5 Female Artists of Surrealism

Leonor Fini at home in France.

 Getty Images

Founded in 1924 by writer and poet André Breton, the Surrealist group was comprised of artists whom Breton had handpicked. However, the movement's ideas, which focused on exposing the subconscious through exercises like automatic drawing, were not contained to the select few whom Breton capriciously favored or shunned. Its influence was worldwide and found its strongest outposts in Mexico, the United States, Europe, and Northern Africa.

Due to Surrealism’s reputation as a male discipline, female artists are often written out of its story. Yet the work of these five female artists upends the traditional narrative about Surrealism’s focus on objectifying the female body, and their participation in the movement is testament to the fact that the Surrealist ethos was more expansive than art history has previously assumed.

Leonor Fini

Leonor Fini was born in Argentina in 1907, but she spent her youth in Trieste, Italy after her mother fled an unhappy marriage to Fini’s father. As an adult, Fini became well-acquainted with the Surrealist group in Paris, befriending figures such as Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Her work was exhibited in MoMA’s seminal 1937 “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” show.

Fini was taken by the idea of the androgyne, with which she identified. Her lifestyle was in keeping with her unconventional approach to gender, as she lived in a menage-à-trois with two men for over forty years. She spent summers in a rundown castle on Corsica, where she gave elaborate costume parties, for which her guests would plan for months.

Leonor Fini with one of her paintings
Leonor Fini with one of her paintings. Francis Apesteguy/Getty Images

Fini's work often featured female protagonists in positions of dominance. She illustrated erotic fiction and designed costumes for her friends’ plays. She would also design her own costumes for social events. Her often over-the-top self image was photographed by some of the era’s most well known photographers, including Carl van Vechten.

Perhaps Fini’s greatest commercial success was in designing the perfume bottle for Elsa Schiaparelli's “Shocking” perfume. The bottle was made to look like the naked torso of a woman; the design has been mimicked for decades.

Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning was born in 1911 and grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. Stifled by a strict childhood, the young Tanning escaped into literature, becoming acquainted with the world of European arts and letters through books.

Confident that she was destined to become an artist, Tanning dropped out of the Art Institute of Chicago in favor of living in New York. MoMA’s 1937 “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” cemented her commitment to Surrealism. It was not until years later that she became close to some of its key characters, when many moved to New York to escape the growing hostility in Europe due to the Second World War.

Portrait of Dorothea Tanning
Portrait of Dorothea Tanning, 1955.  Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When visiting Tanning’s studio on behalf of his wife Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of this Century” Gallery, Max Ernst met Tanning and was impressed with her work. They became fast friends, and eventually married in 1946, after Ernst had divorced Guggenheim. The couple moved to Sedona, Arizona and lived among a cohort of fellow Surrealists.

Tanning’s output was varied, as her career spanned around eighty years. Although she is perhaps best known for her paintings, Tanning also turned to costume design, sculpture, prose, and poetry. She has a large body of work consisting of plush humanoid sculptures, which she was known to use in installations throughout the 1970s. She died in 2012 at age 101.

Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington was born in the United Kingdom in 1917. She briefly attended the Chelsea School of Art, then transferred to London's Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts. She met Max Ernst in her early twenties and soon moved with him to the south of France. Ernst was arrested by the French authorities for being a "hostile alien" and later by the Nazis for producing "degenerate" art. Carrington suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized at an asylum in Spain.

Her only means of escape was to marry, so she married a Mexican diplomat and left for the United States, where she was reunited with many of the Surrealists in exile in New York. She soon moved to Mexico, where she helped to found the Women's Liberation Movement and ultimately spent the rest of her life.

Carrington's work centers on symbols of mysticism and sorcery, and often deals with significant recurring images. Carrington also wrote fiction, including The Hearing Trumpet (1976), for which she is best known.

Sculpture by Leonora Carrington in Mexico City
Sculpture by Leonora Carrington in Mexico City.  

Meret Oppenheim

Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim was born in Berlin in 1913. At the outbreak of the First World War, her family moved to Switzerland, where she began to study art before moving to Paris. It was in Paris that she became acquainted with the Surrealist circle. She knew André Breton, was briefly romantically involved with Max Ernst, and modeled for Man Ray’s photographs.

Oppenheim was best known for her assemblage sculpture, which brought together disparate found objects in order to make a point. She is most famous for her Déjeuner en Fourrure also called Objet, a teacup lined in fur, which was exhibited at MoMA’s “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” and was reportedly the first addition to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art by a woman. Objet became an icon of the Surrealist movement, and though it is responsible for Oppenheim’s fame, its success has often overshadowed her other extensive work, which includes painting, sculpture, and jewelry.

Though she was crippled by the early success of Objet, Oppenheim began to work again in the 1950s, after several decades. Her work ˜has been the subject of numerous retrospectives around the world. Often addressing themes of female sexuality, Oppenheim’s work remains an important touchstone for understanding Surrealism as a whole.

Dora Maar

Dora Maar was a French Surrealist photographer. She is perhaps most famous for her photograph Père Ubu, a closeup of an armadillo, which became an iconic image for Surrealism after it was exhibited at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London.

Maar's career has been overshadowed by her relationship with Pablo Picasso, who used her as muse and model for many of his paintings (most notably his “Weeping Woman” series). Picasso convinced Maar to close her photography studio, which effectively ended her career, as she was unable to revive her former reputation. However, a significant retrospective of Maar's work will open at the Tate Modern in the fall of 2019.

Photographs by Dora Maar of her lover, Pablo Picasso.  Getty Images

Sources

  • Alexandrian S. Surrealist Art. London: Thames & Hudson; 2007.
  • Blumberg N. Meret Oppenheim. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Meret-Oppenheim.
  • Crawford A. A Look Back at the Artist Dora Maar. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/pro_art_article-180968395/. Published 2018.
  • Leonora Carrington: National Museum of Women in the Arts. Nmwa.org. https://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/leonora-carrington.
  • Meret Oppenheim: National Museum of Women in the Arts. Nmwa.org. https://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/meret-oppenheim.