Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101 articles intend to illustrate the problems Surrealism’s artworks generated regarding gender and sexuality, especially women’s. Each article will explore a different artwork and analyse the issues they represent or the way some artists have dealt with them through their art. This series will delve into this by examining artworks by Meret Oppenheim, Hans Bellmar, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Claude Cahun. The article series will be divided into five parts:
Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Misogyny
Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Gender Play
Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Gender Identity Within Surrealism
Surrealism’s Gender Play
Surrealism is renowned for having been a sexually liberating movement for all genders and sexualities. It was born in France following the post-First World War period of oppression. While the movement was freeing for people of all circumstances, the male artists of the movement chose to adopt explicit images of women as their main expression of liberation. The artist this article will examine and concentrate on is Man Ray, who was born in the USA in 1890 as Emmanuel Radnitzky. He was a key member of Dada and Surrealism, experimenting with photography for most of his career. In many of his works, he manipulated the camera's effect on the subject in order to create a completely different subject matter, according to Rosalind Krauss, exploiting the "special connection to reality with which all photography is endowed" (Krauss, 1981, p. 26). By manipulating the angles and camera lens, he created new contents out of entities.
Often, he would portray women and then modify his female subjects by mutating parts of their bodies within the photograph by making them resemble a phallus (Foster, 2001, p. 203). Lee Miller, shot in circa 1930, is a photograph of a woman's neck, with her head tilted upwards. Ray is playing with the lighting and there are shadows falling on the neck, thus creating ambiguity in what the photograph represents. Although it is indeed a woman's neck, it also alludes to the possibility of being a man's erect penis; they "are elongated by pose and angle [...] to form another kind of phallic figure" (Foster, 2001, p. 216). The shadows on the chin suggest the head, while the protruding trachea suggests a vein. Ray has strategically darkened the background and cropped the bare shoulders out of the picture to consciously create this ambiguity, leaving the viewer unsure of what they are looking at.
These images carry a significant juxtaposition: a man has taken a picture of a naked woman to make her look like a part of a man. The artist has used a woman as a medium to express something he has, something he is. It becomes clear that this image is intended for a male audience. The hidden face of the woman also adds to the notion of it being utterly subject to the male gaze. The term male gaze means the sexualisation and diminishing of women in artistic portrayal whilst empowering men (Vanbuskirk, 2021). The photograph, entitled Lee Miller, is subject to the male gaze in terms of the sexualisation of the female body, diminishing her by moulding her into something she is not and hiding her face. The lack of female faces in Ray's photography is a recurring theme, enforcing the patriarchal tone of surrealist photography. The woman portrayed in his piece becomes an object, lifeless and ready to be used.
Another image which acutely displays the fact that Ray uses "women as objects of the male gaze" (Foster, 2001, p. 203) is this photograph entitled Woman With Long Hair, shot in 1929. This image is rather demeaning since it carries a notion of violence. The woman looks lifeless. She looks as if she has been violated, stripped of her individuality. The shadows created around her neck resemble dirt or blood, enforcing the concept of violence. In addition to her hair, which has seemingly been brushed countless times, she is wearing a childlike dress. Her closed eyes and body just lying on a sort of podium make her resemble a doll. This reinforces the idea of women as objects to be used and abused by men, who made women to their liking. There is a disparity in the play between genders, with the male at the top of this pyramidal power structure, looking down at the female, placing her on the same level as, for example, a toy.
Le Violon d'Ingres, 1924 is another of Man Ray's photographs. This image is further proof of the patriarchal notion that women were seen and treated as objects. The image depicts the back of a naked woman facing towards her left, and the viewer can see a three-quarter view of her side profile. The viewer can see her face, one knows it is there without actually engaging with it. The artist has added two f-holes to her back, like those found on a violin or on an instrument part of the strings family. This addition implies that, just like a violin, a woman is to be used and played with. It carries a very seductive aspect, which is only targeted at men and their gaze. In one of her essays, art critic Rosalind Krauss says, "the photographs are not interpretations of reality, [...] they are representations of that very reality" (Krauss, 1999, p. 29). Krauss means that, although these images are staged, they represent something fundamental: the fetish of men to use women as objects.
Despite the sentiment of many art critics regarding this image is a negative one, Le Violin d'Ingres can also be seen as an ode to women and their bodies. Not everyone can play an instrument, and least of all play it well. Violins are also very fragile and prestigious, taking time and patience to be made to perfection, made to make their delicate and sweet sound. Although this view of Le Violin d'Ingres is a romantic one, it differs greatly from the other artworks of Ray, which cannot be seen under this idealistic light.
Man Ray has purposefully hidden the faces of the women depicted in all three artworks analysed. By removing the models' faces, the artist has also removed their individuality. By erasing the eyes, he has closed the windows to the soul, the essence of a person. The lack of subjectivity erases the emotional connection between the artwork and the viewer, and ultimately between the artist and his subject. Ray is making it difficult to view these women as the people they are instead of as the objects they are depicted as. His artworks is related to masculinity which is clearly in contrast with femininity. Ultimately, the representation of women within surrealism is misogynistic and violent.
Foster, H. (2001). Violation and Veiling in Surrealist Photography: Woman as Fetish, as Shattered Object, as Phallus, in Mundy, J., Surrealism: Desire Unbound.
Krauss, R. (1999). Claude Cahun and Dora Maar: By Way of Introduction, in Krauss R., Bachelors.
Krauss, R. (1981). The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism, in Krauss R. et al., L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism, October, 19, pp. 3–34. https://doi.org/10.2307/778652
Martin, J.H. (1991). Man Ray Photographs. Thames & Hudson.
Snow, E. (1989). Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems. Representations, 25, 30–41. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928465.
Vanbuskirk, S. (2021). What is the Male Gaze? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-male-gaze-5118422.
Ray, M. (1930). Lee Miller. Retrieved from https://www.metalocus.es/en/news/man-ray-mondo-gallery-vistas-del-espiritu
Ray, M. (1929). Woman With Long Hair. Retrieved from https://arthistoryproject.com/artists/man-ray/woman-with-long-hair/
Ray, M. (1924). Le Violon d'Ingres. Retrieved from https://www.artmajeur.com/it/magazine/2-notizie-sull-arte/un-opera-di-man-ray-potrebbe-diventare-la-fotografia-piu-costosa-mai-venduta-all-asta/331177