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Women Surrealist Artists
In the school curriculum
01.05.2020 | Julie Sabau

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.

Artists
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1894 — France | 1954 — Jersey
Claude Cahun - AWARE

Claude Cahun

1917 — United Kingdom | 2011 — Mexico
Leonora Carrington - AWARE

Leonora Carrington

1907 — Argentina | 1996 — France
Leonor Fini - AWARE

Leonor Fini

1907 — United States | 1977 — United Kingdom
Lee Miller - AWARE

Lee Miller

1907 — 1997 | France
Dora Maar - AWARE

Dora Maar

1910 — 1993 | France
Jacqueline Lamba - AWARE

Jacqueline Lamba

1913 — Germany | 1985 — Switzerland
Meret Oppenheim - AWARE

Meret Oppenheim

1887 — 1968 | France
Valentine Hugo - AWARE

Valentine Hugo

1907 — 1954 | Mexico
Frida Kahlo - AWARE

Frida Kahlo

1904 — France | 1987 — Mexico
Alice Rahon - AWARE

Alice Rahon

1902 — 1955 | Mexico
María  Izquierdo - AWARE

María Izquierdo

1898 — France | 1978 — United Kingdom
Valentine Penrose - AWARE

Valentine Penrose

1899 — Argentina | 1991 — United Kingdom
Eileen Agar - AWARE

Eileen Agar

1910 — 2012 | United States
Dorothea Tanning - AWARE

Dorothea Tanning

1904 — Indonesia | 1971 — France
Christine Boumeester - AWARE

Christine Boumeester

1938 — 2016 | Croatia
Nives  Kavurić-Kurtović - AWARE

Nives Kavurić-Kurtović

1902 — 1995 | Spain
Maruja Mallo - AWARE

Maruja Mallo

1894 — 1973 | Brazil
Maria Martins - AWARE

Maria Martins

1898 — Egypt | 1974 — France
Amy  Nimr - AWARE

Amy Nimr

1908 — Spain | 1963 — Mexico
Remedios Varo - AWARE

Remedios Varo

1902 — Czech Republic | 1982 — France
Toyen (Marie Čerminová dite) - AWARE

Toyen (Marie Čerminová dite)

1898 — 1963 | United States
Kay Sage - AWARE

Kay Sage

1904 — Germany | 1999 — Argentina
Grete Stern - AWARE

Grete Stern

1916 — Germany | 1970 — France
Unica Zürn - AWARE

Unica Zürn

1911 — Denmark | 1984 — France
Sonja Ferlov Mancoba - AWARE

Sonja Ferlov Mancoba

1923 — 2014 | Turkey
Tiraje Dikmen - AWARE

Tiraje Dikmen

1913 — 1994 | United States
Helen Phillips - AWARE

Helen Phillips

1942 — 2008 | Argentina
Mildred Burton - AWARE

Mildred Burton

1884 — 1982 | France
Juliette Roche - AWARE

Juliette Roche

1889 — 1978 | Germany
Hannah Höch - AWARE

Hannah Höch

1935 — Portugal | 2022 — Great Britain
Paula Rego - AWARE

Paula Rego

1906 — 1999 | United Kingdom
Emmy Bridgwater - AWARE

Emmy Bridgwater

1913 — 1991 | Japan
Yukiko (Yuki) Katsura - AWARE

Yukiko (Yuki) Katsura

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