Art As Liberation: The Mexican Women of Surrealism

By Carole Reedy

There is irony embedded in a discussion of the women artists of the surrealism era, since at surrealism’s core lies the idea of women as objects of desire and mystery, and the worship of them as stereotypes and sexist norms. Even in the 1920s, surrealism expressed an archaic view of women. In addition, male surrealists lacked respect for female artists, and the women had to work hard to refute it.Nonetheless, several Mexican women emerged as strong examples of the period. Many are of foreign origin, but settled in Mexico City to develop their careers. Here are the five most prominent of these admirable women. Many were politically active, and all led fascinating lives.

REMEDIOS VARO

(Born in Angles Girona, Spain, in 1908, died in Mexico City in 1963)

During the Spanish Civil War, Remedios Varo fled to Paris, where she was influenced by surrealism. Forced to leave Paris during the German occupation of France, she travelled in 1941 to Mexico City, where she spent the next 22 years painting her marvelous surrealist works. She died of a heart attack at the height of her career in 1963.

It all began in Paris, though, where she met Andre Breton and became part of the artists’ group that included Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington. Varo’s works are highly autobiographical and, as is all surrealism, playful. She examines the mythic and scientific together, the sacred alongside the profane. Her art is a play of the mind, artists and scientists together. One artist is quoted as saying about Varo, “How many paintings have the square root of minus one in them?”

It is quite difficult to describe her brilliant paintings because there is a forceful element of surprise and the juxtaposition of the expected and unexpected, of dream and reality. She is my personal favorite among this genre.

LEONORA CARRINGTON

(Born in Lancashire England in 1917, died in Mexico City in 2011)

Leonora Carrington led a most unorthodox and interesting life. An enjoyable way to know more about her is to read Elena Poniatowska’s novel Leonora (see this month’s book column on women writers for more about the book).

Born to textile magnet Harold Carrington, Leonora’s parents had a different life path planned for her, one of British upper-class standards. But at age 20, contrary to the conservative upbringing her parents tried to impose, Carrington ran off to Paris with Max Ernst. The following years took her to Spain and then New York, where she met one of her mentors, the gracious Peggy Guggenheim, who helped so many artists of the era. Carrington settled in Mexico in 1940 and dedicated the next 70 years to painting.

Carrington was obsessed with horses and animals, prominent elements in her work. She was also passionate about books and art. In fact, she wrote several books, the most famous of which is The Hearing Trumpet (available on Amazon). Filmmaker Luis Bunuel said Carrington’s art “liberates us from the miserable reality of our days.” And that is truly what all surrealism achieves.

FRIDA KAHLO

(Born in Mexico City in 1907, died there in 1954)

Frida Kahlo claimed she was not a surrealist, but rather that her paintings were based on the reality that was her life. Most of her paintings are indeed self-portraits of the subject she said she knew best. But a look at her works causes one to pause and doubt her claim. Certain dream-like, surreal elements abound in those paintings.

Visitors to Mexico City can view many of her paintings not only at her Blue House, located in Coyoacan, but at the Dolores Olmeda museum in Xochimilco. Making a trip to the south of the city is well worth it not only to see the paintings, but also to view the marvelous grounds and house of Olmeda, along with the last of the ancient Aztec dogs that roam the grounds.

Andre Breton said that Kahlo’s art was a “ribbon around a bomb.” Indeed, the chronic pain she suffered from an accident early in her life and the on-again, off-again love affair with Diego Rivera contributed to the strong statements her art makes. Frida is an icon in Mexico City, her image everywhere, and multiple movies and documentaries have been made based on her life.

MARIA IZQUIERDO

(Born 1902 in San Juan de los Lagos, died 1955 in Mexico City)

Another of the artists pegged as surreal, Maria Izquierdo never identified herself as such, but all agree that her subject matter and juxtapositions verify the classification.   She is often compared to Kahlo because of her use of bright, bold colors and because they painted during the same era. The artist’s styles, however, are different.

Izquierdo was the first Mexican woman to have her artwork exhibited in the US. Her art depicts her Mexican roots, but she shied away from art as political message. Paintings about the Day of the Dead and the Mexican countryside are among her best. Like Kahlo, her self-portraits emphasize her traditional Mexican background and clothing. Unlike Varo and Carrington, she did not identify with the feminists, holding fast to traditional family roles and the female obligation to the family, while at the same time recognizing the opportunities that professional woman are owed.

In her later years, Izquierdo suffered a series of strokes, affecting her art and her life, and it is that to which she succumbed in 1955.

ALICE RAHON

(Born 1904 in Chenecey-Buillon, France, died in Mexico City in 1987) Like Kahlo, Alice Rahon suffered her whole life from a serious accident that occurred at age three, followed by another at age 12. Her fragility contributed to isolation as a child, and she preferred the solitude and chance to create from her own imagination.

As a young woman, Rahon lived in Paris, where she published poetry. In 1939, she and her famous surrealist husband painter Wolfgang Paalen (who Carrington called “the only feminist of the group”) came for a visit to Mexico City and lived in the same area, San Angel, as Frida and Diego. They decided to stay in Mexico for two reasons: their fascination with the country and the outbreak of the war in Europe. Rahon became a citizen in 1946, and in 1947 divorced Paalen and re-named herself Rahon. Her art is primitive and poetic, her themes derived from myth, Mexican festivals, nature, and legends. She also painted artists that she admired, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Joan Miro, and Pablo Neruda.

While known as a surrealist, her work depicts the beginning of abstract art in Mexico.

Rahon became a recluse in her later years, in great part due to another accident she endured, which left her with a spine injury. Eventually she went to a nursing home, where she died four months later after refusing to eat. Since I discovered these artists in 2010 at an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art here in Mexico City, they have become some of my favorites. Be sure to look for them on your next museum trip. They will make you smile.

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