Excerpted from the book
Women Artists


Dada and Surrealism

Reports from the Unconscious

Out of lives disrupted by war in the first half of the century came art forms and perspectives independent of terrestrial topographies. Artists on the cutting edge worked from the inside out, selecting from nature only what expressed their personal visions. Unlike Cubism and Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism had more to do with mental--especially subconcious--processes and a philosophy of the irrational than with a specific style or technique.

In the case of Dada--a movement whose name was reportedly composed of random nonsense syllables--artists and writers uprooted by World War I dispersed the movement to cities throughout Europe and to New York. In a counter-Futurist kind of way, their nihilistic manifestoes and other writings protested war, industrialization, and other dehumanizing offenses of modern life. Dada's multimedia creations were chaotic, absurd, and humorous, and they took the forms of performances, "readymades" or found objects, self-destroying machines, and mystifying abstractions.

In politically charged Berlin, Hannah Höch (1879-1978) reordered reality in radical photomontages, a medium that she and her companion, Raoul Hausmann, are credited with inventing. Höch mined a rich range of print sources to find the ingredients for her provocative fusions of photographic images--one of her first such pieces, Cut with the Kitchen Knife (1919-20), illustrates the process of the new art form. To make the work, whose title refers menacingly to women's traditional realm, she cut out text and photo fragments, using a collage technique to fashion fantastic compositions that comment wryly upon the experience of life in Weimar Berlin in the wake of World War I. She combined areas of paint with photographic images of hardware, buildings, disconnected heads and bodies, and figures in motion in and about images of modern life, including the modern machinery of war. Cut-out "dada" texts weave backward and forward among the images. Comic touches such as circus performers mark her style. Höch remained in Germany through the Nazi era and World War II, at the cost of largely refraining from political statements.

The German-born Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) had been a chorus girl, artist, poet, and muse before emigrating to the United States in 1910. Abandoned in New York in 1913 by Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven after their brief marriage, she gravitated to Greenwich Village. She supported herself as an artist's model, and, seen around the streets in the nude or draped with fruit and cookware, became a highly visible "character" even in that bohemian community of artists and intellectuals. Because theatricality was so essential an aspect of Dada, her poses for Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Picabia render the resulting works in effect collaborations. Her "junk art" 1918 Dada portrait of the photographer Berenice Abbott, who called von Freytag-Loringhoven a friend and a great influence, is made from a brush, stones, metal objects, cloth, paint, and various detritus. Her 1920 portrait of Duchamp was an elegant but short-lived "bouquet" with feathers and metal gears in a champagne glass. Like much of today's conceptual art, it survives only in a photograph.

In some respects, Surrealism was an outgrowth of Dada, as Salvador Dalí, Duchamp, and others renounced protest and absurdity in favor of the dislocated, symbolic imagery of the subconscious. Gathered around the founding father, the writer and critic André Breton--a great admirer of Frida Kahlo--the Surrealists embraced certain theories of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. Responding to the power of dreams, letting themselves go to the predictable results of "automatism," spontaneous drawing and writing, the Surrealists became a major force in art beginning in the 1920s.

Initially, women were important to the Surrealists not as artists but as muses and lovers. As sexual creatures who inspired creativity they were loved; as real women and mothers who would squelch men's freedom they were feared. Paintings by Max Ernst, Duchamp, and Dalí are rife with controlling violence and brutality against women. Nevertheless, attracted by the Surrealists' democracy-of-the-mind mentality, their wholehearted commitment to avant-garde art, the fun, and, for some, the sexually charged, creative atmosphere surrounding them, women were drawn into their circle. Most were a generation younger than their mates, and were adored as long as they remained the femme-enfant, the Surrealist ideal of the child-woman.

Visionary and symbolic, the women's imagery frequently incorporated dreamscapes and architectural interiors in which women were strong, dominant figures controlling their environments. Water and egg imagery, symbols of rebirth and regeneration, appear frequently. Many of the women developed strong friendships: Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, and Meret Oppenheim in Paris, and later, in Mexico, Carrington and Remedios Varo. Like their male cohorts, some of the female Surrealists also published short stories, poetry, and memoirs, and espoused sexual liberation--the Marquis de Sade was a Surrealist hero. Fini and Tanning also transmit some of this sexual charge in their work.

Leonor Fini (1908-1996) lived what she believed. Born in Buenos Aires and raised in Trieste, she was acquainted with Carlo Carrà and the Futurists before she moved to Paris in the 1930s. True to her independence, she refused to marry and resisted joining the Surrealists because of their disparaging attitude toward women, although she counted group members among her friends and exhibited with them. Fini's early works often feature beautiful women presiding over events. They are commanding figures, whether shown bare-breasted and seductive, as in Composition with Figures on a Terrace (1939), or armored, as in Young Girl in Armour (n.d.). Fini portrays herself in the former as lion-maned and powerful. Males, when present, play a secondary role, even that of victim. These imagined scenes, like Fini's detailed still lifes of decaying plants, are beautifully rendered in precise detail.

The Czech-born Marie Cermínová (1902-1980), known as Toyen, did poetic abstractions before she and her husband, the painter Jindrich Styrsky, discovered Surrealism in Prague. At first influenced by Styrsky's obsession with The Marquis de Sade (the couple illustrated his stories), Toyen's work maintained their erotic edge. In Relâche (1943)--the title has several meanings, including "respite" and "relax"--the pose is impossible, the setting ominous, the pale virginal skin and props (sack and riding crop) frighteningly real and highly evocative of what might be coming. Briefly, after World War II, Toyen turned her attention to political statements in works like Before Spring (1945), a landscape with rows of stone grave mounds, evocative of what had come.

