THE ARCHIVES: Penny Slinger
Museé: How did you meet Sir Roland Penrose, who became a major support figure in your early career?
Penny Slinger: When I was in my last year of my diploma course at Chelsea College of Art, I was reviewing the history of art to find subject matter for my thesis. I realized I was most interested in art that included the human form, but used it in a symbolic rather than a representational way. When I reviewed the 20th century, I found what I was looking for in the collage books of Max Ernst: 'Une Semaine de Bonte' and 'La Femme 100 Têtes'. In England at the time, Surrealism was not very well represented. However, a friend of mine, Robert Erskine, offered to introduce me to Sir Roland Penrose. He said Roland was the only person he knew, in England, that really understood Surrealism.
After the introduction was made, Roland was incredibly generous with his time, knowledge, and enthusiasm. It was Roland who introduced me to Max Ernst in Paris and got my student work into the exhibit 'Young and Fantastic' at the ICA, London, in the summer of 1969, just after I graduated.
M: Where do you see yourself fitting within the context of the British Surrealist Movement? How did you see women interface with the movement in general?
P: I was never part of the movement as such because the heyday of the Surrealists was over by the time I appeared on the scene. This saddened me a little as I was longing to be part of something bigger than myself and I wanted the co-creative dynamic of an actual movement. However, I felt the tools offered by Surrealism had long-term validity and application.
I was always more attracted to the European Surrealists than the English. As far as women Surrealists were concerned, I did not feel that the women working within the movement made art that delved into areas specific to the feminine, and that is where I felt my contribution came into focus.
In retrospect (because I was not that familiar with her work at the time) I feel more akin to Frida Kahlo than any other female artist. She used the language of Surrealism for her own form of intense introspection and self-reflection. From the start, I wanted to apply the techniques opened up by Surrealism to probe and lay bare the female psyche. Similar to Frida, I was not so involved with fantasy, but with plumbing the depths of the subconscious in order to mine the jewels of the inner being and shine some light on them.
M: How did the topics of sex & religion become of interest to you?
P: I think these are of deep interest to the seeker of truth and anyone with a physical body! But maybe that's just because of who I am; my particular astrology, and make up...
Sex held a fascination for me from an early age. The first portraits I did of my parents when I was 4 ½ years old did not fail to include their sexual organs!
Growing up in England in the 1950s was certainly not a sex positive climate for women. The general consensus was that sex was something a woman had to submit to for the pleasure of man. This did not seem good enough for me. I felt there had to be more to it than that. Therefore, I embarked on my own campaign to find out, using my body and mind as the set crucible, what was really going on. Then I sought to convey my findings in my art, complete with all the contradictory signals surrounding the subject.
Religion was another sacred cow whose divinity I questioned because of the way I saw it practiced, as well as the restriction and dogma associated with it. So, I soon rejected and renounced religion, but was always passionately spiritual. I discovered the path of Tantra later in life, which resolved the dichotomy for me because it included sacred sexuality.
M: In one of your collages for '50% - The Visible Woman', you have a portrait of a woman with “wanted” in text over her mouth. Why was this phrase important for you?
P: The woman is a photograph of myself. I chose to use my own image in my work, early on in my career. I saw that women were central to subject matter throughout the history of art. Generally, the woman was viewed through the eyes of a man. I wanted to be viewed through my own eyes and be my own muse. Also, I felt that I could take the most liberties in transforming my own image rather than doing that to someone else’s.
I used the 'Wanted' slogan as a double entendre. The main association was with 'Wanted' posters of outlaws. I put myself in that position, outside the law. I was also aware of my allure as an attractive young woman, so that was the other side of the reference. The bandage over the mouth suggested the covered face of a bandit, and also represented the idea that I was being gagged because society sought to stop the things coming out of my mouth and wanted to silence me; to silence the outspoken feminine.
M: Themes of vulnerability, and also strength, are apparent in your self-portraits. Has balancing those two notoriously been a struggle for you?
P: It is the struggle flesh is heir to. Particularly female flesh! Aren't we all a paradoxical mix of these qualities? I always felt women needed to claim their right to equality not by being more like men, but by being fully themselves. The feminine qualities of being have been undermined for so long. It is time for them to assume pride of place for the attributes that are theirs rather than trying to match up and conform to some masculine standard. It's in the 'frisson' between vulnerability and strength that rich and fertile arenas can be found.
Read the full article from our past issue Chaos, here.