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The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism

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The Militant Muse documents what it meant to be young, ambitious and female in the context of an avant-garde movement defined by celebrated men whose educational, philosophical and literary backgrounds were often quite different from those of their younger lovers and companions. Focusing on the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Whitney Chadwick charts five intense, far-reaching The Militant Muse documents what it meant to be young, ambitious and female in the context of an avant-garde movement defined by celebrated men whose educational, philosophical and literary backgrounds were often quite different from those of their younger lovers and companions. Focusing on the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Whitney Chadwick charts five intense, far-reaching female friendships among the Surrealists to show how Surrealism, female friendship and the experiences of war, loss and trauma shaped individual womens transitions from beloved muses to mature artists. Her vivid account includes the fascinating story of Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbes subversive activities in occupied Jersey, as well as the experiences of Lee Miller and Valentine Penrose at the frontline. Chadwick draws on personal correspondence between women, including the extraordinary letters between Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini during the months following the arrest and imprisonment of Carringtons lover Max Ernst at the beginning of World War Two, and the letter Frida Kahlo shared with her friend and lover Jacqueline Lamba years after it was written in the late 1930s during a difficult stay in Paris, marred by her intense dislike of Breton. Thoroughly engrossing, this history brings a new perspective to the political context of Surrealism, as well as fresh insights on the vital importance of female friendship to its artistic and intellectual flowering.


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The Militant Muse documents what it meant to be young, ambitious and female in the context of an avant-garde movement defined by celebrated men whose educational, philosophical and literary backgrounds were often quite different from those of their younger lovers and companions. Focusing on the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Whitney Chadwick charts five intense, far-reaching The Militant Muse documents what it meant to be young, ambitious and female in the context of an avant-garde movement defined by celebrated men whose educational, philosophical and literary backgrounds were often quite different from those of their younger lovers and companions. Focusing on the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Whitney Chadwick charts five intense, far-reaching female friendships among the Surrealists to show how Surrealism, female friendship and the experiences of war, loss and trauma shaped individual womens transitions from beloved muses to mature artists. Her vivid account includes the fascinating story of Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbes subversive activities in occupied Jersey, as well as the experiences of Lee Miller and Valentine Penrose at the frontline. Chadwick draws on personal correspondence between women, including the extraordinary letters between Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini during the months following the arrest and imprisonment of Carringtons lover Max Ernst at the beginning of World War Two, and the letter Frida Kahlo shared with her friend and lover Jacqueline Lamba years after it was written in the late 1930s during a difficult stay in Paris, marred by her intense dislike of Breton. Thoroughly engrossing, this history brings a new perspective to the political context of Surrealism, as well as fresh insights on the vital importance of female friendship to its artistic and intellectual flowering.

30 review for The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism

  1. 4 out of 5

    Andrada

    Despite the years-long effort Whitney Chadwick clearly put into this book, I was left with the strange feeling that it was far too vague and touched only cursorily on the lives of the surrealist muses and their artistic aspirations. This is mostly due to the way she chose to structure the book as a story of the friendships between the women of the surrealist circle. This often does a disservice to one of the two women that are presented in parallel. Very little is said of Suzanne Malherbes and Despite the years-long effort Whitney Chadwick clearly put into this book, I was left with the strange feeling that it was far too vague and touched only cursorily on the lives of the surrealist muses and their artistic aspirations. This is mostly due to the way she chose to structure the book as a story of the friendships between the women of the surrealist circle. This often does a disservice to one of the two women that are presented in parallel. Very little is said of Suzanne Malherbes and Leonor Fini for example and Jacqueline Lamba pales in Frida Kahlo’s shadow. I also didn’t appreciate the way the writer tried to shoehorn homosexuality into almost every friendship, even when there was little proof for it. That being said, the Militant Muse gives a fascinating if perhaps too episodic look into the lives of the overlooked female surrealist artists that were often confined to the roles of muses, lovers and wives of the much more prominent male figures of the movement. The experiences presented are very diverse and it was interesting to follow their search for recognition and freedom of expression as they faced the gruesome realities of war and struggled against domesticity and the limited place accorded to women in the art world at the time.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Sadler

