In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
January 29 through May 6, 2012
All art is derivative, albeit to varying degrees -- defined by precedent, even when it renounces the art that preceded it. In that sense, the Surrealists employ the language of Realism, even as they delight in manipulating and subverting it. Surrealist art is particularly exciting, regardless of its inescapably derivative influences, because it is also largely rooted in the boundless territory of the imagination. In Wonderland, LACMA’s thrilling landmark survey of female surrealists, offers some 175 examples of art thus raised from vivid, often wild, imaginations. Extrapolating from their distinct female vantage points, these artists explored subjects and themes that are often dreamlike, as figments of fantasy, the stuff of hallucinations, and alternative visions –thus the reference to the world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.
An exhibition of this scale seems long overdue. Past surveys of Surrealism have largely excluded or minimized the important contribution of female artists. In Wonderland features 47 female surrealists, notably Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, and Louise Bourgeois. Showing an extensive range of media including paintings, works on paper, sculpture, photography and film, it spans more than four decades, from about 1930, when Lee Miller and Rosa Rolanda first experimented with Surrealist photography, to 1968, when Yayoi Kusama presented one of her Alice in Wonderland happenings in Central Park.
Conventional surveys of Surrealists have further typically presented female surrealist artists as wives, mistresses, sex objects, or the muses behind the work of their male counterparts. In refreshing contrast, this exhibition examines the visionary creations of female Surrealists on their own merit. Unlike the men, they embarked upon their art as an adventure in self-exploration, examining issues related to their personal lives. As such, it’s no surprise that many of the paintings are psychologically revealing self-portraits of the artists who made them, most prominently in the case of Frida Kahlo. Some stellar examples of Kahlo’s are included here, as in Las Dos Fridas, (1939) which depicts two side-by-side Fridas holding hands, their hearts and blood vessels exposed. An artery bleeds on the lap of the Frida on the left, looping over to the Frida on the right, and funneling into a miniature portrait of Diego Rivera she holds in her left hand.
Helen Lundeberg's Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, (1935) portrays the artist as a baby, shadowed by a portrait of herself as the artist, a grown woman, in the background. Somewhat lesser known, are the paintings of Maria Izquierdo. Her Autorretrato, depicting the artist in a garden, is painted in warm earth tones, with the surprise element of an umbrella incongruously dangling from a tree branch incorporating the surrealist technique of juxtaposition. The 1948 Autorretrato y autobiografia by French artist Alice Rahon, takes the form of a whimsical linear narrative. Rendered in the unexpected medium of oil and sand, her stick figures are reminiscent of the primitive scratchings found on the wall of a cave. Rahon was one of a number of émigrés who decamped from Europe to the relative freedom of expression promised in America and Mexico - both havens for female artists who were seeking to distance themselves from the patriarchal and misogynistic European art establishment.
Although these artists explored serious themes like feminism, sickness, spirituality, the psyche, love, motherhood and family, there is a dreamlike quality in many of their works, and often a pervasive sense of humor and cynicism, reminiscent of the humor in the work of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and other male Surrealists. For example, even though these paintings were symbolic, Gertrude Abercrombie's The Courtship, (1949) is a mock stick-up. In Remedios Varo's Mimetismo, (1960) the female figure has been seated for so long, her face is patterned with the design of the upholstery. Meanwhile, a leg on the other chair is anthropomorphized, reaching into a drawer. Clouds float out of the armoire. Dorothea Tanning's Portrait de Famillle, (1954) portrays the stern husband like an enormous giant presiding at the dinner table. All provide provocative commentary on serious matters, eloquently expressed with the driest of wit.
The breast emerges as a repeated element. In Mamscape, (1934) by Doris Lindo Lewis, the female figure is envisioned as landscape, the breasts looming as hills in the background. Lee Miller's shocking and disturbing Untitled gelatin silver prints from 1930 present the severed breast from a radical mastectomy, served on a dinner plate. In Frida Kahlo's Mi Nana y yo (My Nurse and I) 1937, Frida with a baby's body and adult face, is held in the arms of a dark-faced mythical looking figure. Kahlo, who often incorporated symbolism from pre-Hispanic folklore into her work, suckles one of her mystical wet nurse's engorged breasts, on which mammary glands are defined in a flowery web.
Houses, dolls and toys recur in the imagery of many of these artists, alluding to a pervasive conflict of desire between motherhood and domesticity versus their artistic aspirations. Inn of the Dawn Horse, (1937-38) a self-portrait by English artist Leonora Carrington, portrays the artist perched on a chair in a stark room, her hair wild, reaching out to a cat-like creature. Above her, a white rocking horse is suspended in the air. It gazes outside the window, where its "real life" counterpart leaps into the forest. Perhaps Carrington longs to escape into the forest too. Certainly, these female surrealists escaped the constraints of everyday existence through their visionary art, leaving behind a richly imagined and revelatory legacy.
The exhibit was co-organized by LACMA and the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Mexico City. The first large-scale international exhibition of women surrealist artists in North America, it was co-curated by Dr. Ilene Fort, LACMA's Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art, and Tere Arcq, MAM's adjunct Curator. After premiering at LACMA, In Wonderland travels to the Musee national des beaux-arts de Quebec (MNBAQ) (June 7 - September 3, 2012) and MAM (September 27 2012 - January 13, 2012).
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
view all articles from this author