Surrealist Afterlives: On LACMA’s “In Wonderland”

By Eli DinerAugust 23, 2012

Surrealist Afterlives: On LACMA’s “In Wonderland”

In Wonderland by Tere Arcq and Ilene Susan Fort

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 decades to come.

At least I think that was the narrative on offer. But rather than historicizing a half-century’s worth of work, the show was organized in 10 broad and generally unhelpful thematic sections, including “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Creative Woman.” It’s a shame, because here was an opportunity to explore, in-depth, the decampments and transformations of a movement whose obsolescence has traditionally been pinned to the war and the exile of its key members. Mexico and the United States were, of course, very different places, and surrealism’s comparative reception and fate in the two countries is a question that could have been more profitably explored in the show or the catalogue. Instead, the curators — LACMA’s Ilene Susan Fort and Museo De Arte Moderno’s Tere Arcq — framed North America as an undifferentiated sphere, a decision that should have raised eyebrows when, in the very first paragraph of wall text, visitors were informed: “North America was a logical forum [for women surrealists], because ideals of freedom, liberty and the equality of the sexes held sway here.” Leaving aside whether such slogans really explain the United States as a “logical forum,” freedom and liberty were rather inconsequential to the ideological mood of post-Revolutionary Mexico of the thirtiess and forties, where mestizaje, modernization, and mexicanidad dominated official discourse. Meanwhile, women couldn’t vote in Mexico until 1958, to mention only the most obvious measure of the “equality of the sexes.”

As for the trajectories of American surrealism, one part of the story is already well known: the impact of automatist painting on what would become the New York School (covered here by the inclusion of a Lee Krasner painting). In Wonderland, however, did offer some enticing, if confused glimpses at other afterlives emerging under the radar of advancing American abstraction, and those within the very different conditions of the political economy and visual culture of postwar Mexico.

The question of whither surrealism plagued André Breton and his New York court-in-exile. Not least among his concerns ranked the loss of control over understandings of surrealism unmoored from its original context. In the thirties, when he had launched the movement into its international phase, proselytizing on lecture tours, mounting international exhibitions and sanctioning chapters abroad, Breton already regarded the promiscuous application of the term he’d borrowed from Apollinaire as a grave danger. In America, Breton would encounter the grossest misapplications, and in 1942 would write in the Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism that, “surrealism cannot possibly be held responsible for everything done in its name, from the profoundest ‘teas’ of Tokyo to the dripping windows of Fifth Avenue.”

The reception of surrealism in the United States, though, predates the arrival of Breton, Ernst, Tanguy, and the rest; it predates the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in 1942, the flurry of gallery shows at Art of This Century, the Julien Levy gallery and the Pierre Matisse Gallery in the forties, and the launching of VVV and View, the two journals that served as the main surrealist organs during the American sojourn. Even the crucial museum shows of the mid-thirties at the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Museum of Modern Art did not quite introduce the movement to America. Instead, surrealism enjoyed a popular early recognition spread primarily through fashion magazines and advertising campaigns. In 1938 Scribner’s Magazine ran a story surveying the prevalence of surrealism in advertising. By the time the surrealists had settled in New York and Connecticut, there already existed a vulgarized, depoliticized notion of surrealism as a style, linked to vague ideas about the unconscious. Of course there was a surrealist style, or rather several styles, though Breton would have been loath to admit as much. While Man Ray would shoot for the pages of Vogue, it was ultimately Dalí’s glossy finish, veristic dreamscapes, pictorial paradoxes and outlandish imagery —not to mention the unbridled embrace of desire — that seized the popular imagination, and he, the most detested of ex-Surrealists, would set the contours of surrealist style in America.

