For Women’s History Month, I thought I would write about somebody who was instrumental in preserving many works of modern art. I am by no means an expert on Peggy Guggenheim, but her name has cropped up in several books I’ve read about the birth of modern art and, in particular, Surrealism. What stood out to me was her passion for art and her friend’s creative pursuits. But, as this short piece will tell you, her patronage of key movements such as Surrealism, Cubism and Abstractionism changed the fate of many paintings.
On the 26th of August 1898, Peggy Guggenheim had the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family residing in New York. Her father Benjamin Guggenheim had, along with his brothers, procured their finances through the mining and smelting of metals. Her mother Florette was also no stranger to affluence as part of the Seligman family who had made their money in the world of investment.
Being born into such privileged position in society allowed Peggy Guggenheim to travel and collect vast amounts of art along the way, perhaps taking inspiration from her uncle Solomon R. Guggenheim. She moved to Paris in the 1920’s where she became involved with the avant-garde artists living in Montparnasse and later marrying Max Ernst a prominent Surrealist.
It’s no secret to anybody who has read my work before that, like the majority of bibliophiles, I adore libraries. Whilst visiting various cities and villages around the UK I have always taken the chance to visit their libraries, one of which I ended up working at. This desire to visit such public institutions hasn’t been limited to my time travelling around the UK and pre-pandemic I started planning trips abroad. Along with museums and art galleries, historical houses and theatres, libraries were present on my bucket list of things to see. Unfortunately, like many of you, my plans were derailed by the Coronavirus outbreak. Whilst my plans to visit such wonderful educational institutions have been put on hold, I’m choosing to remain optimistic about the next few years. Below I have listed the top five libraries that I would like to visit once we return to a new state of normal.
The Admont Library- Austria
Situated in the Benedictine Monastery of Admont Abbey is the world’s largest monastery library. Designed in 1764 and constructed by Josef Hueber (1715–1787), the building was completed in the late baroque style in 1776. It’s seven ceilings were painted by then 80-year-old Bartolomeo Altomonte (1694–1783) who specialised in large scale frescoes in 1775. These murals were painted to depict the close relationship between religion and the arts and sciences. Furthermore, Josef Stammel’s (1695–1765) limewood carvings ‘The Four Last Things’ situated at different points within the library mark a great distinction from the light an airy feel of the murals. In Christian theology they represent the last stages of a man’s life: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. Amongst all of this impressive architecture is the library collection itself which holds 70,000 manuscripts in the Abbey’s 200,000 strong collection.
Want to know which other libraries made my list? Read the full article by clicking on this link.
Unfortunately, my plans to visit a variety of exhibitions last year had to be scrapped. Sadly, many museums had to either delay or completely discard some of the retrospectives that have taken years to plan and set up. The closure of museums, historic houses, and other cultural venues hasn’t been easy for the people employed by them or the public who continue to support them. Whilst things are still a bit rocky at the moment, I’m choosing to remain positive about the oncoming year and have even dared to book tickets to a few exhibitions. Below I have listed the ones I’m most excited for.
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser -Victoria and Albert Museum
Open: 27 March 2021
This exhibition explores 157 years of Alice in Wonderland. The exhibition promises to take visitors on a journey through the story’s evolution. Whilst the original manuscript, inspired many during Lewis Carroll’s lifetime, his world has been reinvented and adapted by numerous artists who have taken inspiration from his world. From surrealists to fashion designers, this interactive showcase explores it all. Special features include a look at the life of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the novels, and a chance to experience wonderland through virtual reality. With theatrical sets designed by Tom Piper, known for his stage designs at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and immersive environments (including a secret passageway) it should be a treat!
YaYoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms – Tate Modern, London
29 March 2021 – 27 March 2022
I have been obsessed with these mirror rooms for quite some time now. I believe that Kusama presents a unique vision of the world through her installations which are truly beautiful. The Tate will be hosting two of them. The first, Infinity Mirrored Room-Filled with the Brilliance of Life, was originally showcased at the Tate in 2012 as part of Kusama’s retrospective. The second, Chandelier of Grief (pictured above) will have visitors in for a spellbinding experience. For me, her installations challenge people’s perceptions of space, providing a brief window of escapism for those that feel closed in by the normality of the world.
