Writing Bodies, Making Strange: Surrealist Embodiment in Creative Practice

Zara-Louise Stubbs reflects upon a recent online workshop, which explored the female body as a site of surrealist reclamation through writing prompts and exercises.

In May 2022, writer Jennifer Brough ran a workshop for the CHASE Medical Humanities network, titled Writing the Female Surrealist Body. As Brough noted at the beginning of the session, this date marked the eleventh anniversary of surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s death. Structured around ideas of reclamation, both corporeal and psychic, the workshop echoed major concerns of female surrealist creators of the 20th and 21st centuries. It aimed to consider how art has been used to examine the gap between lived and written experience of the body; to topple notions of static, normative, and singular states of embodied being.

The workshop comprised of several parts. First, Brough introduced both herself and her work, specifically speaking about her involvement ‘in projects centred in disability/illness and feminism’ (Brough, ‘About’) such as the Resting Up collective, a group of chronically ill and disabled artists from different creative backgrounds. Following this was a brief overview of surrealism, covering key artists and defining principles of the movement before moving on to focus specifically on the role, concerns and values associated with the work created by female surrealist artists.

In this introduction, Brough highlighted the continued contemporary relevance of the movement by drawing attention to the recent revival of female surrealism. The workshop identified the significance and power of repositioning the female body in terms of the female, queer, and disabled gaze by considering the role of female artists and their work in the heart of the twentieth-century surrealist movement. Brough’s choice of works often included representations of the female body, highlighting its significance as a central subject and locale of contention within the surrealist style. Early on, Brough shared Rene Magritte’s 1944 The Rape, positioning the rest of the workshop as a departure from an artwork which is heavily inscribed with the history of the male gaze both within and without surrealism.

The salience of these intersections (the female, queer and disabled) is clear. The ways in which female and non-binary creators represent embodiment through the lens of the strange have a strong cultural presence in both literature and the visual arts. Specific examples discussed by Brough during the workshop included the current exhibition of Surrealism Beyond Borders at the Tate Modern, works by sculptors Hans Bellmer, Louise Bourgeois, and Dorothea Tanning, and dancer Lisa Bufano, alongside notable 20th century figures such as André Breton and René Magritte. All of these works share an appreciation and creation of vibrant, porous, unabashed, and uncanny bodies.

Ultra-Realism, Dominique Fung, 2019, oil paint. You can see more of Dominique Fung’s work here.

The workshop revolved around participants crafting written responses to both written and visual writing prompts, echoing the diversity of media, form, content, and intersectional approaches that are so central to both creative and critical works in the medical humanities. The initial writing prompt – an artwork titled Ultra-Realism by Chinese-Canadian painter Dominique Fung – was used to demonstrate the practice of automatism, a technique that allowed free-thinking and continuous, unconscious writerly flow. More prompts were presented sequentially, with space to write narrowing gradually as the time allocated decreased by a minute each time.

The final prompt was a quote from Leonora Carrington – ‘I warn you, I refuse to be an object’ – which neatly encapsulates the workshop’s central concern with the female body as a site of surrealist reclamation. Merve Emre, in an article for The New Yorker, describes ‘Carrington’s liberation from the human world’ and ‘wonders if […] she felt paralyzed by the way male surrealists had treated women as artificial beings—their bodies manipulable, their spirits elusive.’ (‘How Leonora Carrington Feminized Surrealism’). For Emre, Carrington is a seminal figure to represent the strange and explosive power of surreal art created by women. Carrington’s artwork reinforces the central themes of the workshop: gender, embodiment, community, liminality, borders (and border-lessness), and of course, the phantasmagorical and the strange.

The exercises that followed focused on the role of awakening, acknowledging, and knowing the self through the knowing of the body, and the role of the manifesto or the spell in both artistic, cultural, and personal politics. One prompt was an image of Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture The Couple, a piece seemingly metal and liquid, inviting thoughts on the process of melting, permeability and how the disintegration of bodily borders is not necessarily a source of fear, but rather a potentially positive, consensual, symbiotic conjoining. Other activities were writing prompts entitled ‘an awakening’ and ‘a micro manifesto’, inspiring writings from participants that flowed between the conscious and the physical, the personal and the political.

Louise Bourgeois, The Couple, 2003 © The Easton Foundation / VAGA, New York / BONO, Oslo 2017.

Brough also considered the power found in the multiplicity of the collective body with a version of the Cadavre Exquis (or exquisite corpse) technique, which she adapted for online use. Used for artistic experimentation in surrealist circles, the technique usually works through direct collaboration; one artist will sketch a head, the second a torso, the third legs, or a tail, until a body is unveiled. This kind of adaptation taps into the role of communal art. Each creator is unaware of what was drawn before her – meaning there is a very rare opportunity for absolute creative freedom and genuine collaboration to coexist. As the workshop took place online, there was no opportunity to pass a physical sketch between ourselves. Instead, Brough invited writers to think about the connected body in a different way – to consider the image of the multiple, the collective, the protean chimaera – and try to write with its voice. It catalysed the consideration of what community means, of which specific communities we may be part of, and how these different connections may alter the tone, shape, and themes of the writing we may produce.

The workshop functioned through a zoom meeting. By running the workshop digitally, through an inclusive, accessible, online space which reached across the UK to prompt writers to think in new ways about the particular strangeness of the embodied experience, the workshop had an evocative, yet quietly meditative effect. There was a sense of writing alone, together, heightening the juxtaposition between the sense of the solidity of the corporeal self and the semi-ethereal experience of the network in online spaces. In this sense, the workshop’s form, and attention to some quintessential juxtapositions – darkness and light, singular and multiple, form and formlessness, viscosity, and fixity – allowed it to firmly situate itself within the fulcrum between the real and the surreal.

Through its form and content, the workshop explored the significance of surrealist writing and creation, both individually and collectively, and the role that it can play in creating, challenging, reclaiming, resisting, and reconfiguring female, queer, and disabled voices. Brough’s focus on writing the female surrealist body worked to posit the allyship between writing and the medical humanities. Both work to represent, to signify and to symbolise the unseen and the unknown, and to strive for a greater understanding, intersectional connection and care for ourselves and other entities, be they human, more-than-human, or otherwise.

In other words, writing shares the medical humanities’ concern for analysing and empathising with all aspects of lived experience; and to consider the self as a being existing in the midst of a vibrant, bright and complex system of pluralism.

Zara-Louise Stubbs is a PhD student in English with Creative Writing at the University of York. Zara has a master’s degree in Medical Histories and Humanities and currently researches the connection between gastronomy, liminality, mysticism, and the transformative potential of women’s bodies in contemporary writing. She tweets at @zarastubbs_.

References

Brough, Jennifer. 2022. ‘About.’ https://www.jenniferlbrough.com/about.html

Tate Modern. 2022. ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders.’ https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/surrealism-beyond-borders

Tate Modern. ‘Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse).’ https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/cadavre-exquis-exquisite-corpse

Emre, Merve. ‘How Leonora Carrington Feminized Surrealism.’ (2020) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/12/28/how-leonora-carrington-feminized-surrealism

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