women were resting on my shoulders, as if embodied in my feelings of inferiority’.
The exhibition catalogue makes a crucial intervention, aiming to generate a serious contribution to the scholarship on Oppenheim, simultaneously deepening and expanding frameworks with which to understand her critical project. Thoughtfully argued and theoretically astute thematic essays provide indepth studies of fundamental issues in Oppenheim’s oeuvre. Heike Eipeldauer’s insightful essay ‘Meret Oppenheim’s Masquerades’, for instance, begins with a rather inauspicious 1940 portrait of Oppenheim painted by her friend Irène Zirkinden, which depicts Oppenheim arrested in reverie while applying makeup before a mirror. Eipeldauer’s deft interpretation transforms this somewhat pedestrian picture into a canny introduction to the identity politics of transformation. The gamut of masks, masquerades, make-up, jewelry, costumes, clothing choices and strategic self-presentation that wove their way through Oppenheim’s life and art for decades comprised her social artillery, argues Eipeldauer, also illuminating the tactics of Oppenheim’s supposed fallow period. These objects and practices facilitated transformations – some temporary and ephemeral, others reified through repetition – that allowed the subject to challenge personal and social limitations by putting on another skin. Oppenheim’s fascination with the mask and masquerade represents what Reinhard Oleschanski has called a ‘hypothesis of another form of existence’, enabling Oppenheim to playfully cope with the parochialism, conservatism, chauvinism and traditionalism of Switzerland, where she returned with the onset of World War II. Oppenheim’s designs reveal the strangeness of the familiar, allowing the wearer to take on a different habitus in a subversive, pleasurable way, putting levity back into the experience of difference.
If Oppenheim’s persona and portable constructions broker the experience of otherness in everyday life, her fetishistic objects, as Solomon- Godeau demonstrates in ‘Fetishism Unbound’, confront the ‘fears, fantasies and desires of the male unconscious’ head on. Central to artistic practice of the 1920s, the ‘lure of the fetish’ offered a way to investigate both the erotic and auratic charge of the object world. It is, as Solomon-Godeau observes, ‘an object good to think with’, particularly since commodity culture has made fetishists of us all. The sexualization of consumption, she notes, is already implicit in the commodity fetish. Yet strictly speaking, the fetishistic operations of desire and disavowal are only available to the male subject, according to Sigmund Freud, as the fetish symbolizes the fear of castration, allaying the anxiety of sexual difference yet pointing directly to it. Women, who are the object of fear because of their phallic lack, cannot in turn be fetishists. Oppenheim herself was well aware of the mechanisms of male fetishism: as a young, strikingly beautiful woman who was repeatedly objectified in Surrealist photography, she represented its corporeal embodiment—the erotic femme-enfant. Her tactic, Solomon-Godeau argues, was to resignify fetishism from within, imitating its operations to issue a subversive charge. Her Bon appétit Marcel! (The White Queen) of 1966 offers up a primitive female form made of baked dough, precisely placed on a napkin, arranged on a octagonal plate, presented on the grid of a chessboard, with fork and knife, ready to eat. A bony partridge spine embedded in its fleshy matter cleaves the queen into suggestively labial form, though its teeth-like ridges menace rather than entice consumption. Ambivalence is made physical: the edible woman as vagina dentata threatens lingual castration. Eat up and choke, Marcel. Chess is war.
In contrast to the Oppenheim exhibition, the show of Leonora Carrington’s works at the Irish Museum of Modern Art thematized Carrington’s mental breakdown, devoting one room of the exhibition to the episode. This move reflects Carrington’s own continuing artistic engagement with the traumatic experience, including several artworks and a novel Down Below, which chronicled her incarceration at a mental institution in Santander. The exhibition emphasized Carrington’s abiding interest in metamorphosis and the fantastic, starting with the imaginative drawings of her youth, to suggest that Carrington’s encounter with Surrealism though her famous lover Max Ernst was but an interlude in a longstanding investment in the alchemical and the supernatural. This investment originated in Irish mythic tales imparted by her Irish mother and nanny during her English childhood and intensified in Mexico, where magical realism flourished. In contrast to the ambitious Eileen Gray exhibition shown concurrently in IMMA’s main galleries (which had no Irish catalogue), this modest exhibition of Carrington’s works was accompanied by a luxurious IMMA catalogue replete with colour reproductions and an eye-catching jacket design, whose shiny bronze surface is excised in the upper right to reveal an ovoid window onto Carrington’s 1951 painting Three Women with Crows. Though the production values are high, scholarly and editorial attention to its content would have benefited from more exacting scrutiny, beginning with the unfortunate misspelling of “Puplishers” on the title page. The essays are largely descriptive, informational and celebratory, recruiting biographical anecdote and cultural context to explain Carrington’s art. How these works might be understood to reconfigure the existing narratives of modern art and Carrington’s interventions is left to the imagination. Curator Seán Kissane’s essay ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ proposes to address this question from the outset, asking rather unreflectively, ‘But did her work have a function or was it simply “Art for Art’s sake?”’, not only suggesting that autonomous art does not have a function, not even a social or humanistic one, but also inadvertently undermining the import of his own profession. Haphazardly argued, Kissane pursues what seems to be a post-colonialist critical thread in Carrington’s work, beginning with her references to Mexican political history, continuing with invocations of Donne, Dante and the Bible, and culminating in possible Celtic interpretations of The Giantess (Guardian of the Egg) of 1947, a provocative reading which at last critically illuminates the premise of the show (and the essay title). Most critically ambitious is Alyce Mahon’s contribution, which asserts that Carrington, through recourse to the Celtic goddess, promoted the image of woman as active subject, making her unique among the women Surrealists offered up in comparison. In this paradigm, females have the power to initiate others into a personal mythic universe, though the danger here is that we find ourselves in a solipsistic preserve.
Both exhibitions and accompanying publications point the way toward a narrative of early twentieth-century female artistic production that illuminates rather than obscures the complexities of negotiating identity and art in a transitional historical period— politically, socially, and aesthetically. Analyzing the difficulties while at the same time highlighting their unique, subversive, contrary strategies and achievements brings us closer to understanding what makes the work of these practitioners interesting and exemplary today, not least because the inequities and challenges still exist.