The Life and Art of Jacqueline Lamba Shed Extraordinary Light on a Female Surrealist’s Place in the World of Her Time
By Salomon Grimberg
About her painting In Spite of Everything, Spring, Jacqueline Lamba wrote: “The object is only a part of space created by light. Color is its non-arbitrary choice in transfiguration. Texture is the crystallization of this choice. The line does not exist; it is already form. Shadow does not exist; it is already light.”
Light makes things visible, but too much light can blind. Jacqueline Lamba (1910–1993) died with the belief that “she would not be recognized as an artist because she was a woman, had been married to André Breton, had stopped painting Surrealism, and had a difficult personality.” Why such a bleak view from someone who had lived obsessed with light?
Born in Saint-Mandé, a suburb of Paris, Jacqueline Mathilde Lamba was the younger of two girls from the marriage of Jane Pinon and José Lamba. Her birth was an open disappointment to her parents, who wanted a boy they planned to name Jacob. That did not deter them. Legally, they named their daughter Jacqueline but referred to her as Jacquot—and used “he” when speaking about her. When she entered adolescence, despite blossoming into a beautiful girl, she embraced a boy’s identity, cropped her hair in a boy’s cut, began wearing men’s clothes, and masculinized her name to “Jack.” By then, she had concluded that “men win, not because they are better, it’s because they are men.” Women were doomed to live relegated to second place.
On Friday, February 27, 1914, José Lamba died in an automobile accident. Jacqueline was only 3 ½ years old. Huguette, her sister recalled: “My sister used to say that the only thing she recalled about my father was that one day when she was enraged, my father took her in his arms, walked to a balcony where there were many flowers, picked one and gave it to her, which calmed her anger.” This early memory became the cornerstone on which Jacqueline Lamba structured her life. She nurtured the illusion that, had her father lived, her life would have been quite different.
Jacqueline’s art education began early, with frequent visits to the Louvre in the company of her mother and sister—and through her friendship with Marianne Clouzot, whose father, Henri, was Conservator at the Musée Galliera. where he curated four exhibitions annually on decorative arts. She studied in the studio of Lucien Simon, a respected painter in the Courbet style, and then entered the School of Decorative Arts at the age of 16. The 1927 drawing of the androgynous L’Ange Heurtebise from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus) reveals how at that early age she was already attuned to the intuitive world, her relationship to mirrors, and her gender dysphoria. In Cocteau’s play, Heurtebise obeys a superior order that allows the angel to slip in and out of the mirror and transform at will from human to pure energy. Jacqueline’s Heurtebise stares at the viewer from the other side of the mirror, hands pressed flat against the glass. It’s otherworldly, translucent white body is male. But its red lips and made-up face framed by golden ringlets are androgynous.
In that same year, 1927, Jane Lamba succumbed to tuberculosis. It was a difficult period for Jacqueline. She was completing her second year of decorative arts school, as well as caring for her mother and Huguette, who was paralyzed by depression. Now orphaned, she supported herself on the meager earnings from her design work and moved into an inexpensive room at a “home for young women,” run by nuns, that was recommended by her friend Theodora Markovitch (known as “Dora Maar”).
In 1934, her life took a dramatic turn when a cousin recommended that she read André Breton. She recalled: “It was not Surrealism that interested me. It was what Breton was saying, because 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.”
Dora Maar offered to make an introduction, but Lamba declined, wanting to orchestrate the meeting herself. She carefully planned her “accidental” encounter with Breton for 7:30 on the evening of May 29, 1934. André Breton immortalized Jacqueline Lamba and the night of their first meeting in L’Amour fou (Mad Love), which was published in 1937. “This woman was scandalously beautiful. From the first moments, a quite vague intuition had encouraged me to imagine that the fate of that young woman could someday, no matter how tentatively, be entwined with mine.” Two and a half months after meeting, they were married. Going against the grain, the bride wore black and did not invite family. Giacometti and Paul Éluard were Breton’s witnesses at the ceremony. Before they knew it, the couple were gifted with a baby, Aube Solange, (Sun, Angel of Dawn), as they named her.
The romance in their relationship began to wither even before Aube’s birth. Jacqueline was torn by her competing roles as wife, mother, and artist. She loved Aube but resented that her care took so much time and energy; she loved Breton but resented being subservient to him. As Breton’s spouse, she remained nameless, and was always referred to as “her,” or as “the woman who inspired,” or as “Breton’s wife.” The worst insult may have been Breton’s minimizing her need to paint, which at the time of their meeting was paramount. As with other women associated with Surrealism, Lamba discovered that her role as muse was what mattered most.
Although Lamba was immediately included in Surrealist activities and exhibited her paintings with Breton’s contemporaries, her contributions were rarely acknowledged. For example, in 1935, Lamba showed two paintings in the May International Surrealism Exhibition; however, neither her name nor the titles of her works were listed.
