How the women of Surrealism defied a male-dominated world to ‘carve out their own space’

There were many women Surrealists, who are only now beginning to receive long overdue recognition. Alastair Smart traces their contribution to the movement, and asks why many of them found Mexico, in particular, so nourishing to their art

Of the 19 poets and artists said to have ‘performed acts of absolute Surrealism’ by André Breton in his first Surrealist manifesto of 1924, not one was female. In the second manifesto, published a few years later, Breton declared that ‘the problem of woman is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in all the world’.

He meant that women were key to the Surrealist movement — but only as muses, who inspired male creativity, not as artists in their own right. This inspiration manifested itself in many well-known works: from Man Ray’s photograph Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924 (imagining the bare back of his lover Kiki de Montparnasse as a violin) to the unsettling doll sculptures of Hans Bellmer.

Against such as a backdrop, it’s remarkable that — in the words of art historian Whitney Chadwick in her seminal book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985) — ‘no other movement has had such a large number of active women participants’.

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Quería ser pájaro, 1960. Oil on canvas. 47¼ x 35½ in (120 x 90.2 cm). Sold for £882,000 on 28 February 2023 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Leonora Carrington, DACS 2023

How to explain this seeming paradox? Well, in part it was down to the simple passage of time: a small masculine cohort had, by the mid-1930s, developed into a much larger, more diverse one. Several of the first female Surrealists actually joined the movement via an oblique route: that is, as the lovers of male Surrealists. Max Ernst alone counted Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim and Leonora Carrington as a wife or girlfriend.

Surrealism’s raison d’être was the bold exploration and expression of an artist’s subconscious, and there was nothing in theory that gave a man’s subconscious precedence over a woman’s. Oppenheim’s Object (1936) — consisting of a fur-lined teacup, saucer and spoon — ranks as one of the boldest Surrealist artworks of them all.

From its Parisian roots, Breton was keen to spread the movement far and wide: international Surrealist exhibitions were duly held in Copenhagen, Prague, London, New York and Mexico City between 1935 and 1940. There’s no doubt, however, that as years passed, especially with the advent of the Second World War, Surrealism began to flourish in discrete ways in discrete regions — and the influence of the man Carrington called its ‘headmaster’ (Breton) began to wane.

‘What the French Surrealists codified has always been an everyday reality in Mexico… part of the cultural stream, a spontaneous fusing of myth and fact, dream and vigil, reason and fantasy’ — Carlos Fuentes

As Europe descended into conflict, myriad artists sought safety across the Atlantic. Many, such as Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí, settled in New York. The United States, however, didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for immigrants with leftist political leanings (which many Surrealists had). In the main, Mexico proved more welcoming.

That country’s president, Lázaro Cárdenas, opened the borders to pretty much anyone averse to Fascism. Carrington was among them, having recently recovered from a mental breakdown which had seen her locked up in a Spanish clinic for several months — and having escaped the clutches of a minder whom her overbearing father had sent to oversee her passage to a sanatorium in South Africa.

Kati Horna, Leonora Carrington with Doll, 1960

Kati Horna, Leonora Carrington with Doll, 1960. Gelatin silver print. Artwork: © 2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández

In 1943, Carrington took up residence in Colonia Roma, a well-to-do district of Mexico City. It wasn’t long before the Englishwoman became friends with two other female Surrealist refugees who lived nearby: the Spanish painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna.

The three women, all in their late twenties or early thirties on arrival in Mexico, met regularly, whether to cook for each other; to shop together in markets; to throw fancy-dress parties; to take each other’s children to school (Horna named her only daughter, Norah, after Carrington); to play jokes on neighbours (such as serving them tapioca coloured with squid ink and pretending it was caviar); or to make art.

Carrington and Varo had different approaches to painting. The former was more intuitive and, through the use of egg tempera, earned praise for her jewel-like tones and delicate veils of colour. The latter, by contrast, an alumna of the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, was a gifted draughtswoman who planned her pictures with meticulous care.

Remedios Varo (1908-1963), Retrato del Doctor Ignacio Chávez, 1957. Oil on masonite. 37¼ x 24⅜ in (94.6 x 61.9 cm). Sold for £3,882,000 on 28 February 2023 at Christie’s in London. © Remedios Varo, DACS / VEGAP 2023

That said, there are striking similarities between the pair’s work, and it’s safe to assume that this was partly due to the time they spent together. Both tended to depict oneiric worlds full of mythical beings who undergo metamorphosis and carry out alchemic rituals. Often, it’s a female figure that is metamorphosing.