This exhibition explores the relationship between humans and technology through an array of installations. Featuring commissioned work from artists, museum goers will be able to learn about the history of artificial intelligence. The display promises to give us a glimpse into the not-so-distant future as well as look into some of the debates surrounding the rising influence of technology.
Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein – Bath
Open: Spring 2021
This one isn’t actually an exhibition, it’s an entire museum! I had heard whisperings of commemorating Mary Shelley’s stay in Bath when I was a student there but hadn’t realised, until doing a quick google search, that this museum had been in development. When people think of Bath, an idyllic Georgian city comes to mind with most thinking of famous residents such as Jane Austin or Beau Nash. Whilst the story of Mary Shelley’s time in Bath may be less well known, it is very significant. Of course the reason behind her excursion to Bath was due to her scandalous entanglement with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was during her time there that she was said to have written Frankenstein. The unique sensory experience rightfully cements Mary Shelley’s place in Bath’s history. Expanding over four floors, Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein explores the life of Shelley and how the conception of her delightfully haunting novel came to be. It also documents the longevity of Frankenstein by showing how it has been re-imagined in different media. The website comes with a warning that this may not be suitable for children due to dimly lit areas and scenes of a disturbing nature. Clearly not for the faint hearted!
Hopefully, this year will see things return back to a new state of normal with museums and heritage sights reopening to the public. I’m excited to start exploring these wonderful institutions again and I hope, dear reader, that you are too.
Libraries have a unique and fundamental role within communities. Working as a Library Services Assistant at the best of times, let alone in a pandemic, means that I’m constantly reminded of this fact. As a reader of this blog, you’re probably aware of some of the more obvious aspects of libraries but, as the demand for more and more public services to justify their position in society has grown, libraries have adapted. Below, I have listed some of the more wide-ranging services that libraries offer to the public. To me, and many others, they have become essential to the wellbeing and growth of society
They give some of the most financially vulnerable in our society access to FREE resources. As well as books, many public libraries offer use of computers and access to the internet. Whilst printing can come at a charge libraries give children, that don’t have access to ICT facilities at home, the chance to print their homework off at no cost.
They encourage social interaction and combat loneliness, especially within older age groups. Even when the library was closed to the public, in the first lockdown, many of our regular users rang up simply to have a chat. I learned that for many of them, coming into the library and chatting to staff was the only social interaction they had on a day-to-day basis. Additionally, many libraries have a bookmobile service to deliver books to those in rural areas and volunteer initiatives to give housebound people access to library materials. These services have helped many people feel less isolated, especially during the pandemic.
Libraries can be designated ‘safe spaces’ for those that need it. A big part of creating these safe spaces is by promoting inclusivity. Whether it’s celebrating Black History Month or Pride, the library is designed to be accommodating to all.
The educational value of libraries is pretty obvious in the fact that they give free access to books, however many community libraries also offer opportunities for learning. These activities are usually not restricted to those of a certain age and are multigenerational. From reading groups for children to classes for those that are less confident with using technology, libraries facilitate all kinds of accessible learning.
I could go on, but the list above demonstrates some of the essential services that libraries have to offer. I hope that they will encourage you, if you’re not already, to pay your local libraries a visit in support of the work they do.
The live music industry has been hit hard by the Coronavirus Pandemic and there are many small venues, crucial to giving talented musicians a platform to showcase their work, which sadly won’t recover financially from it. Such venues, dotted all over the UK, have facilitated and supported a growing cultural framework for years by introducing generations of people to new musical movements, artists, and more. Whilst I wish I could write about the contribution of every single venue in the UK, an impressive feat that would take most of my life to complete, I have instead settled on writing about three which I believe showcase both their importance to music history and to the growth of the live music industry today. I have given a short introduction to each below.
Moles Nightclub, Bath
Founded by Phil Andrews, who also happens to co-own the Jane Austen Museum, the club opened on New Year’s Eve in 1978. The venue was initially for folk and jazz artists. However with the arrival of disco, Moles had to modernise in order to keep up with the rapidly changing music scene. The range of music on offer at Moles soon grew to incorporate live rock music. By the late 1980’s Moles had established itself as a popular destination for touring musicians. Phil extended his club to include a recording studio which saw the likes of Elbow grace it’s doorway.
