In the midst of World War II in 1942, President Lazaro Cardenas opened the Mexican border to European refugees seeking a safe place to escape. Three of those forced to flee were the Surrealist female artists Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna. Carrington was from England, Varo from Spain, and Horna was from Hungary. They all found themselves in Colonia Roma, Mexico City where they became close friends along with other expatriate artists. Here is a look into the similar themes found in their artworks inspired by Surrealism.
Surrealist Female Artists and Domesticity
Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna shared many similarities despite coming from different countries. For example, both Carrington and Varo were in relationships with older artists. Carrington was in a relationship with the German Surrealist artist Max Ernst and Varo with a French Surrealist poet called Benjamin Péret. As friends, they played Surrealist games and hosted elaborate costume parties together.
All three Surrealist female artists were drawn to exploring the domestic realms of their lives through their artworks. Carrington and Varo were both painters while Horna was a photographer. The ways in which they utilized the two mediums to explore domesticity were different. Their Surrealist paintings, including images of kitchens, houses, and gardens brought a familiar feel to an otherwise otherworldly atmosphere. In Carrington’s work called The House Opposite, the scene is set in the interior of a house where we see a female figure sitting at a long kitchen table. Instead of cooking a family meal, she seems to be creating a concoction with ingredients carried in by other female characters. Here, we see the kitchen transformed into an arena of the invention and a brewery of spells.
One example of their redeeming attitude towards the women’s traditional role in the home was to depict the domestic sphere as a spiritual space. In addition to the kitchen as a place to cook a family meal, Carrington and Varo utilized it as an alchemy lab, where they could experiment with Mexican herbs to make magic potions. The two Surrealist artists were passionate about studying alchemy, magic, tarot, and astrology. They were also seeking knowledge from pagan religions and traditions. Horna was less interested in these spiritual beliefs and practices, she vaguely referenced the Surrealist obsession with a world beyond our own.
Domesticity Captured by Horna
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Kati Horna’s photographs depicted domestic life. The artist captured her friends in their everyday reality. Horna documented women’s domesticity while Carrington and Varo combined truth with imagination to portray their emotions connected to it. While motherhood and homemaking were often perceived as damaging to women’s creativity, these three Surrealist artists reclaimed these concepts and expressed them through a framework of liberation.
Horna was born in Budapest. She worked as a photographer in Germany and Spain before settling down in Mexico. Horna was asked by the Confédération Générale du Travail union to capture the Spanish Civil War as an unofficial member of a left-wing movement. So for 18 months, she was integrated into the Aragon front in Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid, and smaller villages. Spanish anarchist magazines published her work, which emphasized the daily life of civilians affected by the war rather than soldiers fighting on the frontlines.
In the midst of such intense conflict, Horna documented moments of domesticity that didn’t stop because of the ongoing war. Whether it was children playing innocently, women washing laundry, or intimate moments between couples or friends, Horna focused on showing the daily lives of ordinary people.
In the photograph above, we see a man who is shown shaving while standing by a thistle plant. This candid photograph portrays a regular everyday activity of an unknown person. The thistle is sometimes thought to represent the Republicans’ resilience, however, Horna’s photographs were less dependent on symbolism and more on reality.
Carrington and Varo’s Take on Alchemy and Magic
One example of Remedios Varo’s artwork revolving around magic and alchemy is called Papilla Estelar, meaning Star Maker in English. Varo painted this in response to the isolation she was experiencing after escaping to Mexico. Although Varo found a thriving art community of fellow European refugees, the preexisting Mexican art community was not that welcoming. In the depicted scene, we see a woman sitting at a table, spooning harnessed star powder to a caged moon. A mechanism reaches from the roof, where stars are gathered, down to the table, where the woman controls a milling machine that converts the stars into a powder. The woman’s facial expression is solemn, but her actions convey a feeling of hope.
This practice of alchemy and looking to the stars for wisdom aligns with the faith that Varo put into the spiritual world for guidance. To portray her experience of loneliness and her journey to release herself from a trapped feeling, she illustrates this with a magical ritual. The galaxy surrounding the structure the woman sits in is dark and gloomy, while the interior is full of glowing light from the moon and stars. Varo emphasized the power of the outside forces in translating one’s inner light to make changes that manifest in reality.
Down Below was based on Carrington’s memoir detailing her experience in a mental asylum. In 1936, Carrington met the German Surrealist Max Ernst and the two fell in love shortly after. They moved to southern France together and proceeded to collaborate creatively, encouraging each other in their artistic pursuits. As World War II began, Ernst was arrested twice, so he escaped to the USA with the help of an American art sponsor, leaving Carrington behind. This tragic event, her tumultuous relationship with her family, and other potential factors led to a psychotic break and her admittance to an asylum. Carrington’s memoir details her traumatic treatment that included electroconvulsive therapy and powerful drugs like the convulsant Cardiazol and the barbiturate Luminal. Carrington’s parents insisted she be transferred to another sanatorium in South Africa, however, she managed to escape with the help of a Mexican diplomat friend of Picasso’s.
Although her time at the asylum was horrific, it revealed to her the human body’s alchemical potential. As a consequence of the physical abuse she suffered, Carrington stopped menstruating which she believed allowed her blood to be transformed into energy that connected to other energies beyond herself. In alchemical texts, it was common to find images of animal-human hybrids, which both Carrington and Varo integrated into their artworks. In her work Down Below, we see several female figures with primarily human bodies and animal heads. Her interest in Jung’s psychology is also evident in this piece, indicating her belief in harnessing power from her shadow self that emerged during her mental breakdown.
Surrealist Female Artists and Collaboration
The photographic series called Ode to Necrophilia was a collaboration between Surrealist artists Kati Horna and Leonora Carrington, who served as a model. The series was published in the Mexican avant-garde magazine S.NOB in 1962. These Surrealist photographs reveal a character who is mourning a lost loved one. Carrington is shown covered by a black mantilla, which is a traditional lace shawl that Spanish and Mexican women wear while grieving. On the empty bed, we see a white mask, signifying a traditional death mask, a token of remembrance. Necrophilia refers to sexual attraction towards the dead, so the title of the series adds an interesting dimension to the already emotionally charged visuals. Horna often used Carrington and Varo as subjects and models in her work, sometimes staging fictional narratives.
The collaborations between these artists as well as their individual works display the rich creations of Surrealist female artists expressing themselves as refugees and as women in a male-dominated art movement. Their resiliency and bravery in illustrating powerful messages in their artworks have defined them as some of the most influential female Surrealists in art history.