Mimi Parent

'Incorrigibly wild' Surrealist
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Marie "Mimi" Parent, artist: born Montreal, Quebec 8 September 1924; married 1948 Jean Benoît; died 14 June 2005.

The artist Mimi Parent was described by André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement, as one of the "vital forces" of Surrealism. Penelope Rosemont, writing in Surrealist Women: an international anthology (1998), the most comprehensive review of Surrealist women's writings to date, rates Parent's "gardens of earthly desire and other assorted delights and terrors amongst he most splendorous paintings of our time, or any time". "Her Surrealism," she says, "has always been incorrigibly wild and absolute."

Mimi Parent was born in Montreal in 1924, the eighth of nine children of the architect Lucien Parent. From 1942 to 1947 she studied with Alfred Pellan at the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Montréal, where she met the artist Jean Benoît, her future husband. Together with Pellan and Benoît, Parent formed the short-lived Prisme d'Yeux, an organisation of Quebec artists whose common concern was freedom of expression.

The period from 1944 to 1959, during the term of Maurice Duplessis as premier of Quebec, was known as the Grande Noirceur ("Great Darkness") and was Canada's "McCarthy" era, characterised by extreme conservatism from government and from the Catholic Church. Probably as a result of this conservatism, Parent was expelled in 1947 for "insubordination", related to the staging of an exhibition at the school.

Her first one-person show, which was praised by Time magazine, was held at the Dominion Gallery in Montreal in 1947. Whilst in Montreal she took part in evenings of playing cadavres exquis, a favourite Surrealist pastime in which several artists would work together on a picture, without knowing what the others had already drawn.

In 1948 she won the Cézanne medal, including a stipend which allowed her to travel. Parent and Benoît, by now married, decided that October to move to Paris, which would become their home for the rest of their lives.

Although she had been involved with Surrealism from early in her work, it was not until 1959 that Parent joined Breton's group in Paris and became involved in its activities, which included the organisation of the event Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surrealisme (EROS) at the Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris. On 2 December, two weeks before the exhibition was to open, Benoît performed a piece entitled The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade at the apartment of the Surrealist poet Joyce Mansour. Whilst a thunder soundtrack played, Breton read de Sade's testament and Parent gradually removed Benoît's costume. In a dramatic finale to the performance, Benoît burned the word "SADE" on to his chest with a branding iron.

The exhibition "Surrealist Intrusion into the Enchanter's Domain", which opened in New York in November 1960 and at which Parent showed, was the last official International Surrealist Exhibition organised by Breton and Duchamp. Breton recognised Parent's contribution to the movement by reprinting the preface to one of her solo shows in his book Surrealism and Painting (1965). After Breton's death in 1966 and the dissolution of the Surrealist group in 1969, Parent continued her work in the creation of what were known as "picture objects", hybrids between painting and sculpture.

From the late 1960s onwards Parent took part in numerous group shows, including the exhibition "Surrealism Unlimited", organised in 1978 by Conroy Maddox at Camden Art Centre in London and set up as a counter to the Hayward Gallery's "Dada and Surrealism Reviewed", a retrospective which Maddox felt did not properly represent Surrealism.

Two of Parent's works were shown at the Tate Modern in 2001 as part of the Surrealist retrospective "Desire Unbound", an exhibition founded on the basis of Breton's belief that desire is the "only master that man must recognise". These works were Boîte alerte: missives lascives (1959), a small green postbox into which ideas could be "posted" and Maîtresse ("Mistress", 1996), a whip whose leather fronds are replaced by plaited human hair.

"Mimi Parent was one of the most vibrant and provocative of post-World War II Surrealists," says Alyce Mahon, who discusses Parent's work in her forthcoming book Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968:

Her innovative use of found objects to create exquisite sculptural boxes displaying mythological tableaux, and her subversive approach to the themes of sexual desire and gender politics, were vital to the evolution of Surrealism and to the increasingly important role women played within it. A vivacious lady with a wicked sense of humour, Mimi's passion for life and art inspired everything and everyone she touched.

Marcus Williamson