Now, Moles Nightclub has become a favourite for students with an array of varying music tastes. Whilst Cheesy Tuesday’s will accommodate anyone with a love for the noughties, Wednesday nights are now dedicated to rock and metal, for anyone with a taste for the heavier stuff. The club also has brilliant links with music students and upcoming bands. Moles provides a platform for new talent to showcase their creative portfolio, network, and grow. I myself have discovered many great artists through going to various events.
De Montfort Hall, Leicester
De Montfort Hall was built by the Corporation of Leicester and finished in 1913. The hall has had some notable guests over the years. In the 1960’s both The Beatles and Bob Dylan sold out the venue, an accomplishment that other artists such as The Rolling Stones were unable to achieve. The hall was also a stop on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Tour in 1973.
Nowadays De Montfort Hall is not only used to showcase live music. It has become a hub for opera, ballet, and religious festivals. Until recently, the grounds of De Montfort Hall hosted Simon Says Festival. Created in partnership with a few of Leicester’s independent music venues, the festival gave homegrown talent the opportunity to connect with wider audiences.
The Cavern Club, Liverpool
We all know where I’m going with this one. The venue is probably most well known for playing host to The Beatles, but I’m going to give a little run down of its history which begins before that. In 1957 the venue opened its doors for the first time. Named after the French club Le Caveau De La Huchette Alan Sytner, the club’s owner, wanted it to become a popular venue for Jazz music. His plan was pretty successful with many Jazz legends performing at the venue such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Marie Knight, and Big Bill Broonzy. They also hosted the Quarry Men Skiffle Group which both John Lennon and later Paul McCartney were members of. The 1960’s saw the takeover of Beat Music and the rise of The Beatles. Their first performance took place on the 9th of February 1961 albeit with a slightly different line up since the group were initially a quintet with Stuart Sutcliffe on Bass and Pete Best on Drums. It was at one of their performances that Brian Epstein spotted them. He became their first manager and secured them their first record contract. However, when the band appeared in 1962, Sutcliffe and Best were no longer apart of the line-up with Ringo Starr making his first appearance on drums. Their last performance as a group took place on Sunday the 3rd of August 1963. After a short closure in 1966 the club was reopened by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The newly refurbished club had new renovations including a souvenir shop and café. The 1970’s saw the likes of Status Quo, Queen, and Suzi Quatro grace the venue.
The 1980’s saw The Cavern Club enter a very turbulent time. On the 9th of December 1980, Beatles fans all over the United Kingdom woke up to the news that John Lennon had been fatally shot. This saw the music venue become a site of mourning and remembrance for many local fans. The club also saw a series of redevelopments with the creation of a bar, restaurant, and shop. The 1990’s saw the venue change hand’s with Cavern City Tours becoming new owners of the club. The space continued to be a springboard for new talent well into the 2000’s. Today, the Cavern Club still promotes live music but also works as a heritage sight, paying homage to its long and varied history.
I have given a very brief overview of each venue above (I really didn’t do The Cavern Club justice!), but I hope that my summaries have given an idea of how they’ve been influential in helping music to thrive.
It’s been a difficult year for the arts. The Coronavirus pandemic put the plans of theatres on hold. For many this has had dire financial consequences with some having to close their doors for good. Leicester has been hit worse than most places with the extended local lockdown curbing any plans for rehabilitation. For many, the theatres of Leicester City are a safe space, a place to learn and to explore their passions. In this article I will explore how some of the theatres have contributed to the community and why their survival is crucial for artists living in the Midlands.
The Little Theatre
The home of Leicester Drama Society, the theatre is run mostly by volunteers. Having provided entertainment for the past ninety years, the venue has a lot of history. Running twelve shows a year, hosting a youth theatre programme, and being a part of the annual Leicester Comedy Festival is impressive, especially when you consider the fact that the theatre self-sufficient when it comes to financing their shows. The venue provides a space for budding actors, directors, and writers to showcase their talent as well as providing workshops for those interested in the technical aspects of theatre. Sadly, they are unable to offer these services due to the pandemic which also means that they can’t raise substantial funding to continue their work.
