Saturday, 16 November 2013

Jacqueline Lamba: the 31 Women number twenty-three - her Birthday is 17 November

Jaqueline Lamba (Breton) born Paris 1910 -died 1993 -  French painter

Surrealist godfather Andre Breton became obsessed with Jacqueline Lamba on their first meeting. She was his muse and he wrote obsessively about her in L’Amour Fou – a surrealist record of their momentous first meeting on 29 May 1934. Jacqueline, an orphan, was apparently earning her living as a swimmer in an aquatic burlesque show – however she was no guttersnipe. She spent her early childhood in Egypt where her father, Jose Lamba was an agricultural engineer.  He died in a car accident when Jacqueline was only four and his wife, Jane Pinon returned to France with her daughters Huguette and Jacqueline.

Jacqueline Lamba
Jacqueline was sent to boarding schools in Neuilly and then Versailles, though times were not always easy as her mother died of TB. She studied at l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, with photographer Dora Maar, who remained a close friend.  Maar later photographed Lamba, Breton and other Surrealists whilst holidaying with Picasso in the mid 30’s. Jacqueline moved up to the Beaux-Arts where her tutor was cubist André Lhote.

While Breton always maintained that his first meeting with Jacqueline Lamba was chance/fate, this was typical of how he wished to see the world. Lamba was already a politicised woman, rebellious against conventional social and political attitudes. Attracted by Breton’s writing, she was interested in both his politics and his art. The dice of chance leading to their meeting was heavily weighted in her favour by her own prior knowledge, assisted by friends. Thus she was subverting Breton’s romantic ideal of the fateful chance encounter, while he was oblivious to any other interpretation of the event.

Jacqueline became involved in the surrealist dream in which her creativity became immersed, almost drowned, for a number of years. She experimented with automatism and began painting surreal dream-scapes.  Her work appeared in surrealist exhibitions between 1934 and 1948, but like the other women associated with surrealism, her art was not taken very seriously. However she created imaginative and very sophisticated surrealist drawings, collages and objects which were greeted with enthusiasm by the men and exhibited alongside their work.

It is this two handed attitude to women in the Surrealist group that makes understanding the movement so complicated. Surrealist women were actively encouraged to be creative and original at a time when conventional society still placed enormous pressures on women to adhere to conventional roles, yet even these attempts to elevate their creativity somehow foundered on the rocks of expectation. The women were not expected to be as talented, as creative or as original as they actually were and therefore the fact of this equality of talent remained unacknowledged.

Jacqueline Lamba and Andre Breton married in 1934 and their daughter Aube, was born a year later. This was unusual, many of the avant-garde women artists chose not to have children. The surrealist ideal of a woman as a wild, dreamy and sexually available ‘femme-enfant’ was hard for the surrealist men of Breton’s generation to equate with motherhood and few were interested in the responsibility associated with being a father. Jacqueline was friends with most of the surrealist women; as well as remaining close to Dora Maar she formed a strong friendship with Claude Cahun, whose Jersey home she visited. Her work was featured in surrealist magazines and on a series of Surrealist postcards in the 1930’s, alongside Maar, Nusch Eulard and Meret Oppenheim.

Although money was short, she and Breton travelled in pursuit of surrealist and communist ideals, visiting Prague, Tenerife and Mexico, where they visited Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the exiled Leon Trotsky. Jacqueline and Frida formed a close friendship during this time, which was to be tested when Frida came to Paris for her own exhibition in 1939 and stayed them. Frida complained about the squalor of the Breton's flat and soon repaired to a hotel. Frida’s anger was not with Jacqueline, but with her husband who had failed to organise her exhibition. They exchanged affectionate and intimate letters after Frida’s return to Mexico.

 Jacqueline Lamba and her family fled the war and arrived in New York in 1940, with Peggy Guggenheim’s financial help, but also the assistance of American supporters including painter Kay Sage and her cousin, sculptor David Hare. Jacqueline became Breton’s interpreter, he refused to learn English. Her work appeared in a number of exhibitions including the Exhibition of 31 Women and her first solo show was at the Norlyst Gallery in 1944. She left Breton while they were in New York, taking Aube with her and married David Hare in 1945. Their son Merlin was born in 1948.

 Lamba abandoned the idea of surrealist painting during the late 40’s. There were moments in her career when she chose to destroy much of her previous works, believing them to no longer be relevant to her artistic direction. This was one of those moments; her last surrealist exhibition was in 1947. She embraced abstraction working with fragmented forms, prismatic or symbolic, delving into the emotional working of colour and light. Her work was not analytical, retaining the surrealist interest in automatism and chance. The term ‘Abstract Impressionist’ has been coined to describe her interpretations of light, though this would seem to be a retinal rather than a cerebral interpretation of her artistic concerns in these paintings. 

 Her art continued to evolve, tight abstraction began to give way to a period of self-searching, with looser, brightly coloured images of daily life, figures in landscape and interiors. This coincided with her separation from David Hare, she moved back to Paris with her son, but found her old apartment had been ransacked and much of her artwork was missing. She created more, attending life classes at le Grande Chaumière, and joined in numerous group exhibitions showing her new work.

 Her work also showed an increasing interest in the natural world. In 1962 she discovered the joys of painting in the French countryside and the following year she moved to the village of Simiane La Rotonde, where she would spend the next 18 years, in seclusion and always painting the landscape and the sky. She spent winters in her Paris flat and made two trips to the USA, but by then her health was failing. In 1988 she moved to a nursing home in Touraine, where she was able to work in pastels but no longer in paints. Since her death in 1993 her work has rarely been exhibited, she is another forgotten woman artist.

Jacqueline’s daughter, Aube Elléouët has remained involved in Surrealism, exhibiting dramatic collages in the surrealist style showing her own concern for the environment. In the 1990’s Aube was forced to sell off her father Andre Breton’s collections and studio, after the French government declined to take any interest in their preservation. The dispersal of this irreplaceable resource may make research into the history of the surrealist women in general and Jacqueline Lamba in particular, more difficult than ever, though Aube has created a useful website in her mother’s honour.

Comments, corrections and further information about Jacqueline Lamba and her art are very welcome.
You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.


Sources include:-
Caws, Mary Ann (2000) Dora Maar, With and Without Picasso, London T&H (contains photos of Lamba & Surrealists)
Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist women, an International Anthology 1998 Uni. of Texas
Salomon Grimberg, Jacqueline Lamba; from Darkness, With Light, 2001, Womens’ Art Journal vol.20 no.1



  1. Thank you so much for the detailed article about Jaqueline Lamba. Though I have had an interest in women's art and history for many years, somehow I did not learn about her until I was doing research on Varian Fry and his rescue efforts, and she and Breton were at the Villa Air Bell. I am just now reading Chadwick's new book Farewell to the Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism. I wonder where one can view Lamba's work--in France? New York? Thank you again,
    Linda Joy

    1. Hi Linda, I'm so pleased you like my article. There's been very little interest in Jacqueline Lamba and her art.
      I wish I knew where one could see her work, but apart from cadavre exquis in Scotland I've never seen any, only in illustrations.
      Thanks for telling me about the Whitney Chadwick book, I will have a look for that, sounds good.
      Sue G