Surrealism’s revolutionary and avant-garde spirit first started in France in 1924 and then quickly spread across the world as an inspiring movement for all artists.
The first Surrealist manifesto of 1924 written by the “Pope” of Surrealism, André Breton, called on artists to reach far into their subconscious to create surreal and political art. Breton’s second manifesto written in 1929 focused more on the necessity of the politics within art. At first, the movement was heavily dominated by male artists such as: Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali, however, many women artists later took part in the movement, yet they are less well-known today. To mend that gap, here is a list of seven incredible female surrealist artists who radically changed the creative landscape in each of their respective countries.
USA: Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012) is still a surrealist wonder. Her most recent and largest retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019 beautifully showcased her dreamy masterpieces. One might know her as the partner of surrealist German painter Max Ernst, however, her work surpassed the male dominated surrealist scene at the time and expanded on themes of childhood, femininity, sexuality, and domesticity. Her Birthday portrait of 1942 jump-started her career in the surrealist world. In this self portrait, the infinite doors behind her represent an unlocking of the imagination and the beginning of her journey through the psyche. You can read more about Dorothea in her various poetry books and memoirs, including: Birthday, Coming to That, and Chasm.
Argentina: Leanor Fini
Leonor Fini’s (1907 – 1996) work is most notable for her explicit sexuality and fierce female figures. Her career took her across the globe from Argentina to Milan and New York City to Paris. Her life showed the degree of internationalism that the surrealist movement came to be. In this work below, Figures On A Terrace, you can see how engrained hair and fashion are to her figures in order to fully display a powerful erotic force. Surrealism’s focus on sexuality and erotica within the psyche was a widespread theme, but a woman like Leonor, owning her sexuality and body is much more taboo. This shows how monumental Fini’s work is today in booting out the male gaze and owning one’s own identity.
Spain: Remedios Varo
Remedios Varo’s (1908 – 1963) paintings are stunning portrayals of women as creators. She uses different forms of hybridity between human and creature to portray a deep surreal world where women take control. Every figure in Varo’s work is delicate and modest, yet contains a power like no other. In her painting, The Call, Varo displays a woman figure as a flame roaming mysterious corridors filled with sleeping women melded into the walls. What is wonderful about Varo’s work are the many different stories and interpretations that each viewer can have. In my mind, the flame is bringing a cure to the women who are stuck inside the walls. The cure/potion will help them wake up. What do you see in this work?
France: Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954) is a French photographer who defies gender roles through portraiture. In Cahun’s work, they assume a variety of characters, some more masculine or feminine than others. In the Parisian art world, it helped that Cahun’s name was gender neutral so that their work could exhibit in galleries and escape gender discrimination. Nowadays, flexibility and acceptance with gender pronouns and identities are more mainstream, but back then no one, especially the male dominated art sphere knew how to understand Cahun’s work. Cahun’s self portrait (above) is truly a work of art before its time where Cahun accepts the duality of their identity and proudly flaunts it to the world.
Mexico: Maria Izquierdo
While Maria Izquierdo (1902 – 1955) never identifies herself as a surrealist, her work truly transcends the realm of reality and brings viewers into a universe focused on indigeneity and magical realism. Izquierdo was an outstanding pupil of the infamous Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, and was the first Mexican woman artist to exhibit in the United States. Her painting, Rêve et Pressentiment, is quite a morbid work that incorporates surrealist themes such as: religion, environment, and disembodiment. I believe that this work is an exquisite triple self-portrait that depicts the complexity of Izquierdo’s identity influenced by indigeneity, femininity and catholicism.
USA: Krista Franklin
This American artist is a modern reincarnation of Surrealism in the 1920s if it was a more inclusive and diverse scene. Krista Franklin’s work uses the traditional radical medium of collage, which was used by other surrealist artists, including: Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell. Unlike Ernst and Cornell, Franklin’s collages also build upon the tradition of Negritude and Afro-Surrealism to reclaim Black identities and narratives. Franklin’s collage below, Lush Life, beautifully portrays Black joy in a surreal world that absorbs the viewer within the bright colors and magical environment. You can learn more about Franklin’s work and upcoming exhibits on her website.
Brazil: Maria Martins
Maria Martin’s (1894 – 1973) sculptural work captures the many faces and intricacies of Brazilian landscape, from the Amazon to her interior region of Minas Gerais. Surrealist themes such as: hybridity and sexuality, make her body of work so complex and fascinating. Unfortunately, Martins is written out of many art history scholarships due to her affair with Marcel DuChamp. This is another example of male counterparts overshadowing their partners/lovers. In Martin’s sculpture, The Impossible, Venus flytrap-like figures are engaged in an all consuming battle, bound at the base and opposed at the top. Later, Martin made the following statement about this work in a 1946 issue of Time magazine,
“The world is complicated and sad – it is nearly impossible to make people understand each other,”
alluding to the ending of her relationship and as well as perhaps her political environment in Brazil.