10 Female Surrealists You Should Know


If we go by some of the history books, they were merely lovers, wives, and muses. The surrealist movement is defined by the philosophical, revolutionary personalities that populated it — and many would have us believe they were all men. This review of Hungarian painter Judith Reigl by surrealist founder André Breton sums up the problem with the movement’s patronizing attitude toward its female artists: “It seems so unlikely that the ship sweeping forward could be steered by a woman’s hand that some quite exceptional force must be assumed to be helping to drive it along.” The surrealists aimed to free the unconscious, resulting in dreamlike, illogical scenes. Apparently a woman’s inner world never seemed so terrifying. Continuing our women in male-dominated art movements series (parts 1, 2, and 3), here are some starting points about ten female surrealists you should know.

Leonora Carrington

“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist,” British-born surrealist Leonora Carrington once wrote. Her fascination with the early 19th-century art movement started well before meeting her lover, the artist Max Ernst. Their relationship became a great source of pain for her after he fled the Nazis, leaving her behind. It sparked a mental breakdown, the experience of which she channeled into her novel, Down Below. But Carrington’s contributions to surrealism have little to do with Ernst. One of her first major surrealist works was the 1938 painting The Inn of the Dawn Horse, a dark self-portrait. Horses and animals appear throughout her work as guardians and mages. The year prior, she participated in the Exposition internationale du surrealisme at the Galerie des Beaux Arts in Paris. Carrington found a home in Mexico where she’s regarded as a “national treasure.” The Guardian writes:

Leonora detested what she called the “over-intellectualisation” of her work. She believed that its interpretation was in the eye, and the mind, of the beholder and, to that end, she resisted all attempts to get her to explain, or dissect, what she had painted or sculpted. Like her, the work was funny, witty, wry and wise. Like her, it was questioning, probing, disquieting and complex.

Leonor Fini

“She is magnificent, perturbing, mocking enigmatic, terrible and compassionate. She is Leonor Fini; painter of the surreal, illustrator of books, theater designer, writer. . . . Her art is the crack in the mirror, the edge of the equation, the dream of tremendous import half-grasped on awakening, whose meaning dissolves with daylight,” Catherine Styles McLeod wrote of the Argentine painter in 1986. A curious and rebellious student who studied anatomy by drawing cadavers in the morgues of Italy, Fini never lost her power to provoke. Her erotic, feline paintings set in strange worlds and filled with powerful women looming over the landscape are unforgettable. “I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms things I like,” she once said of her approach. Fini designed sets and costumes for ballet and opera. She also sculpted the perfume bottle design for Elsa Schiaparelli’s best-selling fragrance Shocking!.

Dorothea Tanning

A self-taught artist who became a leading figure amongst the surrealists during and after World War II, Dorothea Tanning was a painter, poet, and set designer. She was drawn to the movement after seeing the Museum of Modern Art’s Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition in 1936. She joined the New York surrealists who frequented the Julien Levy gallery and was guided by André Breton Yves Tanguy. Her paintings of desolate dreamscapes grew more abstract with time. Tanning eventually found love with fellow surrealist Max Ernst (he first fell for her 1942 self-portrait Birthday, pictured). His career often overshadowed her own — at least in America. Still, Tanning saw no distinction between male and female surrealists at the time — and she grew tired of being categorized as simply a “woman artist”:

I have nothing to say. I’ve written statements by the dozens, I’ve written savage letters to all kinds of earnest people who wish to include me in this category, and I just can’t talk about it anymore. I’m not against women, far from it. I’m against these confused people, doing that. . . . Women artists. There is no such thing — or person. It’s just as much a contradiction in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘elephant artist.’ You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you.

Méret Oppenheim

The Swiss artist is famous for her appearance as a model in the work of Man Ray and her uncanny, fur-covered teacup set, 1936’s Le Déjeuner en fourrure (also known as Object). It was one in a series of many “objects” that explored issues of gender and sexuality (see: Ma gouvernante, My Nurse, mein Kindermädchen, a pair of women’s shoes on a platter trussed up like a turkey). The tufted assemblage became a symbol of the movement after a showing at the Museum of Modern Art’s Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibit in the ‘30s. She was only 22 at the time, and the pressures of fame created numerous personal difficulties. MoMA writes:

Oppenheim’s return to Basle in 1937 marked the beginning of a period of personal and artistic crisis during which she worked only in bursts and destroyed much of her production. In 1939 she took part in an exhibition of fantastic furniture with Leonor Fini, Max Ernst and others at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris. When she began working again during the 1950s, she made many works based on earlier sketches and ideas. In 1956 she designed the costumes and sets for Daniel Spoerri’s production of Picasso’s play Le Désir attrapé par la queue in Berne, and in 1959 she created the controversial object, Cannibal Feast, for the opening of the last International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris. The sculpture included a live nude model laid out on a table and covered with food and was criticized for depicting woman as an object of consumption; Oppenheim insisted that the work was instead intended as a spring fertility rite for both men and women. In 1983 Oppenheim designed the controversial Tour-fontaine in Berne (Waisenhausplatz), a tall concrete column wrapped with a garland of grass over a small watercourse. Her sculpture Spiral (1971) was erected on the Montagne Ste Geneviève in Paris in 1985.

