American and Mexican women and Surrealism

Photo: MNBAQ

Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942, oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, acquired partially with the contribution of C. K. Williams II, 1999

For the past couple of years, the Musée National des beaux-arts du Quebec has sought to make the public appreciate the role of women in contemporary art, in Canada and more generally around the world.  The ongoing exhibition “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” focuses on woman artists involved in Surrealism south of us.   We should remember here that in 2004, The Musée introduced us to the work of a Quebec surrealist woman artist, Mimi Parent about whom very little was written before 1975 (Vie des Arts, vol.XX, no.80) in spite of the fact that, since 1959, she was very active in the entourage of Andre Breton.  It is important to note that this exhibition associated closely Mimi Parent with her partner Jean Benoit.  The fact is that, generally speaking, women artists were and are sometimes still considered in the shadow of a dominant male partner, and their contribution consequently overlooked.  If this applied also to the surrealist female artists, it must be said that except for feminist organisations, few movements have had such a high proportion of active women participants. 

Women artists involved in Surrealism, since the 1930, did not necessarily intend to produce feminist art although recent works in the exhibition might suggest it.   Most, if not all, simply wanted to take advantage of the liberating potential, mentioned in previous chronicles, that the movement offered.  It was a mean for introspection, a mean to solve identity problems, a mean also to play the double role of being both the painter and the subject of their own creations.   This is a stand that is dramatically in opposition to that traditional vision that artists like Dali, Man Ray… had of women.  Because the works of these women are so intimate, they cannot be seen outside of their individual context as defined by the social and intellectual milieu, the culture they lived in or adopted.   Because of that, a section giving short yet significant biographies of the artists is crucial to the exhibition “In Wonderland” whose strong point lies greatly in the variety of media, spanned over more than half a century, and in the diversity of genres.
Identity being an issue, as pointed out previously, we find many self portraits. Among them are those of Frida Kahlo, ruthless and straightforward.  Those are obviously means of exorcism.  There is also the self-portrait of that of Rosa Rolando, naïve in appearance and the remarkable Birthday of Dorothea Tanning, the selfportrait that made Max Ernst fall in love with her. All the elements shown in the picture seem to represent a woman who no longer is just the object of man’s desire.   In her statement, the erotic (her naked breast) coexists with the fantastic (the strange and threatening pet at her feet) in a space from which there is or isn’t the possibility of escape from confinement through a series of half opened doors. Although important in number, such works dealing with identity issues appear much less personal than those where are explored the subconscious and the dreams or nightmares of the artists.   One finds there mythological references, allusions to medieval alchemy, sorcery and magic through which women are, of course, omnipresent.   There are also a few abstract works along others that tend to reject prior models of realism and abstraction.   Yet although different in form and in content, they are all new definitions of Surrealism established in unprecedented freedom in the “New World”.

The catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, with its informative essays, will surely be a complement to previous publications by authors like Dawn Ades, Mary Ann Caws, and Whitney Chadwick.  It is must have for anyone interested in the role played by woman in Surrealism and more generally in the contemporary art world.