Surrealism was an incredible time for female artists, with many of the traditional methods of art making renounced and experimental practices coming to the surface, they found themselves flipping the male gaze.
It all began with the dream psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and André Breton’s interpretation in his Surrealist Manifesto. We all know the famous male artists, like René Magritte, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Still, they were joined by talented female artists such as Meret Oppenheim, Dora Maar, Dorothea Tanning, Lee Millar and Leonora Fini.
The reason why Surrealism took particular hold in female art, could be down to Freud’s own interpretation of women’s ‘hysteria’, allowing them to explore emotion, female sexuality, and the inner workings of the deep subconscious without conforming to the male gaze.
Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday (1942) best depicts this sentiment. A woman stands draped in fabric, puffed sleeves, and branches, half-naked, as though woken mid-slumber. She opens a door, revealing multiple doors opening down an endless corridor, inviting an Alice in Wonderland impression. The woman looks disturbed as a flying monkey figure looks up, startled, both connecting the gaze of the audience. Interestingly, this artwork caught the attention of Surrealist Max Ernst and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim; meaning the artist received acclaim in her lifetime.
Another classic Surrealist artwork includes Meret Oppenheim’s Le Déjeuner enfourrure (1936)— or known as ‘Fur Breakfast’ thanks to its physical qualities. The sculpture consists of a teacup, saucer and spoon, but covered in fur. Conjured up with Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso; it’s hard to think of an artwork that stands out as much as this one in the Surrealist movement.
Arguably the most famous female surrealist, Frida Kahlo, never referred to herself this way with the term being imposed on her work; mostly being because Surrealism depicted the subconscious, whereas Kahlo painted her own world. “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” the artist shared, once André Breton himself had hailed her as a self-created surrealist painter.
Today, traces of Surrealism can be seen through modern and contemporary art, continuing the legacy. But Kahlo may have been interested to hear that the dream world has very much blurred with the real world in our bizarre, post-internet perspective.