In the spring of 1938, André and Jacqueline travelled to Mexico where he was invited to present lectures on Modern Art. They arrived to discover that, despite the arrangements made by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no provisions had been made for their stay of three months, which turned out to be four. Diego Rivera saved the day when unexpectedly he arrived, inviting them as his guests, and to meet Leon Trotsky, also a guest in his home. In Mexico, Breton discovered the surrealist place “par excellence” and welcomed Frida Kahlo as a daughter of Surrealism. Before returning to France, André had fallen in love with the country, and Jacqueline with Frida. The two became close friends, and when Kahlo visited Paris to exhibit her work, she stayed in the Rue Fontaine apartment, sharing a bedroom with three-year-old Aube. When at the time Kahlo told Jaqueline: “Men are kings. They direct the world.” Lamba could not have agreed more.
At the outset of World War II, Jacqueline, Aube, and André found themselves exiled in New York, thanks to the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim, who sponsored the visas and their stay in the United States. Lamba first exhibited at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in Manhattan and was included in the historic all-women exhibitions “31 Women” and “The Women.”
Meanwhile, Breton was establishing the Surrealist review VVV. Seeking an official American editor with access to money, Breton and others with an interest in the publication settled on David Hare. The bilingual Lamba was called in to translate. David was immediately smitten, and their affair caused the end of the Breton marriage. For a long time, it was impossible for André to accept it; Jacqueline, immediately moved in with David. “André wrote Mad Love for her; David showed her,” recalled Dolorès Vanetti, Jacqueline’s closet friend.
In 1943, Lamba created Behind the Sun, as a celebration of her relationship with Hare. A new source of imagery became Indian fabrics and artifacts, which Hare, who had lived among the Hopi as a child, collected. The work would be exhibited at her first one-women show in New York at the Norlyst Gallery. A line from the invitation reads: “Any expression in art not stemming from Liberty or Love is false.”
Her work begins to reference Native America’s reverence for the earth and a closeness with nature. In Tipis indiens (Indian Teepees), completed in 1951, she portrays man-made habitats where human life and vegetation harmoniously converse. Similarly, in her 1946 painting, Coucher de Soliel dans un Puits (In the Well), the evening sky, cleared by a full moon, shines above a well, surrounded by plants, where water draws life out of the numinous contents of the deep. Also from 1946, Roxbury Astres features twinkling objects in the night sky that provide spiritual messages.
In 1948, Jacqueline gave birth to a son by Hare, Merlin, but by then David was beginning to lose interest in his relationship with Lamba. The event that triggered her realization that her relationship with Hare was over took place at a party. When he introduced her as “my wife,” the other person blurted out, “Which one?” She returned to France in 1954. Reality forced Lamba to establish a new sense of self. She later explained that she had painted Surrealism to please Breton and expressionist landscapes to please Hare, and that now she was painting for herself.
In the summer of 1962, Lamba began creating her signature mature work: landscapes, springs, and mountains, pieced like puzzles, loosely integrated, ultimately fragmented. Merlin’s time away with his father was liberating. Lamba vacationed in Biot and Sainte-Agnès, where she created paintings like Biot, in which she projects her awe of nature. Lamba spent summers at Simiane-la-Rotonde, a medieval-era village in the south of France that grew out of a rocky hill and faces a squared plain covered with fields of lavender. Day after day, she quietly followed the same ritual. She woke early, painted past midday, took long walks, and in the evening prepared dinner.
Lamba grew increasingly more isolated, tired of people calling her to ask about Breton. Although she longed to be sought out and recognized for her own work, she was difficult to reach. Staying in Paris, she began creating complex cityscapes so painstakingly detailed they often took months to complete; an example, from 1971, is Paris panorama.These would alternate with large canvases of skies like Ciel (Heaven), from 1969, in which clouds of blue, salmon, green, and gray draw the viewer to their light. Lamba wrote to a friend: “Being alone did not mean my lack of desire to meet neither beings nor friends but to be inhabited by one’s self, either to love or to create.”
In 1967, Jacqueline opened an exhibition at the Picasso Museum, in Antibes. Fifty carefully chosen works were exhibited. Between Picasso’s blessing and Yves Bonnefoy’s catalogue preface, she felt she had arrived. Nevertheless, after the exhibition, she refused to exhibit anywhere less prestigious and became inflexible in her demands. That would be the last exhibition of her life.
In the summer of 1988, Jacqueline Lamba had a mild stroke and showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Her daughter and son, at her suggestion, moved her to a small 18th-century château (turned into a retirement home) in France’s Loire Valley. There she made art “until she could no longer hold a pencil.” She died on July 20, 1993.