While a handful of the U.S. based artists in the show emerged from the bosom of the Bretonian circle — Kay Sage, Lee Miller, and Dorothea Tanning, most prominently — In Wonderland presented a number of lesser-known examples of early American responses to this popularized surrealism, made far from metropolitan New York. Chicago-based friends Sylvia Fein and Gertrude Abercrombie both painted folk art-mannered, storybook vignettes in the early forties, suggesting an inflection of the supernatural or the whimsical in American scene painting as much as the adoption of surrealist style. The former, with her drowsy fairy tales and moments of impassive human-animal intermingling, offers a kind of fabulist boredom. Abercrombie’s sparse moonlit landscapes, with flattened depth and horizontal action, usually populated by a single woman in a long dress, has none of the menace of more iconic surrealist landscapes. Rather, in her work we find a gentle mocking and deadpan humor. Take, for instance, her painting The Courtship (1949), in which a masked man on a beach at night points his hand, formed into the shape of a gun, at a woman in a floor-length peach dress, her hands up as if being robbed, and neither of them particularly concerned or surprised.

In Los Angeles in 1934, the painter Helen Lundeberg issued a manifesto for what she termed New Classicism, or Post-Surrealism, a “movement” that seems never to have grown beyond her and her husband. It proved a brief period for both of them, though one can trace the emergence of the California hard-edge painting she would later come to exemplify out of the precise finish, strong lines and color areas of these “post-surrealist” canvases. Her manifesto belies a caricatured understanding of surrealism, but is nonetheless telling in terms of what she sought to move beyond. While post-surrealism was to remain “introspective” and “subjective,” it would privilege intellect over emotion, which, according to Lundeberg, reversed the surrealist formula. No more neurosis; the unconscious was to be elided. Distantly echoing McBride’s equation of the surrealist with the neurotic, Lundeberg avowed that Post-Surrealism drew “upon the normal functioning of the mind.”

The situation in Mexico was different. Though not entirely unknown, surrealism really did arrive with Breton, who came to visit Trotsky in 1938. He gave a series of lectures and established friendships with a small circle of Mexico City artists and writers, most famously with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Their interest in Breton, however, was principally as a comrade. Though surrealist theory and praxis lingered in the air among this group, it proved a minor ingredient in a stew of cultural nationalism, international modernism, mythology, archeology, and revolutionary politics. Only with the appearance of the surrealist refugees and their subsequent acquaintance with Mexican artists and enchantment with indigenous culture, do we find a small flourishing of surrealism in Mexico.

There, the Peruvian poet César Moro and the Austrian painter Wolfgang Paalen, who had both been in Breton’s inner circle, mounted the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1940. Two years later, Paalen launched the dissident surrealist journal DYN (the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Getty Center), which broke with Breton over the question of Marxism. Through the fifties and sixties, a group including Remedios Varo, Alice Rahon, Leonora Carrington, Bridget Tichenor, and Kati Honra (all featured prominently in In Wonderland) continued to pursue an often playfully hermetic surrealism, eschewing the unconscious for the imagination, revolution for mysticism. These ludic elaborations of private symbolism transpired against the backdrop of the “Mexican miracle,” which saw rapid industrialization and unprecedented growth in the economic sphere, institutional continuity and the abandonment of Cardenas era reforms in the political arena, and a rejection of the didactic and political dimensions of muralism in art.

Tichenor’s Los surrealistas (1956) is a group portrait including Carrington, Horna and their husbands, cartoonish figures with hands, feet and somber eyes poking out of colored cocoons. They stand crowded together on a little island set against an ashen backdrop, gossamer clinging to the figures as they float along. The painting evinces, as much as anything, the insularity of this group, whose work of the 1950s sees surrealism’s pictorial strategies, taste for games, and interest in the irrational transform into a pursuit of fantasy and esotericism. In the Spanish born Varo, we find the fullest manifestation of this trajectory, as well as the most accomplished artist of the group. From 1949, when she took up painting again after a long hiatus, until her death in 1963, she produced a remarkable set of works that, together, amount to the elaborate and self-contained spectacle one associates with an outsider artist. Of course, she wasn’t an outsider. She was a celebrated painter in Mexico during her lifetime and remains so there today. She produced work in close dialogue with the other Mexico City surrealists, especially Carrington. With frenzied and fantastic scenes, evocative of Hieronymus Bosch, Varo’s paintings depict playful entropy, where every wall is permeable, every substance subject to alchemical transformation, all transpiring under a great nocturnal silence. Gothic interiors give way to jagged landscapes, and figures draped in flowing robes hurry through walled cities at night. Hers is a world of stone, wood and cloth, filled with creaking imagined technological specimens, as if industrialization had proceeded only with the materials of the middle ages. A variety of gestural techniques gives her paintings a collage-like feel. Varo masterfully employed automatist procedures, including decalcomania and grattage, but would use these in a precise and limited fashion to achieve a particular effect on one part of a composition. It may be too easy to say that Varo’s controlled appropriation of automatism marks a triumph of surrealist style over the probing of chance. But the nagging question of escapism is unavoidable in her occult fantasies. The welcome Remedios Varo: The Mexican Years (forthcoming from RM) presents reproductions of the painter’s most productive decade, though the accompanying essay, while biographically informative, offers little critical insight into the ambiguities of her work.  


