Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Pointed Out Like the Stars: Women and the Avant-Garde

I was 21 when I entered graduate school for the first time, and while it was mostly a psychological and academic disaster for me, one very important thing happened that affected me for the rest of my life. I discovered Dada. I can’t remember what precipitated my discovery of Dada. Something in my memory tells me that it was just an accident of “surfing” the library stacks. What I do remember is my first book of Dada that I came across and checked out: 7 Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries by Tristan Tzara . I remember being hooked the first time I opened the book. A little bit later, I came across of one Tzara’s poems, “Le printemps,” or “Springtime,” of which I can still, 30 years later, recite the first line or two in French. I could not tell you what about the work attracted me, but it made me happy, then, as now. It was delightful in its esoteric non-sense and at the same time, made me feel liberated. To a very young graduate student in English, an artistic and literary movement that could inspire playfulness in literature, as opposed to weighed down with assignments that felt oppressive, made me rediscover and remember my love for literature. Even now, 30 years later, picking up a book about Dada or Surrealism, going to an exhibit, still has the same ecstatic effect on me.

At that time, I wasn’t thinking about women in the avant-garde. I didn’t think about the fact that women were not highly visible among avant-garde movements. Frankly, women were not highly visible in most literary movements. The women involved in literary movements were anomalies. That was what made them special—a woman among so many male writers. Moreover, this was the middle 1980s. Growing up female in the 1970s, in the midst of second wave feminism, which I was also oblivious to at the time, I was raised to believe that I could do anything, participate in anything. When, years later, I did enter the fray of discussions about women in the avant-garde, I would initially assume that, sure, women were not represented, but that was then and this is now. Moreover, criticism of the lack of (visible) women that were made, either historically or in the present, did not apply to me. I did not see myself as frivolous, I was not a “girly-girl.” I was a young woman who could hold her own with any boy or man, especially when it came to intellect. I was special, like those other women. If there were not very many women historically in the avant-garde, that did not affect the women of today who could do whatever they chose to do. It would not be until years later that I would question where the women of the avant-garde were and why no one seemed to be talking about them. It seemed some of them had to become visible to me before I could ask where the rest of them were.

Fast forward to November 2016. I attend a 100th anniversary of Dada celebration at a small gallery in Chicago, where I meet Penelope Rosemont herself, the legendary American Surrealist from Chicago who had, by all accounts, met Andre Breton and received, along with her husband Franklin, Breton’s blessing to start a Surrealist group in the United States. As this is the last weekend of the exhibition, attendance is slight. The four people in the room at the time, myself included, look and comment on the irony that 100 years later, it is a group of women exclusively that are celebrating Dada. The tide has turned.

The Avant-Garde: A Man’s World?

When you think of Dada and Surrealism, the “first” major avant-gardes, what names come to mind? Number one is probably Andre Breton. Marcel Duchamp. Tristan Tzara. Man Ray. Salvador Dali. It is only once we have used up most of the male names that we might remember Leonora Carrington, or Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, Frida Kahlo, Mary Laban, Sophie Tauber, Baroness Elsa, or Mina Loy. When we think about contemporary scholarship on women in the avant-garde or any literary movement, we can look at the numbers and who gets published in major anthologies, how the women get counted and talked about in that movement, and who the scholars are that are “writing women back into the canon.”

Surrealist Women by the numbers

In 1998, Penelope Rosemont published a very influential volume entitled Surrealist Women. The anthology includes a total of just under 100 women, although she drew from a much higher number. Many of them are the most prominent names in Surrealism, Nancy Cunard, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, etc. Rosemont describes her method in detail:

I consulted a vast number of surrealist journals, exhibition catalogues, and other publications. Whenever I came across the name of a woman, I noted it on a file card. According to these cards, some three hundred women—at one time or another, to one degree or another—have taken part in the international Surrealist Movement. (xxxvi).

Three hundred women, and yet at best, most people even in the know could probably only name about 25 women from Dada and Surrealism combined, maybe 50 if they are really knowledgeable.

In that volume, organized chronologically, there are 11 women from the 1920s and 24 different women published in the 1930s, (vii-x) the period when according to Mary Ann Caws, women began to become more visible within Surrealism (Surrealism and Woman, 2). There were 17 unique women in the section before the end of WWII, and 27 unique women listed as post-War, from the end of the WWII to 1960. In period of the 1960s and 70s there are 24 unique women published, and 16 in the final chapter, that goes up to the 1990s (Surrealist Women, x-xx).

