Women Artists And Surrealism
Introduction to Surrealism’s women artists.
No artistic movement since the nineteenth century has celebrated the idea of Women as passionately as did Surrealism during the 1920s and 1930s; none has championed the creativity of women as wholeheartedly.
The image of Woman – as muse, as captivating child-woman, as sorceress, as Sadeian queen – dominates surrealist poetry and painting.
In her book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement Witney Chadwick, examines, in detail the lives and work of the women who exibited with the Surrealists in the great international exhibitions of the 1930s and 1940s. Young, beautiful and daring, women , like Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning, and Rita Kernn-Larsen became an embodiment of their age as they struggled towards artistic maturity and their own ‘ liberation of the spirit’ in the context of the Surrealist revolution.
Their individual stories are presented in the book against the historical background of the turbulent decade of the 1930s and the war that forced Surrealism into exile in New York and Mexico.
This is the first publication in English to document the actual contributions women artists made to the surrealist movement.
With thanks to Whitney Chadwick
A Surrealist Manifesto
This is what my mother, Rita Kernn Larsen, wrote about Surrealism in 1940.
” Out of the mist of the thirties emerged a new spirit- like the breath of a dragon it invaded me. I can best illustrate the essence of the spirit in which I worked at that time by presenting the text I wrote ( in French ) in London in the spring of 1940.
A SURREALIST MANIFESTO
” Dans les puits les plus profonds demeure le coeur – le coeur bleu de tout le .monde.
Ces racines multiples se rependent dans tous les pays. Dans le pays le plus sombre ou
courent les ombres a deux roux, la reine du corps a la taille fine et a la tete feuille verte reste debout toute l’annee. Vers le soir elle tent la main jusqu’a Trafalgar Square inondee par les eaux douces. Seul le chapeau est berce sur les lentes vagues.
Une hordes de vaches vetues de voiles a grosse mailles couleur arc en ciel se promenent dans Fleet Street en se dirigeant vers le crater plume ou elles se laissent devorees l’une apres l’autre.
En Hollande est inaugure la nouvelle route pour bicyclettes au sommet des arbres.
Un poisson s’endort dans un fauteuil en meme temps que le president oublie sa tete carree en dessous de l’eau et s’enfuit en laissant ces milles jambes au bord de la mer.
La chaleur est surprenante – au millieu du desert le corps de ballet danse sur une jambe et se retire peut a peut vers l’horizon – dans leurs traces l’aeuf de l’autruche craque et trois petites balleteuses sortent.
Maintenant tout le desert est couvert de petits souliers noirs et la neige commence a tomber en cascade.
C’est la fin de l’annee et la reine se retire dans les montagnes lumineuses suivie d’un train de corsets et de crinolines d’une matiere transparente. Tout en haut de la montagne elle rencontre le chevalier bleu M.C, au millieu d’une foret de bougies illuminees.
La reine s’evanouie et re-apparait dans ces corsets et crinolines.”
…She continues…the transmutations were at work. Walking on Hampstead Heath trees turned into shapes like women growing out of the soil, or struggling as if in a revolt to free themselves.
After a period of about ten years and after the second world war, those conditions no longer prevailed – the Surrealism dragon had withdrawn it’s breath and vanished
Rita Kernn-Larsen, The Danish International Surrealist
My mother, Rita Kernn- Larsen, is regarded as one of the pioneers of Surrealism. Forgotten for many years , she followed her own path in the arts world. It wasn’t until the eighies that she was ‘ re-discovered.’
She was still quite young when she decided to be a painter. She clearly remembered her first work. The view from her childhood home, the 17th century castle of Frederiksborg which she always used to call” my castle”.
Rita came from a well-to-do bourgeois family in the provincial town of Hillerod, north of Copenhagen. Her father was a merchant-grocer and later became the director of tbe first bank in town. There were servants in the household overseen by Mammy,my grand mother, whilst ‘little Rita’, as she was called, with her elder sister Esther, were mostly looked after by a maid. It was Froken Mork’s private girls school and from the maid at home that she first learnt to sew clothes for her dolls, to knit and to embroider. Later in life this would come in very handy. As a child nearly all my clothes were hand made. She made her own clothes as well and, as there was no money for a doll’s pram ,she built me a wooden carriage on wheels in which I could walk my dolls, which she had sown herself.