Theatre is always more than just theatre, but this venue in particular has worked hard to engage the local community by providing opportunities for people from all walks of life. The theatre itself is part of the Y charity, the leading organisation on providing safe spaces for homeless children and adults. Their National Lottery funded project Y Heritage, a collaboration between themselves and multiple organisations across the city, has worked to help engage young people in heritage projects. Not only has this worked to help people gain new skills, it has also aided the preservation of key cultural spaces by integrating them into the lives of the next generation. The theatre is an extension of this, offering a variety of workshops for young creatives. For example, the Y Theatre hosts Rough Draft scratch nights in which budding artists can showcase their work and get feedback from their audience. Furthermore, I have seen first-hand how the work of this charity has changed people’s lives and this work must continue. If you would like to find out more about what they do, click here.
The Haymarket Theatre (1973-2007) (2017-2020)
One of my earliest memories of theatre is seeing a production of the Wizard of Oz on a trip with my primary school at the Haymarket Theatre. Whilst the theatre, located on the upper levels of the Haymarket shopping centre, may not seem all too impressive it has a very colourful history. Initially operated by the Leicester Theatre Trust, the venue saw productions of Oliver! (1977), Me and My Girl ( 1984), and Madame Butterfly (1989). These productions saw the likes of Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins (yes, you read that right) visit the town. When the Curve theatre was built, the Leicester Theatre Trust moved to their new venue and the Haymarket remained closed for ten years. In 2017 the Haymarket Consortium took over management of the theatre which re-opened its doors. Whilst they had many successful shows, the prolonged closure of the theatre due to the coronavirus pandemic meant that they went into liquidation and have now closed permanently.
I was fortunate enough to see what ended up being the last performance of The Phantom of the Opera touring production for a while. The Curve’s initial creation caused a stir within the local community, its design coming under harsh criticism by being described as no less than an eye-sore. But in the passing years, love for the theatre has grown. They have also provided many opportunities for the community to participate and learn with them. As well as hosting the Curve Young Company and Curve Community Company, they also run Curve Connect a free membership scheme open to creatives who want to network. Furthermore, they also started the Pleasance Partnership in which they work with Midlands based artists to help develop their work for its debut at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information about the theatre, please click here.
Food for Thought…
I hope that giving a small introduction to these four theatres has given an insight into their importance to the community. The work they do is vital for the local community. I hope that reading about some of the things they do, other than putting on great productions, has convinced you to explore and support some of the artistic institutions that your local town has to offer.
This months post offers a little information about some of the museums that I had hoped to be visiting this year. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, I’m going to have to wait a little longer. Whilst I wait, I thought it would be nice to give a miniscule introduction to my top five cultural spaces and discuss why they are important to me.
The Franz Marc Museum – Bavaria, Germany
Set up in 1986, the Franz Marc Museum is dedicated to the life and work of one of Bavaria’s most influential 20th century artists. Supported by the Friends of Franz Marc Museum Association, the museum owns over 2000 artworks by Franz Marc and members of the expressionist group The Blue Rider. The museum also holds personal writing from the artist. The exhibitions have been designed to explore Franz Marc’s life and work, as well as his influence on contemporary artists.
This museum is on my wish list because, as shown in some of my earlier blog posts, I have a lot of love for German Expressionism. However, Franz Marc’s use of colour symbolism and exploration of the natural world really make his work stand out for me.
2. Schirn Kunsthalle- Frankfurt, Germany
Since it’s opening in 1986, the exhibition space has hosted renowned displays of artwork from the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, and Edvard Munch. It’s collaborations with museums from all over the world, such as the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Tate Gallery (UK), helped to put it on the map. Since it’s opening, the space had seen more than 200 exhibitions.
I actually discovered this exhibition hall through Instagram. Forced to close due to Covid-19 the contents of one of their exhibitions was translated into an accessible online format. Fantastic Women explored the contribution of 34 women from around the globe to the Surrealist movement. Through this online exhibition I discovered artists such as Alice Rahon, and Leonor Fini. I’m excited to see what the exhibition hall has planned for the future!
