Part of what appeals to me about Surrealism both as an artistic school and also as a way of engaging with human experience, is the way in which it seeks to embrace experiences of fluidity and uncertainty. Surrealist art often dives deep into rich realms of the unconscious where attempts at neat categorisation quickly start coming apart at the seams. This is a twilight realm in which polarities such as animal versus human, safety versus threat and male versus female are both challenged and played with.
I have previously written about the way in which Queer theory and experience has provided for me a language for understanding the blurry liminality that I experienced in relation to my sexuality and in my spiritual explorations. Queer theory often provides an irreverent take on the complex interplay between biological sex and the way in which we perform our genders. This playfulness is as likely to be found in visual art as it is in text and for me depictions of Androgyny (both religious and secular) can help us gain insight into this strange territory.
Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Cropped hair
In the work of both Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington we see the way in which both of these female artists engage with depictions of the gendered body in ways which seek to disrupt many of the cultural expectations of their time. Kahlo powerfully utilised the juxtaposition of Mexican traditional dress with glorious facial hair to present a more authentic version of themselves. In both her art and life Kahlo bravely explored the fluidity of both her gender presentation and bisexuality, despite her physical disabilities and the personal turmoil she experienced. She even refused to be pigeon-holed as a Surrealist stating; “I never painted dreams. I painted my reality”. In my view artists such as Carrington and Kahlo worked with androgyny in a manner that embraced the dynamic and shifting nature of what this concept might mean. As Erin Hinz has observed in assessing themes of androgyny within Carrington’s work:
“Carrington experienced the social limits of her female body and choose to create bodies that fused these restrictive codes with animals, ancient ideologies in an alchemical way that transmuted these base constructions into precious, mystical and complex expressions of identity.”
While the interplay of both male and female aspects of the self was lauded in the works of Jung and first wave feminists (cf. Virginia Woolf’s iconic Orlando) others have been less than keen. While the call of these early writers was taken up by later luminaries such as June Singer and Carolyn Heilbrun, some second wave Feminist theologians such as Mary Daly saw it as an escapist trap that “sucks spellbound victims into itself”. From the perspective of her radical separatism, Daly viewed it as an attack on both the essential potency of womanhood (“Why do I need to be half-male?”) and an attempt to falsely reify certain qualities of humanity as being polarised “male” or “female”. From such a perspective, the aspiration towards androgyny amounts to a form of sexual sublimation and fantasy that distances women from the visceral experience of female embodiment and passion.
While such voices need to be part of dialogue concerning androgyny, it could be argued that while they are seeking to challenge ideas of stereotyping and gendered fixity, via their biological essentialism they may be in danger of another existential cul de sac. While concepts of androgyny may well be in danger of minimising difference and a true valuing of women’s experience, the desire for such an essential separateness also risks missing experiences of playfulness and exploration that seem vital to shared human experience.
For me the challenging deconstruction offered by third wave feminisms and Queer theory, is less about the removal of category and difference and more about a willingness to dance and blur at the edges of where we think such borders lie. There seems to be a psychological complexity to such approaches that allows for the power of dreams and the unconscious in allowing the primacy of the experimental and experiential. Perhaps we are back with the Trickster in prophetically destabilising neat categorisation and asking for the space to be uncertain and to explore.
This queered vision of androgyny provides a sigil for challenging and shifting our sense of what we think we think we know. This androgynous mystery acts a mirror via which deeper aspects of self might be gleaned. Whether when gazing at our own reflection or in viewing the other, the presence of such oscillating fluidity can provide the possibility of change, and with change, hope.
In relation to my own journey I have already sought to describe how my initial flight into Christianity was largely related to my adolescent confusion about the fluidity of my own sexuality and gender identity. Despite the damaging efforts of my self-suppression, I experienced at least a part of my liberation via my encounter with the Queer androgyny of Christ.
While owning my own needs and bias, I eventually encountered in my reading of Jesus a blurry ambiguity that that provided for me an alternative mode of being. This was the Jesus who cleared Temples and overturned tables, but also who blessed the gentle and sought out the one lost sheep. At a more cosmic level he was also the mythic Christ of the Gnostics, who as the “first Adam” existed in some spacey realm in which they at once contained many genders while being also beyond them. This metaphysical fluidity – while looking decidedly freaky to my fellow seminarians – provided me with a doorway via which I could begin a new chapter of greater self-understanding. Such explorations are definitely ongoing, and continue to this day.
Ellen Goldberg: The Lord Who is Half Woman: Adhanarishvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective 2012
Carolyn Heilbrun: Towards a Recognition of Androgyny 1993
Erin Hinz: The Work of Leonora Carrington: An Alchemical Transmutation of Gender through Magic, Animals, and Narrative
June Singer: Androgyny: Toward a New Theory of Sexuality 1976