The Women Surrealists

Leonora Carrington 1Leonora Carrington

The women surrealists are some of my favorite artists. I immediately felt drawn to their work when I happened upon them several years ago. They seemed fearless at illustrating and painting their experiences, desires, and dreams in an effort to understand their realities. They were early autobiographers and visual diarists, and they made women’s experiences known. However, the surrealists are not the most diverse movement; most women associated with surrealism in the early 20th century are white and come from privileged backgrounds.

Before I had heard of these artists or understood their motivations, I tried to map out my own thoughts, experiences, and dreams through drawing.

Many people do not draw because they have a fear that what they draw will be too imperfect, or simple, or “childlike”, but what does it matter if drawing brings you joy and helps you understand the world? Contemporary artists like Lynda Barry, who encourage drawing regardless of imperfect technique (or fear of the unknown process), continue to motivate me to draw, because I enjoy it so much, and sometimes I learn about myself through the results of a drawing. Often, the creative process is revealed and developed through spontaneity as well.

In truth, the title of this blog post is a bit of an oxymoron, as many women artists that were acquainted with the surrealists wanted little to do with the male-dominated group whose official manifesto was also written by a man, André Breton. For Breton and many other men in the group, women were otherworldly creatures who held a mysterious power to inspire and provoke the male artist to tap into something significant from his unconscious. Though women and men in this movement shared common aesthetic sensibilities, women were often objectified though a male-conceived ideology of their spirit and nature.

Male artists and writers associated with the surrealists: André Breton, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, Rene Crevel, Yves Tanguy, Jean Arp, Paul Eluard, Rupert Lee, Ruthven Todd, Roland Penrose, Herbert Read, E.L.T. Mesens, George Reavey, Hugh Sykes-Davies (and many more); many group portraits of the surrealists feature mostly these male artists.

The male surrealists believed in the woman muse, but many of the women surrealists represented themselves as wild animals. Leonora Carrington often painted the creative spirit as women, with the use of magic, symbols from alchemy, and animal-like wild and anthropomorphized creatures— but she was in control of her image. Compared to other early modern art movements, the surrealists were more accepting of women as creators and intellectuals, and there were plentiful exchanges of ideas and opinions between genders. Meret Oppenheim acknowledged that surrealism was male-centric, but she also believed that when a man drew a woman, he was really tapping into and revealing the woman-like side of his nature, that really the surrealist men accepted women as their equals (Leslie 84). Leonor Fini, on the other hand, took aim at Breton’s overbearing role in surrealism, and she refused to officially join the group (although she did sometimes exhibit with them).

Leonor Fini 1

Argentine surrealist Leonor Fini painted herself with the soul of a cat, and wore extravagant costumes, so no one could stitch her into their dolls’ wardrobe; in this manner, she conjured the sphinx back into existence through her body. She surrounded herself with cats, costumes, friends, and lovers that were men and women.

Leonor Fini 2Sunday Afternoon (Leonor Fini)

The men and women surrealists loved masquerade balls, believed in love, open sexuality (although it was mostly heterosexuality), and the power of women— although in a culture pervaded by sexism, the male surrealists still objectified women through essentializing their power and role in creativity. Additionally, they partook in the sexist rhetoric of Freudian psychology, explored through artwork, photography, as well as writing.

Leonora Carrington believed that each person has a soul, and each soul has a different daemon. As the wild animal, she devoured the debutante she might have become.  Carrington believed cabbage is the true alchemical rose, for it screams when it is dragged out of the earth and then boiled. Cabbage. For many years, my Safta put cabbage on her bad knees to make her arthritis pain go away.  For the surrealists, like many of us, magic spills into the real world, illuminating our desires, demons, hopes, and pains.

Leonora Carrington 2Self Portrait by Leonora Carrington

The male surrealists, Breton in particular, considered Frida Kahlo one of them—he even stayed with Kahlo, her husband Diego Rivera, and Trotsky in Mexico in 1938— but Kahlo did not want to limit herself to the definitions and customs of the group; she wished to be identified with the Mexican magic realism movement, Indigenous tradition, and considered herself a realist. Her work was often piercingly autobiographical.

What_the_Water_Gave_Me_by_Frida_KahloWhat the Water Has Given Me, 1938 (Kahlo)

Leonora Carrington wanted first and foremost to be appreciated as an artist, not just as a woman artist. She should be remembered as so much more than Max Ernst’s young lover who needed to be sent to a mad house for grief when he left her to flee the Nazis and married Peggy Guggenheim. Carrington met met Ernst in 1937, separated from him in 1940, and then moved to Mexico in 1942.

Carrington is one of my favorite artists, and her paintings speak a language that is familiar to me on a visceral level. Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet is a talisman for me, infused with the spirit you grow into when your body becomes more than a mask— when beauty is something deep inside rather than surface appearance. The book’s boisterous, raving, spirited elderly hero is my hero; despite her family plotting to send her away to an old folks institution, her dependence on an ornate hearing trumpet, and her penchant to drift off into an incoherent but charming fantasy world, Marian Leatherby, makes her presence known in a world that would rather have her sweetly and submissively fade away.

What these women artists had in common with the male surrealists is this: their desire to have the complete freedom to experiment and tap into their unconscious, investigate their dreams, and reveal deeper truths through introspection, spontaneity, and playfulness. They relied heavily on their instincts and subverted many popular ideologies surrounding the value and possibilities of intuitive artwork.

Women artists associated with the surrealists:

Nusch Eluard

Nusch Eluard 1

Nusch Eluard 2Collages 

Eileen Agar

eileen agar 2

Image from: (Lewis Carroll with Alice, 1961)

 Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo 1

Remedios Varo 2Mimetismo 1960

Remedios Varo 3La Creación de las Aves, 1957

Rita Kernn-Larsen

Rita Kernn-Larsen 1

Rita Kernn-Larsen 2Self-Portrait [Know Thyself],1937,

 Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning 2

dorothea tanning 3

Dorothea Tanning 1Birthday, 1942

Tanning 3Dorothea Tanning, “The Magic Flower Game.” 1941

Sheila Legge (performance artist)

Sheila Legge 1 

Valentine Hugo

Valentine Hugo 1

Valentine Hugo 2Dream of 21 December 1929, 1929

Valentine Penrose

Valentine Penrose 1

Valentine Penrose 2 

Valentine Penrose 3

Kay Sage

Kay Sage 1

Picture 006White Silence

Dora Maar

Dora Maar 1

Dora Maar 2Double Portrait

Ithell Colquhoun

Ithell Colquhoun 1

Ithell Colquhoun 2Alcove ll, Ithell Colquhoun (1948)

 Lee Miller

Lee Miller2

Lee Miller 2Portrait of Space

 Toyen (Marie Cerminova)

Toyen 1

Toyen 2Deserted Den (1937)

 Jacqueline Lamba Breton

Jacqueline Lamba Breton 1

Jacqueline Lamba 2Nu Rouge (1953)

Meret Oppenheim

Meret Oppenheim

Meret Oppenheim 2My nursemaid 1936

 Edith Rimmington

Edith Rimminton 1Museum (1952)

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe Decoy (1948), oil on canvas

Alice Rahon Paalen

Alice Rahon Paalen 1

Alice Rahon Paalen 2

Alice Rahon PaalenBalada para Frida Kahlo (1952)

Grace Pailthorpe

Grace Pailthorpe 1Father’s wastecoat

Grace Pailthorpe 2Animal Instinct

A few books I own on Surrealism (Thank you BMV), that I consulted for this post:

A book on Leonora Carrington that I own and love:


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