Carrington and Varo were both avid readers, and topics of shared interest ranged from Kabbalah to Buddhism. It’s impossible to state with any conviction what inspired their paintings. However, one can at least obtain a sense of Carrington’s world-view from the fact that she helped found the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico in the 1970s. Around the same time, she stated that ‘Women should not have to demand rights. The rights were there from the beginning; they must be taken back again’ — making clear her firm belief in gender equality.

Kati Horna, Remedios Varo (wearing a mask made by Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna), circa 1957. Gelatin silver print. Image size: 8⅝ x 7¾ in (22 x 19.7 cm). Sold for $15,000 on 29 May 2008 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © 2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández

Overtly Mexican motifs aren’t common in the imagery of either Carrington or Varo, though one stunning exception is The Magical World of the Mayas (below), a mural that the former was commissioned to paint in 1963 for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (where it is still housed). Produced after an information-gathering trip by bus and by mule to the Mexican region of Chiapas, where the Maya civilisation had once thrived, the mural offers a panoramic vision of that society, split into three spheres: heaven, earth and underworld. Among its most arresting features is a giant turquoise serpent floating across a blood-red sky.

Other female Surrealists who left Europe for Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s included the poet and painter Alice Rahon (France), Eva Sulzer (Switzerland) and Bridget Bate Tichenor (United Kingdom). Rahon was most noticeably influenced by indigenous Mexican art, producing works that bear a clear resemblance to pre-Columbian petroglyphs.

Leonora Carrington, El Mundo Magico De Los Mayas (The Mayas’ Magic World), 1963-64

Leonora Carrington, El mundo mágico de los Mayas (The Magical World of the Mayas), 1963-64. Casein on wood. 213 x 457 cm. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City. Artwork: © Leonora Carrington, DACS 2023. Photo: Schalkwijk/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

It’s worth adding that Mexico had a number of homegrown female artists associated with Surrealism, too: María Izquierdo and Frida Kahlo are celebrated examples. Their work, in fact, provides a clue as to why so many foreign Surrealists found Mexico artistically hospitable (and not just women, but also men such as Rahon’s husband Wolfgang Paalen, and Gordon Onslow Ford).

A typical Kahlo picture consists of a self-portrait in a scene that might otherwise be described as phantasmagoric. Breton, who visited Mexico in 1938, was a fan of Kahlo’s — though she rejected any attachment to Surrealism, insisting, ‘I never painted my dreams. I painted my own reality. I never knew I was a Surrealist until Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.’

The Mexican author Carlos Fuentes elaborated on Kahlo’s point when he wrote that ‘What the French Surrealists codified has always been an everyday reality in Mexico… part of the cultural stream, a spontaneous fusing of myth and fact, dream and vigil, reason and fantasy.’

A fiesta in celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside the basilica that bears her name in Mexico City, 1968

A fiesta in celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside the basilica that bears her name in Mexico City, 1968. She appeared as an apparition on the Hill of Tepeyac in the 16th century and spoke to a local man in his native Nahuatl language, identifying herself as the Virgin Mary, ‘mother of the very true deity’. Photo: Jesus Diaz/AP/Shutterstock

In other words, the country’s pyramids, rugged landscape and rich history — steeped in pre-Hispanic legend and pagan rituals involving shape-shifting naguales  and dancing skeletons — all made Mexico seem a wonderland to the incoming European Surrealists. They didn’t need to engage their subconscious too thoroughly, as inspiration was right in front of them. Breton dubbed Mexico ‘the Surrealist country par excellence’.

As for why female artists in particular flourished there, might it have been because they enjoyed a new-found freedom, far from the male art establishment in Europe, as well as the broader patriarchal conventions of society back home? (Every one of the foreign female Surrealists cited above stayed in Mexico for the rest of their lives.)

Where the likes of Dalí, Magritte and Miró have always been fêted — something reflected in the fact that they’re known simply by their surnames — interest in female Surrealists took time to grow. Whitney Chadwick’s aforementioned book played a major part in that growth, shining a light on many neglected and forgotten figures. Numerous exhibitions have followed, such as Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism  at Manchester Art Gallery in 2009, and In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States  at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2012.

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This summer, Varo will be the subject of a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, a year after Carrington served as ‘guardian angel’ — in curator Cecilia Alemani’s words — of The Milk of Dreams, the International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

Varo, incidentally, died in 1963, aged just 54. Carrington — who lived well into her nineties — was devastated by the loss of the person she called her ‘best friend’, and is said to have raised a regular glass of tequila to her for decades to come.

Remedios Varo: Science Fictions runs from 29 July to 27 November 2023 at the Art Institute of Chicago

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