In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists was the first international exhibition of art created by female surrealists in Mexico and the United States. The exhibit was organized in 2012 by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in cohort with the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. Its corresponding book explores the work of over 40 artists, female photographers, painters, sculptors, and multimedia artists and a filmmaker.
The book features a self-portrait by Rosa Rolanda on its cover. Known as a Mexican surrealist, Rolanda was actually born in California. Her story is emblematic of the transnational identity and influences that defined North American surrealist art as distinct from its European counterpart.
“When I studied art history it was as if women didn’t exist,” said curator Ilene Fort, of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as we strolled through the exhibit. “I realized it was needed, putting people back into the history books. But the reactions surprised even me.”
The museum guards described the exhibit as a completely different experience for the public. While it features numerous famous works, such as multiple self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, many of the artists had previously received scant attention or recognition. “People are staying longer than in the other exhibits and coming back twice or three times. It’s all new to them.” Fort said.
These founding surrealists forever changed how modern artists express creativity, influencing the Beat poets of northern California, the birth of pop art, and countless developments of music and film. In Wonderland includes multiple works by Helen Lundeberg, the cofounder of New Classicalism. It also features Lilia Carrillo, an influential member of the group La Ruptura (The Rupture). La Ruptura rejected the nationalist, politically driven aesthetics of the Los Tres Grandes (The Three Greats) Mexican muralists to found a school of artistic thought free from standards.
The many famous male surrealists of the ‘20s explored the unconscious through dreams and trances. Years later, women artists utilized this surrealist focus to explore memory and identity. In the ‘30s and ‘40s New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Mexico City became burgeoning centers of surrealist art.
This provocative artistic school, based on rebellion and revolution, was the perfect catalyst for a generation of women claiming their citizenship and humanity on the world stage, in unprecedented ways.
“Surrealism went down in the history books as the first major art movement to engage women,” said Fort. “Women artists are taken more seriously now.” Several artists featured in the exhibit, such as Louis Bourgeois and Lee Miller, would become idols for generations of feminist artists. “Surrealism led to feminism and after that nothing was ever the same.”
At the time, women were acknowledged as the muse or sexual object of art, but never a protagonist or creator. The early female surrealists changed all that. These women inverted popular surrealist themes associated with fertility and domesticity, to make bold social messages infused with whimsy and sarcasm. They explored the female body as a place of creative power and independence, redefining self-representation.
“The women surrealists were equal but different from the men. The depth of emotion, the creativity, and the quality of their work is so high,” said Fort.
The exhibit and book both included biographical information and pictures of the artists, because so many of them were previously unknown to the general public.
“Someday, hopefully,” Fort mused. “We won’t have to do exhibits like this.”