By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
When the surrealist movement began in Europe in the early 1920s, it was a distinctly masculine style, led by the likes of André Breton, Salvador Dali and Joan Miró.
But in 1930, the well-known Mexican painter and art historian José Miguel Covarrubias traveled to Europe with his new wife Rosa Rolanda, a U.S.-born photographer and choreographer he had met while designing a theatrical set in New York City.
Covarrubias gained instant acceptance into the artistic world of the European surrealists, and his young wife, a soft-spoken girl with a flair for the dramatic, quietly paid close heed to what was going on in the post-Dadaist circles.
When they returned home to Mexico several years later, Covarrubias continued in his linear art style, but Rolanda began assimilating what she had seen and heard in Europe into her abstract photography.
Rolanda may have heralded the birth of the feminist surrealist movement in the Americas, but with the winds of war swirling in Europe, a new flood of immigrants from Germany, France, Spain, England and other parts of the continent began to migrate to the United States and Mexico.
Many of these immigrants were political or artistic refugees, and most came to their new countries accompanied by their wives and/or mistresses.
By the start of the Second World War, both New York and Mexico City had become major hubs of exiled artistic and creative expression, and while the women involved usually took a backseat to their husband’s career ambitions, some of them also found ways to manifest their experiences, often through their own feminine interpretation of surrealism.
Perhaps because these women were discovering their own independence in a new and strange world, or perhaps because they often had to find ways to support themselves and their husbands, these female artists began to rise to the forefront of the surrealist movement in the Americas.
At that time, the “serious” art world did not pay much attention to women and their works, but the female surrealist movement in the Americas led to a re-examination of women as artists as a whole and, particularly, of their unique feminine approach to the magical and non sequitur visions of a surrealism.
This was the start of a new branch of surrealism, feminine surrealism.
The surrealist women of Mexico expressed their artistic visions through paintings, sculptures, engravings, sketches and photographic montages, and in many ways, the women became the leaders of Mexico’s surrealist movement.
Names like Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo were the creative link between Mexico and the outside world.
Many of these women were European, and there were also a couple of Asians, but the majority of their works were produced in Mexico.
And while most of these artists worked independently from one another, there was a constant exchange of correspondence between them and many of them travelled between Mexico and the United States on a regular basis, thus being exposed to trends on both sides of the border.
For the most part, these were multicultural, multinational women who had an avant-garde vision of the world..
Consequently, there is a certain consistency in the visions of these female artists, even if they were working in two nations.
Their works became a joint expression of a creative liberation in the form of surrealist art that, in combination, shows an entirely different approach to the movement from what is seen in masculine manifestations of the movement.
And because these women often felt that they were strangers in a strange and mysterious land, they naturally turned to Lewis Carroll’s then-extremely popular children’s book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” for inspiration.
These women saw Alice as a heroine who adapted to the strange world of Wonderland and learned that she had power over that world, even if she did not always recognize it.
Mexico offered the women a degree of independence they could not experience in Europe, and it became for them a land of reinvention, their own unique Wonderland.
There were self-portraits and works that reflected their perceptions of their own duality as women, such as Frida Kahlo’s famous “Two Fridas,” a vision of a divided spirit and essence, a woman torn between her two identities as she perceives herself.
There were also many twin images, dual visions of self-portraits, a distinctively feminine trait that is not seen often in masculine surrealist works.
Also, there were portraits of the human body, primarily the female form.
Unlike the work of male surrealists, these pieces are not erotic.
The women frequently used themselves as models, and the issues of maternity and fertility were frequently present, again repeating a perceived duality of spirit.
In many of the works, the artists expressed their sense of isolation and abandonment through abstract symbols such as solitary landscapes.
These women were pioneers in many ways, and, as such, they felt alone and solitary. We can see this in their canvases and sculptures.
Another element of Mexico’s female surrealists was a recurring interest in alchemy and the occult.
Magic was a predominant theme throughout Mexico’s surrealist movement, but it was much more evident in the works of the surrealist women than in those of their male counterparts.
By the same token, images of marriage and family life prevail, but these domestic portrayals are often tempered with a hint of sarcasm or resentment.
Art was a way for these women to rebel against the oppressive societies that told them they were subordinate to men.
And, often, the women were more daring than their male counterparts, incorporating new techniques and technology into their works and assimilating pre-Hispanic and indigenous mythology from their new homes.
The women often felt that they had been uprooted and had lost their native cultures, so they felt it was important to explore the indigenous cultures of Mexic0.
While politics played an important role in the works of Mexico’s male surrealists, it was not significant in the female works.
For the most part, these women tended to avoid politics, which they saw as a male realm, said, but they did touch on it occasionally, particularly in terms of social issues and their opposition to war.
Female surrealist artists in Mexico redefined the role of women in art, and they ultimately set the groundwork for an entire cultural revolution.