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Department of History of Art

Modern and Contemporary Art History

New Exhibition: SADE: Freedom or Evil, CCCB Barcelona 2023


Alyce Mahon is the department's specialist in Modern and Contemporary Art History and Theory. She studied the History of Art & Architecture and Modern English at Trinity College Dublin, graduating with a double first and gold medal for exceptional academic achievement. Awarded both Chevening and British Academy scholarships for doctoral studies she moved to London to pursue a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She received her doctorate in 1999 and took up her position at Cambridge in 2000. 

Teaching and Doctoral Supervision:

At undergraduate level, Mahon teaches a Part II option The Poetics & Politics of Surrealism which addresses the long history of Surrealism (1924-69) as well as its impact on the counter-culture and its legacy in contemporary art. She convenes, and contributes lectures and seminars on modern and contemporary art to core BA papers including Part I 'Paper 1: Objects' and 'Paper 2/3: The Making of Art' , and Part IIB 'The Display of Art: The Politics of Display'. She also contributes lectures to the core, team led paper 'Approaches to the History of Art' .

At graduate level, Mahon supervises students and teaches on the team taught MPhil degree. Topics she covers include Symbolism, the livre d'artiste, Surrealist art and writing, the 'informe' in inter-war Paris, 1960s performance art and contemporary feminist art, film and photography. Dr Mahon has supervised 7 doctoral students to completion (working on aspects of American, French, British and Czech Surrealism; inter-war art in France and America; and contemporary French photography) and currently supervises 3 more. She welcomes enquiries from prospective PhD students interested in fields related to her specialisms - notably Dada, Surrealism, performance art and feminist art practice in Europe and the United States.


Research and Curating:

Dr Mahon specialises on the dynamic between the body and the body politic in modern and contemporary art, photography, film and exhibition practice - from Dada, Surrealism and the Sixties counter-culture to contemporary feminist and performance art. 

Mahon has been involved in numerous international exhibitions as advisor, catalogue contributor and guest curator. She is the co-curator of SADE: Freedom or Evil for the Centre de Cultura Contempoània de Barcelona (CCCB), an exhibition that that runs from May 10 to Oct 15, 2023 and explores the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade and his impact on modern and contemporary art and culture. Mahon also curated the first major retrospective of American Surrealist Dorothea Tanning  for the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid (Oct. 3, 2018-Jan. 6, 2019) and Tate Modern London (Feb 28 - June 9 2019).

 She was also the curatorial advisor  for the first retrospective exhibition of Surrealist Leonor Fini in the US,  Leonor Fini: Theater of Desire, 1930-1990, for the Museum of Sex, New York (Sept. 28, 2018 - March 4, 2019). Mahon has contributed to the accompanying catalogues for, and often acted as curatorial advisor to, major exhibitions on modern and contemporary art throughout her career, especially advancing research and the profile of women of the avant-garde. These include: Maria Martins (MASP, 2021-22), Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Louise Bourgeois (Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, 2020), Couples Modernes 1900-1950 (Pompidou Metz, and Hayward Gallery London, 2018), Dreamers Awake (White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2017), No Place Like Home (Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2017), Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 2014 & Musée Bourdelle, Paris, 2015 ), The Institute of Sexology (Wellcome Collection, London, 2014), Le Surréalisme et l’objet (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2013), Leonora Carrington (Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2013), Matta. Fiktionen (Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg 2012), and Donna: Avanguardia femminista negli anni ’70 (Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna, Rome, 2010).

She was awarded a British Academy/ Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship for 2017-2018, and has been a Distinguished Scholar for the Hong Kong Li Ka Shing Foundation's Scholars Exchange Programme with the University of Cambridge (2004), giving a series of academic and public lectures across China; a Research Fellow at the Columbia University Institute for Scholars, Reid Hall, Paris (2005); a Visiting Scholar at Princeton University (2006-07); and an Andrew Mellon Teaching Fellow at CRASSH, Cambridge (2009). 



Key publications: 


The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde (Princeton University Press, 2020; awarded Millard Meiss Publication Award), an exploration of Sade's 'philosophy in the bedroom' and how avant-garde artists, writers, dramatists, and filmmakers drew on it to challenge oppressive regimes and their restrictive codes and conventions of gender and sexuality. Mahon provides close analyses of early illustrated editions of Sade’s works and looks at drawings, paintings, and photographs by leading surrealists such as André Masson, Leonor Fini, and Man Ray. She shows how Sade’s ideas are reflected in the fiction of Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Desnos, and Anne Desclos, the Happenings of Jean-Jacques Lebel, the theater of Peter Brook, the cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the multimedia art of Paul Chan. She also discusses responses to Sade by feminist theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, and Angela Carter.

Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968 (Thames & Hudson, 2005; trans. Surrealismo Eros y Politica, Alianza Barcelona 2009), a critical history drawing on extensive archival material and interviews in which Mahon documents the ground-breaking international Surrealist exhibitions held in Paris in 1938, 1947, 1959 and 1965, assessing the Surrealists' radical and erotic spatial and installation practice, and seeking to re-assert the importance of Surrealism and its global impact after World War II.

Eroticism & Art (Oxford University Press, 2005, republished as part of Oxford History of Art Series, 2007), a comprehensive feminist study of erotic painting, sculpture, photography, performance and new media art, assesing the expression and repression of desire and transgression in western art, especially at crucial political moments in modern history.

Edited Books:

* Dorothea Tanning, Behind the Door Another Invisible Door, Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2018 & Tate Modern, 2019 with two essays by Mahon , "Dorothea Tanning: Behind the Door, Another Invisible Door" and "Life is Something Else: Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot".


* Jean Jacques Lebel: Barricades, co-authored with Axel Heil and Robert Fleck, Köln: Walther König, 2014

Book chapters:

2024    “Sade for Sade’s Sake: The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde”, in Understanding Sade, Understanding Modernism, ed. James Martell, New York: Routledge, forthcoming

2021    “A Consciousness of Being: Burn, Baby, Burn and the Political Art of Roberto Matta”, in Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance, Abigail Susik and Elliott H King (eds), Penn State University Press, 2021, pp. 114-125

2021    “Surrealism and Eros”, Cambridge Critical Concepts: Surrealism, ed. Natalya Lusty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.112-128

2020    “Dorothea Tanning, from a Feminist Perspective”, Feminist Perspectives in Art Productions and Theories of Art, Xabier Arakistain and Lourdes Méndez (eds), Bilbao: Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao (English, Spanish, Catalan editions)

Recent published essays include:

2022   “Daughters of the Minotaur: Women Surrealists’ Re-Enchantment of the World”, in           Il Latte dei Sogni/ 59th International Venice Biennale, Venice: La Biennale di          Venezia.

2022   “Alchemical Desire in Surrealism”, Surrealism & Magic, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice & Barberini Museum, Potsdam

2021   “Marquis de Sade: Depraved Monster or Misunderstood Genius”, The Conversation, 24 September [

* "Dorothea Tanning, Surrealism, and Unknown but Knowable States' of Being", in Ingrid Schorn (ed.), Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Louise Bourgeois, Hirmer, 2020) pp.223-237.

* "The Language of Flowers", Linderism, exhibition catalogue, Kettles Yard Gallery & Koenig Books, 2020, pp.57-64.

"Leonora Carrington", and "Pierre Molinier" in Michael Richardson et al (eds),  The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism, Vol.2, London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019, pp.149-155 and Vol.3, pp.97-99, respectively.

* “Dorothea Tanning: Behind the Door Another Invisible Door” and “Life is Something Else: Dorothea Tanning’s Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202”, in Dorothea Tanning, Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia & London: Tate Enterprises Ltd., 2018, pp.15-35 and pp.53-67, respectively.

* “Comme une Fête du Soleil: Le Festival de la Libre Expression”, in Jean-Jacques Lebel, L’Outrepasseur, Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou/ Editions Dilecta, 2018, pp.63-72

* "Unica Zürn/ Hans Bellmer” and “Dorothea Tanning/ Max Ernst” in Couples Modernes, Paris: Gallimard, 2018, pp98-100 and pp. 206-208

* "The Domestic as Erotic rite in the Art of Carolee Schneemann", Oxford Art Journal,  2017,  40 (1), pp 49-64

* "I Do Not See the Woman Hidden in the Forest: Surrealism and the Feminine", in Dreamers Awake, London: White Cube, 2017, pp.2-15.

*  "The Home, Place of Intimacy”, in No Place Like Home, Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2017, pp 24-36

* “The Assembly Line Goddess: Modern Art and the Mannequin” in Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish, Yale University Press, 2014, pp.191-221 and 246-248.

 * “Sexology and the Artistic Avant Garde”, in The Institute of Sexology,  London: The Wellcome Trust, 2014, pp.36-49

* “She Who Revealed: The Celtic Goddess in the Art of Leonora Carrington”, in Leonora Carrington, Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art & New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2013, pp. 126-153.

* “La Feminité Triomphante: Leonor Fini and the Sphinx”, Dada/Surrealism, Special Issue on ‘Wonderful Things: Surrealism and Egypt’, Issue 1, no. 19, December 2013 (

Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art
Head of Department
Fellow in History of Art, Trinity College
Director of Studies at Trinity College
Dr Alyce  Mahon

Contact Details

01223 332980 (dept.) or 765132 (Trinity office)