The Venice Biennale’s Forgotten Female Surrealists

Robert Hundley

George chewed walls: his father tried using wall pills to treatment him, but his head grew into a dwelling. John experienced wings for ears his head flew out of the window, and his mom trapped it back again on with chewing gum. Humbert was stunning but suggest to ladies. His sister place a crocodile in his mattress, but it was charmed by his attractive face: boy and croc teamed up, producing Humbert meaner than ever.

Welcome to Leche del sueño (The Milk of Desires) fables told by British artist and writer Leonora Carrington to her youngsters in Mexico in the course of the 1950s (and to start with posted in 2012). These tales of curious creatures and fantastical structures have supplied equally title and guiding spirit to Cecilia Alemani, curator of this year’s Venice Biennale. Her central Biennale exhibition will be punctuated by five shows that achieve into the previous for lesser-recognised operates that resonate with present-day problems, kicking aside the plan that art movements proceed a single a further in an orderly chain, to come across echoes and connections throughout generations.

Alemani seems to be to artists who remained marginal due to the fact of gender, geography or social circumstance. Among the their variety are spirit mediums, political agitators, self-taught outsiders and surrealists. In just this previous group, Alemani’s ‘Milk of Dreams’ shares a great deal of its solid with ‘Surrealism Further than Borders’, an exhibition addressing the movement as an enduring world inclination, demonstrated final yr at The Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, New York, and currently at Tate Modern day in London.

Leonora Carrington
Leonora Carrington, Bird Exceptional: Portrait of Max Ernst, c.1939. Courtesy: Countrywide Galleries of Scotland © The Estate of Leonora Carrington

In The Militant Muse (2017), art historian Whitney Chadwick recollects British artist and surrealist Roland Penrose dismissing her plan to produce about the gals of surrealism: ‘They weren’t artists’, he told her in the 1980s. ‘Of study course the women were being crucial, but it was for the reason that they have been our muses.’ In Alemani’s ‘Milk of Dreams’, the ‘muses’ chunk back (if posthumously), amongst them Penrose’s to start with spouse Valentine Penrose and her shut near close friend and occasionally lover Alice Rahon.

A poet, the slash-up verses of Valentine Penrose’s most-celebrated work, Dons des féminines (Items of Women, 1951) are illustrated with nightmarish photomontages of trendy Edwardian females and giant bugs. She was also nifty with a paintbrush: her ex-husband retained her sardonic self-portrait in which she provides herself as an giving from Venus, flashing a furry armpit and considerable bush. In the 1930s, sensation crushed by the intellectual pretentions of the Parisian avant-garde, Valentine travelled and analyzed in India (on one particular event, rapturously, with her beloved Alice), where she searched for a ‘female principle’ to counterbalance patriarchal European culture.

Alice Mahon
Alice Rahon, La pajarera, silkscreen, oil and graphite on paper, 34 × 47 cm. Courtesy: Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco

A person of Alice Rahon’s possess paintings is titled – pointedly – Las musas inconformes (The Disappointed Muses, 1959). Like the beautiful Valentine Penrose – painted about once again – Rahon was objectified, cherished as the living incarnation of that Wonderland Alice whose adventures captivated André Breton and his circle. Her initial enjoy, far too, was poetry – however she printed beneath her married name, Paalen. 

Rahon painted in Mexico, her house subsequent the outbreak of Environment War II. Her scratched and spindly forms set within just prosperous floods of cobalt and vermillion propose Paul Klee hanging out at Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. Rahon’s floating, ghostly carnival of yellow figures suspended in an intense industry of azure – La Balada para Frida Kahlo (The Ballad for Frida Kahlo, 1955–56) – hangs in ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ along with the dim, fairytale paintings of Remedios Varo. Born in Spain, Varo was component of the circle of surrealist exiles that fashioned around Kahlo and Carrington. 

Leonora Carrington
Leonora Carrington, Portrait of Madame Dupin, 1947. Courtesy: © Gertrud V. Parker Assortment, Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco, The Estate of Leonora Carrington and Artist Rights Culture (ARS), New York. 

In her crafting, Rahon compares a painter to a shaman carrying out as a conduit for visions. She shared an interest in magic and the occult with Varo, whose meticulous, enigmatic figures are surrounded by uncanny patterning designed with decalcomania – paint transferred from a textured floor – a method favoured for its opportunity outcomes. Varo’s sculpture consists of the wheeled zoological ‘specimen’ Homo Rodans (1959), assembled from hen bones, and introduced comprehensive with a pompous scientific treatise. 

In 19th-century Europe and the US, spirit medium was a scarce role in which women ended up regarded as to have top-quality aptitude to guys, and by means of ‘guided’ drawing, could have interaction in liberated inventive observe. Georgiana Houghton consulted a psychic in London following the demise of her sister and began spirit drawing as a medium in 1861. Led by spirit guides – to start with a deaf artist termed Henry Lenny, then an illustrious cohort such as Titian and Correggio, and afterwards a committed group named Zacharias, John and Joseph – Houghton produced wild swirling abstractions in watercolour and ink that remember bouquets and peacock feathers. Houghton unquestionably regarded her spirit drawings functions of artwork: in 1871, she manufactured a ruinous decision to clearly show them at the New British Gallery in London.

Unica Zurn
Unica Zürn, Untitled, 1965, ink and gouache on paper, 65 × 50 cm. © Verlag Brinkmann and Bose, Berlin

There is frequent floor concerning Houghton’s mediumistic artwork and the computerized drawing favoured by surrealists to access the unconscious. For the duration of the 1950s and ’60s, the German writer and artist Unica Zürn – who experienced schizophrenic episodes and was regularly hospitalised in the a long time ahead of her death in 1970 – turned to automated drawing to check out her internal environment. Like Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon, Zürn performed the muse in an unconventional surrealist marriage. Hans Bellmer viewed as Zürn the dwelling embodiment of a doll made use of in his dim, erotically charged photos. In their collaborations, Zürn’s overall body takes the doll‘s put: in Tenir au frais (Keep Amazing, 1958) her torso is proven from driving, so tightly trussed in rope that she resembles a stuffed joint of meat. Zürn‘s exploring drawings similarly explored the sensual, fragmented entire body, giving form to florid monsters and chimerical beings in spidery pen and ink.

Alemani has explained these women and their resourceful circles as the ‘fulcrum’ of ‘Milk of Dreams’. In their operate – produced amid the constraints of their very own periods – she sees a defiant faith in the probability of self-creation, which chimes with our individual. Collectively (she writes in the exhibition assertion) they summon ‘a area of the marvellous where by anatomies and identities can change and adjust, following the desire for transformation and emancipation’.

‘The Milk of Dreams’ takes position in the Central Pavilion (Giardini) and in the Arsenale, Venice, until finally 27 November 2022. 

Key impression: Jane Graverol, L’École de la Vanité, 1967. Courtesy: © SIAE, Assortment Anne Boschmans, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt photograph: Renaud Schrobiltgen

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