Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"We Haven't Left the Body": An Interview with Mary Ann Caws

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"We Haven't Left the Body": An Interview with Mary Ann Caws

Article excerpt

DM It's the name of your book, The Surrealist Look, that might give us a place to start. Can we talk for a minute about this look; this male look, this male looking at the female, always the female as body and as a body-in-parts, dressed or undressed? "Ribald reductions" is the way you put it (Surrealist Look). Is the male surrealist look something we can define only in relation to a female body in parts?

MAC That's a fascinating question because, of course, Breton was vaguely homophobic, so the idea of a male looking at a male would have been appalling to him. And I think that the reason I did this book was in part that I was interested in how a female would look at surrealist art--clearly not the way Breton looked at women, which is hard to define in any case. What I meant by the "surrealist look" was of course the way in which the viewer is necessarily implicated, folded into the look at the object and the way the object, whatever it is, whether it's a person or a thing, is folded into the vision of the person looking. Here's the reason surrealism interests me: precisely because the viewer has such a chance to remake the way that the whole thing is constructed. The way that perception is set up. It's an interactive sport, if you like, the surrealist look. I think that what I've been writing a lot about is the charge of the look, the energy that is put by the viewer into what he or she is looking at. So, as for the male looking at the female, though of course that's a topos from always, it's a little bit less difficult to challenge in surrealism because the challenge is implicit in the principle that the viewer has a big role to play. Surrealism isn't just an active/passive thing. It isn't just that the viewer is staring at somebody who is passive.

DM Tell me more about surrealism as a new way of looking, as transformative.

MAC Take the classic male artist looking at the female model. Surrealism is absolutely the opposite of that. That's what I begin by criticizing, because it seems to me that Magritte, putting all the body parts there, although he's of course reflecting back on the Renaissance mode of separating the female into parts, is making an ironic play. On the other hand, he is, deliberately, invoking that past in which the male looked at the female body. Surrealism is a re-looking at everything; for example, the photographer Claude Cahun and the artist Dorothea Tanning-these women who tend to redo the whole thing. And since I'm a woman looking at this female gaze, I tend to think of it as transforming in its very principle. Surrealism has its own tenet, its own credo, changing the way we look at things because it is active on all sides. It's not just someone looking, or being looked at.

DM But why the fragmentation, the body in parts?

MAC Because, for example, Magritte, you remember that famous painting in which he separates the head from the neck from the shoulders and so forth, is reflecting back on Mannerism, in which the female figure was separated into parts, this blason as a praise of each of the parts of a woman's body. It's a reflection back on that. I think that it also celebrates the fragments as fragmentary, not just as parts of a whole. I think, too, though I have no way of proving this, that Magritte had in mind the game called the cadavre exquis, "the exquisite corpse." You take parts, you take one word, if it's verbal, or one piece of the body if it's visual, and you draw a head, then you draw a neck, and then the next person draws the shoulder and the next person draws the legs, and so forth, making parts into a whole art object. This is so often what surrealism does.

DM What anger do you have about the surrealist look? What angry energy do you feel we feel?

MAC Well, since lam a convinced feminist, it always angered me that it is a woman in the images of Magritte, the one called Le Viol, in which you just have what should be the head done as the middle part of her body, so the whole thing is a rape of her, a rape of her mind. …

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