LACMA’s “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” opened January 29. I was bowled over by these women’s ability to turn loose of all logic while baring their souls with their paintings and photography. I’ve been blessed to have traveled the world and experience many museums yet have never felt so on fire and alive as I felt at this exhibit. I’m always in search of my next muse and I feel as if my love for surrealism has been rekindled.
There were familiar artists featured such as Frida Kahlo, as well as other lesser known women. I went on a journey, slowly walking through the show and I choose my favorites of the 175 works by 47 artists, to share here. I feel as if I can go on learning about these artists for a long time and no words could ever describe the feelings and emotions of seeing their art in person. Viewing their work reminded me that creativity can be sparked, ignited and set on fire if we open our eyes to the stories right in front of us. Their imagination and honesty left me both inspired and overwhelmed. I walked through the exhibit and thought about Freud’s famous question: What do women want? The surrealists looked to the subconscious for inspiration. It took deep bravery for these women to put brush to canvas at a time when Surrealist art was dominated by male artists. These women were rule breakers. Despite any mold they were told to fit into, they created stories from blank pages and canvases. The show even has an app and a book of the same title that offers us a fresh perspective on surrealism. The exhibit made me think hard and I thought of Fibonnaci’s spiral.
Fibonnaci’s spiral’s importance is revealed in where we find it: in the display of the florets of the sunflower with perfect spirals of 55, 34, and 21; the sequence of Fibonnacci. Fibonacci’s sequence shows up not only in the sunflower but also in the perfect fruitlets of the pineapple. We see it in the pine cone, buds on trees, sand dollars, star fish, petals on flowers & the nautilus shell. They are all formed with the exact blue print but whose blue print is it?
Is art proof of a creator? I saw the fingerprint of G-d in each and every one of these artists at the LACMA exhibit. If you’d like to visit a brilliantly assembled discovery of artists that explore self discovery, rebellion, sensuality, identity, and love, love and more love, go before it closes May 6. You will be granted access to the landscape of the female mind starting with Dorothea Tanning.
Dorothea Tanning (August 25, 1910 – January 31, 2012) was born in Illinois and studied painting in Chicago. She spent 34 years with Max Ernst first in Sedona, Arizona & later in France. After he died in 1976, she realized her future would be a solitary journey. “Go home” said the paint tubes, the canvasas, the brushes. She returned to the U.S. and continued to paint. At age sixty-six she also earnestly began to write. Her poetry appeared in many literary reviews such as The Yale Review, Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Yorker. In 2011, at the age of 100, she published her second book of poems, Coming to That.
Dorothea Tanning: First Peril, 1950
Dorothea Tanning: Birthday, 1942. A self portrait of her at thirty-two. She painted this the year after she met Max Ernst, who would be her lifelong partner. I love the mythical creature called a basilisk, which can kill with just a puff of its poison breath.
Dorothea Tanning, Reve (Dream), 1944
Dorothea Tanning, The Witch, 1949. Female surrealists frequently used a witch motif to represent their creative power; it can be seen in the twisting cloth that forms the foundation of the medieval castle she is about to enter.
Dorothea Tanning, Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1954
Sylvia Fein’s surreal work was created during the turmoil that was World War II. I love the intimacy of the tiny animals she places in her paintings especially the cats.
The Tea Party, 1943. Here, Fein is Alice at the tea party but there are no other guests, echoing the lonely landscape background and the artist’s emotional state.
Sylvia Fein, Ladies with Many Faces, 1942
Sylvia Fein, The Lady with the White Knight, 1942-43. Fein represented her husband and herself as knight and damsel. They stand in a magical realm of childhood wonder and mythical creatures, all detailed in the meticulous, almost scientific style that was Fein’s forte.
Sylvia Fein, The Lady Magician, 1954
Sylvia Fein, Lady with her baby, 1947
Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954) is my hero because she painted her pain and didn’t try to hide her truth in her art which makes her brave and heartbreaking all at once. When she was a teenager, she had an accident which broke her spinal column, as well as broken ribs, pelvis, collarbone, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot and dislocated shoulder. Instead of studying medicine as she planned, she began painting to help her cope with her pain. The accident destroyed her physically and her volatile on again, off again relationship with Diego Rivera destroyed her emotionally. However, his belief in Frida gave her the strength to pursue a career as an artist. Rivera also gave her space to explore herself and create. Of the 143 paintings she created, 55 are self-portraits which showed symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. My favorite quote of hers: “I paint myself because I am alone so often and I am the subject I know best.” Frida’s work is fearless.
