Visual Culture

The Dark Side of Surrealism That Exploited Women’s “Hysteria”

Anna Souter
Jan 18, 2019 9:52PM

Although the term “hysteria” isn’t used in medical diagnoses today, it was once applied to an astonishingly wide range of mental and physical symptoms, primarily in women. Even the disorder’s name is strongly gendered: “hysteria” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “uterus”; medical texts of that period attributed the affliction to a displaced, or “wandering,” womb.

Hysteria has a long history in medicine, surfacing in different cultures at different times. Its study was widely popularized in the late 19th century, especially in France, where the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot set up a clinic for hysterics at La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. Although little known today, Charcot’s experiments with young “hysterical” women became a touchstone both for Sigmund Freud’s early work and, later, for the founding principles of the Surrealist movement.

André Brouillet, Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière, 1887. Image via Wikimedia Commons


Hysteria was considered to be a highly complex condition: It was generally thought of as a mental disorder accompanied by physical symptoms such as fits. Historian Lisa Appignanesi writes in her 2007 book Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors that in Charcot’s France, the term “described a sexualized madness full of contradictions, one which could play all feminine parts and take on a dizzying variety of symptoms, though none of them had any real detectable base in the body.” (Charcot admitted that men also suffered from hysteria, but he argued that these cases were generally caused by traumatic accidents, rather than by a gendered predisposition.)

Charcot’s research was made famous through the ailing individuals who lived at La Salpêtrière and whose symptoms were displayed and analyzed in sessions open to members of the public. Charcot became a celebrity doctor, turning his semi-staged diagnostic sessions into spectacles for (masculine) public consumption. The methods of diagnosis and treatment at La Salpêtrière were all highly visual, creating a sort of theater of hysteria, in which the often young and pretty “hysterics” acted out their symptoms as if by rote.

One of Charcot’s innovations was to set up a photography studio at La Salpêtrière in order to document the physical symptoms of his patients, such as the dramatic and beautiful Augustine. These images were then widely disseminated in Paul Regnard and Désiré Bourneville’s Iconographie Photographique de La Salpêtrière (1876–80), an influential book of medical photography. Presented as a scientifically accurate visual document, the book had a twofold effect: For male readers, it provided a visual record of the attractive and often scantily clad hysterics, while for some female consumers, it became a manual of hysteria and its symptoms to be mimicked, reinforcing the stereotypes associated with the condition.

Paul Régnard, Attaque Hystéro-Épileptique Arc De Cercle, 1880. Courtesy of the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.

In the photographs, the camera takes the position of a detached voyeur, with the subjects only looking at the lens and engaging directly with the image-making when they are photographed in their “normal” or “sane” moments. When engaged in the throes of a hysterical attack, the women are apparently oblivious of the camera’s presence, revealing parts of their body that Victorian decency would otherwise hide from view.

In a photograph depicting the arc de cercle, or the “arch of hysteria,” which was believed to show the anguish of the condition—and which Louise Bourgeois would later famously subvert in bronze with a masculine form—the woman contorts her body so that she is resting on her feet and shoulders. Her head is hidden, but her shapely legs and feet are almost completely revealed. The relative distance of the camera and the profiling of the subject suggest that this photograph is taken to give the impression of scientific “truth,” but also simultaneously to place the viewer at a voyeuristic remove, for both scientific study and visual titillation.

Freud was a student of Charcot, and achieved renown for his Studies in Hysteria (1893–95). Charcot’s hysterics, Freud’s work, and the Salpêtrière photographs together provided a wealth of cultural materials to inform the work of Surrealist artists. In 1928, French writers André Breton and Louis Aragon published an article in the journal La Révolution Surréaliste that contained photographs of Salpêtrière hysteric Augustine and expressed the desire “to celebrate here the quinquagenary of hysteria, the greatest poetic discovery of the end of the nineteenth century.” Breton and Aragon continue, praising “youthful hysterics” and the “delightful” Augustine. “Hysteria is not a pathological phenomenon and can be considered in every respect a supreme means of expression,” they conclude. An excerpt from Breton’s novel Nadja, published that year, appears in the same issue of La Révolution Surréaliste. In this book, Breton famously wrote “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be,” suggesting that the throes of a hysterical attack happen in a state of sexualized, uninhibited passion.

Breton’s advocation of the “convulsive” was taken as a guiding principle for Surrealist art. Espousing the madness and “paranoiac” sensibilities he believed were embodied by hysteria, Salvador Dalí took up the visual tropes of the Salpêtrière photographs in a number of his works.

The Phenomenon of Ecstasy (1933) is a photo collage depicting the faces of “hysterical” women in the grip of what looks more like erotic pleasure than pain. His paintings and drawings—such as Invisible Lion, Horse, Sleeping Woman (1930)—also repeatedly present women arching their bodies in a way that resembles the arc de cercle demonstrated by Charcot’s hysterics. In one drawing, Poems Secrets Nude with Snail (1967), a female subject with her face partially hidden arches her back to catch the milk from her lactating breasts in her mouth. With mutilated bodies, exaggerated sexual features, and closed eyes, Dalí’s women are vulnerable to the viewer’s gaze, disempowered by their apparent enslavement to their uncontrollable gendered characteristics.

Salvador Dalí
Poems Secrets Nude with Snail, 1967
Fine Art Acquisitions

Andre Breton and Louis Aragon, Le Cinquantenaire de l'Hysterie, 1928, from “La Revolution Surrealiste.” Courtesy of the Bibliothéque nationale de France, Paris.

The fascination with hysteria lasted throughout the key period of the Surrealists’ success. The invitation to the opening event of the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (overseen by Marcel Duchamp) promised visitors a night of l’hysterie. During the evening, the experimental collaborative exhibition was used as a stage for a performance by the actress Hélène Vanel, trained for the occasion by Dalí and Wolfgang Paalen. She jumped from a pile of pillows, naked and chained, before splashing in a puddle and eventually recreating a hysterical attack on a bed, linking the notion of the submissive female body with mental instability and dependency.

Hélène Vanel at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, Paris. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.

The Surrealists saw hysteria as a state in which poetic expression could run free, at the expense of women who were not given a voice, but instead objectified. Decades later, in 1980, hysteria was finally removed from the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But for a significant period of time, this now-supposedly-defunct disease of the mind was explained away as a fundamental condition of being female, and exploited by scientists and artists alike.

Anna Souter