Surradia: A Retrospective. Musée National d’Art Moderne, 2019–20. Admission €14.00.Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz
Portrait of Three Women with an Owl
PARIS, France: Some artistic movements are not fully appreciated until after the artists’ time. Some enjoy immediate fame, only to fade from the spotlight as the years pass. And then there are the movements that, through no fault of the artists, never quite have their moment in the sun. Into this third category falls the subject of the Musée National d’Art Moderne (MNAM)’s excellent new exhibition, Surradia: A Retrospective.
Surradia has frequently been misclassified as a subgenre of surrealism (Gardner’s Art Through the Ages still makes this mistake as of the 16th edition). Thus, the surradists, when they are shown at all, are often relegated to a small “female artists” corner of a larger surrealist exhibition.
Many critics and historians are predisposed to dismiss female artists out of hand. Women’s art is often seen as small, personal, and unambitious, with little to say about the outside world. Surradia, with its themes of self-knowledge, may initially seem like an easy target for such criticisms. However, within the intimacy of the surradists’ art we find incisive and groundbreaking attitudes in stark contrast to the modest domesticity expected of female artists.
But the greatest barrier the surradists have faced is undoubtedly the movement’s abrupt and enigmatic ending. Disappearing as they did in the midst of the German occupation of France, they left no heirs, few connections in the art world, and a long list of unanswered questions. Who is the artist of the unsigned canvas known as “Portrait of Three Women with an Owl?” Were they responsible for the fate of the SS officer who occupied Vidal’s house? Do they have any connection to the legendary Fox Girl of Fontainebleau? We may never know. But the MNAM exhibition provides tantalizing new clues.
Like many art movements, the boundaries of surradia are difficult to define, and some have argued that surradist scholars are too prone to classify artists by the manner of their death rather than the content of their art. MNAM, however, chooses to focus on the three artists who are almost universally acknowledged as the heart of the movement: Alice Penderwood, Corine Moriceau, and Amaya Vidal.
The auburn-haired Penderwood came to Paris from Connecticut in 1936 as the lover of André Breton. She received much critical acclaim for her early work, such as “The Debutante” (1937), which already featured the recurring motif of a fox. But though she was fascinated by the psychological side of surrealism, she often clashed with the opinionated surrealist leader. When asked her opinion about woman’s role as the male artist’s muse, her reply was one word: “Bullshit.” Unsurprisingly, she soon left Breton and began developing her own style. An avid cook, she abandoned oil paints and began making her own egg tempera using natural pigments, creating paintings with jewel-like tones that evoke medieval art. Later, beginning with “Procession at the Penderwood Estate” (c. 1938), leaves, twigs, dirt, and other natural materials began to enter her work. The MNAM exhibition has done an admirable job establishing a chronology out of these often-undated pieces.
The Dominican-born Moriceau also began her art career among the surrealists, who she initially met as a model. But unlike the brash Penderwood, 19-year-old Moriceau felt intimidated among so many famous names. She rarely spoke at gatherings. While she painted prolifically, she hesitated to show or sell her work, much of which she gave away to friends or family. MNAM has managed to locate two of these previously uncatalogued works: “A Young Girl Discovers the Phases of the Moon” and “The Invention of Music” (both c. 1936). Close friends with Penderwood, she left the surrealist group shortly after her friend did.
Moriceau is easily the most overlooked of the surradists, and it’s refreshing to see an exhibition finally acknowledge her central role in the movement. Her work is deeply personal, featuring lone individuals in fantastical versions of homelike settings. Moriceau’s large eyes and heart-shaped face appear on the subjects of her paintings, whether male or female. Her most common motif is a white stag, appearing either as a whole animal, a human with antlers, or, as in “The Pantry of Grandmother Night” (c. 1937), simply a pair of antlers in the background. Several excellent essays have already explored the question of why Moriceau’s animal avatar was a stag and not, as might be expected, a doe; however, the MNAM exhibition does not touch on this question.
Vidal, a French-born artist of Argentinian descent, was unique in her refusal to associate with the surrealists, though their influence is nevertheless apparent in her work. The eldest of the surradists, she already had a successful art career by the mid-1930s. Most of the writing about Vidal has focused on her eccentric lifestyle, wearing elaborate feathered gowns and allowing her beloved Persian cats to eat off her plate, and MNAM does fall into this trap, exhibiting several of her surviving outfits. But it also features a broad selection of her dark, eerie paintings with their themes of death and decay. The animal that appears most frequently in Vidal’s work is, curiously, not a cat, but an owl.
Vidal was the inventor of the split-canvas motif that would become so distinctive over the next two years. A wall, tree, or other barrier divides the canvas into two scenes which are interrelated, yet subtly different. “Memory of Autumn” (1933) depicts a forest that is in leaf on one side of the painting and bare on the other. In “Portrait of Alice Penderwood” (1939), Penderwood passes through a gateway and comes out wearing a steel breastplate. Are the two sides past and present, or dream and reality? Or, perhaps, are both sides equally illusory? All three surradists would delve deep into this enigma during their time together.
