The Critic Stripped Bare

On the 11th September Guardian Unlimited published a review of the exhibition The Art of Lee Miller by Jonathan Jones. Jones, who, while showing himself to be profoundly ignorant of surrealism, has, nevertheless, always been eager to pontificate on it. In this instance he compounds his sins by making comments on Lee Miller and on women surrealists that can only be understood as sexist.

Jones raves on about Lee Miller’s beauty – and it is hard to deny that she was a most beautiful woman – and finds in this a key to her importance rather than her work. He considers her work lacks “true surrealist shock” and that she “doesn’t stick to a surrealist method”, whatever that may be.  

Certainly a part of Jones’ attitude arises from his ignorance. If one agrees that Lee Miller is a lesser figure than Man Ray there is no shame in that as many great surrealist photographers are also overshadowed by the man who could be said to have invented surrealist photography, and many of them are men. But we would question if Jones had considered, in discussing the merits of various surrealists the photography of Emila Medkova.

 Medkova’s work is certainly unique, certainly “driven” (a quality that Jones finds lacking in Miller’s work) and quite distinct from Man Ray’s work in its concern with the real, the everyday and the “informal”. But Jones is presumably unable to comment on this as he has probably never heard of Medkova. Instead he rambles on about how critics latch on to how “Kahlo wasn’t that subtle a painter” as if the tiny handful of artists, some of them like Kahlo not surrealists in any case, who are discussed in Whitney Chadwick’s second-rate opus “Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement” constituted a proper representation of women in the surrealist movement. This book exemplifies the danger of accepting shoddy scholarship in that its effect is to create a very distorted and inaccurate picture of the relationship between the movement as a whole and the woman who participated – and continue to participate – as surrealists, as artists, poets, theoreticians in the movment. Penelope Rosemont manages to include about 100 (as opposed to Chadwick’s 6 or 7) without exhausting the matter in her masterly “Surrealist Women”.

Jones believes surrealism to be a “generous and baggy phenomenon” and asks if any surrealist art measures up to Cezanne. But Cezanne and most surrealist artists are so different to each other how would one make a judgement? On what basis? This generous and baggy surrealism must not, however, be dismissed because it is concerned with the “reality of desire” and indeed, “Sex was sort of the point of the entire movement”.

Well, surrealism is indeed concerned with the reality of desire and consequently with sex, but to say it is the whole point of the movement (or even “sort of”) is ridiculous. Is surrealism unconcerned with poetry, the marvellous, revolution? Is it not the case that rather than sex being the point of surrealism, eroticism at its broadest is inextricably linked to all the other aims and concerns of surrealism, and that the point is perhaps what Breton called the “supreme point” at which all contradictions cease to be experienced as such?

 On the Guardian blog somebody made a point about Jones’ rather belittling and condescending remarks on Lee Miller with the comment that Picasso “wasn’t that good a painter, he just had pretty eyes was hung like a bull and could go all night”. The point being made is presumably one would not dream of commenting on a male artists work in terms concerned mostly with his appearance. Jones’ obssession with Lee Miller’s beauty combined with his lack of understanding of the surrealist context of her and other women surrealists’ work leads to him looking like a fool once again, but this time an obnoxious and chauvinistic one. Perhaps we should demand that all Jonathan Jones’ articles be accompanied by a photograph of him naked? It might in giving us a good laugh redeem the time wasted in reading his tripe. But perhaps Lee Miller gets the last word; the photograph accompanying his article is her “Rat Tails”. Lee has awarded Jonathan Jones four rats arses out of a possible five for his piece. Surely nobody would disagree with that.

London Surrealist Group

September 2007 

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~ by londonsurrealistgroup on September 18, 2007.

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