Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning: three of the most interesting painters to flourish in male-dominated Surrealism. This is Christopher Barzak’s tribute to them: three stories and an essay that enter into a humane surrealism that turns away from the unconscious and toward magic.
Sometimes the stories themselves seem to be paintings. Sometimes painter and writer may be characters, regarding each other through a painful otherness, talking in shared secrets. Barzak’s stories are huge with the spacious strangeness of worlds where there is always more room for a woman to escape her tormenters, or outgrow an older self. Here we find:
A bird-maker and a star-catcher whose shared history
spills over into the birds and the stars themselves.
A girl who outgrows her clothes, her house, and finally
her town—and leaves to find her body a new home.
A landlord, whose marriage, motherhood, separation,
sexual exploration, and excursions into self-portraiture
all take place within a single apartment building.
In “Remembering the Body: Reconstructing the Female in Surrealism,” Barzak comments on the images that inspired these stories and discusses his own position as a writer among painters.
On a technical level these pieces are impressive; considered as a whole, they are doing fascinating work with the remembrance of women Surrealists who have been elided from the movement in their time and ours. And, more importantly, the stories are good stories.The end result is a joyful tribute to these three women painters in the form of handsome, lyrical fiction and precisely considered scholarship.
Though a relatively new writer, his prose has placed Barzak solidly in the company of writers such as Jeffrey Ford and Theodora Goss, writers for whom the line between prose and poetry is indistinct.
Birds and Birthdays captures everything that’s appealing about Surrealist imagery, but it also avoids its oversimplifications and voices the questions implicit to the work of the women it marginalised.
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