Intimate Jewels: Surrealism, Fetish and Fairytales – thoughts on a lecture by Dr Sabina Stent at the UCB School of Jewellery

The Jewellery Quarter continues to surprise me with little treats: it turns out the School of Jewellery (University College Birmingham) is currently running a lecture series called ‘Talking Practice’ which is open to the public as well as students. Research seminars are one of the things I miss most about university, so I’ve been planning to take in a talk or two for a while now. I hadn’t got round to going to any before last week, but as soon I heard there was an upcoming talk called ‘Intimate Jewels: Surrealism, Fetish and Fairytales’, I registered on the spot. Jewellery and feminist scholarship? It’s like the event was made for me…

I scooped up a like-minded friend (obviously I’m not enough of an adult to go to something new by myself – who does that?!) and we headed over. I’d checked a dozen times that the talk actually was open to interlopers like us, but I still left feeling a tiny bit like this:

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So, Dr Sabina Stent gave us an introduction to female surrealists (who I knew precisely nothing about before the lecture, to my slight shame) and their contribution to material culture.* She highlighted the fact that with female surrealists, as in all Art History, people tend (understandably) to focus on paintings as the evidence of artistic output, and sculpture, furniture, clothing, and so on often get left by the wayside. So far, so good (I like a good painting as much as the next person but I find objects much more interesting. The Cour Marly is my favourite part of the Louvre by miles).

Another interesting point Sabina made right off the bat was that part of the reason female surrealists are underrepresented in scholarship is because they’re too often viewed as the muses of male surrealist artists rather than artists in their own rights. For example, Dora Maar was immortalised in the public mind as nothing more than Picasso’s Weeping Woman, but was actually an exceptionally talented photographer.

Two artists were discussed in particular detail: Elsa Schiaparelli (who Chanel described as ‘that artist who makes clothes’ – great bit of vintage shade there) and Méret Oppenheim. Both created a variety of objects, and both tapped into the surrealist movement’s love of using disembodied body parts as a key type of imagery. Some of the key pieces Sabina introduced to audience to included gloves, hats, accessories and tableware:

Straight away you can see the focus on disembodied limbs and externalising the internal. (I also really, really want that last brooch.)

Of all the pieces Sabina introduced, the most difficult and interesting was undoubtedly Méret Oppenheim’s Ma Gouvernante:

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There’s no other way to put it; it’s uncomfortable to look at, from the scuffed, white shoes that suggest the Madonna/whore complex to the overtones of bondage and cannibalism. When it was originally shown in 1936, a female viewer flew into a rage and smashed it, forcing Oppenheim to make a second version. The lecture emphasised the female surrealists’ practice of creating sexually-charged, whimsical and provocative art, attempting to reclaim femininity through dark humour. From that angle (and I’m assuming statistically that Oppenheim had at least tangential experience/knowledge of the sexual violence which the piece suggests), I feel that Ma Gouvernante externalises a distinctly female set of intense and difficult emotions, experiences and societal expectations.

And while we’re on the topic of expressing difficult issues, the other thing the lecture highlighted was the surrealists’ exploration of the lines between civilisation and wilderness, as epitomised by Oppenheim’s werewolf gloves:

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Subversion of fairytale tropes? Check. Weaponised femininity? Check. Suggestive of raw female power? Check.

These gloves are particularly interesting to me in the context of the surrealist movement’s attitude towards mental health issues (shocker). When I reached out to Sabina after the lecture, she made the point that the male surrealists had a tendency to romanticise the ‘mad man’ while shunning the ‘mad woman’, but that several female surrealists did use their work to express their mental health issues, notably Leonora Carrington and Dora Maar.

Sabina was kind enough to give me some recommendations for further reading (yes, yes, I know, I went to a lecture voluntarily and asked for homework – I’m the worst), so I might come back to this post with a bit more insight at some point in the future. For now, I know I’ve focused heavily on two of my specialist subjects (feminist issues and mental illness) in this post, so it’s probably going to seem a bit intense, but what else is art criticism but projecting your own meaning and experience onto the artist’s final product?!

So, let’s finish on a sparklier note. The only criticism I can make of the talk is one I level at the world on a regular basis: there could have been more jewellery. I’ve had a scout about online to satisfy my own interest, and found some gorgeous Schiaparelli and Oppenheim pieces to share with you all:

For me, these pieces demonstrate the full potential of jewellery, which, if you think about it, is essentially wearable art. They also remind me of a quote from the lecture (one of my new favourites):

‘Jewellery reigns over clothing not because it is absolutely precious but because it plays a crucial role in making clothing mean something.’

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*For anyone interested in learning more, the surrealists referenced in the talk were: Leonora Carrington, Emmy Bridgewater (a Brum-based surrealist!), Dora Maar, Elsa Schiaparelli and Méret Oppenheim.

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