When a big auction house like Sotheby’s puts art up for sale, you know it has big dollar value before the sale begins. So when Sotheby’s offers up female surrealists who have been out of the mainstream since surrealism began in the ‘20s, you know these women come with some street creds – latter-day museum shows in this case – (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012 and the Tate Liverpool earlier this year).
You also know that no matter how much Sotheby’s hawks female surrealist art, the talk isn’t about art. It’s about money.
True to form, while announcing the auction by referencing the “renewed appreciation for their (women’s) invaluable contribution to the Surrealist genre,” Sotheby’s skirts their “invaluable contribution” and seizes on the their monetary value, like this:
”Artists represented in Cherchez la femme who saw their auction records broken in 2014 include: Leonora Carrington, whose The Temptation of St. Anthony sold for $2,629,000; Remedios Varo, whose Hacia la Torre brought $4,309,000; Dorothea Tanning, whose A Mrs. Radcliffe Called Today achieved $512,006; and Lee Miller, whose Untitled (Iron work) fetched $377,000. In many cases, these benchmark prices represent dramatic increases over their previous records at auction, demonstrating the market’s recent reevaluation and burgeoning interest in these artists’ work.”
What’s more, even though Julian Dawes, Vice President in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Department, acknowledges the female surrealists’ struggle for recognition, saying, “their story is sadly under-told,” he leaves it at that. This from Sotheby’s modern art “specialist” who holds a Bachelor’s degree in the history of art from Duke University and whose job at Sotheby’s includes research.
Clearly, Sotheby’s knows for whom their bell tolls and it tolls for investors, not art lovers. Who needs art history?
So here’s the “sadly under-told” story of female surrealists seen through the life of one of them: Jacqueline Lamba.
The story begins with a lie. As art historian Ruth Markus has pointed out, while the Surrealist manifesto called for relieving female artists of the burdens of household chores so they could do their work, male chauvinism in the ranks never let up. And the biggest sexist of all was the Surrealist leader Andre Breton.
This is where Lamba comes in. She was the wife of Andre Breton and was kept down on the farm, so to say. One might say her suffering from sexism began with her parents who wanted a boy and called her Jacko. But her choice of husband sealed her fate. He wanted a housewife.
Lamba became the subject of numerous portraits by Surrealist greats Man Ray, Lam, Masson, Meanwhile her own work of more than 400 paintings, created over half of a century, went unheralded and ended up a recluse in her Paris studio, painting her brains out.
The title of a Lamba retrospective at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg some years ago “In Spite of Everything” was particularly telling.
Lamba was so bent on painting that at age 63, she wrote to a friend, “If you hear that I am no longer painting, it is because I have died.” She lived another 20 years until 1993, and despite Alzheimer’s Disease in the last five years of her life, she went on painting.
It’s good that female surrealists are getting their due now. But given that it took some 95 years for art history to get it right, it’s nothing to brag about – particularly since the Surrealists were supposed to share the limelight with their female colleagues from the start.