3. Hansa Tonstudio – Berlin, Germany
Located in the historic Meistersaal concert hall in Berlin, the Hansa studios were created by brothers Peter and Thomas Meisel in the 1970’s. Whilst not technically a museum, the recording studio was important in the cultivation of post-punk and synth-pop genres. It attracted many iconic musicians such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Depeche Mode. The studio was also located 150 meters from the Berlin wall giving it the name ‘Hansa by the wall’.
The studio is still in use but is open to the public at certain times of the year. Taking a tour of the place would be a dream come true!
4. Peggy Guggenheim Museum- Venice, Italy
The story of how this museum came to be is fascinating. Peggy Guggenheim, an American socialite and niece of businessman and art collector Solomon R. Guggenheim, accumulated vast amounts of modern art during her lifetime. She became involved with the avant-garde artists living in Montparnasse, allowing Man-Rey to photograph her, and later marrying Max Ernst a prominent Surrealist. She supported her friends talent by purchasing artworks in the years leading up to the Second World War. After 1945 she focused heavily on Surrealist art, purchasing as many paintings as she could. In 1951 she started exhibiting her collection on a seasonal basis in her home. This was later become the site for the museum. She continuously added to her expansive collection until her death in 1979. After this, the museum passed to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation which opened the doors of the museum permanently in 1980. The current collection boasts work from Italian Futurists, Cubists, Expressionists, and more!
I discovered this museum through reading various books about Surrealism. Peggy Guggenheim’s name crept up quite a few times and her dedication to supporting her friends piqued my interest. The collection she created is very impressive, featuring a number of artists that I’ve researched over the years. For me, this is a must see.
5. Salvador Dalí Theatre and Museum- Figueres, Catalonia
The creation of the museum, dedicated to the towns most famous painter, was designed by Dalí himself with construction beginning in 1968. Built on the site of the previous Municipal Theatre, which was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, it holds the largest single collection of artworks by the painter. Alongside them is the Dalí jewel exhibition which holds thirty-seven precious gems designed by him. Additionally, the museum itself is an exhibition and is considered to be the last great work of Dalí, one of the most notable things being the anthropomorphic Mae West room which replicates the starlets face when you view it from a certain position. The theatre also became the final resting place of Dalí who is buried in a crypt below the stage.
Like many people, my love for Surrealism started with Salvador Dalí and broadened from there. Whilst my interests are now more inclined towards exploring women in Surrealism, Dalí’s work was essential in gaining an understanding some of the principles of the art movement.
Like the majority of people, plans have been put on hold due to Covid-19. I wrote this to cheer myself up and inspire myself to persevere with my life goals. I hope that this post gives a little bit of happiness to those who read it and that the subject interests you enough to explore more!
A cultural gem sits in the heart of Leicester. Behind the closed doors of New Walk Museum, opened in 1849, sits one of the most extensive collections of German Expressionist Art in the country. Boasting artists such as Franz Marc (1880-1916), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Conrad Felixmüller (1897-1977). The permanent exhibition details the progression of German Expressionism, looking at the impact of two groups in particular: The Blue Rider (1911-1914) and The Bridge (1905-1911). Its creation can be attributed to many curators, collectors, and civilians who have cultivated and expanded the collection over the museum’s long history. However, in this piece I will be highlighting the work of one man in particular who’s story is important to both the history of Leicester and the LGBTQ+ community.
Trevor Thomas was significant in founding the start of what would become one of the largest collections of German Expressionist Art in the UK. Born in Gwent, South Wales in 1907 Thomas was appointed as the youngest keeper at the Liverpool Museum in 1931, heading the department of Ethnology and Shipping. An artist himself, he became passionate about making museum collections more accessible to various audiences. His desire for innovation lead him to New York where he could see the latest advances in exhibition design. He was greatly influenced by two exhibitions, the first being Bauhaus 1919-1928, which showed the latest in artistic thinking from Germany, at the museum of Modern Art and then second being Art in our Time: 10th Anniversary Exhibition. After exploring both of these exhibitions Trevor Thomas would have a lifelong love of Modern European Art which would come into play during his career at New Walk Museum.
