Exploring sexuality, motherhood and puberty, these are the women who blazed their own artistic trails and refused to live in the shadow of their famous partners
History has a tendency to pigeonhole women as ‘muses’ to their male partners, often forgetting the female behind such labels. These women may have inspired countless artistic creations but they also fought back by pushing the boundaries of their male contemporaries to forge their own creative place, amassing respect and followers of their own in the meantime. Let us remind ourselves that Dora Maar – one of the most iconic muses in art history, who would be celebrating her 108 birthday this week – is much more than Pablo Picasso’s unfortunately nicknamed "Weeping Woman": she was a renowned photographer whose work “Pere Ubu” achieved iconic Surrealist status and was pride of place at London’s International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. Most significantly, many of these women were already practicing artists before they coupled with their partners – not that that really matters – but to reduce them purely to ‘muses’ undermines when they challenged patriarchal ideology and paved the way for today’s trailblazing females. Here are five more essential women artists who refused to live in a man’s shadow.
Painter and poet Carrington may have been the partner and muse of German artist Max Ernst but she certainly had her own agenda. Once asked her opinion on the Surrealist group’s categorisation of women as muses she replied with a single word: “bullshit”, and was extremely important in challenging muse gender associations. During her relationship with Ernst, she viewed him as her own muse as much as he viewed her and in “Portrait of Max Ernst” she confronted the issue that she had reviled, reclaiming her own identity and reversing conventional muse associations to her advantage. At times she embodied the unstable female, immortalised by Andre Breton in his novel Nadja (1928), but she used this to her advantage; turning the stereotype on its head to reclaim the 'Surreal Woman’s power back from the men.
Many similarities can be drawn between French-Mexican artist and poet Alice Rahon, and Frida Kahlo. Like Kahlo, Rahon was married to a well-known male artist, Wolfgang Paalen, and both enjoyed same sex relationships. Although Rahon’s lesbian sexuality (she travelled to Mexico with Valentine Penrose, the first wife of British Surrealist Roland Penrose, who later married Lee Miller) often places her art in queer margins, we can instead read it as being free and raw, filled with the most intense emotions generated by another lover regardless of their gender. She was instrumental in highlighting how a woman could find inspiration in another of her sex without relegating them into submission. Her best-known poem, “Sablier couché”, is the perfect example of reflection and longing – her autobiographical account of a trapped marriage. She gave the muse a voice and we hear the freedom of her words.
LOLA ALVAREZ BRAVO
Alvarez Bravo was not a bohemian woman of muse folklore but a teacher and working photographer who refused to be resigned to her husband’s shadow. Her photographer husband Manuel Alvarez Bravo taught her how to assist him in his studio, yet he was unhappy when she expressed her own interest in the subject. Her persistence to share his camera resulted in her status of one of Mexico’s most celebrated – if not overshadowed – photographers and one of the artists instrumental in Mexico’s post-revolution regeneration. Interested in people and their lives, Alvarez Bravo ventured out into the Mexican streets, when it was deemed unsafe for women, to find her inspiration. She kept her life away from her husband’s – forging her own social circle of writers, artists and intellectuals – and when they separated, photography became her source of income as a single mother. She was also the director of Mexico’s National Institute of Fine Art and the gallery that she opened in 1951 became the first in Mexico City to exhibit Kahlo’s work.
Although she is best known as a potter, Beatrice Wood’s life – detailed in her 1985 autobiography I Shock Myself – details a talented, candid woman who acquired the nickname ‘Mama of Dada’. New York-born Wood rebelled against her mother’s strict plans and moved to Paris to study art, but after a brief spell in Giverny she returned to Paris and immersed herself in theatre, taking lessons with the Comédie-Française and sharing the stage with Sarah Bernhardt. She reluctantly returned to New York following the war, became part of the French Repertory Company and subsequently met Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp introduced her to the city’s Dada group, including Walter and Louise Arensberg, Man Ray and Pierre Roche. With Roche and Duchamp she would create The Blind Man (1917), one of the first Dada journals in the USA, and a love-triangle that Wood would later refer to as “amour à trois”.
According to Paula Lumbard – who wrote in her paper "Dorothea Tanning: On the Threshold to a Darker Place" in the 1981 spring-summer edition of Woman’s Art Journal: “Dorothea Tanning brazenly exposes the underbelly of motherhood, puberty, child molestation…she carefully removes debris from areas within her unconscious, catalogs the shards of memory, fantasy, and prophecy, and then displays them in paintings that are alarmingly beautiful”. Her first encounter with Surrealism was at the 1937 Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at New York’s MoMA and she spent the next two years corresponding with some of the movement’s Paris-based artists. Shortly after her first exhibition at Julien Levy’s New York gallery in 1941, she met artist Max Ernst, attending the pioneer’s Surrealist group meeting in New York as a listening participant, even though she lacked French fluency she created her own outlook on the movement, informed by a feminine perspective and the female body.
It has been said that: “Tanning’s still shocking and daring imagery of sexually aggressive female pubescents inevitably invites comparisons with the art of Balthus and Hans Bellmer, but their works portray sexuality from a man’s perspective, as voyeur and orchestrator. Tanning’s girls care only about fulfilling their very particular erotic needs. Her work is rooted in her own sexuality, which she candidly, unapologetically, proudly and brutally exposes to the discomfort and/or fascination of the spectator”. The lack of apology and her candor is what makes Tanning so integral. Yes, her subject matter could be said to be graphic – sometimes shocking – but the beauty of her work is unequivocal.