Frida’s 1933, Mi vestido cuelga ahi (My Dress Hangs There) symbolic self-portrait. The Tehuana dress represents Kahlo, her native Mexican heritage, and Mexico. It is in opposition to, as well as apart from and above the city. Kahlo felt alienation and disliked American modernization & the lack of folk tradition in the U.S. This painting is significant as she did not include a portrayal of her actual figure.
Frida Kahlolo, Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), 1939. The attire refers to Kahlo’s mixed parentage. Diego Rivera is at one end of the artery; a surgical clamp at the other. The bleeding may refer to both her broken heart (she and Rivera divorced) and to the absence of her friend, artist Jacqueline Lamba. I see a split between her two selves; her heart exposed and vulnerable. This painting has become an icon of questions surrounding women’s identity and sexuality.
Frida Kahlo, Autorretrato con collar de espinas y colibri (Self-Portrait with thorn necklace & hummingbird), 1940
Frida Kahlo, Frieda y Diego Rivera, 1931. Kahlo finished this nuptial portrait two years after her marriage to Rivera. Although she was already an artist when she met Rivera, she portrays him as monumental while she is tiny.
Frida Kahlo, Lucienne Bloch. Kahlo and her friend Bloch were in Detroit in 1932 while Diego Rivera was painting his Detroit Industry mural cycle. The two women amused themselves by creating these small drawings of Rivera and Kahlo in which they switched traditional gender roles, giving women sexual power and delegating domestic tasks to men. Kahlo is represented as a hermaphrodite, with a huge phallus that issues from a fig leaf. Rivera has a woman’s body and holds a broom.
Frida Kahlo, Niña tehuacana, Lucha María o Sol y Luna (Portrait of Lucha María, Girl from Tehuacán, or Sun and Moon), 1942
Frida Kahlo, El superviviente (The Survivor), 1938. Oil on tin sheet
Frida Kahlo, Suicide of Dorothy Hale. Dorothy Hale was the wife of a a well-to-do American portrait painter who died in a crash during the 1930’s. Without her husband to support her, she ran into financial difficulties. She committed suicide on October 21, 2938. Clare Booth Luce, publisher of the magazine “Vanity Fair” and friend to both Dorothy Hale and Friday Kahlo, commissioned Kahlo to paint a portrait of Dorothy. Luce was shocked when she saw the finished piece. The painting depicts Dorothy’s fall, then as a larger figure tumbling through the clouds, and finally as a bloody corpse on the ground. The frame of the picture was decorated with trickles of blood. The publisher’s first impulse was to destroy the painting but her friends persuaded her to keep it. Frida always painted the truth even if it was painful. This shocking and controversial piece is one of my favorite Frida paintings ever. Perhaps this painting may be a reflection of Frida’s compassion for women who are driven to despair by male desertion.
Leonora Carrington (April 6, 1917 – May 25, 2011) was born in England, studied art in Florence and even though her father was opposed to her career as an artist, her mother encouraged her. She was smitten with Max Ernst’s work and surrealism before she actually met him. After meeting Ernst at a party in London in 1937, they formed a bond, he separated from his wife and settled in the south of France with Carrington. She was institutionalized after Ernst was arrested. She eventually sought refuge in Mexico while Ernst married Peggy Guggenheim. Too many years of misery kept Carrington and Ernst from being able to reconnect. I love this quote of hers:
“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” –Leonora Carrington, 1983
Leonora Carrington: Self-portrait, c. 1937-1938.
Leonora Carrington, Green Tea (La dame ovale), 1942
Leonora Carrington, El juglar, (The Juggler), 1954
Leonora Carrington, The Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess, 1964. The artist often depicted women with the power to create and transform the universe.
Gerrie Gutmann’s (1821-1969) self portrait paints herself in Victorian clothing while being chained to spider webs that connect to a toy doll in the corner showing Gutmann’s view of the domestic chamber of horrors. After a few exhibitions in the Bay Area and New York, Gerrie Gutmann committed suicide in 1969.
Gerrie Gutmann, Self-Portrait, 1946
Gerrie Gutmann, Torso Interior, 1946
Gerrie Gutmann, The Theft, 1952. The Theft refers to the loss of her son after her divorce, when her ex-husband gained custody of the young boy. She depicts herself as a medieval Madonna holding a small casket to her breast.
