The Role of Women in Surrealism

Surrealism was a gated realm created exclusively for male artists, the majority of whom objectified and fetishized women. For a female artist to unlock this gate, she had to fulfill the male artists’ need for narrowing the role of women down to an object of male desire. This conception of women blinded male Surrealists to the fact that women were individuals with multi-faceted personalities, who wanted to be more than their muses. Because of their blindness to women’s capabilities, women “functioned within male Surrealist works at best as an idealized Other, at worst as an object for the projection of unresolved anxieties.”[1] This objectification hindered women artists from joining the movement and gaining entry into the art world. Despite these stereotypes, some women did manage to become a part of the movement, but “even when [they] were included by [Andre] Breton and the male Surrealists, a full recognition of their conceptual and creative force [remained] lacking.”[2] Being a part of the movement as a female artist did not guarantee the same amount of respect, which was given to their male counterparts. Due to these problems, artists Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun, despite exhibiting with the Surrealists and using their visual vocabulary, never became official members of the group. They used Surrealist practices, such as having dream-like images and mirrors in their art, but rather than using such practices to objectify women, they used these techniques to overcome ‘the subject-object split’, which was one of the core tenets of Surrealism. The subject-object split is the boundary between a subject, which acts, and an object, which is acted upon. To overcome it meant to treat everything as a subject, as an entity capable of independent action. The male Surrealists were not able to overcome this duality due to their obsession with “seeking transformation through a female representational object, which paradoxically [reinforced] the subject-object split that Surrealism was dedicated to overcoming.”[3] Kahlo and Cahun, on the other hand, overcame this duality by using their art as a venue to portray themselves as subjects, and not objects. Despite being females and not being a part of the movement, Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun used one of Surrealism’s base beliefs to beat the male artists at their own game.

Both Kahlo and Cahun overcame the subject-object split through their self-portraits, which were not made for the pleasure of the male gaze. Rather, their self-portraits asked questions about identity, and were reflective of the artists’ unidealized reality and transgender sexuality. By refusing traditional constraints and categories for women, such as gender specific clothing and haircuts, Kahlo and Cahun blurred gender lines. Lillian Faderman, a scholar on lesbian relationships, notes:

[T]hroughout history, lesbians were persecuted (often burned or drowned) for their sexual activities if they also cross-dressed as men, whereas if they engaged in the same activities in female dress, they were usually only reprimanded in the courts. [The] cross-dressing lesbian created more confusion about gendered roles, claimed male social privileges, and demonstrated her transgression publicly and deliberately in a manner that made her reform and return to conventional heterosexuality seem impossible.[4]

By cross-dressing, Kahlo and Cahun took visual symbols of power away from men and changed the view of women from meek and submissive objects to proactive seekers of change. They confused the patriarchal Surrealist system so that it could no longer easily categorize who should be tyrannized and fetishized, and who should be admired, based on gender. Unlike the majority of the male Surrealists, Kahlo and Cahun accomplished the merging of opposites through their self-portraits. I will discuss why these artists were not official members of Surrealism, and how they still serve as inspirations today, while analyzing them and their works to further prove their success in overcoming the subject-object split.

Frida Kahlo was one of the “young women who joined the Surrealist circle in Paris in the 1930s. [These women] declared themselves not Surrealist while nevertheless exhibiting with the group on occasion and adopting many of Surrealism’s core tenets.”[5] This was because of the problematic ideas of the male Surrealists as well as the differences in their art work. While the Surrealists’ main focus was on dream imagery, Kahlo drew on her personal experience to turn her work into a political tool. In Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, Kahlo is portrayed as described in the title. She has just cropped her hair, hair that is lying all around her and looks a little animated, and has donned a man’s suit which seems large for her body but does not sag on her shoulders. She sits on a chair with a mournful expression, but her gaze is unfaltering and shameless. Margaret A. Lindauer, author of Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo, points out that Kahlo “wears earrings and women’s shoes. So Kahlo has not presented herself as a man [rather] she has combined feminine and masculine [stereotypes].”[6] She has not given up her gender to become someone she is not. Instead, she is wearing men’s clothing to change her figure from a sexual feminine object to one of a woman in charge of her own image. By cropping her hair, a signifier of her gender, she paints herself as a subject capable of “liberating [herself] from patriarchally defined gender tyranny, not in order to become a man, but to have available some of the social privileges symbolically reserved for men.”[7] In her quest to liberate herself, Kahlo turned down the offer of becoming an official member of Surrealism, a movement with members who contradicted their own principles by objectifying women and not giving them the same privileges as men. For Kahlo, overcoming the subject-object split and opening up the eyes of her audience to women’s subjectivity was more important.

