By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
Surrealist art, in popular perception, is dominated by male greats, such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte – but this fabulous flight into imagined worlds and the subconscious also has a sisterhood, who cooked up their version of the movement in faraway Mexican kitchens while their male counterparts mused in European cafes.
After years of relative obscurity, the women surrealists are enjoying a late flurry of fame in a series of exhibitions in Britain that tell the story of eccentric English rebel Leonora Carrington and her artistic sisters – painter Remedios Varo of Spain and photographer Kati Horna from Hungary.
They were thrown together in Colonia Roma, a neighbourhood of Mexico City, where they had escaped the scourge of Nazism and World War II and, as an unexpected bonus, they also shook off the potentially oppressive influence of an artistic tradition dominated by men.
Mexico, with its tradition of magic realism, also proved a major source of inspiration, making it all the more fitting that this year’s exhibitions in celebration of female creativity and free-spiritedness coincide with commemorations of the bicentenary of Mexican independence from Spain and centenary of the Mexican Revolution.
“In Mexico, Carrington, Varo and Horna stopped being anybody’s muse and became mature artists in their own right: in a very real sense, they reinvented surrealism in Colonia Roma, and this time around, it was their own brand of equal-share and genuinely woman-centred Surrealism,” wrote Joanna Moorhead – whose father was a cousin of Carrington – in the catalogue to “Surreal Friends”.
The exhibition, first on show in Chichester, southern England, is now on view in Norwich, eastern England, where it will be on display until December 12.
For Moorhead, it is no accident that after arriving in Mexico, Carrington and her friends found partners who allowed them to develop their own identities. Previously, Carrington had had an affair with Max Ernst, more than 20 years her senior and then one of world’s most famous artists, and Varo, regarded as a “femme-enfant” (woman-child) had been the lover of French surrealist poet Benjamin Peret.
“Each of the surreal friends – consciously or unconsciously – eventually chose a man whose ambitions would not stifle her own,” wrote Moorhead.
Carrington herself said she had escaped from “the headmaster of surrealism”, as she described French writer and theorist Andre Breton.
Left to their own devices, the women surrealists created their own visual language, rooted in the great European tradition stretching back to painters such as Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Brueghel from the 15th and 16th centuries, and in a thorough knowledge of artistic technique, said Stefan van Raay, curator of the exhibition and director of Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery.
“What they have achieved is basically to create works of art that put the feminine element on a par with the male element, to invent a new visual language,” he said.
Varo died prematurely in 1963 at the age of 55, while Horna lived until 2000 and Carrington, now 93 years old, is still living in Mexico City.
While all three are celebrated in Mexico, in Britain, Carrington is by far the best known, not only for her paintings but also for her often hilarious writing and her wild, rebellious behaviour.
Daughter of a textile millionaire, she was sent to convent boarding schools (from which she was expelled) followed by finishing schools in Paris and Florence and art school in London. There she met Max Ernst, instantly fell in love and eloped with him to Paris, where her friends came to include the artists Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Man Ray.
Her excesses are legendary. She reportedly once covered her bare feet in mustard and her cooking skills extended to surreal meals – including serving her guests omelettes filled with their own hair, which she had cut off while they slept.
The cooking theme runs deep. The three surreal friends sat and discussed their artistic theories and influences around each other’s kitchen tables and Carrington’s work, peopled by creatures, half-human, half-animal or bird, has been compared with the alchemy and magic of cooking.
“The paintings of Leonora Carrington are not merely painted. They are brewed. They sometimes seem to have materialised in a cauldron at the stroke of midnight,” declared Carrington’s patron and friend the English art collector Edward James.
Carrington herself has spent decades refusing to explain her work. “The only thing I know is that I don’t know, but now I am at ease with it,” she has famously said. Another favoured quotation that belies her status as a last link to the surrealist movement is: “I am Leonora Carrington. I am an old woman and I live in Mexico City.”
While Varo was alive, the two painters enjoyed an intense intellectual and artistic kinship that allowed both to create a visual language, drawing on Catholicism, the occult and using real and imagined creatures.
As a photographer, Horna’s work was more realistic, but surrealist in its techniques – superimposition and collage – and often in its choice of subject.
Just before the Second World War broke out, Horna captured the very real horrors of the Spanish Civil War, depicting the civilian suffering of women and children, while in Mexico her subject matter included the nation’s traditional, often startling masks.
Horna was spurred to earn a living after finding herself fatherless and photography offered a chance to make money, while furthering her political ideals. It had become a career open to women after the First World War wiped out countless young men and began to break down social barriers and mores.
Varo – daughter of an engineer, who took an interest in her artistic development – like Carrington, was born into relatively easy circumstances. The violent upheaval of world war subjected all three to appalling realities. Their female brand of surrealism was both a refuge and a life-affirming transformation of that suffering.