Scholar Mary Ann Caws on Women Surrealists and André Breton’s Ass


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American art historian and literary critic Mary Ann Caws (photo Hadley Suter/Hyperallergic)

Shortly after her 90th birthday, and just a few months before 2024 rang in Surrealism’s 100th birthday, Mary Ann Caws showed up to speak to my class at Barnard College in Manhattan. The literary critic, art historian, and professor emerita at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York had come to introduce our unit on women Surrealists. If you can name more than two or three without using Google, Caws has probably helped make that happen, directly or indirectly. The 1991 book Surrealism and Women, which she co-edited with Rudolf E. Kuenzli and Gwen Raaberg, is one of the foundational texts on the subject, along with Whitney Chadwick’s 1985 Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement.

In the past few years, exhibitions on these artists have appeared all over the place: There was Surréalisme au féminin? at the Musée de Montmartre Jardins Renoir in Paris in 2023. Dora Maar had a retrospective at London’s Tate Modern in 2019. Dorothea Tanning had one at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 2018, which later traveled to the Tate. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt hosted a survey entitled Fantastic Women in 2020. San Francisco-based Gallery Wendi Norris has mounted exhibitions of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Alice Rahon, and will be opening one on Dorothea Tanning on March 8. There have been so many shows that it would be easy to forget that for most of the 20th century, surrealism was considered a boys’ club. This was in no small part thanks to the dominating ethos of André Breton, godfather and gatekeeper of the Bureau of Surrealist Research, whose vision of woman as a “marvelous and disturbing problem” pissed off Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote about it in her book The Second Sex.

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Leonora Carrington, “Mama Aos” (1959), oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (image courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris) Credit: Scott Saraceno

But apparently, it takes a little more than the artist’s reputation as a misogynist to scare off Caws. One of the first things she told my students about Breton, whom she knew, was that he had an enormous ass.

“He was pear-shaped, you know. Wow. He had very fat fesses. But he was beautiful,” she said. “For me, it was all in the face.”

She was similarly indifferent to her role in pioneering scholarship on women surrealists. When asked if she ever felt alone in this work, she laughed and shrugged. “Not at all! There were several of us out there writing about them.”

Small and sprightly despite her walker, with flaxen white hair and a sweet Southern drawl, Caws recalled her own days teaching at Barnard some 60 years prior as she set up her PowerPoint presentation in my classroom. At some point, she noticed that the students were greeting me in French. “Do you usually speak French in this class?” she asked. Yes, I told her, but we weren’t expecting her to. She immediately switched to flawless French to deliver the lecture. The students were rapt, especially during the Q&A when the juicy anecdotes started coming out: surrealist throuples, sugar mamas, and, especially, Breton’s fat ass. 

Feminist scholarship seems to be more the accidental result of Caws’s voracious appetite for art and literature than a concerted political mission. She’s got plenty of male subjects on her publishing record, which includes over 40 books as author and another 30 as editor. That’s not to mention the dozens of works she’s translated into English from the French. She’s written on Breton, René Char, Robert Desnos, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henry James, Blaise Pascal, and Marcel Proust. Yet for all her lofty subjects (Virginia Woolf among them), she’s also indulged in the fine art of coffee table books. Anyone who’s spent time in museum gift shops might recognize the name Mary Ann Caws from The Modern Art Cookbook (2018), in which she delves into how food and cuisine are represented in the visual arts and literature, weaving in recipes from famous artists and poets.

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Leonora Carrington, “Double Portrait” (c. 1937–40), oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 32 1/8 inches (image courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris)

But Caws’s most recent work has returned to women surrealists: a translation of Alice Rahon’s poetry entitled Shapeshifter (New York Review Books, 2021), the monograph Mina Loy: Apology of Genius (Reaktion Books, 2022), and an article on French surrealist painter Jacqueline Lamba in the International Journal of Surrealism (University of Minnesota Press, 2023).

This last piece is entitled “Jacqueline, my friend,” which offers some insight into why Caws keeps coming back to these women — many of them were her friends, and she’s got great stories about them. Intent on hearing more of these stories, I emailed Caws months later to ask to interview her for this profile.

