High Road to Jewish Unconscious

Los Angeles County Museum of Art Hosts Surrealist Art by Women

Outside the Box: Ruth Bernhard’s photo is a commentary on the marginal status of sexual minorities and immigrants.
courtesy of princeton u. art museum
Outside the Box: Ruth Bernhard’s photo is a commentary on the marginal status of sexual minorities and immigrants.

By Sammy Loren

Published February 19, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

From Andre Breton in the 1920s until the disciples of Salvador Dali in the 1960s, the Surrealist art movement probed the subconscious through dreams and imagination in an attempt to liberate its practitioners and their audiences. It is no wonder, then, that it appealed to Jews who fled Europe in search of freedom in the New World.

Though surrealism critiqued institutions of marriage, family and power, men dominated the movement. “In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists,” currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, aims to belatedly challenge that dominance. Highlighting surrealism in the United States and Mexico, it showcases heavyweights like Frida Kahlo and Helen Lundeberg, but also includes many female Jewish surrealists, such as Rose Mandel, Kati Horna, Ruth Bernhard and others who used Surrealist art to explore spirituality, psychology and trauma.

“Woman as muse and lover was an essential trope of surrealism,” wrote the curators of “In Wonderland,” Ilene Susan Fort and Tere Arcq. Nevertheless, “the male surrealists were misogynist in their denial of woman’s ability to create art.”

The exhibition at LACMA is a corrective to that tendency. Indeed, the women included pushed the boundaries of what constituted art, womanhood and, as the catalog for “In Wonderland” says, “empowered women and encouraged the rise of the feminist movement.” While few Jewish women surrealists directly addressed their ethnicity, much of their work responded to themes coming from their Jewishness, such as alienation, identity and displacement.

Eerie Head: Kati Horna’s ‘La Muneca’ depicts  a doll’s head resting on the floor.
courtesy of kati horna estate
Eerie Head: Kati Horna’s ‘La Muneca’ depicts a doll’s head resting on the floor.

Unlike their male counterparts, who were more politically forthright, women surrealists usually expressed politics through the personal. Among those women was Berlin-born Ruth Bernhard, who fell into surrealist circles after she immigrated to New York City in 1927. Bernard felt her immigrant status and bisexual identity keenly. Her nude portraits of women, for which she is best known, illustrate this double sense of otherness.

“In the Box-Horizontal” (1962), Bernhard’s iconic photograph of a nude woman crammed into a cardboard box, critiques the confines of a narrowly defined sexuality. Still, the model in the photo seems to be elbowing her way out of the box, celebrating, in a sense, what many Jews from Europe sought in the United States: the possibilities for immigrants to escape their old identities and create new ones.

For immigrant surrealists in the United States and Mexico, their adopted country served as a literal and figurative expression of surrealist ideals. North America became a political safe haven for Jews running from pogroms and Nazism. Breton, Surrealism’s founding father, had termed Mexico a land of “convulsive beauty” and, in the imaginations of surrealists, the New World featured as a place uncorrupted by the Old World.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.