Contrast this with Willard Bohn’s 1993 anthology, The Dada Market: An Anthology of Poetry, which contains only 4 women out of 42 poets: Celine Arnauld, Baroness Elsa von Freitag-Loringhoven, Emmy Hennings, and Mina Loy (vii). Arsenal: Surrealist Subversions, a journal which was edited by Rosemont’s own Chicago Surrealist Group and was published sporadically in the 1970s and 80s had approximately 15 different women writers and artists in the issue I examined, as well as statements from a number of Surrealist groups worldwide which no doubt (or hopefully) included women, out of roughly 70 entries (1).

Today, there are also any number of Facebook pages devoted to contemporary Surrealist practices. As of February 15th, looking at two different FB pages, Surrealist Revolution and Surrealism and Esotericism, there were 155 women out of 532 members of Surrealist Revolution and 67 women out of 211 total members of Surrealism and Esotericism, which comes to roughly 1/3 in each group (and there is some overlap between the two lists, but there are also some discrete names a well). There were a few cases where the names were ambiguous and not obviously women, and which further had no identifying pictures, so I counted those as men. However, it is the men who are more visible on these lists, whereas the women tend to “lurk” on these particular lists, mostly posting when they have something to share, as opposed to getting involved in discussions. Is this because they have been discouraged in the past? Is it because they are busy being artists and moms and wives and employees—maybe being teachers of art and/or students--all in varying proportions and simply don’t have time? Are they doing Surrealism as opposed to talking about it? Is it something else altogether for some of them?

In fact, when I posted something to these two lists , telling a little bit about my project and asking them to respond to my gmail account, lists which I regularly participate in and which were selected for that very reason, I got no responses at all and only one man “liked” my comment. Is it possible that no women got word of my call to participate? Is it that women don’t want to think about their participation in avant-garde movements or assume, like I did, that the issue is one of history and not a current concern? Are they tired of talking about it? I will never know, of course, why my call failed to generate a single response, but those questions are interesting to speculate on, in and of themselves. I was disappointed. I wanted to know if other women’s experiences were the same as mine were, what their paths were to the avant-garde. For the moment, I will have to defer this knowledge.

There is also the issue of women not wanting to be featured in women-only anthologies. Rosemont talks about this in the introduction to Surrealist Women when she talks about Anne Ethuin, who “declined to participate in one such ‘No Men Allowed’ collection” (xxx). Ethuin responded by writing:

I have never thought that art and poetry could have a sex. On days when I feel the urge to write or create images, I do not decide before I begin that I am going to make ‘a woman’s work. I have lived and worked for forty-seven years in a perfectly mixed milieu and I have no intention of changing now. (qtd in Rosemont, Surrealist Women, xxxi).

Rosemont’s response to a statement like this is that she sees Surrealist Women as being about “reintegration . . . to make it impossible—or at least inexcusable—for student of surrealism to continue to ignore” these women and their writings. This is what Royce and Kirsch would call the work of “historical rescue, recovery, and (re)inscription” that feminist scholars engage in (20).

Men in the Avant-Garde: Oppressors or Champions of Women?

There is some disagreement among scholars about how complicit the Dada and Surrealist men were in suppressing the history of that/those movement(s) . Some, like Penelope Rosemont, say that the men deeply respected the women in the movement and supported women’s rights. Others say that the men used the women as sexual beings (or objects) to show how sexually liberated the male artists were, while still not affording the women their own independence and sexuality. In the introduction to Women in Dada, Naomi Sawelson-Gorse has some fairly biting things to say about the male attitudes towards women, as expressed in their own writings and manifestos. Sawelson-Gorse discusses New York Dadaist Paul Haviland, who talked about machines as female in not-so-flattering terms:

Man made machine in his own image. She has limbs which act . . . a nervous system through which runs electricity . . . The machine is his ‘daughter born without a mother.’ This is why he loves her. (xi).