The sewing business continued into my teens. I used to spend as much time as possible in Paris, rather than Copenhagen. When I arrived my girlfriends would invariably ask: “Where did you get that dress/skirt/blouse from ?” The blase answer came:” mother of course”. Even later in life if I happened to discard any item of clothing .my mother would say:”Don’t throw that away. I can use it” True to form the item was duly transformed into some new creation.
Rita had no great love for Denmark. When she arrived in Paris in the early thirties, she found herself in the centre of the intensely creative, intellectual milieu of artists like Fernand Leger ( who became her teacher), Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, the filmmaker Bunuel and many others.
It was here that she met my journalist cum art dealer father, Isaac Grunberg wo was well connected to the whole artistic milieu. These were extraordinary times in which my mother thrived. In her own words … (1967) Even though I paint quite differently now I cannot get away from the fact, that the Surrealist period was wonderful. Yes…it really was the best time for me as an artist.”
Paris, London, New York …all the great Surrealist exhibitions were part of my mothers life. in the thirties. But then came the inexorable rise of Hitler, the war, and just in the nick of time, Peggy Guggenheim called my Jewish father over to London, where my mother had her One-woman show in her gallery.
Thus the war years were spent in Britain and, for my mother at least, that was the end of Surrealism.
She explained : ” It all turned real. Suddenly you’d wake up in the morning ( during the blitz) and see a chair hanging in a tree or someones hand lying on the ground. Surrealism is in the subconscious. Suddenly everything was there for all to see.”
The post war period was spent toing and froings from Paris to Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm, in between Switzerland and the south of France. My mothers painting was now naturalistic. portraits, landscapes, and still life were the order of the day. , She, like the whole family ,loved the south of France. We’d never really lived in the country before. It was a revelation to be living in a small village surrounded by vinyards and olives groves. Wherever else travels took us, travel was a must for my father who had what the French call:’le feu au cul’, fire up the backside,we would always return to the village. It was actually George Ribemont Dessaigne, co-founder of the Dadaist movement, who suggested to my father that we should come to the village.
And it was at Golfe-Juan on the Riviera coast that my parents re-united with Picasso, who lived up the hill in the village of Vallauris. With many other artists, we used to hang out on the sandy beach. And..it was here that my father died suddenly.
A big change of life and a return to Copenhagen for most of the year.. During these difficult times my mothers painting became more and more abstract and she began gradually to stick things onto her canvasses…wood, old cartridges,the ubiquitous blue Gauloise packets and so on. She loved Barbara Hepworth and said several times that she would have liked to be a sculptor.
During the London years Henry Moore was a friend of the family. My father had bought and sold a number of his smaller sculpture.
In her eighties my mother started to make collages. Hours and hours were spent cutting and fiddling until everything was in the right place. ” Don’t throw that away” was the key word. ! “I can use it”! The collages were incredibly popular. Sold like hot cakes. During one exhibition of her paintings there was a special smaller room just for the collages. As the red ‘ SOLD’ dots rapidly increased I had to beg to keep one or two that I was particularly fond of.
In 1998 Rita passed away, in Copenhagen, at the young age of 94. The press produced kilos of words about her life and times , how she went her own way and was forgotten…forgotten…forgotten.. These are the words that echo in my mind. I believe it to be true. As an international artist she was friends with all the great painters and artists of the time and exhibited with them, but she, like several other women Surrealists, never quite made it to the top.. For this there are a number of reasons.
First of all , as I see it, it was a pretty macho affair. Dali, Magritte,Max Ernst, Arragon etc all ‘stomped about’ making lots of noise with their drums, being extremely theatrical and extrovert. Rita , on the other hand, was a very private unassuming person, who went about her work quietly but consistently. She just wanted to paint. It simply never entered her head that there was something called promoting oneself. As long as my father was alive that was ok. “You just paint” he said “I’ll take care of the rest”. But later on it made life very difficult indeed.
Secondly, this may sound pretty stupid but the fact that she took on my fathers name- Grunberg, did not help one bit. People became confused between the two names as the r-k-l signature belonged to the Surrealist period and Grunberg to everything else.
In fact it was only when Rita was in her eigties, that a man rang her doorbell. It turned out to be an art dealer who had suddenly come across her name and greated her with: “Oh it IS you ! Where have you been all my life?” Thus began Rita’s ‘ rehabilitation’ as an international surrealist..
Most of Rita Kernn-Larsens work is now hanging in museums worldwide . – Danish Museums, The Solomon R Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and more…
Surrealist Fashion Water Colours
When my mother, Rita Kernn-Larsen, was studying at the Royal Arts Academy in Copenhagen in the twenties , she and a fellow student were so bored, that they decided to create a series of swim-wear water colours. This didn’t go down too well in the staid atmosphere of the ‘provincial ‘Academy.