When he was appointed Curator of New Walk Museum in 1940, he set about improving the accessibility of the museum. Whilst his plans for an exhibition were put on hold due to air raids, he created a programme of events and activities to keep moral up amongst the public. In 1943 he worked with the Polish Airforce of Great Britain in organising an exhibition of Contemporary Polish Art, allowing the public to access the kind of European Art he’d seen on his earlier trip to New York. His passion for art led him to form a friendship with Tekla Hess and her son Hans, both of whom had fled Germany during the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s. The Hess family business had been destroyed and much of their art collections lost. However, they had successfully smuggled some of their extensive collection out of the country, some works finding their way to Leicester along with the Hess family. Their friendship soon led to plans for an exhibition of European Art which was to be supported by the Free German League of Culture an Anti-Nazi organisation. Some of the works which were exhibited included The Mask by Emil Nolde and The Red Woman by Franz Marc, both of which were purchased by Trevor Thomas. He was also gifted with Max Pechstein’s View from My Window by Tekla Hans in recognition of the kindness he had shown himself and his mother. These paintings still form the basis of the collection housed at New Walk Museum today.
Unfortunately, the career of Trevor Thomas as curator of New Walk Museum came to an abrupt halt in 1946 when he was charged with a public indecency offence. During this time, homosexuality was viewed as a criminal offence under British law. When the case went to court, he was told to plead guilty in order to avoid questions over his sexuality. After being find and bound over to keep the peace, meaning that he could not commit the offence again without risk of going to prison, he lost his job as curator of New Walk Museum and was denied access to his pension. This injustice did not stop Trevor Thomas from pursuing a career in museums. After his career ended in Leicester, he went on to work for UNESCO. During his time there he made significant contributions to improving education in the arts on an international level. In 1956 he moved to America and became a History of Art professor at Buffalo University. He worked for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and ran a counselling service. Despite all of his achievements, Trevor Thomas’ role in founding the German Expressionist Collection at New Walk Museum and Art Gallery faded from local history, his work becoming overlooked. In more recent years, work has been done to restore his reputation with former museum director Patrick Boylan inviting him back to the museum as a guest of honour in 1985. Since then a cluster of curators and artists have worked to restore his place in history. A recent exhibition at the gallery Dissent and Displacement highlights Trevor Thomas as key to the founding of the expressionist gallery. His work was pivotal to the formation of the German Expressionist Collection and forms an important segment of Leicester’s local history as well as it’s LGBTQ+ history.
Unfortunately, Trevor Thomas’s persecution and erasure from history is not an isolated case. Many important LGBTQ+ figures in history have been overlooked. It’s important that we highlight these stories and work to restore the reputations of those who have been lost.
For further reading you can visit the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery website which has an extensive range of information on Trevor Thomas, the Hess Family, and the collection as a whole. This article by Pink News is also very interesting and delves deeper into the history of Anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
I first came across Mary Prince as a university undergraduate. Whilst studying the minutes of The Birmingham Ladies Friends Society, an all-female group dedicated to the abolition of slavery, her name cropped up several times. A letter written from Lucy Townsend, one of the founding members on the group, showed excitement at the prospect of meeting Mary Prince whose autobiography The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave became a key part of the Anti-Slavery Campaign. I was surprised, that before reaching undergraduate study, I had not come across her in any reading I had done on British Abolitionism. The history of abolition has been viewed through a Eurocentric lens and whilst many historians have worked to shift the emphasis on European Abolitionism, many activists of colour still slip under the radar. Mary Prince’s story is crucial to the history of British Anti-Slavery and I have provided an introduction to her below.