I showed up in early January at her Upper East Side apartment. Her eyes flashed when she opened the door and saw the flowers I’d brought her. “How did you know?” she asked. How did I know what? “That I just lost my husband,” she explained, ushering me in through the door.

“I’m a double widow now,” she sighed. She paused and thought for a moment. “Right. Are you hungry for lunch?”

Her second husband, Boyce Bennett, a renowned pathologist and surgeon, had passed away at 96 years old just over a week prior, on New Year’s Eve. The apartment was overflowing with flowers; her refrigerator was filled with food from neighbors and friends. Caws’s eyes glistened a bit, but she smiled and insisted I stay for the interview. Bennett’s children would be arriving in a few days for the memorial, as would Caws’s own two children from a previous marriage to British philosopher Peter Caws.

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Caws with her late husband, Dr. Boyce Bennett, who passed away on December 31, 2023 (photo courtesy Mary Ann Caws)

She met Peter at Yale while completing her Master’s degree in French. They moved to Kansas for a while: He taught at the University of Kansas while she completed her PhD on Gaston Bachelard. As a child in Wilmington, North Carolina, Caws wanted to be a painter like her grandmother. “But I was terrible. And my grandmother said, ‘I think you can do it.’ But it all looked very lazy to me. I was so lazy,” she said. “I’m not really gifted with my hands.” Instead, she became a scholar of poetry, and eventually, of art. 

We decided to eat lunch on the sofa — a Mah Jong sectional. I wondered vaguely if she knew about their Instagram-instigated comeback in the past decade, but I was too busy to ask. She’d already put me to work, handing me a Mina Loy book and instructing me to read aloud a poem titled “Ephemerid:”

The Eternal is sustained by serial metamorphosis,
even so Beauty is
metamorphosis surprises! 

Is metamorphosis what’s sustained Caws’s almost 60-year-long career as an author? Caws claimed her tastes haven’t changed much, and that she’s still as enamored with surrealist poets as ever. “I promised [French poet and art historian] Yves Bonnefoy never to write on anybody I didn’t love.” 

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Alice Rahon, “La noche de Tepoztlán” (1964), oil and sand on canvas, 27 1/2 x 33 7/8 inches (photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris)

It was Bonnefoy — whose poetry Caws has also translated — who introduced her to Jacqueline Lamba, who was also married to Breton. “I loved Jacqueline and she loved me right back. Jacqueline couldn’t drive like I can’t drive, so we would have to take trains to meet,” she said. “She was probably the most beautiful person I ever met. Not just physically, but also mentally. She was so up with everything, cared about everything.” Lamba gifted Caws paintings as well as love letters from Breton. What did the letters say? “The first one said, I wish you would write more clearly or type, because I can’t read your writing!” 

Caws had planned to donate the letter along with all her other papers to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, but decided that because Lamba’s daughter Aube Elléouët-Breton was still in France, the letter should be, too. She gave it to the Musée d’Orsay, but soon afterward it was stolen, alongside a cache of other famous writers’ letters, by a thief who ended up dying by suicide. “So I don’t know where any of this stuff is now,” Caws said. “How I wish I’d given it to the Beinecke!” 

There are more stories Caws still wants to tell in writing. She would love to do a book on Roger Fry, the English painter and critic. Specifically, she’d like to focus on his French writings, which she acquired through a connection to the Bloomsbury Group and which are sitting in her former Upper East Side apartment. Nobody’s written about his French writings yet, she explained. She proceeded to tell me about his “rabid love affair” with a French woman, Josette Coatmellac, whom he met through his health guru, Horace Fletcher — also known as “the Great Masticator” — who believed that food should be chewed at least 32 times before swallowing. Coatmellac was also a devotee of the chew-doctor, and of Roger Fry. But unfortunately, that didn’t stop her from hurling herself off a cliff one day when Fry had gone to London. Caws found the grave where Fry paid his respects to Coatmellac, and she’s started writing about it.

“But now that I’m 90 and things are rushing by, I don’t know that I’ll get to finishing all that, Hadley.” I hope she does. 



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