In Wonderland

Los Angeles



In most accounts, Surrealism unfolds on European soil with a cast of male artists. “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” counters, and builds upon, previous Surrealist surveys. Co-curators Ilene Susan Forte of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Tere Arcq of Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno have amassed 175 drawings, paintings, photographs, collages, sculptures and films in which the traditional hallmarks of Surrealism are threaded through with daring takes on gender roles, sexuality and spirituality. While iconic pieces by famous artists including Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois are on view, the discovery of underknown works by Gertrude Abercrombie, Gerrie Gutmann, Jacqueline Lamba, Alice Rahon, Leonora Carrington and too many others to mention is one of the show’s joys.

Strikingly, many of the exhibition’s 47 artists use self-portraiture to express unorthodox views of the world. A good number of works derive from traumatic experiences, personal or societal, often related to the traditional limitations placed on women. In Bridget Tichenor’s Autorretrato (Self-Portrait), undated, the artist paints a mass of pinkish bald heads crammed together on a small square canvas, presenting the self as a multiplying or mutating entity. Rosa Rolanda’s canvas Autorretrato (1952) offers the timeless image of a woman on the verge. The artist depicts herself wearing a green dress, wide-eyed and in mid-motion with hands clasped to her ears. Dancing silhouettes, skeletons and assorted objects float behind her on a desertlike greenish-yellow background. Rolanda’s husband left her at this time for her young protégé; with this representation, emotional pain becomes a vehicle for transformation and empowerment.

Throughout, the exhibition calls into question not only how art history is made (or not made) but also what is (and is not) considered an acceptable expression of human experience. Particularly profound is Lee Miller’s Untitled (Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy), 1930, two small black-and-white photographs, each showing a sliced-off breast on a pristine white plate set upon a checkered napkin. (Miller smuggled the breasts out of the hospital after a friend’s surgery.) The work poses a searing critique of the objectification of women’s bodies. Dorr Bothwell’s painting Hollywood Success (1940) posits a similarly pointed assessment. A nude woman kneels on the saddle of a lone leaping carousel horse in an austere mountain landscape. Her head is bound in a cloth tied tightly at her neck, and she holds up a giant orchid with fluttering folds. This disturbing work seems to both evoke and condemn sexual manipulation and violence.

Compared to other narratives of Surrealism, “In Wonderland” manifests a stronger sense of the physical world as a place infused with spirit. The landscapes in Sylvia Fein’s intricate and idiosyncratic paintings seem to have lives of their own. In the egg-tempera-on-Masonite The Tea Party (1943), painted while Fein’s husband was serving in World War II, the artist sits alone on a rocky seaside; each stone bears a face as if in solidarity with the subject. Tellingly, both Kahlo and María Izquierdo (who also has work on view here) referred to the still life not as nature morte (dead nature) but as naturalezas vivas (living nature). Remedios Varo’s fantastical paintings provide a comprehensive exploration of that idea. They often portray women in rooms surrounded by walls, tables and cupboards that appear to pulse and breathe. Sometimes, the subjects interact with spindly fanciful machines that seem to convert the energy of the physical world (from the moon, for example) into creative output (music or art).

The scenes of transformation common to Surrealism take on new meaning in light of this animated view of nature. A monstrous shadowlike form emerges from the approximately 5-by-6-by-2-foot bronze sculpture The Road; The Shadow; Too Long, Too Narrow (1946) by Maria Martins, who used only her first name as an artist. Its sinuous arms stretch toward the horned figure in front of it, suggesting both danger and warning. While several excellent works by the late Dorothea Tanning are included in this show, it may be that her Rainy Day Canapé (1970), an approximately 70-inch-long stuffed fabric sculpture of a couch mutating into a woman, best embodies the alternately mystical, emotional, critical and erotic visions of the women Surrealists.

Photo: (right) Leonora Carrington: Green Tea (La dam ovale), 1942, oil on canvas, 24 by 29 inches. © ARS.
(left) Dorothea Tanning: Rainy Day Canapé, 1970, tweed, upholstered wood sofa, wool, Ping-Pong balls and cardboard, 32 1/4 by 69 1/2 by 43 1/4 inches. © ARS.