The portrayal of women as muses was a familiar surrealist theme. Believing that women had a closer connection to the desired irrationality of dreams than men, they pictured them as alluring sorceresses, child-women, and quasi-magical beings. In Max Ernst’s painting The Robing of the Bride (1940), for instance, a female figure is transformed into an alluring, bird-like creature.
This way of presenting women was intended to elevate rather than diminish the female sex, but ran the risk of seeming to cast women as a passive foil to male creativity, without a voice of their own. From the mid-1930s, however, a growing number of women artists and poets were attracted to the movement. Many adopted existing surrealist imagery, often assuming the role of muse themselves. In Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday (1942), the artist appears as a bare-breasted enchantress. Like several of the works shown here, there is a tension in the painting that suggests a degree of unease about this form of self-representation.