In their attempts to transform perceptions, challenge boundaries, redefine realities and refute all forms of censorship, sex and erotic desire was a prime focus for the surrealists. Sex is a powerful, primitive and irrational domain that can be both life-enhancing and life destroying. Its capacity to challenge conventional moral and social constraints is unmatched. Mysterious, liberating and transforming, sexual attraction and arousal are the antithesis of the rational: it is hardly to be wondered at that a powerful undercurrent of eroticism flows through all of surrealism.
For the surrealists, (predominantly men), woman in the abstract was many things: unknowable enigma; source of inspiration; object of men’s gaze; idealised and idolised. However, despite the surrealists’ theoretical assertions concerning liberation, revolution and equality, their practice was often very different. This is evidenced by the large corpus of work which eroticised the female body through images of passivity, distortion and dismemberment. The surrealists’ theoretical view of women and their actual response to individual women was an opposition that was never resolved. Most male surrealists were unable to escape their patriarchal past and failed to live up to their revolutionary precepts. Their treatment of women remained a projection of male fantasies; not as a subject but as an object.
The bonds that link surrealism with alchemy are deep. Both sought to change the natural world through the transforming power of the imagination. The surrealist and the alchemist both sought to follow the difficult path of abandoning reasoning and judgemental consciousness in order to escape from the self/other and the subject/object polarities that dominate convention ways of thinking.Both sought to enter the imaginary landscape and learn to see the exterior landscape in a different way, ‘not merely from the outside as other, but inwardly and as mysteriously connected to oneself by way of imagination.’ (1)
The language of alchemy is frequently the language of sex and procreation. In drawing out connections between the outer and the inner worlds, the alchemist, like all magicians, is making, clarifying and elaborating the links between the human, the natural and the divine orders. Because, in the alchemists’ world view, all matter, (including the apparently inanimate), is living and gendered, it is capable of reproduction and replication, just as living creatures are gendered and reproduce. The crucible in which the alchemists’ raw materials were heated, fermented, distilled and transformed, equates to the womb. When the alchemists wrote of the culmination of their research as the birth of the Magical Child, they were referring to the result of the union of the separate male and female aspects of nature into a harmonious whole containing characteristics of both. The unification of gendered matter into the hermaphrodite whole lay at the apex of the alchemists’ quest.
The alchemical and the surreal began to appear in Colquhoun’s work from the mid 1930s as she discovered, first, the double image and, later, automatism.
1. Versluis, A. Restoring Paradise: Western Esotericism, Literature and Consciousness, State University of New York Press, Albany 2004, p60.
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