All eyes were on Paris. My mothers too. She always had a eye for fashion and had herself learned to sew at the age of 4. So when a leading Danish newspaper ,Politiken, commissioned her to create a series of watercolours from the latest fashion show in Paris,for their Sunday supplement , she jumped at the chance
Coco Channel and the Italian Elsa Schiaparelli were the top rivals, both competing intensely for number one designer fame. Chanel Number 5 was hot up against ‘Schiaparelli’s perfume, shocking, in an hour glass bottle based on Mae West’s figure.
Elsa Schiaparelli had a fantastic flair for fun and innovation and a great love for feminine clothes in rich fabric’s. She mixed closely with the Surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, the photographer, Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. Some of her accesories were designed by Jean Cocteau and Dali.
Despite being a fantasist Schiaparelli had her finger on the pulse of the time. The little black dress was a favourite design of hers. In the US she created a masculine suit with wide shoulders, worn by Marlene Dietrich which was copied allover Hollywood.. She was much appreciated for her eccentricity. Her hats in the shape of an ice cream cone and another as a mutton chop created an uproar.
There is little doubt that my mother was deeply inspired by Schiaparelli. The series of ten Surrealist fashion water colours were born out of that inspiration.
Rita was born in Hillerod, a small provincial town north of Copenhagen.
The family home, just opposite the famous Frederiksborg castle, with its treelined lake , was an idyllic setting . By her own accounts she led a ‘charmed childhood.’
Father was a grocer supplying not only the town but many small farmers in outlying areas with corn and animals feeds. When she was four the family moved to a large house which had electicity, a bathroom and a bedroom for Rita and her older sister. Quite a novelty at that time.
Week ends were often spent driving out to the nearby forrest in the family horse and cart. Later on her father became one of the first bank directors in town. A wellknown and well loved personality he had already helped out many small farmers with loans.
Rita was definitely ‘ Daddy’s girl”. She very rarely spoke about her mother. She recalls that when she’d made her first drawing her father was so proud that he hung it in his office and showed it to everyone. She also remembered, with astonishment, the time when the pig was slaughtered in the backyard and she and her sister just stood there, seemingly mesmerized, with all the blood flowing around them.
So what daddy did Rita had to do.
“I used to go to the barbers with my father when I was about six”, she recalls. All the men used to go on a Sunday morning. Afterwards they went to Hotel Leiderstorf and sat there talking and drinking coffee. I also had a little walking stick just like my fathers. He always used one so I had to have one too and he wore a Panama in summer and so did I. Oh and I remember, I must have been older at the time, he had his own wine cellar. Sometimes collegues came to visit. They would sit upstairs playing cards and drinking whiskey. One such evening I was nowhere to be found. Eventually they located me sitting at the bottom of the stairs to the cellar, a mug in hand, half full of whiskey.”
” Later on my father became the director of our local Savings Bank. Although not trained for banking he was wellknown and respected in the area and was used to doing business with small local enterprises,
But at the age of thirteen I lost my father. Oh…his death was a horrible thing. He became ill all of a sudden. The local doctor couldn’t find out what was wrong, so they took him to Copenhagen, which they should never have done. He suffered terribly. He was first taken to a throat doctor. Then they found out it was his heart. He died within a few days. It wasn’t a heart attack but some illness. We never really found out as my mother refused to have an autopsy. For me it was dreadful. Dreadfull! I refused to go back to school. So I got a home teacher for one year….I was so angry. So angry. Angry with everybody.”
“I eventually went back to school which I really quite enjoyed, especially English language and French too. So when I finished school I got good grades in those subjects. I was thinking of going to England as an au pair and ended up spending a year in Yorkshire with a lovely family. But then I came back to Denmark because I really wanted to go to the Arts Academy in Copenhagen. After my fathers death my mother sold out place in Hillerod and we moved to a flat in Copenhagen. So that was the beginning of a new era for me.
In Rita’s own words.
“At the age of twenty I went to lots of museums. I remember seing a painting of Cezanne for the first time. I was so taken aback. It was a landscape, very typical.
Later wen I came back from England, that was where it all started. I wanted to go to the Arts Academy in Copenhagen. I got accepted but I didn’t like it there . I did have one or two friends that I got on with though.
