Many women artists had animal dream creatures as alter egos. And with them, they regained a piece of their freedom.

“Let’s imagine that we have all been changed into horses,” suggests Lucretia, the protagonist of “The Oval Lady”, a short story by Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington. “I am going to transform myself into a horse of snow.” When Lucretia’s father then threatens to incinerate her beloved horse – a hybrid that is something between a toy and a living being – she begs him for mercy: “Have pity, papa, pity!” However, he burns it anyway.

The horse in the story is a symbol of Lucretia’s imagination. A power that, as is often the case in Carrington’s stories, is controlled by male antagonists or which they threaten to destroy. Like many female artists of her day, Carrington had herself to fight for a long time against being reduced to her partners, particularly the Surrealist Max Ernst. Nevertheless, there were almost no bounds to her own imagination, unlike that of her characters. Carrington’s stories and paintings are teeming with enigmatic, peacock-like beings, wise bulls, masked hyenas and mysterious lion-women, along with prancing cats and dogs.

The horses are especially striking– particularly the white horse – which appear in such guises as that of an outsized deity, for instance, in “The Magic World of the Mayans” (1963), or as a dialectical alter ego, for example in “Self Portrait” (1937/38). In the latter, Carrington stages herself in a Victorian armchair. Next to it hovers a white rocking horse as if strangely frozen in space. Through a glassless window a white horse is to be seen, swiftly fleeing into a forest landscape blanketed by fog. At least part of the artist, this is the impression conveyed by the picture, is in the process of regaining a little piece of freedom for herself.

Let’s imagine that we have all been changed into horses

Lucretia in “The Oval Lady” by Leonora Carrington
Leonora Carrington, Autoportrait, à l'auberge du Cheval d'Aube, 1937/38 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

However, such animal figures are by no means only to be found in Carrington’s work, indeed they can be found, in fact, with many the Surrealists. Where does this fascination come from? The Surrealist animals stand for mysteriousness and metamorphoses, they open people’s eyes to the suppressed, the uncanny, the supposedly peripheral – to things outside the proverbial domestication of thought processes. Thus, they won’t fit into the worldview of the Enlightenment, a worldview that places human reason at the center of all thinking and all action.

Anyone who knows Dora Maar knows her obsession with hybrid beings and objects

In Dora Maar’s work such “alternative” perspectives are created through the medium of photography. Anybody looking into the work of this artist will discover her obsession with hybrid beings and objects. Perhaps the best-known examples are her untitled picture of a shell hand (1934) and the uncanny “Portrait of Ubu” (1936). The latter shows a being which, with its drooping ears, is reminiscent of an elephant but, with its shiny, scaly surface, looks more like a reptile from an indeterminate past – or future? In reality, it is the fetus of an armadillo. The fact that surreal abysses can open up in the photographs is also clear from Maar’s less otherworldly pictures, for example, the portrait “Woman’s Hair with Soap” (1934). Because the artist has switched the picture’s vertical and its horizontal axes, the woman’s hands, her hair and the foam in the picture appear to have coalesced into an octopus-like crown with a life of its own.

Dora Maar, Portrait of Ubu, 1936 ©  VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Image via

By contrast, in a photomontage such as “Rue d’Astorg” (1936) Maar distorts what appears real into something unreal. A chubby female figure is sitting on a stool in a strangely distorted corridor in Versailles. Her square-shaped head looks like that of a bird or caterpillar. The suggested nakedness of her body and the beauty of the setting are suddenly transformed into something uncanny and grotesque. Despite the diversity of her work and the multiplicity of media which she drew on in her oeuvre, during and beyond her lifetime Maar, like Carrington, was mostly reduced to an appendage of her male partner (Maar was considered to have been Pablo Picasso’s muse).

Animals play an important role in Frida Kahlo’s pictures

Probably the most famous counterexample– a Surrealist whose work was not overshadowed by the attention received by a male partner – is Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. In her distinctive self-portraits Kahlo negotiates  femininity, ethnicity, the politics of her day and her own personal fate. Animals play a not insignificant role in the pictures of the artist who has now become a pop icon.

Dora Maar, 29 Rue d'Astorg, 1936 © bpk / RMN - Grand Palais / Dora Maar / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

Accordingly, her “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace” (1940), which she is said to have produced during her separation from painter Diego Rivera, almost reads like a satire on the symbolic nature of the collected beings in the painting: A humming bird, in Mexico a symbol of hope, hangs its wings pinned back and dead like Christ on the Cross from a necklace of thorns which is etching bloody wounds into Kahlo’s neck: An obvious reference to the Passion of Jesus. A monkey is in the process of tightening the tangle of thorns, thus deepening the wounds (very different from the nice, decorative creatures in her later “Self-Portrait with Monkey” (1943). A black cat, familiar in Western folklore as the harbinger of good luck, lurks behind her, as if preparing to jump out. Flowerlike butterfly beings are rising up from a violet braid of hair – compared to the other animals, they look like forerunners of a transformation, a new beginning.

Jane Graverol was a staunch surrealist herself

Many of the above-mentioned female artists refused, throughout their lives, to allow themselves to be described as Surrealists. Quite the contrary to Belgian painter Jane Graverol, who was herself a staunch exponent of the movement: “To be a Surrealist is a state one either carries within one or one doesn’t,” she said in a 1940 interview with art historian José Vovelle. In Graverol’s collages animal beings are reduced to their contours and enriched with images of completely different shapes.

Frida Kahlo, Selfportrait with thorn necklace, 1940 © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

“The Prosperity of Vice” (1967) shows a bird of prey which, instead of plumage, boasts heavy instruments of war such as tanks and barrels of guns. On top of it and as if weightless sits something that looks like a woman, but instead of a torso or a face all we can see is thorny leaves and blossoms. The attributes and clichés present in the image of the woman and the bird of prey are grotesquely exaggerated–meaning that the lines of the bodies have come to represent a techno-romantic dystopia. It is this exaggeration of the stylistic vocabulary of a body, or rather the latter’s reduction to a set of contours that distinguishes Graverol’s subtle criticism.

In the English-language foreword to Leonora Carrington’s “The Oval Lady” art critic Gloria Orenstein refers to the mythological significance of the short story. To her mind, the oval shape reminds the reader of an egg, a symbol of fertility and transformation. She thinks that the lady signifies a deity, the “new woman” who magically transforms raw materials into life. Orenstein discerns undertones here of André Breton’s motto of “true occultation” from the “2nd Surrealist Manifesto”. Although Surrealism is considered one of the most accessible movements in modern art it still holds many secrets – and not infrequently these secrets appear in the guise of hybrid animal beings.

To be a Surrealist is a state one either carries within one or one doesn’t.

Jane Graverol



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