Why were surrealists so preoccupied with the imagery of the sewing machine? Artists such as Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Óscar Domínguez, and Joseph Cornell devoted artworks in different mediums to the iconography of the sewing machine. Elisa Breton, Alan Glass, Maurice Henry, Konrad Klapheck, and others followed suit later in the 20th century. Certainly, surrealists were inspired by the infamous simile of the late-19th century writer Comte de Lautréamont in his experimental text, Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) (1868–69): a desired male lover is as handsome “as the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table!” However, a closer examination of surrealist texts from the interwar period reveals that figures such as André Breton and Óscar Domínguez were also deeply interested in the sensational 19th century French medical discourse about the gynecological dangers of sewing machine work for women.

In this lecture devoted to surrealist sewing machines and the surrealist movement’s interest in female masturbation as a form of social-sexual resistance, art historian Abigail Susik will share research from her new book, Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (Manchester University Press, October 2021). Focusing on paintings and objects by the Canarian artist Óscar Domínguez, as well as other surrealist artworks from the 1930s, this talk will uncover some of the secrets of surrealism’s sewing machines and its other objects of self-pleasure and autoeroticism.

Abigail Susik

is Associate Professor of Art History at Willamette University and author of Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (2021). She has written numerous essays devoted to Surrealism and is co-editor of Absolutely Modern Mysteries: Surrealism and Film After 1945 (2021) and Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (2021). She is co-curator of the 2021–22 exhibition Alan Glass: Surrealism’s Secret at Leeds Arts University and also curated a major survey of Imogen Cunningham’s photographs at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Salem, OR, in 2016. Susik is a founding board member of the International Study for the Society of Surrealism and co-organised its 2018 and 2019 conferences.