BY Annette Leddy in Reviews | 01 JUN 12
Featured in
Issue 148

In Wonderland

BY Annette Leddy in Reviews | 01 JUN 12

Dorothea TanningRainy Day Canapé, 1970, tweed, upholstered sofa, wool, Ping-Pong balls, cardboard

Clement Greenberg said that Surrealism ended in 1939. While many have derided this proclamation as perversely premature, numerous artists of the period would have agreed with him, including Austrian painter and theorist Wolfgang Paalen. From 1942 to 1944, Paalen, exiled in Mexico City, published the journal Dyn, which contained a manifesto ‘Farewell to Surrealism’. Arguing that the movement had become a stale impersonation of itself, he advocated an abstract Surrealism that both looked back to ancient cultures and forward to the hidden world revealed by modern science. Robert Motherwell brought Dyn to Roberto Matta’s studio workshops in New York, where it played a critical role in the historic transition from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism.

Meanwhile, in another manifestation of the dialogue between Mexico and the US, women artists were working through the implications of Surrealism for themselves. ‘In Wonderland: the Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States’, curated by Ilene Susan Fort and Tere Arcq with Teri Geis (touring to the National Museum of Fine Arts, Québec, and Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City), indisputably demonstrates that figurative Surrealism did not end in 1939, but ran for at least another decade in an incarnation as strong as the male artists’ earlier rendition. Indeed, the entire show may be read as the women artists’ ambivalently belligerent reply to these antecedents.

A dazzling convergence of paintings, photographs and sculpture, the encounter between Mexican and American art works is rich – the proximity causes both to open out. Contrasting styles and traditions illuminate struggles common to women everywhere: conflicting identities as mother and artist, muse and artist, lover and wife. The exhibition is divided into sections that correlate with these themes, but even when the section title is ‘Politics’ or ‘Feminist Revolution’, the prevalence of figures wearing masks, or having doubles, points to the centrality of identity issues to women artists over the show’s 40-year span. Indeed, the volume of psychological distress the 175 works accrue leaves the viewer with a sadness enhanced by the clarity, beauty and imagination of the work.

Naturally, the most famous artist in the show is Frida Kahlo. Among the survey’s achievements is contextualizing her work so that it can be fruitfully re-experienced as something other than the eccentric production of an isolated genius, and instead as the most brazen work of a transnational community of female artists who appropriated a visual language to a common end. The key contrast emerges in the pairing of Two Fridas (1939) with Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1935) by Californian Helen Lundeberg. Both double self-portraits, the former draws on (and satirizes) the tradition of Mexican colonial painting, while the latter turns North American social realism on its head.

But does the time span of ‘In Wonderland’ convincingly argue for Surrealism’s duration as a movement? The question nags in the latter portion. Are not Francesca Woodman’s photographs from the 1970s part of the Postmodern mix that we call ‘Surrealist-inflected’? One can understand the curators’ dilemma, however: if the show had taken the 1950s as its end point, surely the climax of this female strain of Surrealism, much important work would have been omitted, including Dorothea Tanning’s sculpture, Rainy Day Canapé (1970), in which a body appears to be struggling to birth itself from inside the upholstery of a couch. Equally thrilling are Remedios Varo’s works from the late 1950s and early ’60s, seldom seen in the US, though revered in Mexico. Tanning and Varo began as Surrealists during the movement’s heyday and remained Surrealists for the rest of their lives, their work deepening and maturing within the paradigm.

Another question that arises is whether the separation of women artists from their male counterparts ghettoizes the work, but this again appears to be anything but the case. Never, for example, has the stunning originality of Lee Miller’s photography, separated from Man Ray’s, been so in evidence. Ditto for Tanning’s work, isolated from Ernst’s. Alice Rahon, who was married to Wolfgang Paalen for a time, and whose work appeared in Dyn, is also included, and seems more idiosyncratic than they do in proximity to Paalen’s work and theoretical framing.

The number of artists who were married to men more celebrated than they were does give pause. It’s clear that without such connections these artists’ work might not be on view some 50 years later. A certain biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you theme emerges as another source of discomfort expressed by the works. One artist in particular, Sylvia Fein, presents an opposing view. A pre-Beat sensibility might describe her original style, full of humour and companionability, especially in the portrait of her scruffy knight, to whom she’s still married at the age of 92, and who is featured in The Lady with the White Knight (1942–3). ‘In Wonderland’ ends with the most famous Surrealist couple, Brazilian Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp reproduced one of Martins’ breasts as a pliable sculpture on the cover of the catalogue for his 1947 Surrealism exhibition. We see, on the one hand, Martins’ breast, objectified but adored, and on the other, her haunting waterfall sculpture with its title that expresses the poignant regret that underlies much of the exhibition: The Road; The Shadow; Too Long; Too Narrow (1946).

is a curator and archivist at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, USA, and a writer on art and literature.