We were so bored there. It wasn’t funny at all. So my friend and I decided to have a bit of fun. We made a kind of bathing costume. Someting different that had never been seen before. We went and bought crepe de chine in the big store, on our parents accounts. We actually designed the clothes and made them and got a model to wear the them.. It was kind of accessories for the beach. Then we held a fashion show in an antiquarian shop. It was very funny though as ladies came all wrapped up in their furcoats. It was cold like I dont know what. So of course nothing was sold.
At this time we girls were interested in clothes.We used to go to Nyhavn, along the canal. Some of the girls bought these long woollen, old fashioned men’s vests, put ribbons on them and wore them as frocks.
” I spent two years at the Academy.But I really didn’t feel I learnt anything there. It was all very oldfashioned, traditional.
Then I went to Paris. My mother didn’t want me to go. She didn’t like the idea of me…’ marrying a foreigner’. But I was absolutely determined.
I went with a friend. We were thinking of being au pairs or teaching English. So I got a job as as a kind of English teacher and I had half the day off. I went to lots of exhibitions, the Louvre and so on.I knew I had to learn something. Then, one day, I met a Danish friend in the street and asked where I could go to study. All the Danes at that time went to the Academy Scandinave but I did not want to be with Danish people so I was advised to go to Fernand Leger’s Academy Moderne in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs. So I started there. But it was quite frightening. You had to draw fine lines with a pencil, not charcoal, as we always did in Denmark. This was something new. I always had a rubber in my hand.
” I think I studied at The Academy Moderne at two different times. 1932 and 1936, two years at a time.
One day Leger asked me if I wanted to do a painting for him. So I got a a small sort of thing squared off and a bigger canvas and painted it. This happened several times.I have seen paintings in Leger exhibitions which I had done. He hadn’t.. touched anything up. It was normal for him to do that. But with me he just didn’t . I learnt a lot from that. That’s why, when I started, I did all these ‘ ‘super compositions’. But after some years I found it was too heavy-going. You know…I wanted it to flow more.
Well I stayed in a hotel and went on getting money from home.. That was when I met Iso, your father. because I often went to this little restaurant, les Marroniers.
” I always sat there looking down. There were many men in the cafe and they were always looking at me. So I just sat there like that. All these people used to go to the cafe Dome in the afternoon. Well eventually I started talking .There was a Swiss arts professor that I was introduced to . I dont remember if I was first introduced to Iso or to him.
Iso was quite different. He wore a nice bois de rose shirt. I came to sit right opposite him. So, of course he started talking to me. Anyway, the first thing he said to me. I always remember that. “Quelle jolie blouse que vous avez ,mademoiselle”! Someting really banal. Well that’s how it all started. That was in 1933.
After that I’d finished my first stint with Leger and went back to Copenhagen .I wanted to have my first exhibition
” So I then went back to Copenhagen to organise my first exhibition. In fact it was Iso who got the whole thing going. The Gallery , in the town centre, usually held exhibitions of classical masters and I don’t know how he persuaded the owner to ‘go modern’ .Iso did not speak Danish. He thought it hardly worth learning such a ”terrible ‘ language and the owner only spoke German, so they managed somehow.
I had a small studio at that time, not far from our flat. Mammy, my mother, paid for it. But she kept asking me why I didn’t take a study course to become a secretary or this and that. She always had examples for me..there were other girls in the family that were doing so well and then there was me getting money from her all the time. She never actually came to my studio although I invited her. But she did come to my first exhibition and then she became a bit more interested as I got good reviews.
” I invited this journalist Eigil Knutt and a friend of mine for lunch before the opening of the exhibition. We drank Snaps and whatnot so I arrived at the exhibition in high spirits. The journalist had written nicely about me in his paper Dagens Nyheder. But there was one headline I really did not like at all: Female Danish Picasso”.That was silly but he meant well . I even think I sold a few paintings. What I can’t understand now is that I had another exhibition, also in the same place a Christian Larsen’s, one year later. It was then that the poet Gustav Munck Petersen appeared. A strange looking young man with a beard, very shy. He eventually spoke to me and said: You’re a Surrealist come and join us. and then Wilhelm Bjerke Petersen came along and things really started to move, once I was in the group.
” You know. We were rather ‘ stuck up’ at the time. Nothing else counted .My first exhibition with the group was in Oslo and I was the only one who sold a painting , It was Henrik Sorensen, one of the most wellknown painters in Scandinavia who had told a collector to buy the painting – The Green Mountain.