In 1938, Vidal invited Penderwood and Moriceau to leave Paris and come stay at her house in Fontainebleau, and over the following year, surradia truly came into its own. There has been much speculation about the nature of this living situation, particularly between Penderwood and Moriceau, and several affectionate letters between the two featured in the exhibition will no doubt add fuel to the fire. It was here that Moriceau coined the name “surradia,” which, she claims, came to her in a dream.
Art lovers may find the next room of the exhibition difficult to stomach. After the French surrender, the surrealists scattered, relying on American friends or even arranged marriages to get out of Europe, but the surradists lacked their connections and were forced to remain. A division of SS officers led by the brutish Oberführer Baer occupied Vidal’s house, where they forced the women to cook and clean for them and defaced their artwork. I admit I was unable to maintain scholarly objectivity at the sight of the paintings that had been slashed with knives or painted with crude Nazi slogans. Saddest of all, the exhibition includes several photos of Penderwood’s lost masterpiece “Who Are You, Silent One?” (c. 1939), which was burned in the bonfire of July 27, 1942 in the gardens of Jeu de Paume.
We don’t know what incident proved to be the breaking point for the surradists, but we do know that in early 1940, the three women abandoned their house to the Nazis and fled into the woods, leaving their artwork behind.
Most of the locals assumed Baer had killed the women, and this opinion is still held by some in the art world to this day. But the postwar discovery of a small log lean-to in the woods reveals a different fate. The lean-to had apparently been abandoned for some time. It was in disrepair and, based on the strong animal smell, various creatures had used it as a den. Several types of scat were found inside, as well as an abandoned birds’ nest near the fire hole. It contained a cooking pot, an axe, three moss-lined sleeping pallets, and the crown jewel of the MNAM exhibition: The unsigned painting “Portrait of Three Women with an Owl” (c. 1940), painted on a wooden panel using only natural pigments.
The three women in the painting are unmistakable. But which one was the artist? Wisely, MNAM takes no position on this question. The owl, of course, suggests Vidal. The use of natural materials points to Penderwood, though it may have been a matter of simple necessity. And the setting—a kitchen that resembles a medieval alchemy lab—most closely aligns with Moriceau’s work. The three women surround a cauldron, each holding a long spoon handle, two wearing ordinary clothes while the third is clad in leaves and lichen. A vaulted archway divides the room. On one side are Penderwood and most of Moriceau in a dark brick room stocked with bottles of mysterious substances. On the other side is Vidal with her owl on her shoulder, but now the kitchen is made entirely of old, knobby trees, one growing into the next.
The surradists, it seems, survived in the woods for several months.
What became of them? The final room of the exhibition is devoted to this question. Three artworks of uncertain provenance that have been attributed to the surradists are on display. One, a landscape that showed up at an auction in Chicago, attributed to Penderwood, is almost certainly a hoax, but the two Vidals—one found in an abandoned house in Fontainebleau, the other recovered from the basement of a church—are much more intriguing. Found in 1949 and 1952 respectively, each set off a wave of speculation that the artist was still alive. Forensic experts have verified the works’ authenticity, but it’s impossible to determine when they were originally painted.
Here the otherwise strong exhibition finally falters, devoting the entire back wall to an overly credulous display of mysteries and enigmas that have been linked to the surradists over the years. There are several newspaper articles covering the rash of unusual animal encounters in the Seine-et-Marne area in the postwar years, including multiple sightings of leucistic deer and one case of an owl that flew into a house and refused to leave. One amusing (if unconvincing) inclusion is the original drawing of the Fox Girl of Fontainebleau, a cryptid sighted by a 14-year-old girl in 1976. She claimed she was walking in the woods when she saw a woman with wild red hair, dressed in a tunic made of animal skins. The woman ran into a copse of trees and, when the girl reached the copse, she found nothing but a fox fleeing into the underbrush. The story has been widely discredited—the reporter who first broke the story was a notorious hoaxer—but there are still scattered claims of sightings to this day.
The centerpiece of this final room, however, is an exhibit on the death of Oberführer Baer. Baer was found dead in the living room of Vidal’s house on December 4, 1940. His body was covered in bruises and contusions, there were bite marks on his arms, and his face had been gouged by a bird’s talons. The windows and doors of the house were thrown open, the floor scattered with leaf litter that had apparently blown in.
The coroner ruled that he had been mauled to death by wild animals, and though the ever-paranoid Vichy police classified it as a murder and investigated the whole town on the suspicion that someone might have somehow lured the beasts inside and set them on him, they were unable to determine who could have staged such a bizarre crime. Baer’s death remains unsolved to this day. The exhibition features Baer’s torn SS uniform, as well as the original police photos of the crime scene, laid out for the viewer to piece together.
Surradia is a beautiful and deeply underappreciated movement, one that was cut short before its time by its creators’ sudden disappearance. One can’t help but speculate how the history of 20th-century art might have gone differently had the artists survived the war and gone on to take their rightful place in the art world. This extensive and well-curated exhibition is sure to spark renewed interest in these extremely interesting women and their art, as well as in the natural world they loved so much. I myself, while I was composing this review, was struck to see a large gray owl perched on the fence outside my window, fluffing its feathers and staring at me.
Surradia: A Retrospective will be on display until June 20.