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.
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.