During the war years, when Ernst, Breton, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, and other Surrealists emigrated to New York City, Kay Sage (1898-1963) arranged for exhibitions of their work and helped them establish new lives. From a prominent upstate New York family, Sage had lived in Europe on and off with her erratic mother, and for ten years was married to an Italian prince. She became involved with the Surrealists shortly after arriving in Paris in 1937, and later, in New York, she married Tanguy. Her command of painting belies her sparse formal training, and though she had begun by recording the Italian countryside, her work quickly became abstract, stark, sweeping dreamscapes. Curving forms fill My Room Has Two Doors (1939), a work that shows the influence of the Italian Surrealist Giorgio De Chirico: a large egg rests above a stairway to nowhere, against a rising wall, near a shadowy archway. In Danger, Construction Ahead (1940) there is no possibility of a human presence in either of the spiky formations joined across a chilly prospect by a slender bridge. Sage also wrote poetry in English, French, and Italian. Despondent after Tanguy's death in 1955 and a partial loss of vision, she failed an attempt at suicide, but succeeded the second time, eight years later.

Among the most memorable Surrealist objects are Eileen Agar's Angel of Anarchy and Meret Oppenheim's Fur-Lined Teacup (both 1936). Agar (1899/1904-1991) was painting abstractions in Paris in the late 1920s when she was introduced to Surrealism. Back home in England, she began exploring automatic methods and unusual juxtapositions in her paintings and experimenting with collage. She was one of a group of British artists who actively protested war and promoted art; Angel of Anarchy, a sculptural response to the Spanish Civil War, is a plaster cast of her husband's head mysteriously shrouded in sensuous silks, and adorned with feathers, beads, and shells. Agar continued co-opting found elements into fantasy objects and paintings.

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), daughter of a German-Swiss Jungian psychologist, in many ways resembled Meretlein, the free-spirited character in a German novel for whom she was named. Arriving in Paris in 1932, she quickly found Breton, Duchamp, Ernst, and Man Ray. Although she continued drawing, painting, designing, and assembling clever and fanciful objects for the next fifty years, it is one piece, Fur-Lined Teacup (1936), that is synonymous with her name and, for many, with Surrealism. Oppenheim had decorated a bracelet with fur, and Picasso jokingly commented that fur could cover anything. Her response was another joke: a fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon, Le Déjeuner en fourrure, its official name. Breton included the piece in the landmark Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism exhibition in 1936 at New York's Museum of Modern Art--which purchased it on the spot. Oppenheim was just twenty-two years old.

The Parisian Jacqueline Lamba (1910-1993) was attracted to Breton's writings, which addressed art and politics, her two principal interests, and to Breton: the two married during the turbulent decade (of 1934-1943), during which they fled the war, first to Mexico and, finally, New York. Lamba practiced automatism, giving expression to her unconscious in dreamscapes that have often been compared with those of Masson and the Chilean painter Matta. The invented flower forms that make up In Spite of Everything, Spring (1942) seem to materialize through an internal prism.

Leonora Carrington (b. 1917) left England in 1937 to live in Paris with Max Ernst. During their three years together, through intensive self-exploration, she developed a personal mythology and pictorial vocabulary. In both stories and paintings, female characters--often including the artist--encountered a bestiary of real and imagined creatures. A white horse, in particular, variously represents mythic, transformative, sexual, and, when a rocking horse, nurturing and magical powers. Ernst, a German, was arrested, then failed to return to her after his release; Carrington was devastated by their separation, and she, too, eventually sought refuge in Mexico, where later, marriage and the birth of her children were energizing forces.

In Mexico, Carrington's close friend and fellow spiritual traveler was Remedios Varo (1913-1963). Simultaneously and independently, they both evolved a mature Surrealist idiom in which the practice of alchemy synthesized woman's domestic identity and spiritual longings. Varo and her husband, the Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret, had left Spain after the Civil War, settling first in Paris, then, after 1942, in Mexico. As a teenager, Varo had escaped rigid convent school life through a brief marriage, but she never totally abandoned the church: she joined aspects of Catholic mysticism with alchemy and hermetic occult traditions in her quest for creative and spiritual fulfillment. Her intense, arcane compositions frequently feature fantastic creatures and machines--an interest acquired from her father, a hydraulic engineer--that are powered by natural forces such as light, water, or sound. One of these vessels carries the sophisticated traveler in Varo's Exploration of the Sources of the Orinoco River (1959), to a fountain springing in a gleaming goblet, a holy chalice of sorts.

Determined to meet Ernst and the other Surrealists after seeing their 1936 exhibition in New York, Dorothea Tanning (b. 1912) arrived in Paris in 1939, just as the war was breaking out. Having been inspired more by the extravagant illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley than by the art education she received at home in Galesburg, Illinois, and in Chicago, she had seen in the Surrealists' visions something akin to her own. When Tanning finally met Ernst, back in New York, where her work was being shown at the Art of the Century gallery, owned by his wife, Peggy Guggenheim, they fell in love. After living for a number of years in Sedona, Arizona, they returned to France, where Tanning lived and worked until after Ernst's death in 1976. Many of Tanning's early paintings contain strong images of female sexual transformation. In Birthday (1942), the bare-breasted artist celebrates the beginning of an uncertain maturity (with Ernst), while in Jeux d'Enfants (Children's Games) (1942), the wall comes to life, sucking in two of the disheveled young girls, one by the hair, while a third has succumbed to its power. Likewise, in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1946) and Palaestra (1949), strangely suspended prepubescent girls inhabit enigmatic corridors defined by open and closed doors. In contrast with their allusive, oneiric subject matter, Tanning's dream images, filled with mystery and foreboding, are exquisitely detailed and finished.

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