1. Whitney Chadwick’s pioneering book celebrates the women at the heart of the Surrealist revolution: “Young, beautiful and rebellious, they became an embodiment of their age and a herald of the future as they explored more fully than any group of women before them the interior sources of woman’s creative imagination.” Ms. Chadwick analyzes their work in intimate detail, looking for connecting themes: dreams and reality, sexuality and nature, fertility and death. Female artists featured in each of the International Surrealist Exhibitions from 1935 to 1947, but their names gradually faded from view. Today Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini,
Lee Miller, Meret Oppenheim and Dorothea Tanning have reputations that stretch across the globe, but time was when they were more likely to be seen as passive sources of inspiration for male creativity, the embodiments of Surrealist fascination with the erotic muse. Carrington’s response was emphatic: “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse . . . I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”
Circles & Squares
By Caroline Maclean (2020)
2. For a few brief years in the 1930s, the Hampstead area of London became the epicenter of British Modernism. Caroline Maclean reveals an inner group of artists living within five minutes of each other—men and women drawn together by “a prevailing good temper that allowed art to grow.” Ms. Maclean builds a sensory impression of Modernist life: architects, sculptors and painters moving from relationship to relationship, studio to studio, united by their commitment to clarity of design, to simplicity in form. Major European figures like Walter Gropius and Piet Mondrian passed through Hampstead like comets. British artists such as Barbara Hepworth and her partner Ben Nicholson made equally groundbreaking contributions. Ms. Maclean describes the “intense pleasure” Hepworth felt in 1931 when she pierced a circular hole in a small abstract carving. By “opening up sculptural form to involve interior space Hepworth transformed twentieth-century sculpture.” When Nicholson made his first relief painting in 1933—accidentally cutting through a layer of plaster preparation on a board—Hepworth was delighted; it seemed as if “their two art forms were merging.”
Living Well Is the Best Revenge
By Calvin Tomkins (1971)
3. So many myths have emerged around the lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy on the Riviera that it can be hard to separate fact from fantasy. Calvin Tomkins’s life of the Murphys tells the story of two American expatriates who gathered an extraordinary group of friends in France in the 1920s—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Fernand Leger and Pablo Picasso. The Murphys arrived in Europe at the perfect moment, when “all the arts seemed poised on the verge of a new Golden Age, the product of postwar energies and a sense of personal freedom that encouraged limitless experimentation.” At the Murphys’ homes in Paris and their villa on the Cap d’Antibes, American writers mingled with European artists. Caught up in the exciting world of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Gerald and Sara threw themselves headfirst into the artistic life. Both began training with one of Diaghilev’s designers, Natalia Goncharova. But it was Gerald who took to painting as a craft, earning a reputation as an American artist in Paris. Adopting a style “midway between realism and abstraction,” Gerald created classic evocations of the Jazz Age.
Summer in February
By Jonathan Smith (1995)
4. Set in Cornwall, England, in the early 20th century, Jonathan Smith’s novel is based on a true story. The tiny fishing village of Lamorna has been overrun by strange newcomers dressed in outlandish clothes: “Some new artist or other, or artist’s model, had appeared every month in one cottage or studio or outhouse. Newlyn, of course, had been packed tight with them for many years, but now it was Lamorna’s turn.” Drawn by the naturalist painter Stanhope Forbes, artists are seduced by the dramatic coastal scenery and the opportunity to paint in the open air. Mr. Smith explores the challenges faced by the female artist, the narrow pathway between model and muse. Laura Knight rises triumphantly to the test, seizing the chance to paint a female nude, reflecting on the beauty of the naked female body: “Was one more real or less real when unclothed?”
By Shola von Reinhold (2020)
5. Shola von Reinhold’s deliciously ornate fantasia conjures up a lost group of artists and writers from the 1920s—the ‘Lote-Os’—who formed a cult dedicated to the worship of beauty. The novel’s protagonist, Mathilda, gradually uncovers the story of Hermia Druitt, “The Black Princess,” who played a central role in the group. Tantalizing glimpses of Hermia emerge: dressed as a peacock-winged angel with Stephen Tennant and Rex Whistler; dancing in Harlem ballrooms with Richard Bruce Nugent; publishing androgynous poetry through Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press. Mathilda slips between identities and groups as Hermia had done a hundred years before—transported by ecstatic “transfixions”—“I was rubicund and faceted. I emitted a pink sunburst. I was a living bronze five-pointed star.” Accepted into a residency of “Thought Artists” in the mysterious European city of Dun, Mathilda solves the enigma of Hermia’s later years, and finds herself caught up in a movement designed to negate the artistic self. But “the holy act of adornment . . . the essential and irreducible aspect of ornamentation,” cannot be suppressed.
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