Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Luminous continent

Penelope Rosemont redraws the surrealist map.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Mention the word "surrealism" and chances are you'll flash on Salvador Dali's languidly blue soft watches or perhaps René Magritte's ubiquitous man in a top hat quietly stepping out of a painting. If you're a classic film buff, you might remember -- though you wish you couldn't -- Luis Buñuel's 1928 proto-slasher, Un Chien Andalou, which shows, ever so calmly, a razor slitting a young woman's eye. In the script, this scene is simply called "Once Upon a Time."

If your cultural references tend to be literary, surrealism will evoke the "convulsive beauty" of French poetry written by André Breton and his close associates, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos and Benjamin Peret, among others. But any way you look at it, in an admiring close-up or a disdainful sweep, the surrealist chessboard appears eminently white, male and mostly French.

Penelope Rosemont's international anthology of surrealist women attempts to debunk this chauvinistic state of affairs. She goes at these hardened biases and misrepresentations with the combined arsenals of a mathematician, field researcher, archivist and primary witness.

Not only is she bound by her rigorous agenda to demonstrate that this celebrated intellectual and artistic movement has from its inception thrived on the contributions of its female members, but to reveal an unprecedented global vision that puts to shame the tired, Eurocentric versions we've come to believe. There's something hallucinatory and yet so poignant about the collection's scope and the editor's math-obsessed discoveries --97 women, 28 countries, 300 selections -- which at times read like a somber list of the disappeared and, at others, like a triumphant feminist tract, shouting "We are legions."

Meticulously edited and organized in six chronological periods -- from surrealism's 1924 origins to the present, -- Surrealist Women redesigns the topography in direct opposition to nationalist ideologies. Like the oversized letters on an imaginary map, Rosemont's project marks a new continent that runs from Paris to Fort-de-France, from Prague to New York, from Buenos Aires to Montreal, highlighting unknown epicenters of surrealist activity, exploding like a thousand gunshots in the night.

A man believes he has photographed the hair of the woman he loves, mingled with bits of straw, as she sleeps in the field. But in the developed snapshot there appear a thousand divergent arms, shining fists, weapons; we see that it's the photo of a riot.

-- Claude Cahun

Beyond the radical international aspect, what engages the reader is Rosemont's refusal to give center stage to the few rare women who have managed to penetrate the walls of the male enclave and make a name for themselves: Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Nancy Cunard. With unshakeable generosity elevated to a political stance, Rosemont is determined to include every woman who left a mark on the movement, whether its form be a formidable body of work or a single game played in the surrealist salons. But what if posterity cannot locate even the smallest scrap of someone's drawing or poem? Let fiction speak for her then!

Case in point: The legendary Nadja -- who more than anyone embodied the surrealist qualities and who inspired Breton's most famous book detailing his marvelous encounter with her -- is represented in the anthology by 10 statements he quoted in Nadja. In this noble reversal, Rosemont strives to endow the surrealist heroine with a voice of her own, to move her from adored object to subject, even if it's through a ventrilolquist trick: As Breton has her say, "With the end of my breath, which is the beginning of yours."

In the vast democracy of women's surrealist art, poets paint, painters write, dancers and filmmakers theorize, lending this compilation the mad gaiety of a carnival or a May Day parade where dream, revolt, freedom and desire -- all quintessential surrealist slogans -- are sung to the strains of "The Internationale."

Feminist scholars in search of new fields will find here a gold mine of possible inquiries. Inevitably, some readers will rejoice at the discovery that behind Max Ernst there is the splendid figure of Dorothea Tanning; behind Tristan Tzara, that of the painter and art critic Greta Knutson; and behind Aimé Césaire, that of Suzanne Césaire, the keen thinker and playwright.

But ultimately, Surrealist Women asks each one of us to make our own marvelous encounters. For some, these might be with the luminous writings of Joyce Mansour, Annie LeBrun or Rikki Ducornet -- for others, the radical texts of Jayne Cortez, Gisèle Prassinos, Nelly Kaplan or Carmen Bruna.

In the words of "one of the 'live wires' of surrealism," Vera Hérold: "And in one spasm, all tongues will be untied."

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