She also cites Francis Picabia, who, writing in a similar vein, that “the machine is yet at a dependent stage . . . she submits to his will but he must direct her activities. Sawelson-Gorse sees the irony here, declaring that “this movement of absolute rebellion was also one of oppression” (xii). She also cites a manifesto by Tzara (my man!) as embedded in binary difference: female concerns are superficial, bound in commodifications of bodily vanity (such as skin creams and nail polish) in direct opposition to those of the male in the innovative sphere, particularly the innovative. (xi)

There are a number of books and articles that detail and debate the Dada’s and Surrealists’ attitudes toward women, and so my intention here is not to write the “definitive” account of those attitudes by any means, nor do I intend to significantly rehash those debates. And if feminist scholars have taught us anything, it is to pay attention to the particulars, rather than the broad brushes that movements are painted with. No doubt, there were men who truly championed women, those who saw women as frivolous and not worth their attention, and those men who thought they were being liberatory and open-minded, but who missed the mark. My intention here is simply to bring up those issues as a part of the reason that women have been excluded from the canon of the avant-garde for many years. The lack of support and champions of women’s work, either consciously or unconsciously must be mentioned.

And yet, there were still a number of women who chose to be a part of Dada around the world, in New York, France, Zurich, and Berlin. Perhaps like me, they assumed that the men who wrote things like Tzara, Picabia, and Haviland had written were not writing about them. They were different, liberated, artistic. Many were suffragists . These women deserved the liberation that Dada and similar movements promised. Perhaps these women, faced with no real alternative in men’s perceptions of them, decided to cast their lot with Dadaism, which was at least politically and artistically liberating.

In the 1970s, French feminist and Surrealist Helene Cixous wrote that she “has no right to write within your logic: nowhere to write from.” Because she is a woman, she has “no fatherland, no legitimate history. No certainties, no property. ” With no “fatherland,” no history or tradition, a woman has no “genre,” she feels an allegiance to. It is all up for grabs for her to make her own history, her own traditions. What better place, then, for women in the early 20th century than in the Dada movement, even if the men didn’t totally support them. The women in and affiliated or associated with Dada were liberated, despite these male attitudes, including Baroness Elsa, Mina Loy, Sophie Tauber, Emmy Hennings, and many more. Being liberated does not always equal visibility or acceptance. I was told by someone online, for instance, that Emmy Hennings, girlfriend and later wife of Hugo Ball, who wrote poetry and participated in the Cabaret Voltaire, was not an artist and was simply a prostitute. This despite the fact that she appeared in plenty of anthologies and wrote the introduction to Ball’s memoir Flight Out of Time.

Another aspect that the Hennings story brings to light and that also threatens to obscure women’s recognition within these movements is the fact that very often the women participants were the wives or girlfriends of the men involved in the movement. Thus seen as “appendages” of the men, their participation is subsumed into the man’s artistic participation, at least in the eyes of critics, if we are to accept Rosemont’s story. Elise Breton, Suzanne Duchamp, Jeanette Tanguy, Nadja, and Gala Dali are just a few of the women who are often noted as wives and girlfriends, as “muses,” but rarely recognized as artists in their own right.

Mary Ann Caws contends that this is part of the problematic history of Surrealism itself, when she says that “although the work is praised, the woman is not granted autonomous artist powers” (2). Caws also notes that women “joined Surrealism through personal relationships with male members” (2). Was it that the women actually participated because their husbands or partners were Surrealists, or was it that the men were attracted to the women because they shared similar interests in art and attitudes toward creativity?

By the numbers: contemporary redux

The erasure of women from avant-garde and experimental histories continues with contemporary movements of today, feminism notwithstanding. I remember reading a quote by Gregory Corso of the “Beat Generation” who said (and I paraphrase) “sure there were women there [among the Beats] and someday people will write about them.” I had talked to Maria Damon, professor at the University of Minnesota and a beat generation scholar/apologist about that quote and she told me “Gregory Corso is such a mess. He is not one to be responsible for that kind of scholarship.” The point is not that Gregory Corso himself should be responsible for bringing those writers to light, but as Angela Davis famously said, “Lift as you climb.” In other words, male authors could or should stop allowing the story of the “holy trinity” of the Beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs—from being the only history of the Beat movement and take greater pains to mention some of the women writers, besides Dianne DiPrima, who were there and worked with them, read by their sides, and did much more than sleep with them, cook their dinners, etc. As the men are lifted up, they should also be mentioning and lifting up the women with whom they built the movement, not waiting for someone else to “discover” those writers, who should have already been “discovered” by virtue of their participation.

