Surrealist women grace the walls of LACMA

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), has accomplished another great challenge with 'In Wonderland, The surrealist adventures of women artists in Mexico and the United States'.
In this exhibit, surrealist women express their own vision of reality thru art. It is the first large-scale international survey of women surrealist artists in North America. Past surveys of surrealism have either largely excluded female artists or minimized their contributions.

Museum-goers will enjoy 175 works that include paintings, sculptures, objects, photographs, and short films.
The installation describes how a number of these women found their artistic freedom when changing residences from Europe to America. Some of them found it in the United States, others in Mexico City.
'In Wonderland' shows the works of 47 female artists. A few well-known names, recognizable names and others not so much; however, the art is just as powerful.
Dr. Ilene Susan Fort, Co-Curator of this exhibit, explains how this came about as well as how these women felt when capturing their own reality.

These women have a dialogue with the public, they express the independence that they could not find in Europe

Yes, for example, Andre Breton’s own wife Jaqueline Lamba while she did some collages and some work before they moved to the US during the war, she started these wonderful paintings during the war in New York City and also when her divorced started. She spread out her own wings doing a lot of artwork most of which unfortunately was lost, a few things from New York are left and most of them are in the exhibition. She ventured out with an American surrealist sculptor and worked with him on a few things, joined efforts. I am not so sure she would have developed without coming to New York City.

While Breton had a lot of his fellow surrealists with him, he refused to learn English and that isolated him a little. While she knew English really well and she just started networking and traveled.

She went to Mexico with Breton and became friends with Frida Khalo.
Leonora Carrington was already working in Europe but seemed to really blossom more when she settled in Mexico City. She was in Europe involved with Max Ernst and while she did marry a photographer in Mexico city –another exile- Mexico offered her somewhat of isolation but also freedom. She did not have to follow what were the dominant trends at the time, off course it did not interest her much at all, not until the end of her career.

Being in Mexico City in somewhat isolated not from the Mexican culture environment but from the European dominant environment, she could then explore her own interests and ideas in art-making, witchcraft, and esoteric religions. I am not so sure she would have had that strength to do it in Europe. In Europe once Max Ernst left her, he was forced to a prison camp by the fascists, she fell apart. So those kinds of things. And the women who just grew up here had this feeling of liberation and independence.

'Red Mask'-Leonora Carrington

 Do you think this ‘lack of independence’ was a matter of gender?

The men had a stronger network system. Although in the US they were and still are a number of women running galleries, the men ran most of them and, they where the ones promoting surrealism in the East Coast, not so much on the West Coast. In San Francisco one of the leading promoters was a woman, Director of SFMOMA at the time, she brought a lot of surrealism to the city. But most of the dealers of surrealism in the US were men. Back East a number of the dealers and directors of museums all went to the same school, the Fogg art museum at Harvard had a program, and all the students from it, raised in the early years where male.

Women sort of always get in through the side entrance, mostly. Not always. 

These women did exhibits, a lot of them. Depending on who they where and where they were exhibiting they might have kept them a little longer to get into exhibitions or have their solo exhibitions, but most of them did and I know that in Mexico city they were well received. In the United States well, our country has a lot more art centers than Mexico.  Many of these women were part of the official surrealist circle, they weren’t official themselves in that they did not sign the manifestos although a lot of their men husbands did not sign them either.

'Selpf portrait'-Helen Lundeberg

These women were wives, mothers, friends, muses -definitely muses- Some of them where taken seriously and some of them were not. It depends. Some of them were ignored or not encouraged, but some of the men did encourage the women. In LA Lorser Feitelson encouraged Helen Lundeberg who was a very shy and retiring person all her life. He pushed her into the forefront and promoted her, as opposed to him and they both established post-surrealism. Whereas Austrian painter Wolfgang Paalen came to Mexico with the French poet Alice Rahon, and he encouraged her to paint. In Mexico, she was one of the few abstract surrealists. So they did encourage them, and then others who just ignored their wives' creativity or just took it as second place to their own creativity.

In the exhibit there is an installation with ropes…

Yes. I told our designer that I did not want a traditional exhibition design, I said it would be too boring and I wanted something surrealist. Surrealists did their own installations that got crazier and crazier as time went on; in the US in the mid-forties, there were two surrealist oriented exhibitions with strings, string installations, the most famous one being by Marcell Duchamp “First Papers of Surrealism” was the title of the exhibition, the first papers referred to the immigration paperwork that the exiles needed to get to the US. He strung string all over the ceiling and in front  of the paintings so it would look sort of like a spider web and you could barely get thru it.
“First Papers of Surrealism” installation by Marcell Duchamp

