2020 is going to be fantastic: The Schirn dedicates a first-time, major survey exhibition to the female contribution to Surrealism.

At the beginning of 2020, the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt is presenting the large-scale exhibition project “Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Frida Kahlo.” Running from February 13 until May 24, 2020, the show is dedicated to the women artists of Surrealism. Goddess, she-devil, doll, fetish, child-woman or wonderful dream creature – in various guises, women were the central subject of male Surrealist fantasies.

Initially it was often in the role of companion or model that female artists could succeed in penetrating the circle surrounding André Breton, the founder of the Surrealist group. However, upon closer examination it becomes evident that the participation of women artists in the movement was considerably larger than is generally known or reported. In a first-time major survey exhibition, the Schirn presents the contribution of women to Surrealism. 

The participation of women artists was considerably larger than is generally known

Female artists differed from their male colleagues above all in their reversal of perspective: they questioned their own reflection or took on different roles in the search for a (new) model of female identity. Contemporary political events, literature, and non-European myths and religions are among the subjects the women Surrealists examine in their works.


Dorothea Tanning, Voltage, 1942 © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Jochen Littkemann, Berlin

The exhibition features female artists directly associated with the Surrealist movement, though sometimes only for a short period; they knew Breton personally, exhibited with the group, or considered Surrealist ideas from a theoretical point of view.

Featuring 34 artists from 11 countries, the exhibition reflects a diverse spectrum 

Featuring some 260 remarkable paintings, works on paper, sculptures, photographs, and films by 34 artists from 11 countries, the exhibition reflects a diverse spectrum in terms of both style and content. Besides well-known figures like Louise Bourgeois, Claude Cahun, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, and Dorothea Tanning, numerous unknown, exciting artists from more than three decades of Surrealist art such as Toyen, Alice Rahon, and Kay Sage also await discovery. The exhibition shows representative selections of works by the artists, while also reflecting networks and friendships among the women in Europe, the US, and Mexico. The large-scale survey spreads across the entire length of both galleries of the Schirn. The women artists of Surrealism are presented with representative selections of works and in topographic regions.

Leonora Carrington, Portrait of the late Mrs. Partridge, 1947 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

The exhibition opens with Meret Oppenheim, one of the first women artists of Surrealism to gain early fame. She already moved in Surrealist circles in Paris at a young age. As early as 1936, the Museum of Modern Art of New York acquired Oppenheim’s iconic “fur cup” for its collection – to this day, it is considered the quintessential Surrealist object.

Oppenheim’s “fur cup” is considered the quintessential Surrealist object

The official members of the Surrealist group around André Breton were initially men but, starting in the 1930s, numerous women artists joined and participated in the international exhibitions of Surrealism. It is possible to identify different generations of Surrealism: the women artists were usually younger and, as a result, many of their major works were created in the 1940s and 1950s. Even though the group continued to organize exhibitions until the 1960s and disbanded only in 1969, many chroniclers have felt that Surrealism ended with the Second World War. It is also owing to this narrative that too little attention has been paid to the works of the women artists.

Meret Oppenheim, Venus primitive, 1962 (1933) © Kunstmuseum Solothurn / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

“Le désir” (erotic desire) is a central theme of Surrealism and the female body a recurring motif in its works. In many ways, the movement rejected traditional bourgeois ideas of family, sexual morals, and married life. Yet in the works of the male artists, woman is often objectified as passive child-woman, fetish, or muse and presented as fragmented or decapitated. The perspective of the women artists is a different one: numerous self-portraits and depictions of women are characterized by a playful, self-confident approach to their body image and female sexuality.

The women artists rebel against gender-specific role behavior

Among the works presented in the exhibition is a self-portrait by Leonora Carrington, in which the artist depicted herself in the garb of a young man from the eighteenth century; she is accompanied by a horse, her recurring alter ego, and a hyena as a symbol of her desire for freedom. The artist Claude Cahun produced her most important work as early as the 1920s: a series of impressive and highly topical photographic self-portraits and photomontages addressing androgyny and the play with gender roles. The work of Leonor Fini includes a disproportionate number of male nudes with strong female figures showing them the way, or protecting them. The women artists rebel against gender-specific role behavior and present themselves with markedly androgynous looks or in different roles and guises.

Leonora Carrington, Autoportrait, à l'auberge du Cheval d'Aube, 1937/38 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
Leonor Fini, Chtonian Deity Watching over the Sleep of a Young Man, 1946 © Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco and Francis Naumann Gallery, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

The Surrealists used games and techniques such as “écriture automatique” (automatic writing), dream protocols, and collages to open up access to the unconscious and leave room for chance. The exhibition devotes a separate section to the “cadavres exquis”. These drawings or collages were the product of a collective activity: on a folded piece of paper, each of the consecutive participants continued where their predecessors had left off without seeing the previously created image. Such collective artworks were also intended to strengthen the group’s cohesion. Myths and legends played an important role in the Surrealist circle. In search of images for a model of female identity, the women artists frequently drew on the figure of the hybrid creature.

In Mexico a vibrant Surrealist scene developed around Frida Kahlo

Many of the Surrealists emigrated during the Second World War. In Mexico a vibrant Surrealist scene developed around Frida Kahlo. In her distinct iconography Kahlo combined imagery of Mexico’s precolonial culture with Christian symbols as well as her own personal biography. The poet and painter Alice Rahon also came to be a key figure in Mexico City. Other Surrealist women artists who settled in Mexico and explored the country’s pre-Columbian past, lush nature, and myths included the painter and writer Leonora Carrington, the painter Bridget Tichenor and Remedios Varo.

Jacqueline Lamba, André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Cadavre exquis, 1938, Courtesy of the Mayor Gallery, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

Photography offered many opportunities to distort and question the representation of reality through retouching, montages, and extreme exposures. Among the women photographers in particular, quite a few came to be explicitly political. The work of Dora Maar also evinces a profound interest in contemporary events. Along with Breton she signed the 1934 anti-fascist manisfesto “Appel à la lutte” (Call to Arms). Claude Cahun was actively involved in the resistance in the 1940s and eventually arrested: the torment of imprisonment eventually led to her death. After her Surrealist period, Lee Miller started working as a war correspondent in 1944. Women artists also made significant contributions to Surrealist film: Germaine Dulac’s “The Seashell and the Clergyman” is now considered to be the first Surrealist film. Maya Deren was a main protagonist of the postwar cinematic avant-garde in America. 

They wanted to be perceived regardless of gender or particular style

Some of the women artists presented were only briefly affiliated with Surrealism. Dorothea Tanning turned to Surrealism in the interwar period to find a different narrative for art, society, and herself. The women artists of Surrealism regarded themselves as individuals and wanted to be perceived regardless of their gender and without being pinned down to a particular style. The exhibition ends – and looks to the future – with the work of Louise Bourgeois, who explored themes like sexuality and female identity in her paintings. She belongs to the same generation of artists as Meret Oppenheim, but her work only came to be appreciated much later and nowadays tends to be associated with contemporary art.

Dora Maar, 29 Rue d'Astorg, 1936 © bpk / RMN - Grand Palais / Dora Maar / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
Louise Bourgeois, Torso, Self-Portrait, 1963-64 © The Easton Foundation, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020, Foto: Christopher Burke



More about the exhibition