The Language Poets, inheritors of the Dada tradition, do a slightly better job, with about a dozen women writers out of a 280 page anthology, The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, in which most articles, poetry, and fiction run from 1-3 pages (v-viii). Being generous, this means that there is approximately 36 pages worth of women’s writing in this book. At a Conceptual Poetics conference that I attended in 2007, which featured many prominent Language Poets, nearly half of the attendees were women, yet we were still having discussions about gender, since the then-upcoming Conceptual Poetics anthology, which ended up being published in 2011 under the name Against Expression and was edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, was not going to reflect women’s participation and the nearly equal participation of women to men at the conference. And as usual with discussions like this, most of the men got defensive . Marjorie Perloff sided with the men, saying something to the effect that it wasn’t their job to ensure equal participation of men and women. The finished anthology has approximately 100-110 pages of women’s writing, representing approximately 25 women, out of a total of 593 pages (vii-xvi).

Women as Scholars of the Avant-Garde

Many women have been written back into the histories of the avant-garde, and this is, no doubt, due to women becoming scholars of the avant-garde as well. One of the most prominent and prolific of these is Mary Ann Caws, who has edited and translated dozens of books by and about avant-garde writers, has edited or contributed to more than a dozen books specifically about women in and around the avant-garde, including the 1991 critical edition of Surrealism and Women. In addition to Caws, there are a number of other women scholars of the avant-garde, including Whitney Chadwick, who has written about Frida Kahlo and other women of the avant-garde, or scholar Patricia Allmer, who is almost as prolific a writer on the avant-garde as Caws is. As more women not only enter the academy, but show an interest in the avant-garde, we learn more about women of the avant-garde. Thus, it is important to know the names of the scholars who are unearthing women buried under the mounds of male artists that have obscured their own contributions. After all, if, as Comte L’autremont is endlessly quoted in Surrealist book after Surrealist book, “poetry must be made by all,” then that must include women, as part of that “all.”

Echoing Cixous’ comments about how women have “no fatherland” and no stable place from which to write, Jacquline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch argue in Feminist Rhetorical Practices that women “need to claim a space for research at the edges (rather than the center) of the field, to claim an interdisciplinary space in the field” (6). Thus, it seems that to be female is to be inherently avant-garde, whether you are an artist or a scholar. What we are doing is inherently revolutionary and liberatory.

In addition to publishing the anthology Surrealist Women in 1998, Penelope Rosemont, a member of the Chicago Surrealists, has brought women like Toyen to light in her own memoirs and manifestos, as well as casually mentioning other women, as if to say that their participation in Surrealism should not be seen as shocking or separate, but to simply be recognized as being in the room. Of course, another way that women make themselves known, both in and outside of avant-garde movements is to write their own memoirs. Penelope Rosemont has written several autobiographical books, including Dreams and Everyday Life and Surrealist Experiences: 1001 Dawns, 221 Midnights and a co-authored a book entitled The Forecast is Hot! Tracts and Other Declarations of the Surrealist Movement in the United States, all of which talk about Rosemont’s own experiences with the Surrealists in Paris in the late 1960s and beyond. Yet Rosemont’s own participation in Surrealism has been questioned in the behind-the-scene discussions of her Wikipedia page, in which one person kept taking down references to her having met Andre Breton and having Breton's blessing for a Surrealist Group in Chicago, claiming there is no evidence that she and her husband Franklin had ever met Breton. I, personally, have never heard of someone’s memoirs being questioned in such a manner, unless it is proven that the memoir is false. This incident is emblematic of the struggles that women face to be included in the canon of the avant-garde. There is no such discussion on Franklin Rosemont’s page.

Scholarship of Women in the Avant-Garde: Who “Counts”

Even now, in 2017, when I went to the Documenting Dada Exhibit at the University of Iowa, there were two pages from the Dadaist journal 391 that had artwork done by women. It was mentioned in the program, but the women’s names were omitted. This despite the fact they were clearly visible on the pages and that someone could have investigated further and written about them. (The names were not as visible/legible through the class that contained the pages.) Were they anomalies in the Dada movement, only published or participating once or for a very short period of time? Or were they actively involved? As of 2017, apparently we do not know the answers to that question.

