BY Emma Talbot in Frieze Masters | 03 OCT 22
Featured in
Issue 10

Artists’ Artists: Emma Talbot on Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Remedios Varo

The artist on the women Surrealists whose visions of the self, gender, emotion and transformation have influenced her own work

BY Emma Talbot in Frieze Masters | 03 OCT 22

‘The Milk of Dreams’, Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition for this year’s Venice Biennale, which takes its title from a book by the Mexican Surrealist Leonora Carrington (1917–2011), is an extraordinary reflection on our current era of ecolo­gical, political and social instability. The show, to which I was invited to contribute, uses historical ‘pods’ to help frame contemporary artworks, opening up rich discourses on what it means to be human.

In ‘The Witches’ Cradle’, an historical pod at the centre of the main pavilion, Alemani brings together works by Surrealist women artists – including Carrington, Remedios Varo (1908–63) and Leonor Fini (1907–96), among others – whose practices were often overlooked. These potent works reveal themselves as elements in a cauldron of underground activity, where all kinds of representations of crones, witches, seers and mediums interact.

Seeing these pieces alongside my own silk paintings and 3D works at the biennial, I was intrigued by how artists articulate a kind of meta-self, almost like prescient dream versions of the self. The figures in my own work – such as Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (2021) – are always an idea of myself, viewed from the inside and shaped by emotional experience. My practice explores how personal thoughts and feelings are cast into contemporary and universal contexts, such as our relationships to technology, nature, urbanism and ecopolitics.

Leonor Fini, L’Alcôve, 1941, oil on canvas, 73 × 97 cm. Courtesy: © Estate of Leonor Fini, Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, and DACS, London 2022; photograph: Nicholas Pishvanov

The female Surrealists used self-representation in an imaginative and defiant way. They rejected stereotypical gender limitations and imagined themselves as potent, magical creatures – witches, sorcerers, alchemists, quasi-animals, sphinxes and other fantastical characters – whose perceptions and knowledge gave them access to arcane, mystical understandings. The figures in their works embody intuitive sentiments such as love, fear, jealousy, desire and anxiety, but are often staged in exaggeratedly formal settings – castles, ancient landscapes, mansions – giving the viewer a sense that everything is part of an elaborate construct, and that each element has meaning.

In the work of Fini – who is featured in this year’s Spotlight section at Frieze Masters – as well as in that of Carrington and Varo, we see vibrant visual invention. Thinly painted surfaces and fine-brush representations of hair, elaborate costume and pattern render even the darkest scenes airy. There’s a febrile intensity, wrapped up in strange ritual, where distortions of scale and radical transformations occur: from human being to praying mantis, animal or alien. The artists’ use of wispy, extended figuration makes this mutability seem possible. There’s often a clever tension between what is changeable, what is fixed and what is an apparition.

My own pursuit of that same lightness of tone is one of the reasons I decided to paint on silk rather than a rigid surface. I found that presenting text and image on a very thin support, which often moves as air circulates around it, operated more like a suggestion or a vision than a statement, and I wanted to be able to articulate my thinking on these terms.

I also find the elasticity of time in the work of these women Surrealists fascinating. My painted silk hangings incorporate lots of imagery and text and are made to be read in any order, as the viewer walks around them. I don’t want the narrative to be linear; rather, I’d like viewers to gather a sense of the subject over time. These women Surrealists manage to suspend time in their paintings, so that things are simultaneously happening in the past, the present and the future. Even their self-depictions describe both elderly and youthful figures.

Remedios Varo, Simpatía (La rabia del gato), 1955, oil on masonite, 95.9 × 85.1 cm. Courtesy: Colección Eduardo F. Costantini and DACS, London 2022

They borrow structures from art history (it is fascinating to compare Varo’s compositions to those of early Renaissance paintings) but populate those spaces with sci-fi beings and figures who seem like actors in low-budget historical dramas. In doing so, they highlight the potential to try diverse roles, to switch positions. In an era when issues of identity are so politically charged, we can surely admire and value the confidence of these artists to formulate their own self-representation.

In Fini’s paintings, the figures’ doll-like faces and flowing hair combine the artist’s self-image with popular culture, such as film posters and soft porn. However, they can also be disarmingly distant – almost like mannequins. It’s as though Fini culls female figures from all kinds of sources and reinstates (or re-enacts) them in a world where they are protagonists with power. In other paintings, Fini’s wild-haired women take on the traditional roles of men, dominating – sometimes literally sitting on – supine male figures, who are turned into muses.

The narrow margin between life and death is a recurring theme in Surrealism. We see it again in Fini’s paintings in ‘Shocking’, the Spotlight presentation at Frieze Masters. But wow! The paintings are so fresh! I see them as precursors to Marlene Dumas’s amazing facility with ink in works such as Models (1994), describing the fleeting beauty of a woman as her face turns into a skull. Or perhaps they reveal a truth: the face is always a skull and the presence of death is an omnipresence, a fear that rests in the mind’s eye.

Main image: Leonora Carrington, Ulu’s Pants, 1952, oil and tempera on panel, 54.6 × 91.4 cm. Courtesy: © Estate of Leonora Carrington, Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco, ARS, New York, and DACS, London 2022

Emma Talbot is a British artist. She is presenting a new project titled 21st Century Herbal inside the entrance of Frieze London 2022.