The second critical antecedent to In Wonderland is the feminist revisiting of surrealism, underway since the 1985 publication of Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick, who contributes a prologue to the catalogue. The intervening years have seen a corrective, dispensed along two intersecting trajectories, to the old boys’ club narrative of surrealism. On the one hand, an unveiling of the, often not too concealed anxiety in all that amour fou, desire, and rapturous preoccupation with Woman (la femme-enfant, Bellmer’s mannequins, Gradiva); on the other, a prodding of the surrealist canon to make room for those women who, if marginalized by the Bretonian circle, were erased almost completely when surrealism passed out of the present, and museums began mounting historical surveys of the movement. MoMA’s 1966 Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, for example, offered a single work by a woman, Meret Oppenheim’s iconic fur-lined teacup, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure). By contrast, the surrealists’ own international exhibitions — in Copenhagen and Prague in ’35, London and New York in ’36, Pairs in ’38 and Mexico City in ’40 — all contained works from female artists by the handful. Over the past couple of decades, there has emerged, beside Dalí, Magritte, and Ernst, a kind of canon-of-the-neglected, a dozen or so women, many of whom, it turns out, found their way to North America (if they weren’t already here). Accordingly well represented throughout In Wonderland, this group included Kay Sage, Lee Miller, Jacqueline Lamba and Dorothea Tanning working in the United States, and Carrington, Varo, Rahon and Kahlo in Mexico. If most of these artists remain relatively marginal in the sweep of institutional modernism, they have found a place in recent discussions of surrealism and individual studies are appearing more frequently. (Kahlo’s work, for instance, was only just becoming internationally recognized when Chadwick published her foundational study.)

One strand tying together nearly all the inductees to this alternate canon is that at one time they were romantically involved with better-known male surrealists. Lamba married and divorced Breton, his passion for her the subject of his text, L’amour Fou. Miller and Man Ray were lovers, and she posed for numerous photos, later marrying the English surrealist painter Roland Penrose. Carrington had an affair with Ernst, and Tanning later married him. Varo married Benjamin Péret, Sage Yves Tanguy, and Rahon Wolgang Paalen.

The visitor found these and other amorous connections spelled out on a wall of thumbnail biographies at the end of the exhibition. Marriage and dating histories make their way into the catalogue too, echoed by the careful enumeration of every brush these artists had with official surrealism, every exhibition with Masson or Tanguy, every contribution to one of the group’s many journals, every pose for Man Ray’s camera. We need to know that they passed through the movement’s orbit — even if most prominently in the role of muse and lover — because, as the exhibition proposes, it is the aegis of surrealism on which their recovery depends. But in one, very narrow sense, none of them were surrealists. None officially belonged to the group, whose history has often been rendered a tumultuous sequence of joining, defection, expulsion and reconciliation — namely, who was in and who was out.

While there is surely something to be learned from the gendered pragmatics of exchange between the core and periphery of surrealism, this punctilious tracking of points of contact with surrealist officialdom effects a vindication of overlooked female artists that hinges on popular familiarity with a group to which they didn’t completely belong and an appeal to the authority of their male counterparts. One result of this strategy is to leave the very nature of surrealism uncomplicated and vague, ignoring, for example, the insights of a concurrent reassessment launched in the 1980s by critics grouped around the journal October, which has also often drawn in peripheral figures (Bataille and the Documents group most prominently), recasting surrealism as something like modernism’s unconscious and reformulating our understanding of both. Rather than asking us to reconsider what surrealism was, the canon builders aver: whatever it was­, women participatedif only a little. Therein lies another, more practical problem in justifying the work of these women by their moments of contact with the inner circle: the moments of contact could often be very brief.