Mary was born into an enslaved family in Bermuda in 1788. As a child she was sold along with her maternal mother to Darrel Williams. Prince spent her childhood years as a companion to William’s granddaughter but was sold again on the death of William’s wife. She was put to work in the salt ponds of Turks Island, an experience she recounts in great detail in her autobiography. The long hours would result in both blisters from standing unprotected in the sun and boils from standing in the salt water for prolonged periods of time, some even going down to the bone. After returning to Bermuda in 1817, she was sold again to John Wood of Antigua. Whilst with the Wood family she met a freed slave by the name of Daniel James, they were married in 1826. This was seen as an act of rebellion by the Woods who severely beat her for doing so. She was taken from her husband in 1828 when the family travelled to England. Whilst slave ownership was illegal in Britain, the same could not be said for the rest of the British Empire. The Abolition Act of 1807 prohibited Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, but the institution of slavery still continued within Britain’s colonies. This meant that whilst Prince was supposedly free the moment she set foot in England, she was not free to return to her husband in Antigua without the risk of being re-enslaved. When John Wood refused to sell Prince her freedom she took her cause to the Anti-Slavery Society, petitioning parliament against Wood’s decision. However, before the petition could be brought into the public domain, John Wood fled back to Antigua. Shortly after, Mary took up employment, as a freed domestic servant, in the house of abolitionist John Pringle. It was here that she recounted her experiences as a slave to writer Susanna Moodie. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave was subsequently published in 1831. Her autobiography was hugely popular, being used by anti-slavery groups around the world.
Mary Prince’s actions are hugely significant within history, she was the first women to present an Anti-Slavery Petition to parliament. Her petitioning led the way for all female anti-slavery groups to do the same. Secondly, whilst many slave narratives had been published during the 18th century by writer’s such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, Mary Prince was the first woman of colour to publish an autobiography of her experiences. Her narrative documented the brutality she suffered at the hands of both slave owners and their wives. It gave a renewed fervour to the abolition movement which had lost some of its motivation after the Abolition Act of 1807. As mentioned above, whilst this act had been passed, the practice of slavery was still allowed to continue in the British Colonies. The widespread publication of her autobiography, it being reprinted three times alone in the first year of its publication, was effective in showing the public that even though the slave trade had been made illegal many horrors of plantation life still continued. Furthermore, Britain’s consumer economy was reliant on slave grown sugar meaning that much of the debate around abolishing slavery focused on the economic repercussions of such an act. The focus on slaves as an economic commodity rather than as fellow men did much to dehumanise them. Through using her own personal experiences, Prince showed captive slaves as more than just a statistic. Her focus on the female experience rallied women to join the cause, many of the female led anti-slavery societies distributing her autobiography both nationally and internationally. After the publication of her book she continued to campaign for the abolition of slavery.
Despite her contribution to the anti-slavery cause, her work has often been diminished and overlooked. Her role in reviving the anti-slavery movement was pivotal in bringing about the Abolition Act of 1833 and her story must be remembered. Below I have put a link to a free copy of her autobiography.
You’ve likely heard of Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Max Ernst, and Man Ray, but what about their female contemporaries? The publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, led to the founding of the Surrealist group, led by André Breton. Whilst I admire their exploration of automatic writing and the unconscious mind, I find myself critical of some of the methods used to do so. These ideas were explored through using the female form as muse in which the surrealist could find creative inspiration. This shaped views of women who were linked to the group usually through personal connections. Whilst many of them participated in activities and produced their own work, they were not viewed as independent artists in their own right. This being said, it can be acknowledged that feelings towards women did change between 1924 and the publication of the second manifesto in 1929, and then again in post-World War II Europe allowing them more freedom within the group, some of them even exhibiting with their male contemporaries. Furthermore, the development of women’s history in the 1970’s, the work of scholars such as Whitney Chadwick and Mary Ann Caws, and the work of art galleries across the globe have all contributed to the exploration of many female artists within the Surrealist group. Hopefully more work will be done to cement their place in art history! My small contribution to this is the creation of a list of my top five Surrealist Women, giving a little insight into their work and why I believe they are important.
Leonora Carrington (1917-2011)
Upon seeing Carrington for the first time Max Ernst, a key pioneer in both Dada and Surrealism, was struck by how much she embodied the Surrealist ideal of the femme-infant, a muse who worked as a gateway into the unconscious mind. However, Carrington was not content with this role carving out an identity for herself in the art world with paintbrush and pen. She used her creativity to explore themes close to her, the most poignant for me being mental health. She drew on her own experiences, even writing about a spell in an institution in the novella Down Below (1944). Often inspired by the Celtic legends recited to her as a child, her work heavily features mythical creatures along with alchemy and symbolism. The most prominent of all the symbols being the white horse which appears in Down Below along with her paintings. For me, her exploration of mental health through using her own experience is significant, especially when we look at how mental health was viewed by the male surrealists, particularly hysteria which was seen as a female phenomenon. In La Révolution Surréaliste (1928) André Breton and Louis Aragon celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of hysteria, using photos of women in various ecstatic states taken from the archives of an institution. In their search for the purest form of expression, they denied women a voice leaving the stories of the women in the photographs unknown. By using her own experience, Carrington invites women to voice their own opinions on the subject and take back control of their own narratives.
