Man Ray, Jacqueline Lamba, 1930.
When André Breton, the forbidding father of Surrealism, first met Jacqueline Lamba, she was an erudite orphan employed as an underwater burlesque dancer in Montmartre. It was no chance encounter—Lamba, intrigued after reading several of Breton’s now-famous texts, arranged their introduction. “He was saying things that affected me, exactly what I was thinking, and I had no doubt that we were going to meet one way or another,” she later recounted.
So, in 1934 in the Café de la Place Blanche—its tables haunted by the Surrealists of Paris—the pair crossed paths. In Breton’s poetry collection L’amour fou (or Mad Love), he remembers Lamba as the “scandalously beautiful” woman he would marry three short months after the night at the café. Soon after, the couple would welcome their daughter Aube, named after the dawn.
This is the Lamba of historical memory: muse, mother, Breton’s wife. As such, she enjoyed the love and friendship of some of the most celebrated figures in the Surrealist circles. Lamba and Breton were married in a joint ceremony with the poet Paul Éluard and his bride; the sculptor Alberto Giacometti served as their best man.
Jacqueline Lamba with Breton, Trotski, and Rivera in Mexico City. Photo by Photo12/UIG via Getty Images.
Jacqueline herself was creative and artistically minded, and she strove to make her own work. But, like her friend Dora Maar—a talented Surrealist photographer today better remembered as the muse and lover of Pablo Picasso—she found herself often overshadowed by her male counterpart. “As Breton’s spouse,” scholar Salomon Grimberg writes, “she remained nameless, and was always referred to as ‘her,’ or as ‘the woman who inspired,’ or as ‘Breton’s wife.’”
Nowhere was this dynamic more clear than the 1935 International Surrealist Exhibition in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Although Lamba had two paintings featured in the show, alongside the likes of Joan Miró and René Magritte, they were shown without her name or the titles of the works on display.
Amidst her contemporaries, who also knew of her work as an artist, Lamba’s physical attractiveness remained her most noticeable quality—descriptions of her beauty from her peers far exceed comments about her art. “Lamba had been given (or taken on) the identity of a trouvaille, a found object that inspired,” Grimberg notes. In a photograph by the female portraitist Rogi André, who also captured the likes of Picasso and Georges Braque, Lamba is depicted underwater in an aquarium. Her body is not quite in focus, her back bent and her breasts breaking through the surface. Here, even, she is a found object: beautiful and malleable, in a work she did not make.
Following seven months in Mexico, spent with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the exiled Leon Trotsky, Lamba and Kahlo became fast friends. Both struggled for their own artistic identities amidst turbulent marriages to famous men. Lamba, in particular, had difficulty imagining her role beyond that of mother and muse, a woman who could also be an artist. Kahlo captured her friend’s trepidation in the 1943 painting The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened—Lamba depicted as a tiny doll among larger, flayed-open fruit echoing the shapes of male and female genitalia.
Frida Kahlo, The Bride Frightened At Seeing Life Opened, 1943. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, Mexico City.
Lamba’s first solo exhibition was mounted in April 1944, at New York City’s Norlyst Gallery. Composed of 11 oil paintings and six works on paper—most of which have now been lost or destroyed—the show surprised reviewers. “She thinks of space as something destroyed by light when light makes full forms and objects in it,” a critic wrote in Art Digest. “She creates an intoxicating dream world.” But then came the inevitable disclaimer: “Her husband is André Breton.”
Lamba was a bride once again that decade, after the tumultuous end of her marriage with Breton. Soon afterwards, she married the American sculptor David Hare—whose drug use and womanizing contributed to the end of their relationship some years later. During her second marriage, Lamba destroyed much of her early work, and made more solemn, quiet work, more in tune with Hare’s own sculptures.
Grimberg recounts how Lamba once explained to a friend that “she had painted Surrealism to please Breton and expressionist landscapes to please Hare.” And how in 1977, after the dissolution of her marriages, in the peace and solitude she found in the aftermath, “she was painting for herself.” She started again from the basics, working through portraiture and landscapes, settling on her mature style of fragmented, puzzle-like natural scenes. By the end of her life, Lamba—former muse, ex-wife, mother, artist—made art that reflected an identity composed of parts to make a whole.