Friedrich Kiesler the Austrian surrealist, was primarily an architect, he did strings around the same time for one of Peggy Guggenheim's commercial galleries, “Art of this century” also in New York City. His was not as chaotic. So I asked our designer to think about those and others I gave her a book on it, and she went on the web too; Came back, and  I discussed the surrealists with her, especially the women who had difficult careers and broken spirits, some of them had mental problems as a result of them, or just had them. Some of them also committed suicide and some of the paintings are about those emotional problems.
So she came back with a design with enough wall space; diagonal walls with middles so we  cut down these large galleries into smaller more fluid galleries and suggested we do some more entangled rope, a high op which I liked the idea and everybody else did, where not sure if it was going to work but it seems to have worked really well; it also helps to slow traffic directionally but it suggests what Marcel Duchamp and Kiesler wanted and it is especially telling and very related to the show in the sense of the influence, native American cultures and landscapes. There are some  wire sculptures by Alice Rahon, the wire suggests the rope, the string aspect.
wire sculpture by Alice Rahon
There is also a cradle film by Maya Deren the filmmaker, cradle is a string game, kids play it in the US I do not know if they play it in Mexico. It turns out to be a great popular game and source of magic used throughout various tribal cultures; in the film, the string is going up and down the neck, head, and back of Marcel Duchamp and then it shows the kids playing the game and that connects with the rope and people like it a lot.
The slightly dark diagonal walls, our designer though it was symbolic of  the broken lives of these women and I liked the idea so I promoted that and the colors of the walls are dark grey, slightly harmonious but I did not want beautiful harmonious colors because
surrealism is not about harmony, it is about disruption, the broken walls and the rope are also about disruption.
People are really enjoying it, visually it is an attractive installation and it works well, it is not uncomfortable like the real surrealist installations. One of the, I think it was Dalí’s where they had a flower hanging on the roof over the table where the dinner party was happening. Ours is somewhat tamed in comparison but it is unusual.
Self-portrait by Alice Rahon
What other films can we see in this exhibit?
We only have two films by Maya Deren, I was hoping to find more women surrealists filmmakers but, we couldn’t. The exhibit begins with a Maya Deren film, probably the most surreal called “Meshes of the Afternoon” it is definitely her most famous, we have it blown up large over the doorway entrance. It is classic surreal imagery, emphasis on what is reality, what is a dream, what is not real. Ambiguity shadows it is black and white of course, done in the early forties; plus, there are images that look like Buñuel and Dali paintings and it was also filmed only a few miles from the LA County museum in the Hollywood hills where Maya Deren lived at that time, so it has got this local connection which everybody seems to love.
The exhibit catalog 
It is really a book, it is not strictly a catalog in the sense that it does not document the whole show and some of the pieces in the show are not in there; it runs close to the exhibition 90% of the images are the same as in the show.

There is the introduction that discusses the main themes, what the women explored. Tere Arcq my co-curator writes about the women in Mexico amongst the women in the US, the rest is thematic based there is one on native American cultures, landscapes. There is another that is about women who are interested in esoteric philosophies, religions, witchcraft, alchemy that one is called ‘Down the rabbit hole’ by early feminist writer Gloria Feman Orenstein who teaches here in Los Angeles and that is one of her main interests; there is Salomon Grimbergs essay he is a child psychologist, he wrote on several major artists, the better-known ones, he did a psychological/psychiatric interpretation of their work. There is one on just the photographs and how surrealist photography fits into avant-garde photography in Europe and North America and the last one is relating contemporary feminist women artists who were influenced by surrealism, it is a short essay but really really good. There are three different editions of this book, one in English, one in Spanish and one in French.

How did this exhibit come about?
I have been interested in surrealism most of my adult life and became more interested in US surrealism in graduate school in the early 80’s. I have been wanting to do this show since the ’90s but surrealism was very out of fashion, and women artists were beginning to become more important but I got sort of turned down and, about seven years ago we sent our American art collection to Munal (Museo Nacional de Arte) in Mexico city and Tere Arcq who was at the reception was attracted to the beautiful paintings, she came up to me and started asking me about women surrealists in the United States, we swapped business cards and started emailing. She was interested in women surrealists in Mexico and I was working in US ones and been wanting to do a show for years, we started talking and that is how it came about, it has been 5 or 6 years, big shows take a long time.

Even I am amazed at the result, the book is selling like hotcakes, they already went to a second printing for the English language which is unheard of, the book has not even been reviewed yet. Even on weekdays, the show is crowded, people of all ages. It is a very large exhibit, it will be smaller in Quebec and in Mexico City;

we have noticed, the guards have been telling us this, that people have been reading more and commenting to each other, we normally do not see that.

Most of the women are unknown, except for Frida Khalo and Remedios Varo, but fewer people here do not know Remedios Varo. But they are spending a lot of time in the exhibition and looking a lot more. Amazingly, they are spending an hour and a half, two hours here.
Remedios Varo

It is great wonderful art, the Varo’s alone are well worth the visit.
I think she was if not one the most imaginative of the women surrealists, she was definitely the most technically astounding,
 combining all master renaissance perspective and painting techniques with this avant-garde application of paint.

Remedios Varo-Papilla Estelar (Celestial Pablum)

All these techniques where all about chance and accident, using chance and accident as the basis for image-making...

Remedios Varo 'La Huída (The Escape)

and she does it so beautifully and then she combines religion and esoteric methods,

Remedios Varo. Creacion de las aves

she was just wonderful and we have great examples.

Remedios Varo-Armonía

Remedios Varo-Mujer saliendo del psicoanalista

'In Wonderland' is now showing at LACMA until May 6th.

I was blown away by everything. As well as the Varo's...
I was really excited to learn about Rosa Rolanda

...and Bridget Tichenor.

Fantastic work, it is a really good exhibit.

*Please note that some of the pictures of the paintings are close-ups. Not all paintings are shown as is. 
All the photographs were taken by me during the exhibit. Except for the Marcel Duchamp installation.

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