Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942
ON JANUARY 15, 1943, the New York Sun’s chief art critic, Henry McBride, explained precisely why it was women “excelled” at surrealism:
Surrealism is about 70 percent hysterics, 20 percent literature, and 5 percent good painting, and 5 percent is just saying ‘boo’ to the innocent public. There are, as we all know, plenty of men among the New York neurotics but we also know that there are still more women among them.
Under the title “Surrealist Women,” McBride’s review ostensibly covered Exhibition by 31 Women at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, which, in fact, featured a diverse group of artists, ranging from Alice Trumbull Mason and Louise Nevelson to Djuna Barnes, Gyspy Rose Lee, and Guggenheim’s daughter, Pegeen. His rejection of surrealism — overly literary and overly figurative academicism, poorly disguised by shock tactics — was shared by his fellow formalists, while the association of the hysterical, the feminine and the surreal, encouraged by the surrealists themselves from the beginning, with McBride, hypostasized in the hysterical female surrealist. This most likely also marks the first identification of the category women surrealists and renders McBride the unwitting forecaster of a more recent tendency in the historical understanding of the movement.
Over the past decade and a half, a number of exhibitions have been premised on extricating the chapters of the neglected history of women surrealists. The latest, LACMA’s recently closed In Wonderland: The Surrealists Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States (along with the 2009 Angels of Anarchy at the Manchester Art Gallery), was the most ambitious to date. Billed in the promotional literature as the first show of its kind, In Wonderland narrowed the geographic focus to the United States and Mexico. The curators brought together works by 50 artists, and covered just as many years. Ephemera, documentary tidbits, and an exquisite corpse or two supplemented a sprawling survey of painting and photography, as well as collage, sculpture and film.
This double revision — feminist and New Worldist — correspondingly draws on two critical trends. The first, a turn toward transnational art histories, has for years found particularly avid practitioners in the field of Latin American art, while more recently, several exhibitions have trained a widened lens down the American continent, viewing together art from Latin America and United States. No mere curatorial whim, the geographic scope of In Wonderland owes to the show’s historical narrative — haltingly and incompletely treated in the exhibition itself, but sufficiently filled out in the catalogue — beginning with the flight of European artists (and a few American artists then living in Europe) to Mexico and the United States after the outbreak of war and the occupation of France. On arrival, they formed a small émigré network with connections running mainly between New York and Mexico City, but spreading as well within these adoptive cities, between newly arrived and native artists. Though many of the surrealists would return to Europe after the war, a handful stayed on, and the seed planted with this refugee sojourn would bear strange fruit for dec...read more