We had a great time in Norway, we went skying and so on. But the exhition was very badly received. It was a scandal,really. The bishop wrote an article in the paper. It was too sexual I suppose. Norway was probably more provincial than the other Scandinavian countries
After Norway there was an exhition in Lund, in the south of Sweden, that went very well. And then a big Surrealist exhition with Max Earnst and all the famous Surrealists where I was invited to participate. That was in 1935. I also exhibited some paintings at the New Burlington Gallery in London and also in New York. ‘Fantastic Art, Dad and Surrealism’.
The Year That Changed The World
.1938. – Hitler marches into Austria.
” We met Peggy Guggenheim in Paris. Iso had been working, in Paris, for the German newspaper ‘ Berliner Tageblat,’ ( Almost entirely Jewish owned and taken over by the Nazis in 1933).
Peggy told us she was going to open a gallery in London. She saw my surrealist paintings, got interested and invited me to have an exhibition. ‘ A one man show’…One woman rather…. You see how it goes with men ! One is used to saying” one man show”! Oh and she invited us to some of the most famous restaurants and we talked and talked and talked. But then she went away.
It was the Anschluss. Iso had gone over to London to arrange some paintings from Kahnweiler , he wanted to exhibit. I was still in Paris. So he phoned me and told me to come over with whatever I could take whilst he remained in London. Iso knew what was happening But, you know, he had talked to his friends in the cafees in Paris. He ‘d been telling them for a long time what was going to happen but they just did’nt believe him. He warned his family -his parents and sisters in Vienna and they also refused to believe him. He knew what was coming. He told his parents to come over to England but it was already too late. They needed an affidavit from America. Gina, his oldest sister managed to get out with her husband. Claire, the younger sister came to London as an aupair or something like that But they were all working on getting the parent to the US as there were relatives there. But it was too late, unfortunately, for your grand parents -Rosa and Meir. They passed away in Vienna in 1939, within one week of each other. ”
International Surrealist Controversy
In 1938 came came the big International Surrealist controversy, in Paris .
Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme in 1938.
The show was supervised by Marcel Duchamp and organised by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard.
When the guests arrived at the Gallerie des Beaux Arts on the Rue du Faubourg-Saint Honore they found an old taxi where it was raining inside. In the drivers seat sat a stuffed crocodile with a big grin. In the back seat a blond mannequin had snails crawling allover her body, her feet covered in dead leaves.
Rita, who had been invited, tells that she walked about outside with a sandwich board. On one side was a Dali painting and on the other her own “Self portrait Know Thyself ”
It was evening and quite dark inside so people were given torches. A heavy smell of roast coffee permeated the gallery from large machines.. Sacks of black coal hung from the ceiling. There were more mannequins inside, one with a birdcage on her head, some created by Dali others by Max Ernst.
One mannequin sported the now famous lobster telephone receiver created by Dali.
Among the array of amazing objects was a gramophone with huge speakers and two female legs sticking out, a chair supported by mock human legs. a soup tureen over flowing with feathers
. Of course there were paintings by Dali, De Chirico, Tanguy as well as sculptures by Henry Moore, Hans Arp and Giacometti.
In Rita’s own words: “It was a fantastic event, Something new, daring. Nowadays , of course, it doesn’t seem like much but at that time it really was extraordinary, .”
As could be expected the exhibition caused a huge controversy in the press and amongst the general public.
Snippets from the infamous 1938 exhibition
The opening of the exhibition was at 10pm. Evening dress de rigeur. The public had been promised all kinds of happenings. A sky full of flying dogs, hysteria galore, including the presence of an android.
The ‘ rain taxi’ by Dali was in the forecourt. From there visitors passed into a corridor – ” Les plus belles rue de Paris”, with sixteen mannequin figures designed and dressed as sex objects.
There was also a performance by an actress who jumped out of a heap of pillows on the floor, her body wrapped in chains. She reappeared later drssed in an old evening dress giving an apparantly ‘very realistic hysterical performance’.
In the main room sacks of coal hung from the ceiling. Visitors were given torches to move forwards. It appeared later that these were used by the visitors mostly to see WHO was there rather than on the art works themselves.
On the opening night over 3,00o people came to see the exhibition. The police had to be called out on several occasions as the pushing and shoving reached feaver pitch.
The press, on the other hand, , mostly disaproved of the exhibition, which they hailed as a ” Spectacle”, by the organisers…’ silly, a mockery, a carnival to be laughed at,’ denouncing the Surrealist movement to be “art without danger”.
Suddenly thet movement appeared to have lost it’s ” Enfants Terribles” image.