Due to her life-long fight against female objectification, Kahlo is an inspiration for women to break out of gender restrictions. By redressing her body and capturing it in paint, she still challenges and defies the roles and rules society placed on her. Through her art, even after death, she refuses to let her individuality be boxed, wrapped and ribboned by anyone, and does not remain silent about her identity. In her work, her gaze is never submissive. Even when subdued, it speaks against the compact, pleasurable descriptions that women are forced into. Kahlo’s self-portraits “do not employ the traditionally gendered imagery of colonization but [subvert] them to overthrow the binary-driven hierarchies of art and the colonizer-colonized.”[8] By putting the colonizer and the colonized, the male and the female, into the same space without any boundaries, Kahlo overcomes the subject-object split that previously divided these entities. With this act, she introduces women to the fact that gender should not be inhibiting them from raising their social status to the same level as men’s.

Unlike Kahlo, who was offered a position as a member in Surrealism because of her exoticism, and declined it, Claude Cahun wanted to join the movement and make changes within it. But unlike Kahlo, Cahun pushed gender lines beyond the male Surrealists’ comfort level. This is why “Andre Breton remained relatively unresponsive to Cahun’s attempts to gain artistic affirmation from them [and] never embraced [her] as a core member of the group.”[9] This goes to show the group’s hypocrisy. They were proud of admitting women into their group, but if a woman’s voice was louder than theirs, they kept her at a safe distance. For the Surrealists, Cahun was unacceptable as a woman since she could not be “treated as [an object] expected to serve as an inspiration for male genius [nor would she] allow manipulation of [her body] for aesthetic purposes and male sexual desire.”[10] Rather, she was an intelligent subject who created art that destroyed notions of females as objects made for the pleasure of men. She wanted to be a part of Surrealism despite their hypocritical values because like the male Surrealists, she also “wished to elevate the unconscious, the irrational, and the dream as inspiration and method for her art [with focus on the female body].”[11] But Cahun wanted to use these Surrealist ideas to overcome the subject-object split, instead of fetishizing the female body. She started with changing her name from Lucy Schwob to Claude Cahun. Claude is not a gender-specific name, and Cahun was her Jewish grandmother’s last name[12]. By renaming herself, Cahun rejected gender differences and showed pride in her Jewish ancestry in spite of the dangers that Jews faced during World War II. Her self-portraits are extensions of her reality. These portraits challenge “the gaze that had become accustomed to objectifying women [and subvert] the social and sexual hierarchy in which the artist [was] quintessentially male and his material female.[13] By removing boundaries dividing genders, and the lines dividing the active subject and the passive object, Cahun defied male Surrealist’s ideas while strictly following Surrealist principles. She rebelled against gender stereotypes and merged the split between subject and object without yielding into any of the Surrealist ideas for women, which is why, despite her groundbreaking work, the Surrealists never accepted her as a member of their movement.

By exploring and exhibiting her own image without idealizing it, Cahun took the power of objectifying women away from men and influenced other women to do the same. For instance, in her self-portrait with the mirror, Cahun wears a man’s coat and hair cut, and instead of looking in the mirror, she looks directly at her viewer. By doing so, “she challenges the traditional notion of a woman’s relationship with her mirror as an expression of female vanity. More importantly, she disrupts the fixed polarities of gender difference and the privileging gaze of men by showing that she is not simply the object of a gaze.”[14] She asks her audience to look at her as she is, a confident, unique, transgender figure. Like Kahlo, Cahun brings “to the surface previously hidden or feared aspects of the self, thereby empowering women’s ability [to create] a more liberated self-definition, a definition that allow[s] for multiplicity and paradox.”[15] In this way, she owns her position as an independent and strong subject with many aspects to her personality. She portrays herself untainted by any societal or gender constraints, and in doing so, she creates a way for other women to break through the objectification that is placed on them. Cahun overcomes the subject-object split through her art, by giving the same amount of control to the model, as she gives to the photographer. In her work, she turns the conventional object into a subject, and inspires others to do the same.