Remedios Varo

She’s received little attention from American galleries and museums, but a major retrospective at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2000 introduced the fantastical work of Remedios Varo to new audiences. Dissatisfied with her academic art training, Varo found solace with the Barcelona avant-garde, and later, the surrealists in Paris after fleeing the Spanish Civil War with husband and poet Benjamin Péret. SF Weekly writes:

Her fanciful allegories — rivers that flow out of wineglasses, troubadours who play music on strands of women’s hair, men’s coats that become boats — are frequently inured by themes of isolation and confinement. Not surprising, given that the Spanish anarchist fled Europe before the start of World War II. Though it was not Varo’s intention, Mexico City became her lifelong home. And while her strongest artistic influence remained her tutelage by French surrealists such as Andre Breton, it was in Mexico where she delved into studies of alchemy and sacred geometry, which set her work apart. At the time of her sudden death at age 54, Varo was tremendously popular within the exile community, but despite her inventive and inspired body of work, she is strangely absent from art histories.

Lee Miller

Miller’s entry into the art world started as a model. She became the muse, lover, and collaborator of Man Ray (sadly, she was often uncredited for her contributions), establishing her own successful photography studio, and actively exhibiting with the surrealists. The humorous tones in her oeuvre are still evident in the work Miller did as a freelance photographer for Vogue and as a war correspondent (one of the only female photojournalists at the time). Women in fire masks during wartime in London become strange beings at the ready in her 1944 photograph (pictured).

Kay Sage

Formally trained in America and Rome, Kay Sage left a comfortable marriage to an Italian nobleman to pursue her career as an artist. She moved to Paris. A visit to the international surrealist exhibit at Galerie des Beaux Arts in 1938 left her awestruck (the work of Giorgio de Chirico felt particularly resonant), and her painting took on a whole new life. Her architectural images reveal common surrealist elements, but the works are “imbued with an aura of purified form and a sense of motionlessness and impending doom found nowhere else in Surrealism.” Her wealth was a sticking point amongst surrealists like Breton, who rejected her. She married painter Yves Tanguy, but several accounts describe the relationship as volatile. She was devastated by his death in 1955 and all but gave up her own work, committed to preserving his in the public eye. She committed suicide in 1963, but left behind a small legacy of affecting poetry and paintings.

Lola Álvarez Bravo

“Dolores (Lola) Álvarez Bravo was one of Mexico’s first professional women photographers, documenting daily life in Mexico and portraying an array of international leaders.” Her works are surprisingly contemporary (like the above image of Ruth Rivera Marín, daughter of Diego Rivera and Guadalupe Marín). “I think Lola was a remarkable photographer, especially given all the challenges she faced,” writer Elizabeth Ferrer stated last year. “There were women artists, though women were not supposed to be working in the street but in the studio. But the kind of photography done at the time involved a greater public interface, and the fact that she did that showed her incredible strength and desire to photograph the world around her.”

Eileen Agar

There are oodles of great comments in this interview with British surrealist painter and milliner Eileen Agar, whose works are “full of imaginative playfulness.”

In those days, men thought of women simply as muses, they never thought that they could do something for themselves, and I’m always astonished how they let me into the l936 Exhibition, but …

Did you feel they took you as seriously as they took the other men?

Yes, they did, you see, because I did something that they’d never seen before. I did the “Quadriga”, and do you know which one it is? It is taken from the head of Silene, in the Parthenon, and I turned the insides of those heads, if you’ve seen it, you know what it’s like. Totally different.

It would be nice for the tape if you would describe it.

Yes! And it was quite fantastic, and they’d never seen anything like it. And they, “Well, we must have this.” And that meant that I must show it, you see. And then, of course, I was, I was the youngest Englishwoman showing. I think there’d been Breton’s wife, and he hadn’t even seen her work, she’d been too frightened, she’d kept them in a cupboard or something, until somebody said, “You know that she’s a very good painter.” He said, “I’ve never seen anything she’s painted.” It’s amazing, isn’t it, yes, it’s absolutely mad. To think of it nowadays!

And did you feel any kind of alliance with somebody like her, simply because you were women, or not?

Yes, no, I don’t remember. I just remember her, no, it was mostly men who came round me, you see, and talked to me and that sort of thing, and they were so astonished, because it was nearly all men who were showing.

Sylvia Fein

We highlighted Sylvia Fein last year during her recent retrospective, Surreal Nature , in our Staff Picks column.

One of the underrated female surrealists, Sylvia Fein is having a solo exhibition spanning the past 70 years. Surreal Nature at Krowswork Gallery, which opens in January, will also feature her recent paintings — cosmic, natural forms (forces, even) that make up dreamy landscapes with hidden figures (many representing her husband, who recently passed away). Robert Beier created a short documentary about the 94-year-old artist’s life and work [she’s still working, today], which is inspiring.