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Also featured in the exhibition is Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, who worked as a photojournalist across Europe until she fled Paris as the Nazis advanced. Landing in Mexico, Horna lived there until her death, in 2000. Like other surrealists — most notably Hans Bellmer — Horna frequently included dolls and puppets in her work. With their uncanny, lifelike appearance and intimate relation to childhood, dolls were thought to free the unconscious and to help merge the real and the surreal.
But Horna’s black-and-white photograph “La Muñeca” (“The Doll”), an eerie snapshot of a bald, severed doll’s head, suggests fatalism and fear: that no matter where a woman resides — Old World or New World — she will always be infantilized and alienated.
Yet, farther up the Pacific Coast, Rose Mandel seemed to entirely reinvent herself in the New World. Born in Poland, Mandel was living in Switzerland with her husband in 1942 and studying to be a child psychologist. Although considering a return to then Nazi-occupied Poland, they chose to immigrate to San Francisco. But once in America, Mandel abandoned psychology for art. In a 1992 interview, she explained: “I didn’t try to work with children…. It was too tragic a time for me. I left that all behind.”
Nevertheless, the theme of childhood perseveres. One of Mandel’s untitled photographs at the LACMA exhibit depicts a lone crib. Neither touched nor ruffled by an actual baby, the crib-as-art approaches the personal and political. Shot at an upward angle, the photo inverts our connotations of maternity, transforming the crib into a towering figure of anxiety. Rather than a blessing, Mandel depicts motherhood as something of a curse.
For unknown reasons, Mandel, like many surrealists in the exhibition, never had children. Critiquing traditional gender roles proved an enduring theme of her work and of female surrealist art as a whole.
As a movement, surrealism has long since faded. Yet its subjects — from gender to sexuality, from trauma to alienation — remain unnervingly relevant. The “In Wonderland” exhibition at LACMA reminds us of the work that has already been done, and the work that is still left to do.
Sammy Loren is a freelance writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles. He blogs at www.sammyloren.com.
“In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until May 6.