" I think it's an interesting concept, to be an inspiration for yourself."

Muse Letter No. 19


(Rachel Ashenden & Molly Gilroy Photo: Solen Photography)

A couple of weeks ago, in a way too noisy cafe three women sat down to have a talk about: the Feminist-Surrealist Manifesto, muses and female friendship. These women were: Rachel Ashenden, Molly Gilroy and me. I was there to interview them about their art journal “The Debutante” which they had published at the beginning of this year in Edinburgh.

This is a more or less accurate, transcription of our encounter:

As a person who has not studied art and only a vague knowledge about it: What is surrealism exactly? 

Rachel: Surrealism was a cultural movement founded in the 1920s, which strived to reconcile the antagonisms of dream and reality through art and literature. In spite of its radical, anti bourgeois politics, women practitioners were sometimes regarded as sources of inspiration for the men's artistic pursuits, rather than as surrealists in their own right. The Debutante is part of a wider movement to challenge the liminal status of women surrealists, and explore their continued relevance in contemporary art today. 

Molly: Exactly. Surrealism is more than an aesthetic; it’s political and it’s contemporary too. It is a challenge to the mundane experience of the world, exposing those subconscious layers, paradoxes and juxtapositions. The unexpected, chance encounters, object trouves (found objects), happenings which are part of a sur-reality. Surrealism can revolutionise your everyday life. 

Photo: Solen Photography

I mean it is all a bit surreal this year. – How did you find each other? 

Molly: In quite an ‘un-surrealist’ and mundane way...at University. 

Rachel: Unfortunately there’s not a more interesting story, we just both attended the same course called: “Surrealism and its Legacies” at The University of Exeter and fell in love with surrealism. 

Molly: I guess the interesting part is that when we both discovered surrealism, we simultaneously became really good friends. Creating together never feels like work; it’s just part of our relationship as a whole.

Rachel: Right. A lot of people are often surprised about that. To me it is a feminist practice, to lift each other up, by working together, and collaborating with other people. 

Molly: We began working on a surrealist blog first, when we both relocated to Scotland. We met and saw the documentary on Penny Slinger, ‘Out of the Shadows’, and were inspired to create something more tactile...that’s when we decided to launch The Debutante. We wanted something in which we could platform other contemporary writers and artists, affiliated, either consciously, or unconsciously with surrealism.

Which artists would you recommend for someone who has yet to explore the female surrealists? 

Molly: Leonora Carrington is probably the most ‘visible’ (in terms of a more public consciousness) female surrealist whose work has been picked up by publishers a lot in recent years, so her work is a lot easier to stumble across in bookstores. As she’s British, there isn't the issue of waiting for her prose pieces to be translated into English etc, like some of her french contemporaries. Maya Deren, though she too resisted the label of ‘surrealism’, is someone whose work continues to fascinate me. Her film, ‘Meshes in the Afternoon’, is often taught as part of the American avant-garde in film studies, but it wasn’t until my master’s that I understood her affinities to surrealism, her relationship with Marcel Duchamp, and her reconfiguration of the ‘muse’; she was on both sides of the camera in her work.

(page from the first issue of “The Debutante”)

Let’s talk about „Muses“: They play a big part in art in general but specifically in the culture of the surrealists in the 1920s, why? 

Molly: Most female artists were defying the term “muse”, even loathing it, because it diminished their work, their own artistry. They were being reduced to decor by their male colleagues. 

Rachel: In our first issue of “The Debutante” we have an interview with the feminist-surrealist artist Penny Slinger, who talks about re-claiming the term muse, by stating that she is her own muse. I think it’s an interesting concept, to be an inspiration for yourself. She says: “I decided to be my own muse and to show the nature of the feminine through my own eyes, not through the lens of the masculine gaze.”

(Annotation: There will be a webinar hosted by “The Debutante” on the 13.11.2020: MUSES REDEFINED: A Feminist Marvellous with Dr Catriona McAra

What does being a feminist-surrealist mean to you? 

Rachel: I think it’s mostly feminist because of the inherent collaboration. And it’s also about reclaiming this art form. Women were sometimes excluded from the groups and the discourse of the surrealists. They were merely seen as muses, to be used for inspiration. 

Molly: Yes- it’s all about collaboration and kinship. We mention in our ‘Feminist-Surrealist’ manifesto that it isn’t about ‘possesiveness’ of the movement, but about forging new relevance for feminist practicioners influenced by surrealism.

So you wrote your own manifesto. How did you write the Feminist-Surrealist Manifesto? 

Rachel: In reaction to Breton’s ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ (1924), which wasn’t signed by any women, we felt like writing our own. 

Molly: At first we wanted to use a surrealist technique called: ‘Exquisite Corpse’ where we could get all of our contributors involved. The technique basically means that one person draws a ‘head’ on a piece of paper, folds it over, and passes it over to the next person, so each person completes the drawing, without being able to see what’s been drawn before and so on. We asked our contributors for one point each but –

Rachel: – Unfortunately it turned out to be very surreal and not really useful as a thread for the magazine. 

Molly: So Rachel and I compiled 8 points, which focused on our aims of collaboration, reclamation and relevance. Something had to make sense! (laughs)

(page from the first issue of “The Debutante”)

We spoke a lot about inspiring people. Who are your idols? 

Rachel: There was this fascinatingly non-conformist woman briefly affiliated with surrealism; she went by the name of “Nadja”. She had an affair with André Breton (who was a bit of a dick...but don’t put that in, or maybe do, because it’s true) who mythogised her as his femme-folle (a muse associated with the dual realms of femininity and madness) in his book Nadja. Critics of literary Surrealism are preoccupied with Nadja’s personal tragedy: her mental illness and premature death. Many have missed the notion that she was a vital, active catalyst for bringing to life the revolutionary principles of surrealism. I am always drawn to Nadja in periods of despondency; she renamed herself “Nadja” because in Russian it is the beginning of the word for “hope”. 

Molly: Can I name two? Leonor Fini and Kate Bush. Leonor Fini was obsessed with felines and masks. In her work, the sphinx mythology is rife! I loved how she moved between drawing, painting and costume design for quite a few ballets, and she was incredibly sensual and provocative. I think I’d be incredibly intimidated if I met her...And Kate Bush because she is this ethereal, almost contemporary legacy of surrealism. Though she has never ‘identified’ with the movement, but parts of her work, especially her film ‘The Red Shoes’, in its storytelling and visuals, seem very surreal and remind me a lot of Maya Deren’s films. 

What’s next for The Debutante? 

Rachel: We’re busy getting ready for the launch of issue 02, which is called ‘Feminist-Surrealist Odysseys’. It explores the journeys contemporary artists take across borders, seas and inner psychological landscapes to explore their own sur-reality, alongside confronting ecological and transnational crises. 

Molly: Issue 02 is due out at the end of September. During lockdown, we’ve been putting on a series of webinars called ‘MUSES REDEFINED’, and organising an intersectional reading group to open up conversations about decolonising the art historical record of surrealism. We also can’t wait to get back to hosting in-person events. 

Any last words? 

Rachel: There’s a quote by Leonora Carrington, that is also printed in the first volume of “The Debutante”:

“I often feel I am being burned at the stake just because (…) I have always refused to give up that wonderful strange power I have inside me that becomes manifested when I am in harmonious communication with some other being.” 

(from “The Hearing Trumpet”, 1975) 

To me one of these people is Molly. 

You can purchase a copy of the first issue “The Debutante - The Feminist-Surrealist Manifesto” here. The second issue “The Debutante - Feminist-Surrealist Odysseys” is coming out in September. Find them on Twitter & Instagram and subscribe to their Newsletter.

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