Both Claude Cahun and Frida Kahlo accomplished one of Surrealism’s main goals, overcoming the subject-object split, without being members of the movement, while the male Surrealists ignorantly worked against the standards that they themselves had set up. By breaking through conventions, Cahun and Kahlo changed how women were viewed by men and encouraged women to embrace their positions as subjects. They questioned stereotypes and created powerful work by portraying themselves as figures capable of authority. They disturbed the art world in a meaningful way. They fought tough battles so we could win today.

Unfortunately, their battles are far from won. Women might be less dependent on men in the present society, but they are still too often treated as objects that only reflect what men want. The act of focusing on individual female body parts to ‘celebrate’, or rather objectify them, which the male Surrealists enjoyed, is still very much a part of both men’s and women’s mindsets today. While men are seen as whole individuals, women are reduced to cleavages and legs. This objectification of women is used to sell movies, TV shows, cosmetics, magazines and clothes amongst many other products. And with the help of these products, this objectification is reiterated to the future generation of girls so they grow up thinking that while men can have many body types, it is the norm for a woman to have only one. To counter these societal entrapments, we need to keep on finding female inspirations who broke and break through these stereotypes; we need to remember to say “I want!”, before “I want to be wanted.”








Cahun, Claude. Self-portrait. Photograph. 1928. Jersey Heritage Collections, Jersey.
Caws, Mary Ann, Surrealism and Women. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1991. Google Books.
Chadwick, Whitney. Mirror images: women, surrealism, and self-representation. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.


Chadwick, Whitney. Women artists and the surrealist movement. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.


Belton, Robert J, The Beribboned Bomb: The Image of Woman in Male Surrealist Art. Calgary: Calgary Press, 1995. Ebrary Reader.
Elliot, Bridget and Jo-Ann Wallace. “Fleurs du mal or second-hand roses?: Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and the `Originality of the Avant-Garde.” Feminist Review 40 (1992): 6-30. doi:10.2307/1395274.


Ferman, Gloria. “Art History and the Case for the Women of Surrealism.” The Journal of General Education 27 (1975): 31-54. url:
Kahlo, Frida. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. Oil on canvas. 1940. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Knafo, Danielle. “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 2 (2001): 29-60. url:


Lindauer, Margaret A., Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Google Books.


Mahon, Alyce. “The Lost Secret Frida Kahlo and the Surrealist Imaginary.” Journal Of Surrealism & The Americas 5 (2011): 33-52. url:
Wampole, Christy. “The Impudence of Claude Cahun.” L’Esprit Créateur 53 (2013): 101-113. doi: 10.1353/esp.2013.0009.




[1]Mary Ann Caws, Surrealism and Women (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 8. Google Books.


[2] Ibid., 2.


[3]Ibid., 8


[4]Bridget Elliot and Jo-Ann Wallace. “Fleurs du mal or second-hand roses?: Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and the `Originality of the Avant-Garde” Feminist Review 40 (1992): 20, doi:10.2307/1395274.


[5]Whitney Chadwick, Mirror images: women, surrealism, and self-representation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 5.


[6]           Margaret A. Lindauer, Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 45. Google Books.


[7]Lindauer, Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo.


[8]Alyce Mahon. “The Lost Secret Frida Kahlo and the Surrealist Imaginary,” Journal Of Surrealism & The Americas 5 (2011): 43, url:


[9]Christy Wampole. “The Impudence of Claude Cahun,” L’Esprit Créateur 53 (2013): 102, doi: 10.1353/esp.2013.0009.


[10]Danielle Knafo. “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 2 (2001): 35, url:


[11]Ibid., 36


[12]Wampole, “The Impudence of Claude,” 101.


[13]Knafo, “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex”, 36.


[14]Knafo, “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex”, 37.


[15]Ibid., 58.




Published on: Jun 27, 2014

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