Exhibition/Catalog review: In Wonderland (LACMA)

An innovative way to help corral patrons while referencing Marcel Duchamp’s installation in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition.

I saw this exhibition– its complete title being “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States“– at LACMA in late March. However, if you want to see it now, it is in Quebec until September 3, 2012. According to the catalog, this is the first exhibition of its kind that looks at how Surrealism inspired women artists in America and Mexico in the mid-20th century. My primary motivations in going to the exhibition were to see how its proposed ideas could inform my thesis and buy the catalog for my bibliography. Plus, I wanted to see the work of so many of my artist-heroes in one place!

Frida Kahlo, “The Two Fridas”

In the earlier days of the original Surrealist movement, women were seen more as muses and less capable of being active artists in the movement: their perceived eroticism and supposed naivete evoked the core ideas of Surrealism (i.e. the subconscious and its obsession with sex, as well as the “purity” of the mind in relation to the corruption of the real, rational world). Surrealism, therefore, is often seen as a very misogynistic movement, which led many artists who painted in the Surrealist manner to not call themselves Surrealists (Rene Magritte and Frida Kahlo are two excellent examples). When World War II struck, the core group (at that time– there was a lot of movement in membership in the group because of Andre Breton’s dictatorship) was breaking apart, largely due to the fact that many of these artists sought exile in the America. It was around this time that Surrealism began to spread like artistic wildfire across the States and Mexico, inspiring artists with its aesthetic and psychological ideas. It was also when women artists started becoming more active as Surrealists, whether they declared themselves as such or not. It has to be said that it kind of helped that Andre Breton himself admitted in Arcanum 17 that women could be just as capable as artists as their male counterparts.

American and Mexican Surrealism differs from European Surrealism in several ways: automatism, which was of significant importance to Breton in particular, became secondary to the wider aim of liberating the dream world/unconscious through subject matter; artwork became much more personal and self-referential; the physical and cultural environment were reflected in the artwork. At this time, Europe was the major center for artistic creation, and America was almost perpetually behind the ball. Consequently, traditionalist artwork had a stronger grasp on the American art world, and fierce arguments ensued– amongst artists and art lovers alike– when Modernism made its way stateside (however delayed it may have been). Surrealism in particular evoked a lot of discussion in art circles– though it was unacceptable as a public art (such as murals) because it was so confusing and had Communist members (Breton being one of them)– and it thrived amongst women artists because gender tradition in America was less strict than that in Europe.

Certain themes have been identified in the work of women Surrealists, which were outlined in the LACMA exhibition: self-portraiture (direct or indirect self-identification); the body as a vehicle to reject male Surrealist fetishism and instead explore emotions, creativity, and the relationship between the physical self and identity; a statement of women being creative, intelligent and even possessing of “special powers,” which threatened patriarchal society; exploration of the self as primary importance, whereas the typically accepted female roles of wife and mother were secondary (for many of these artists, not all); how Surrealist games and technical innovations allowed women to investigate gender issues by reversing masculine and female roles; the magic and mysticism of indigenous peoples in the Americas, with whom women (who also felt ostracized) felt an affinity; how Abstract Surrealism became popular in the footsteps of Abstraction and initiated the search for a new social myth; and finally, how Surrealism lends itself as one of the precursors to Feminism.

Scholar Whitney Chadwick proposed  in her book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (which will be reviewed on this blog later) that women’s interpretations of Surrealist themes and aesthetics, which allowed for so much emotional exploration, gave women a sense of independence that foreshadowed the Feminist movement. This is a very interesting stance, as it was seen as such a misogynistic movement. However, it is easy to see how Chadwick came to this conclusion, especially when we consider that no other art before this allowed itself to be so individually adapted. Because Breton cared less about a set aesthetic and more about content, pretty much anything that referenced the unconscious or dream world could be considered Surrealist. Furthermore, it was California-based artists Helen Lundeberg and her teacher/husband Lorser Feitelson who issued the first and only American Surrealist manifesto.

Dorothea Tanning, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”

I greatly enjoyed the exhibition, not only because it looked specifically at women in Surrealism, but also because my geeky heart went pitter-patter when I saw classic works by Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, Kay Sage, Louise Bourgeois… It was also very interesting to see the works of less acknowledged artists (particularly those in California, which was definitely the doing of co-curator Ilene Susan Fort) shown alongside these “Surrealist greats.” The juxtaposition of “major” and “minor” artists was very gratifying, especially after an exhibition I designed for a class last fall was deemed to be somewhat controversial because I wanted to do a similar placement of major and minor artists next to one another and regard all of the works as equal. I loved the survey of multiple mediums– painting, photography, sculpture, etc– and the span of years. While the bulk of the exhibition focused on works created between the mid to late 1930’s to the 1960’s, contemporary works were referenced in the catalog, demonstrating the influence that Surrealism continues to have on the art world. Furthermore, the information I have been able to glean from the exhibition and the catalog have been invaluable to my own studies. My only gripe is that  it took into account only the major art-producing centers in the Americas– LA, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Mexico City. What about more peripheral areas?

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