Gertrude Abercrombie was an American painter who lived in Chicago who was called “the queen of the bohemian artists.” A lot of her inspiration came from her involvement in the Chicago jazz scene. She said “it is always myself that I paint” and “I like to paint simple things that are a little strange. My work comes directly from my inner consciousness and it must come easily. It is a process of selection and reduction.”
Gertrude Abercrombie, Self-Portrait of My Sister, 1941. Abercrombie was not a twin. Perhaps she was depicting her alter egos or different aspects of her psyche. Abercrombie pursued many paths: wife, mother, painter, jazz enthusiast.
Rosa Rolanda (1895-1970). Oh, how I loved this bizarre, beautiful painting of her subconscious after her marriage ended.
Rosa Rolanda, Autorretrato (Self-portrait), c. 1945
Rosa Rolanda, Drawing Photogram, c. late 1920’s. She made the images through a single exposure, laying all of the objects simultaneously onto photographic paper.
Rosa Rolanda, Drawing Photogram, c. late 1920’s. central figures are simple line drawings of nude self-portraits.
Rosa Rolanda, Autorretrato (Self-portrait), 1952. Heartbroken over the end of her marriage to artist Miguel Covarrubias, she depicts herself in turmoil. I especially love the hand of the skeleton on her forehead trying to soothe her?
Rosa Rolanda, Self-Portrait Photogram, c. late 1920’s. Rolanda likely learned of the photogram technique through surrealist Man Ray, who photographed her in Paris in 1923. These are extraordinary as both avant-garde practice and as private ruminations on identity.
Maria Izquierdo (1902-1955). After her father died when she was five, Maria lived with her grandparents in small towns in Mexico. Her first art training came at thirteen and after three children before her twentieth birthday, she divorced her husband. She was the first Mexican woman to have a solo art exhibition in the U.S in November 1930.
María Izquierdo, Autorretrato (Self-portrait), 1939.
María Izquierdo, La niña indiferente (The indifferent Child), 1947
Mina Loy (1882-1966) was an artist, poet, playwright, novelist, futurist, actress, bohemian and designer of lamps. Her poetry would frequent smaller magazines, later in NY publications. Her novel, Insel, was published posthumously.
Minda Loy, Surreal Scene, 1930. Mina presents female body parts to spoof the male surrealists’ glorification of women as sexual objects. The unusually feminine background palette might refer to a Louis Aragon poem: “There is a surrealist light…it is the light that falls on the salmon pink display of silk stocking..There is a surrealist light in the eyes of every woman.”
Remedios Varo (1908-1963). In Mexico she met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera but her third and last important relationship was to Walter Gruen, a survivor of the concentration camps before he escaped Europe. He fiercely believed in Varo and supported her so she could focus fully on her painting. I deeply resonated with her work. I felt I could see a bit into who she was; a playful person, isolated, who created her own world. Because sometimes living a fantasy is easier than real life.
Remedios Varo, Recuerdo de la Walkyria (Memory of the Valkyrie), 1938
Remedios Varo, Papilla estelar (Celestial Pablum), 1958
Remedios Varo, La huida (The Escape), 1961
Remedios Varo, Mimetismo (Memesis), 1960. Varo was especially interested in meditation, or the ability to focus on the present moment and become one with the surroundings.
Remedios Varo, Mujer saliendo del psicoanalista (Woman Departing from the Psychoanalyst’s Office), 1960
Remedio Varo, Gato hombre (Cat Man), 1943
Remedios Varo, El flautista (The Flutist), 1955
Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999). She was an American Post-Surrealist, hard edge painter. Constantly reading, she was inclined to be a writer.
Helen Lundeberg, Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, 1935. She paints herself as a toddler, casting her shadow on a wall, but the shadow linking childhood to adulthood is that of a woman, the grown-up Lundeberg.
Helen Lundeberg, The Mountain, 1933
Helen Lundeberg, Microcosm and Macrocosm, 1937
Helen Lundeberg, Plant and Animal Analogies, 1934-35
Gertrude Abercrombie, The Courtship, 1949. One of the few female surrealist in the U.S. who seemed comfortable in the roles of wife and mother. Abercrombie evinces cynicism about romance in this mock holdup.
