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History of Art

My Top Five Surrealist Women

You’ve likely heard of Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Max Ernst, and Man Ray, but what about their female contemporaries? The publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, led to the founding of the Surrealist group, led by André Breton. Whilst I admire their exploration of automatic writing and the unconscious mind, I find myself critical of some of the methods used to do so. These ideas were explored through using the female form as muse in which the surrealist could find creative inspiration. This shaped views of women who were linked to the group usually through personal connections. Whilst many of them participated in activities and produced their own work, they were not viewed as independent artists in their own right. This being said, it can be acknowledged that feelings towards women did change between 1924 and the publication of the second manifesto in 1929, and then again in post-World War II Europe allowing them more freedom within the group, some of them even exhibiting with their male contemporaries. Furthermore, the development of women’s history in the 1970’s, the work of scholars such as Whitney Chadwick and Mary Ann Caws, and the work of art galleries across the globe have all contributed to the exploration of many female artists within the Surrealist group. Hopefully more work will be done to cement their place in art history! My small contribution to this is the creation of a list of my top five Surrealist Women, giving a little insight into their work and why I believe they are important.

 

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011)

Upon seeing Carrington for the first time Max Ernst, a key pioneer in both Dada and Surrealism, was struck by how much she embodied the Surrealist ideal of the femme-infant, a muse who worked as a gateway into the unconscious mind. However, Carrington was not content with this role carving out an identity for herself in the art world with paintbrush and pen. She used her creativity to explore themes close to her, the most poignant for me being mental health. She drew on her own experiences, even writing about a spell in an institution in the novella Down Below (1944). Often inspired by the Celtic legends recited to her as a child, her work heavily features mythical creatures along with alchemy and symbolism. The most prominent of all the symbols being the white horse which appears in Down Below along with her paintings. For me, her exploration of mental health through using her own experience is significant, especially when we look at how mental health was viewed by the male surrealists, particularly hysteria which was seen as a female phenomenon. In La Révolution Surréaliste (1928) André Breton and Louis Aragon celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of hysteria, using photos of women in various ecstatic states taken from the archives of an institution. In their search for the purest form of expression, they denied women a voice leaving the stories of the women in the photographs unknown. By using her own experience, Carrington invites women to voice their own opinions on the subject and take back control of their own narratives.

Leonora Carrington art
Leonora Carrington, Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), 1938

Leonor Fini (1907-1996)

Leonor Fini is known for deconstructing stereotypes of women within art. Her refusal to depict women as subordinate to men led many critics to see her work as aggressively separatist. One way in which she did this was to subvert male surrealist ideas of the femme-sorciére, in which women were linked to the mysterious cycles of nature, a source where they derived mythical powers inaccessible to men. This was nothing new, the concept being used by various art and literary movements throughout history. Like many of these movements, the women presented in much of the surrealist poetry and paintings were individuals being controlled by nature rather than in control of it. Fini was quick to exploit this in her own work, presenting women usually as mythical creatures, be it sphinx, witch, or goddess, who had regained control over her own powers. She also subverted the image of man, sometimes presenting them as a passive figure in her paintings. In my opinion doing this not only challenged ideas of the core surrealist group, but ideas that had pervaded art movements throughout the centuries.

Kay Sage (1898-1963)

Kay Sage was an American poet and Surrealist. She came into contact with the Surrealist group after divorcing her first husband Prince Ranieri di San Faustino. She travelled to Paris, exhibiting her work in the 1938 annual exhibition of the Salon des Surindépendants. The six paintings she exhibited differed from many contemporary surrealist paintings, centring around construction work rather than more organic themes. Her work featured unstable looking structures such as scaffolding against a barren landscape. She created these images using a more subdued pallet than that of her contemporise presenting a colder, less optimistic, view of the world. They quickly caught the eye of André Breton, the founding member of the Surrealist group, and Yves Tanguy who would later become Sage’s partner. Breton, seeing the disquieting strength of the paintings believed their producer to be a man. She continued to paint throughout her life. For me, the geometric character of her work sets her apart from contemporaries making her a real standout among the Surrealists.

sagetomorrowisnever1955
Kay Sage ‘Tomorrow is Never’, 1955

 

 

Alice Rahon (1904-1987)

Alice was known for her poetry before taking up the paint brush. Her travels across the world inspired her writing. Her first poetry collection entitled A Meme la Terre was published in 1936 by the Editions Surrealist, featuring illustrations from Yves Tanguy and Joan Míro. Before learning to paint she would publish another poetry collection, Sablier Couché (1938). She began painting after arriving in Mexico on the invite of her close friend Frida Kahlo in 1939. The paintings she produced were inspired by her adventures around Mexico, as well as the prehistoric art she saw in cave dwellings on her trip around America prior to visiting Mexico. Her work stands out for me due to its use of vibrant colour and symbolism inspired by prehistoric art. She also experimented with texture on canvases, specifically sand. Her inclusion of these things makes for some stand out work which should be admired.

Germaine Dulac (1882-1942)

Dulac initially had roots in the impressionist film movement, using her links to promote films as the seventh art. Having founded her own production company and written for various feminist magazines, she moved into more experimental film. This culminated in the first surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergymen. Whilst it was released a year before An Andalusian Dog (Dir. Buñuel, 1929) it has often been overlooked for its use of pioneering effects, many of which were credited to the later film. Her use of techniques such as double exposer and superimpositions cement the films place in art history and can be seen as a predecessor for later avant-garde feminist films.

La_coquille_et_le_clergyman_3
Still from ‘The Seashell and the Clergymen’, 1928

In Summary, it was difficult to narrow down the number of influential Surrealist women to just five, and there will probably be another post exploring more of them. These women stood out to me for different reasons each presenting their own unique view of the world through artistic expression. From dealing with themes of mental health, to becoming a trailblazer in the creation of film, these artists deserve to be known. Whilst I could go on and on about them, I hope my short little introductions to each have inspired you to explore them in a little more detail. Below I have listed a few books and websites that you may find useful if you would like to know more!

Introductory Reading

Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the Surrealist Movement (United States: Thames and Hudson,1985)

Surrealism and Women, ed. by Mary Anne Caws, Rudolf Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg, 3rd edition (The MIT Press,1993)

Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions, https://awarewomenartists.com/en/a_propos/

Surrealist Women Artists, https://faculty.hope.edu/andre/index.html