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The Militant Muse: Love, war and the women of Surrealism by Whitney Chadwick

24 November 2017

Suzanne Fagence Cooper on Surrealist women artists, their lives and lovers

“THEY weren’t artists”: in Roland Penrose’s opinion, his two wives, Valentine Boué and Lee Miller, were merely beguiling muses. But Chadwick’s engaging biographical studies of Surrealist women proves Penrose wrong. She deftly weaves together the two women’s stories of creativity — Valentine was a poet, Lee a photographer and cook — with pen portraits of other female friends, lovers, and collaborators in the Surrealist movement.

In each chapter, she presents a pair of women, consciously echoing the doubled and overlapping figures, the alter-egos and poupées, that emerged in many of their artworks.

We are drawn into the complex amitiés of Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington (the lover of Max Ernst), and Jacqueline Lamba (André Breton’s wife), as Chadwick follows the relationships across fluid boundaries of gender, language, and geography.

Artists who had gathered in the cafés of Paris were exiled by the onset of war to Marseilles, Algeria, New York, and Mexico, supporting each other through shared poems, letters, and drawings. The women wrote in French, English, and Spanish. In occupied Jersey, the unconventional couple Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe faced the death penalty for translating anti-war pamphlets into German and Czech. They used the International Bulletin of Surrealism as their lexicon.

Subversion, resistance, dressing up, and playing mind-games: these had been deployed by the avant-garde for 20 years, but were now deadly serious.

As Chadwick unravels the intricacies of her many sources, we are treated to a kaleidoscopic encounter, with multiple voices and images. Often, the women describe themselves as androgynous, or metamorphosing — becoming butterflies, horses, or creatures rose-coloured and furred. They conjure fire and water, like Valentine searching in India for her “space of red fire . . . the space of liquid white”.

Lamba writes, for example, in 1944, that her paintings are luminous, like “a rainbow in the fullness of night”. We watch her develop her own artistic identity, from her first encounter with André Breton to her one-woman exhibition in New York. Breton called her a “naiad”, his “Ondine”.

Yes, Lamba had performed as a nude underwater dancer in a Paris nightclub, but she transcended Breton’s definition of her as simply “scandalously beautiful”. Chadwick suggests that Lamba’s charisma was seen more clearly through the undulations of a pane of glass, by Claude Cahun and her camera.

Alice Rahon Paalen, when she was enamoured of Valentine Penrose, expressed the female artist’s desire to transcend the decorative. She wrote of “A woman who was beautiful One day Removed her face. . . Safe from the stares of mirrors and from looks of love.”

Chadwick’s eloquence and research enable us to appreciate the substance of these women at last.


Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a cultural historian with an interest in Victorian and 20th-century Britain. She is currently teaching at the University of York.


The Militant Muse: Love, war and the women of Surrealism
Whitney Chadwick
Thames & Hudson £24.95
Church Times Bookshop £22.45

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