Gertrude Abercrombie, Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting, 1946
Doris Lindo Lewis (1909-1995)
Doris Lindo Lewis, Mamscape, c. 1934
Bridget Tichenor (1917-1990)
Bridget Tichenor, Autorretrato (Self-Portrait)
Loren MacIver (1909-1998)
Loren MacIver, The Poet, 1940. MacIver depicts her husband, the poet Lloyd Frankenberg, as a headless vessel out of which emerge abstracted forms resembling flowers. The objects are hovering around his body, as they crystallize into a poem. In this image, we see her celebrate the role of the subconscious in creativity while it underscores the isolating aspects of the artist’s life; the headless figure is unable to connect with others.
Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). I flew to San Francisco twice just to view Woodman’s work at the SFMOMA. Her genius for lighting and composition are unparalleled. She didn’t hide in her art, she was her art. I’ve done two blogs focused on Woodman in the past.
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-78
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) I’d describe her as the Anne Sexton of confessional art. She painted the themes of betrayal, anxiety and loneliness. Her work is said to be autobiographical, stemming from the trauma of her childhood when she discovered her governess was her father’s mistress. This caused her need to understand double standards related to gender and sexuality, which appears in her work frequently. During her stay at the American Abstract Artists Group, she was friends with Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.
Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison (Woman House), 1946-47
Lee Miller (1907-1977). I think most of us know that Man Ray’s love for Miller almost drove him crazy and inspired some of his greatest work. There was much more to Lee Miller than being Man Ray’s muse. It is said that both artists fed off each other to create their art and their love for each other resulted in some of the most powerful work of each artist’s career. The recent Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism show that ran at the Peabody Essex Museum had a section entitled “Enduring Friendship” which highlighted the lasting nature of their relationship and their reconnection as friends after their bitter split in 1932. Miller was an accomplished photographer in her own right. After giving up photography in 1953, she spiraled into depression and alcoholism.
Lee Miller, Condom, c. 1934
Lee Miller, Untitled Breast from Radical Mastectomy) c. 1930. After a friend underwent a mastectomy, Miller hid the severed breast on a plate, under a napkin and slipped it out of the hospital. Family found these two images placed together years after her death. Miller intended the doubling to refer to two breasts and to the idea that women were still perceived only as sexual attributes. Linking the breasts to the wifely duty of food preparation further underscored her anger at men’s attitudes.
Julia Thecla (1896-1973) Thecla was 24 years old when she cut herself off from her family and changed her last name to Thecla as she had an aunt who was enamored with Saint Thecla. Through her technical skills, she could support herself as an art restorer. While studying at School of the Art Institute, she created charcoals of little girls reading, ballerinas and the heavens. Friends said she read a lot and could talk about most any subject which probably explains why so many of the little girls in her paintings are holding books. She wrote poetry but none of it was published. According to art professor Joanna Gardner-Huggett, who specializes in women artists, “you need someone to maintain your estate.” She disappeared from the art world partially because she had no family and she wasn’t attached to a male artist which pushed her further down the ladder. Gardner-Huggett says “there was really no one looking out for her work.”
Julia Thecla, Undiscovered Place, 1951. Thecla explored the mind, as many surrealists did.
Julia Thecla, In the Book She Reads, 1961. Thecla was one of the few female surrealists to explore fumage, in which an image was created by carbon (or smoke) as a candle moved back and forth under a sheet of paper. It was considered to be a means of releasing subconscious ideas and images. Thecla mastered this technique.
Grace Clements (1905-1969)
Grace Clements, Remembrance, 1930s
Rose Mandel (1910-2002)
Rose Mandel, Untitled, 1952. A Polish Jew who fled Europe during WW II. This photograph may allude to the atrocities of Nazi Germany. She never had children but she studied child psychology with the prominent developmental psychologist Jean Piaget before she became a photographer.
Kati Horna (1912-2000)
Kati Horna, Oda a la necrofilia (Ode to Necrophilia), 1962. Horna’s friend, artist Leonora Carrington, performs a ritual of seduction around an imaginary corpse covered by a mask. Horna presents this deviation with black humor: death becomes the object of desire but, ironically, there is no corpse to possess.
Muriel Streeter (1913-1995)
Muriel Streeter, The Chess Queens, 1944
Jacqueline Lamba (1910-1993)
Jacqueline Lamba, L’amour fou (Mad Love), 1944
Alice Rahon (1904-1987)
Alice Rahon, Piedad por los judas (Mercy for the Judas Effigies), 1952
I love the layout of the exhibit as it seemed to reinforce the surreal theme. Here you see angular walls that divide areas that you might not otherwise see.