Dora Maar, Untitled [Shell-Hand], ca. 1934, silver print on flexible media, 23.4 x 17.5 cm, © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, © ADAGP, Paris
The Surrealist group formed in Paris in 1924 around André Breton. Published that same year, the Surrealist Manifesto defined the movement as a “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought”. At the beginning the group was exclusively composed by men – women were only present as muses or lovers. Objects of male, heterosexual desire, they saw themselves as confined to representations of women as children, femme-fatales or hysterics, in order to stimulate the imagination of men who surrendered themselves to the power of the subconscious. Yet, the politically and socially engaged Surrealists rejected tradition – marriage, children, family – and wanted to use art as a means of reorganising society. This subversive movement in search of freedom thus attracted a number of women artists.
It was not until the 1930s that female artists grasped the Surrealist language, which sought to reduce the role of consciousness and the intervention of the will through the introduction of new techniques and forms of creation. Jaqueline Lamba (1910-1993) and Valentine Hugo (1887-1968) participated in the production of cadavres exquis, or exquisite corpses, collaborative artworks that gave way to chance. Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) with Le déjeuner en fourrure (Breakfast in Fur, 1936) and V. Hugo with Objet à fonctionnement symbolique (1931) conceived surrealist objects – assemblages that played with ambiguity, fetishization and the poetic value of objects.
Certain women artists appropriated the power of desire and of dreams. Toyen (1902-1982) realised erotic illustrations and magical paintings that appeared in her intimate visions. The work of Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) was based on hallucinations between anxiety and sexual fantasy. Photographers also explored the possibilities of distorting reality. Lee Miller (1907-1997) manipulated images through solarisation and photograms, whereas Dora Maar (1907-1997) created photomontages with strange compositions, traces of fascination for the horrible and the shapeless.
Other artists turned away from the usual Surrealist repertoire in order to reaffirm their own identity and independence. Amongst them, Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) used animal symbolism to express her desire for freedom and to place herself within a matriarchal lineage. Through self-portraiture, Claude Cahun (1894-1954) questioned gender stereotypes, the multiplicity of identity and androgyny. In her paintings, Leonor Fini (1908-1996) unveiled male nudes in which the men became the objects of the female gaze. These reversals of perspective materialised critiques of male dominance within both the movement and society.
Women’s contributions to Surrealism was much more significant than what has been taught in art history. Beginning in the 1930s, they participated in exhibitions such as Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at MoMA in New York in 1936, as well as the Surrealist objects exhibition at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris that same year. It is thanks to these artists and their social networks that after World War II the movement developed beyond the Parisian circle, notably in the United States and Mexico, with figures such as Remedios Varo (1908-1963) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).
Today, a number of group exhibitions such as In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States at LACMA in Los Angeles in 2012 and Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Frida Kahlo at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in 2020 highlight both the diversity and significant contributions of women artists in Surrealism.