Leonor Fini (1907-1996)
Leonor Fini is known for deconstructing stereotypes of women within art. Her refusal to depict women as subordinate to men led many critics to see her work as aggressively separatist. One way in which she did this was to subvert male surrealist ideas of the femme-sorciére, in which women were linked to the mysterious cycles of nature, a source where they derived mythical powers inaccessible to men. This was nothing new, the concept being used by various art and literary movements throughout history. Like many of these movements, the women presented in much of the surrealist poetry and paintings were individuals being controlled by nature rather than in control of it. Fini was quick to exploit this in her own work, presenting women usually as mythical creatures, be it sphinx, witch, or goddess, who had regained control over her own powers. She also subverted the image of man, sometimes presenting them as a passive figure in her paintings. In my opinion doing this not only challenged ideas of the core surrealist group, but ideas that had pervaded art movements throughout the centuries.
Kay Sage (1898-1963)
Kay Sage was an American poet and Surrealist. She came into contact with the Surrealist group after divorcing her first husband Prince Ranieri di San Faustino. She travelled to Paris, exhibiting her work in the 1938 annual exhibition of the Salon des Surindépendants. The six paintings she exhibited differed from many contemporary surrealist paintings, centring around construction work rather than more organic themes. Her work featured unstable looking structures such as scaffolding against a barren landscape. She created these images using a more subdued pallet than that of her contemporise presenting a colder, less optimistic, view of the world. They quickly caught the eye of André Breton, the founding member of the Surrealist group, and Yves Tanguy who would later become Sage’s partner. Breton, seeing the disquieting strength of the paintings believed their producer to be a man. She continued to paint throughout her life. For me, the geometric character of her work sets her apart from contemporaries making her a real standout among the Surrealists.
Alice Rahon (1904-1987)
Alice was known for her poetry before taking up the paint brush. Her travels across the world inspired her writing. Her first poetry collection entitled A Meme la Terre was published in 1936 by the Editions Surrealist, featuring illustrations from Yves Tanguy and Joan Míro. Before learning to paint she would publish another poetry collection, Sablier Couché (1938). She began painting after arriving in Mexico on the invite of her close friend Frida Kahlo in 1939. The paintings she produced were inspired by her adventures around Mexico, as well as the prehistoric art she saw in cave dwellings on her trip around America prior to visiting Mexico. Her work stands out for me due to its use of vibrant colour and symbolism inspired by prehistoric art. She also experimented with texture on canvases, specifically sand. Her inclusion of these things makes for some stand out work which should be admired.
Germaine Dulac (1882-1942)
Dulac initially had roots in the impressionist film movement, using her links to promote films as the seventh art. Having founded her own production company and written for various feminist magazines, she moved into more experimental film. This culminated in the first surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergymen. Whilst it was released a year before An Andalusian Dog (Dir. Buñuel, 1929) it has often been overlooked for its use of pioneering effects, many of which were credited to the later film. Her use of techniques such as double exposer and superimpositions cement the films place in art history and can be seen as a predecessor for later avant-garde feminist films.
In Summary, it was difficult to narrow down the number of influential Surrealist women to just five, and there will probably be another post exploring more of them. These women stood out to me for different reasons each presenting their own unique view of the world through artistic expression. From dealing with themes of mental health, to becoming a trailblazer in the creation of film, these artists deserve to be known. Whilst I could go on and on about them, I hope my short little introductions to each have inspired you to explore them in a little more detail. Below I have listed a few books and websites that you may find useful if you would like to know more!
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the Surrealist Movement (United States: Thames and Hudson,1985)
Surrealism and Women, ed. by Mary Anne Caws, Rudolf Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg, 3rd edition (The MIT Press,1993)