Take the case of Kahlo. She met Breton on his 1938 trip to Mexico. Fascinated by her work, he wrote an essay to accompany her show that year at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York and included some of her paintings in an exhibition the following year in Paris. In 1940, she exhibited work in the International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City. She experimented a little with automatic writing and painting and participated in a few exquisite corpses, but Kahlo, for her part, rejected the label and disavowed any interest in surrealism, insisting that she did not “paint dreams.” In a letter to a friend in 1952, she summed up her feelings on the subject: “I detest surrealism. To me it seems to be a decadent manifestation of bourgeois art.” Kahlo’s naive style, disturbing imagery, phantasmagoric ruptures and canvases crowded with “non-western” logics of the folkloric, the archaic and the natural, suggest that her many affinities with surrealism remain just that, incidental. For Breton this was precisely the point. Kahlo offered a kind of natural confirmation of the surrealist sensibility. He wrote of his “surprise and joy” upon discovering her work, which had “blossomed forth […] into pure surreality, despite the fact that it had been conceived without any prior knowledge whatsoever of the ideas motivating the activities of my friends and myself.” Activities, it should be added, that principally included the very procedure Breton performed in identifying Kahlo. As much as the art and literature — or, for that matter, the games, the manifestos, and the so-called “researches”— surrealism consisted of the hunt for iterations of the surreal. From distant corners of the globe, in primitive art and tribal cultures; among the hysterics in the Salpêtrière Hospital; in objects acquired at Paris flea markets; among the work of a few contemporaries deemed kindred spirits or the poetry of a 14-year-old girl seen to have arrived at a pure automatism; and through literary and artistic forebears reshuffled in an ever-changing account of their own lineage, the surrealists gleefully coopted whatever might fit into their vast catalogue of surreality.  

Kahlo, it should be said, was the most tenuous of the canon in her affiliation with surrealism, her work the least profitably read against that backdrop. But the net cast for In Wonderland was a wide one, and the same strategy of hunting for surrealist affiliations of any sort underlay the inclusion of better and lesser-known contemporaries. Of course the further from this core canon, the more meager these connections. For example, Maria Izquierdo’s indigenist watercolors and gouaches found their way in surely only because she befriended Artaud during his stay in Mexico in 1936. One could imagine, on the other hand, the Louise Nevelson and early Louise Bourgeois works making sense in a more focused show, as they intimate something of the diverse and discordant artistic milieu of 1940s New York in which the surrealists operated. Instead, they seemed out of place, though the catalogue assures us that Nevelson was friends with Paalen and Bourgeois studied with Stanley William Hayter.

At its outer reaches, the show devolved into arbitrariness, even incoherence: a semi-abstracted landscape by an Italian painter, Bona, apparently produced on a trip to Mexico in 1957; a photograph documenting a 1969 Yayoi Kusama happening at the Alice in Wonderland in Wonderland statue in Central Park, her sole piece in the show. The final room of the exhibition, which turned out to be the only one purporting to offer a historical perspective, sought to illustrate how an underground current of women’s surrealism finally gushed forth in the late sixties in a geyser of feminist art.

There had been earlier intimations of this telos. At the start we were informed that, “ultimately, surrealism empowered women and encouraged the rise of the feminist movement,” a claim laughably false, even if we give the benefit of the doubt and assume the curators meant feminist art rather than feminism tout court. While this closing section included two of Tanning’s extraordinary soft sculptures from the late sixties and early seventies — work that reformulates the preoccupations of her more famous paintings of the forties — a haunted and eroticized world of feminine interiors — the room is otherwise dominated by a series of Francesca Woodman photographs, yet another non-sequitur.      

And so, in the end it turns out Breton was justified in his fears. People will call almost anything surrealism.


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Eli Diner is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA.


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