A word of warning. There are nearly 170 works in this show of surrealist-influenced women artists, and White Cube has decided not to say what they are on the walls, but put them in a little leaflet. Which is fine… except that when I was trying to negotiate my way round it, I almost walked into a big phallic pink marble tongue sticking out of the wall at right angles. I tell ya, it nearly had my eye out. ‘Dumb Tongue’ (2017) by Londoner Nevine Mahmoud is one of the more recent works in this show, and is pretty representative of what ‘Dreamers Awake’ has to say. The title is a paraphrase of Freud (‘the madman is a dreamer awake’), and it charts the way that, as the male originators of surrealism descended into self-parody and neurotic bickering about who had the biggest castration complex, women artists took it in all sorts of different directions.
In general, the objects and photographs here are better than the paintings and drawings. Pieces like Sarah Lucas’s ‘The Kiss’ (2003) – two chair frames lashed together, with a big cock and some tits made of ciggies – have got surrealism’s humour, and also remind you that even in the hands of male artists, it was domestically scaled. Its key theatres are the womb, the bedroom, dreams and bourgeois interiors. Surrealism is full of body dysmorphia, food, clothes and knick-knacks. And sex. ‘Dreamers Awake’ is a riot of bits and bobs, from Hannah Wilke’s terracotta vaginal desk-tidies, to Louise Bourgeois’s weighty bronze ‘Breasts and Blades’. Other stand-outs include photos by Francesca Woodman (her bum and an eel in a bucket – write your own punchline) and Lee Miller (a surgically removed breast dished up on a plate): these are genuinely nasty and disturbing, and suggest that women artists found something in surrealism that its male practitioners mostly failed to. There’s a genuine frantic horror to many of these works that links directly back to Sigmund’s neurotic case studies, but also a huge sense of freedom. Go along: just keep your eyes peeled.