On Art: Women Look at Themselves

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Stella Snead (1910-2006), “Sulky Lion,” 1943. Oil on canvas, 38 x 25 in.

As we mourn the loss of Grumpy Cat, it’s a comfort to know that Sulky Lion is still with us, specifically at the Heather James Gallery in Manhattan, where he is a focal point of the current exhibition, “The Female Gaze,” on view through July 31.

The title is a twist on the much-maligned “male gaze,” which objectifies women and casts them in subordinate roles in the creative process. In this instance, however, the artists turn their gaze less often on the opposite sex than on themselves, exploring their inner lives using visual metaphors and imaginative symbolism. There have been other exhibitions on the topic, but this one narrows the field to Surrealism, with its capacity for fantasy, myth-making and dream imagery. And there’s no lack of material, since Surrealism is still a significant impulse in contemporary art. Two of the featured artists, Nancy Youdelman and Aube Elléouët — the daughter of Surrealism’s founder, AndréBreton, and the artist Jacqueline Lamba, another overlooked member of the movement — are among those who carry it on today.

The frowning feline is the creation of Stella Snead, a British-born painter associated with the Surrealists in the 1940s. She is one of the 15 artists featured in the show, subtitled “Women Surrealists in the Americas and Europe,” a wide-ranging survey that includes well-known artists like Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Magdalena Abakanowicz, as well as more obscure figures such as Snead, who withdrew from the art world in the 1950s and devoted herself to travel and photography. Like several other artists in the show, Snead has created a hybrid creature that embodies human emotion, transcending physical reality to explore aspects of the psyche. With green-rimmed eyes and pursed lips, her anthropomorphic lion is attended by a winged woman clad in red, suggesting a devilish spirit that inflames his jealousy.

Other examples of hybrids include “Sphinx Ariene,” by Leonor Fini, and Manina Tischler’s “Day to Night,” an attenuated figure, seemingly made of delicate strands of wire, that spreads her leaf-like wings toward the sun, while her dreamy, heart-shaped head is lighted by moonglow. Austrian-born Tischler was married to the Surrealist poet Alain Jouffroy, with whom she collaborated. Breton declared her to be “a born Surrealist,” and included her work in exhibitions and publications. Fini, a native of Argentina, was also a member of the Surrealist circle in Paris, where she was one of Max Ernst’s lovers. Her sphinx’s sweet, feminine face and come-hither expression contrast disconcertingly with the formidable power of her lioness body.

As in Tischler’s day-night dichotomy, the moon, symbolic of the feminine principle, is a prominent feature of several works. Moody nocturnes by Gertrude Abercrombie, a largely self-taught painter who lived and worked in Chicago, hark back to the visionary imagery of Albert Pinkham Ryder, but refer to the artist’s own situation. As she once said, “it is always myself that I paint.” Isolated female figures in dark, desolate settings reveal her struggles, most notably in “Diana Enters the Landscape,” which shows her carrying her infant daughter across a bridge that represents her passage into motherhood. In Elléouët’s cheeky collage, “Intrusion,” a moon-woman intervenes in the creation story, as told in Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling fresco. Before God’s finger can touch Adam’s, the female force takes hold and hijacks the process, as if to insist, ladies first!

A number of the artists spent time in Mexico, where the folkloric tradition contributed to their artistic development. This accounts to some extent for Kahlo’s rejection of the Surrealist label, since her deeply personal art reflects the traditional symbolism of her native country, as well as her efforts to overcome physical and mental suffering. Although championed by Breton, she remained aloof from Surrealism, which she claimed was “bourgeois.” Nor was she the only one to bristle at labels. After Tanning was chosen for “31 Women,” a 1943 show at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of this Century (through which she met and later married Max Ernst), she vehemently objected to being classified as a “woman artist” and refused to participate in all-female shows. Nor would her posthumous foundation lend to the current exhibition, so she is represented by loans from other sources.

Tanning’s disapproval notwithstanding, her introspective approach aligns her with the other artists in this selection, and with Surrealists in general, irrespective of their sex. They seek to mine the unconscious, celebrate what emerges, and invite others to follow where it leads.

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