    It was a year ago that I bought The Militant Muse, and even though I never intended it to be so long on the to-read pile, it really proved to be a wonder worth waiting for. In these pages, Whitney centres the women at the heart of the pioneering inter-war Surrealist art movement icons such as Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Frida Kahlo, and Valentine Penrose and demonstrates how the complex web of intense friendship, love affairs and connections between them enabled these It was a year ago that I bought The Militant Muse, and even though I never intended it to be so long on the to-read pile, it really proved to be a wonder worth waiting for. In these pages, Whitney centres the women at the heart of the pioneering inter-war Surrealist art movement – icons such as Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Frida Kahlo, and Valentine Penrose – and demonstrates how the complex web of intense friendship, love affairs and connections between them enabled these formidable and talented women to shirk off the ‘muse’ box that the men of the movement kept them in to flourish as formidable artists in their own right. What’s great about Whitney’s writing and research is that, yes, of course there is the examination of the private lives of these women (simply because the likes of Breton and Ernst were critical parts of their lives) but this is not salacious writing; rather, Whitney links all the twists and turns and developments – whether they be love affairs or wars – to the impact on the artistic output of these women. Inspiring stuff here, for sure. This is a book I’m likely to return to again (and again).

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ana

    Thoroughly compelling read about female artists in the Surrealist movement. Despite being very much an art history book (or a women in art history book), it is an intensely enjoyable and *readable* (concise and plainly written) account of artists we know (like Frida Kahlo and Lee Miller) to those maybe lesser known like Claude Cahun and Jacqueline Lamba. This book sells itself as a story of the muses and the world they made for themselves amongst the main characters of Surrealism - Andre Breton, Thoroughly compelling read about female artists in the Surrealist movement. Despite being very much an art history book (or a ‘women in art’ history book), it is an intensely enjoyable and *readable* (concise and plainly written) account of artists we know (like Frida Kahlo and Lee Miller) to those maybe lesser known like Claude Cahun and Jacqueline Lamba. This book sells itself as a story of “the muses” and the world they made for themselves amongst the main characters of Surrealism - Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Diego Rivera, Roland Penrose - but it’s truth is so much more: a story of each woman as an artist in her own right - her triumphs, her trials, her politics. A minor flaw is that it’s hard to understand what Chadwick’s focus is across the book and in each story - their most significant moments as artists, as friends or as women at that time in history? Almost seamless narratives are sometimes disrupted by the odd “analysis” that comes out of nowhere, as if she suddenly remembers the ‘art’ part of art history. 10/10 would re-read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mark Wheaton

    A fascinating look at the lives of several women in and around the mid-twentieth century surrealist movement whom have had their lives too often defined in previous histories by their relationships to Great Men Of Art, often diminished to muses when they were great artists and thinkers in their own right. A fascinating look at the lives of several women in and around the mid-twentieth century surrealist movement whom have had their lives too often defined in previous histories by their relationships to Great Men Of Art, often diminished to “muses” when they were great artists and thinkers in their own right.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    A well researched and informative piece of work. I like the focus on artists whose stories might not otherwise be told. The narrative though is a little all over the place and jumps back and forth a lot between time and people.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Hayley

  7. 5 out of 5

    Cecilia

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lyndsay

  9. 4 out of 5

    Issy Stephenson

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kavya

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rachael

  12. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  13. 4 out of 5

    Erin Ryan

  14. 5 out of 5

    Aoife Ní Innseadúin

  15. 5 out of 5

    L

  16. 5 out of 5

    Paulina Arreola

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

  18. 4 out of 5

    Clémentine

  19. 5 out of 5

    David

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sophie

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jimena

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jess

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mackenzie

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

  25. 4 out of 5

    Alana Kazykhan

  26. 5 out of 5

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  27. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne

  28. 4 out of 5

    Anna Maria

  29. 4 out of 5

    Anum Karim

  30. 4 out of 5

    saturnine

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