Rosemont contends that “until very recently most of the literature on women surrealists was written by other surrealists, male and female.” She goes on to note that “if these women remain little known to the larger reading public it is because critics and scholars have been shirking their responsibilities” (xxx). In fact, canon development is and remains a significant issue for women writers of all kinds, as has been documented by feminist scholars for approximately 50 years. Who is left in the canon are usually the “founders” of movements and the most visible, through the writing of their memoirs. Those are often men, as well. That said, even Andre Breton’s 1966 volume Surrealism and Painting has 52 discrete chapters on painters, of which 5 are about women (Breton, np). In a book entitled Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism by leading Surrealist Philip Souppault, translated from the French and published in the US in 2016, there is not a single chapter on any woman. Despite that, it was hailed by many, including Paul Auster, Pierre Joris, and Andrei Codrescu who has taken up the modern cause of Surrealism and published the literary journal called Exquisite Corpse. It would seem, then, that omission is not just errors on the part of critics. The men of Surrealism have failed to mention the women who worked beside them. It is up to female scholars to look back for their heroes and bring them into the light of day.


As more women enter academia, more women get showcased and added to various canons of writing. There is no “one canon,” but rather many. There is an avant-garde canon, and because that canon is so new, it is also easily expanded to include women. However, we cannot count on men, as seemingly sympathetic as they may be, to include women—their writings, their biographies, their existence. Even recent history shows us that despite improvements over the past century, there are still blind spots that will be largely corrected by women scholars in the foreseeable future, unearthing these women.

Post-Script: Note on Method

I have chosen to use my own memories and knowledge in places and often to use that to compare what other women’s experience of the avant-garde might have been or might be. There are several places where I talk about my memories of conversations I have had with scholars, with people through Facebook, etc., as back up information, as another way of talking about what I have experienced or have talked about or have known about the avant-garde over the years.

I have also conflated Dada and Surrealism. I could add to this Italian Futurism and Russian Formalism, but I am not as familiar with the latter two movements. Dada led directly into Surrealism and a number of Surrealists, including Breton and Dali, among many many others, started off in Dada. If the transition was not seamless, it was relatively smooth and in many ways, the goals of the two movements were similar. These two movements are also considered among the first avant-gardes, from which later avant-garde and experimental literary movements would take inspiration.

Finally, I used Wikipedia here to show attitudes towards the people and subjects that I am talking about. There is a time and a place for traditional scholarship, and there is also a time and a place to talk about what is commonly known or understood in the popular imagination. I can think of no better place to trace the history of those attitudes combined with scholarship than Wikipedia.

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce, and Charles Bernstein. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Poetics of the New. Carbondale Ill.: Southern Illinois University P, 1984.
Bohn, Willard. The Dada Market: An Anthology of Poetry. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University P, 1993.
Breton, Andre. Surrealism and Painting. Simon Watson Taylor, trans. New York, NY: Icon Editions, Harper & Row P, 1966.
Caws, Mary Ann, et al, editors. Surrealism and Women. MIT P, 1991.
Cixous, Helene. Coming to Writing and Other Essays. Translated by Deborah Jensen. Harvard UP, 1991.
Dworkin, Craig and Goldsmith, Kenneth. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2011.
Facebook. “Member List,” Surrealism and Esotericism.
Facebook. “Member List,” La Revolution Surrealiste.
Rosemont, Penelope. Dreams and Everyday Life: Andre Breton, Surrealism, Rebel Worker, SDS, and the Seven Cities of Cibala, a Sixties Journal. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr. 2008.
---. Surrealist Experiences: 1001 Dawns, 221 Midnights. Surrealist Editions, Black Swan P, 2000.
---. Surrealist Women. Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1998.
Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesha E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literary Studies. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University P, 2012.
Sawselson-Gorse, Naomi, editor. Women in Dada. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1998.
Shipe, Timothy. Documenting Dada//Disseminating Dada. Exhibition Guide. Iowa City: University of Iowa Libraries, 2017.
Souppault, Phillipe. Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. Alan Bernheimer, trans. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2016.
Wikipedia. Penelope Rosemont, Talk Tab.

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