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Brilliance among the pacesetters

Jacqueline Lamba emerged from the wings of the surrealist scene, her unfolding artistry eventually blossoming into her own light-filled style.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 2, 2001

In Spite of Everything, Spring, 1942, oil on canvas.
ST. PETERSBURG -- You would think that being married to the founder of the surrealist movement might catapult a person of artistic talent to fame.

But Jacqueline Lamba, exhibiting in a modest show at the Salvador Dali Museum, had to fight for recognition.

Lamba was the wife of Andre Breton, creator of the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, the document that defined the role of the Freudian-based arts movement.

The early surrealists were men and included such 20th century notables as Breton, Rene Magritte, Joan Miro, Marcel Duchamp and, of course, Salvador Dali. Their women served as wives, lovers and muses, helping them portray a psychoanalytic world of sex and dreams.

Despite her talent, Lamba was viewed by Breton more as lover and muse than as an artist in her own right.

Born in France in 1910, Lamba was the second daughter to parents who so desperately wanted a son that they called her "he" and "Jacko."

She longed to be a painter but instead studied decorative arts. By 17 she had lost both her parents and supported herself doing design work for department stores. When she did turn to fine art, it was first to symbolism, a movement that crossed art (Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon) and literature (Baudelaire) and was a precursor of surrealism.

The Bretons lived in Paris between the World Wars. It was a glorious time and place, the capital of the cultural elite, the city of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernest Hemingway. Abstract art, cubism and surrealism thrived.

Another manifesto had become popular at the time, the one by Karl Marx. In fact, communism was the surrealists' political thrust.

Through a cousin, Lamba became acquainted with the literature of Andre Breton and found in him a kindred spirit, both in politics and in art. She carefully arranged an "accidental" meeting, and he fell for her.

Ville-Paris-Panorama (not dated), oil on canvas
In 1934 they married, but soon, like so many artists in Paris, they fled the approaching war. In 1938 they arrived in Mexico as houseguests of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Another houseguest was Leon Trotsky.

From 1934 to 1941 Lamba painted in a figurative, traditional form. Most of those works have disappeared.

In 1941 the Bretons moved to New York, where art patron Peggy Guggenheim provided them with a stipend for living expenses. A handsome couple, they attracted notice wherever they went. But something unexpected happened. Lamba was fluent in English; Breton refused to learn. Her work received favorable reviews. She gained a sense of freedom and security she had never known. They began to drift apart.

In her art, Lamba chose to follow the surrealist theory of automatism, or expressions of unconscious ramblings of the mind, and exemplified in the work of Joan Miro and Andre Masson, rather than the second form of surrealist expression of Dali and Magritte, which set recognizable imagery in improbable settings.

Automatism was also the chosen form of Chilean artist Matta, who was also living in New York and who strongly influenced Lamba's work. His style can be seen especially in the piece that gives the show its name: In Spite of Everything, Spring. Lamba said it referred to leaving war-ravaged Europe and arriving safely in New York. It is a dark and mysterious monochromatic painting but, unlike Matta's work, light seems to glow around forms that suggest the seed clusters, pods and ovoids associated with birth.

It was painted in 1942, the year that Lamba left Breton for American sculptor David Hare. Together they traveled throughout the American West. She eventually married Hare.

But by 1951 that relationship, too, was over; she left him and returned to France.

She also left surrealism. She found her own visual expression while in the French town of Biot in 1962, where she describes an epiphany: "Nature entered into my being."

For the next 17 years, she spent six months each year in Simiane-la-Rotonde, leading a life of solitude, immersing herself in her painting. She wintered in Paris, where she painted abstract cityscapes.

Regardless of the period and the changes in her style, the constant that remains in her work is light, whether seeming to shine from an unknown source in her surrealistic works or speckling across dense matter in Ville-Paris-Panorama.

In her work she searched for the completeness she had not known in her relationships.

Eventually ill health confined her to Paris, where she felt claustrophobic. She would escape by painting big pictures of clouds.

The last painting in the show is titled Black Sky (1986). In it, great white strokes -- waves? sagebrush? -- recede toward a dark horizon. The light that was so characteristic is lost. Says Salomon Grimberg, who curated the show, "She must have sensed that darkness was sucking her in." She declared the work "unfinished."

She died in 1993 of Alzheimer's disease.

Grimberg, a child psychologist, art critic and author, met Lamba while he was working on the catalog raisonne of her close friend Frida Kahlo. He recalls that, when he saw Lamba's work in her Paris studio, "I was blown away. She had not only been neglected, but also forgotten. I am trying to bring her back to life and show how she was more surrealist than any of the male surrealists. Rather than remaining stuck, as they did, recreating images of polymorphous sexuality, she rose above the sexual drive by transforming it into sublime art."

Significantly, the Lamba show continues the Dali museum's commitment to piece together the whole picture of surrealism, its origins and influences. It opens the way for exhibits by other woman surrealists such as Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanner and the best-known, Kahlo, who suffered through an abusive relationship with Diego Rivera. She has become a feminist icon.

You have to wonder how Jacqueline Lamba would be regarded had she been born 50 years later.

* * *

In Spite of Everything, Spring: Jacqueline Lamba (1910-1993), through Feb. 24 at Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday (open until 8 p.m. Thursday); noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Adults $10, discounts for others. Call (727) 823-3767; Web site

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