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Female artists' surreal visions unfold in LACMA's 'In Wonderland'

The LACMA exhibition 'In Wonderland' explores the female surrealists who made Mexico and the U.S. their home base in pursuit of creative liberty and self-discovery.

March 25, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

The ideal of self-possession and forging an identity not dependent on male approval was a preoccupation of many female surrealists. In Remedios Varo's "Woman Departing From the Psychoanalyst's Office" (1960), a woman shrouded in a green cape steps into a courtyard, removes her self-protective mask and daintily deposits the ghostly head of her white-bearded father down a well.

As Fort notes in her catalog essay: "Men do not appear frequently in the women's worlds, nor do their sexual fantasies." Tanning's "Birthday," a self-portrait depicting the artist at 30, bare-breasted, with tendrils snaking down her dress as she stands before a labyrinth of doorways, hints at the sense of wide-open possibilities.

One of Kahlo's best-known paintings, "Las Dos Fridas" (The Two Fridas), anchors a gallery that introduces another of the exhibition's key motifs: twins and body doubles. Male surrealists typically depicted women as muses and objects of desire. Female surrealists depicted themselves as having complex, dual natures, sometimes represented with animal avatars, or as goddesses and other powerful shamanistic figures.

"They were seeing themselves from inside, while the men were seeing them from outside," Fort said.

As their works attest, few of these artists led fairy-tale lives. Like Alice's Wonderland, the world taking shape in the decades before and after World War II was a petrifying place, shadowed by apocalyptic new weapons and shaken by social changes that shattered individual lives.

"A lot of these women had problems," Fort said. "A lot of them experienced terrible childhoods, or adulthoods. Quite a few of them were depressed or had mood disorders, undiagnosed probably." At least one of them, Francesca Woodman, committed suicide.

But the influence of the female surrealists continues to seep into the work of later-generation feminist and post-feminist artists like Cindy Sherman.

And the example of artists like Varo and her colleagues, Arcq said, continues to inspire her personally, to pursue everything she wants and "to understand more deeply all the connections between everything that's happening."

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