Female Surrealists and Decadents and Symbolists

“Leonor Fini was self-taught, and although she exhibited with the male surrealists, she hated the misogyny of Surrealism’s founder, Andre Breton.”

Women. Surrealism, Art, Myth and Transformation:

A Look at Women and Myth in Art in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Cheyney University of Pennsylvania

by Helena Dominic


This paper looks at the lives and works of Female Surrealists and Symbolists living in the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries, and considers the ways in which Surrealism has empowered them as women and painters and sculptors.


It has been nearly 46 years since Linda Nochlin’s article, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists  and although that particular question has been revisited multiple times, particularly in feminist art discourse, This author doubts  that many scholars have considered the question of female artists and magic. Artists like Remedios Varos, Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini are the most likely to come up in discussions of women artists and the surreal, and their images certainly promote images of women of power. It seems to this researcher that while much has been made of the male and female gazes of art history, that there has not been great discussion of women using magical imagery to effect change and shape their universe in a powerful way. In this article, I am going to look at these and several more contemporary women (Ann McCoy, Audrey Flack, and Wangechi Mutu to name a few) who are actively using their art in a way that forces us to re-shape our thinking about women, the feminine gaze, women’s bodies, transformation, and the meaning of gender.

The surrealists were enamored of a particular type of woman and depicted her often in her work, a “femme enfant,” (Moorehead, 2010) representing a subservient, passive, beautiful, child-woman. The reality of the women artists associated with the movement was different from this image. Leonora Carrington was married to Max Ernst while in her early twenties and was thought of as his muse. She was a fiercely independent woman who made a life of her own in Mexico after Ernst was imprisoned during World War II. While in Mexico, she befriended the Spanish painter Remedios Varo (married to the Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret), and together the two led lives independent of their husbands, and quite unlike the macho Surrealists of Paris.

     Remedios Varo ’s life was marked by forced ex patriotism. She was born in Spain but forced to flee during the Spanish Civil War. She fled to France and was forced to leave during the Nazi occupation of Paris. She moved to Mexico, where as noted above, she befriended other expatriate artists, as well as Frida Kahlo.  Unlike Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo did not allow her husband’s notoriety to eclipse her own interests during her life. Her work is much like Hieronymus Bosch’s in the elongation of the figures, the otherworldly atmosphere, and an ofttimes crowded picture plane. She was deeply interested in the occult, sacred geometry, and the holy grail, and was considered a Symbolist as well as a Surrealist.

In the painting, The Creation of the Birds, Varo portrays an owl woman at a desk, creating birds, as the title states, using drawing implements and a palette that appears connected to an alchemical device. Her eyes appear to be closed, in a dream-like state. In La Llamada, The Call, a glowing female figure walks or floats down a hallway of ghostly gray figures emerging from the wall, looking forward with only a lamp and her will to lead her. Unlike her friend, Leonora Carrington, Varo died early, at the age of 55 and at the height of her artistic powers. Looking at the paintings the two women created, it seems they shared an aesthetic and a strength.

“The bull in the boat represents … a Taurus New Moon which was meant to usher in a new female consciousness.”

     Leonora Carrington’s work encompasses painting and sculpture and reflects the mythologies of both Europe and Mexico. Her images show women in various roles of the magician, alchemist, priestess, shape-shifter, as well as creatures very much not of this world: minotaurs, ethereal crows, and horses. In her painting, the White Goddess herself appears in what may be a secret ritual taking place. In her painting, Are You Really Sirius, the Egyptian Bastet is present in the characters of long-eared cat creatures. Carrington believed she herself was a descendant of the Tuatha de Danaan, and it is no surprise her works reveal a fae-like atmosphere. Her interest, unlike that of her more well-known male Surrealist counterparts, was much more to depict the inner world and to occupy the concerns of that world, rather than to occupy herself with accruing fame or wealth. She lived in Mexico until her death, well into her nineties.

Unlike Carrington and Varo, Leonor Fini was self-taught, and although she exhibited with the male surrealists, she hated the misogyny of Surrealism’s founder, Andre Breton. Her independent spirit manifested as rebelliousness and a hatred of following rules that got her expelled from every school she attended; she preferred to self-educate. Like Carrington and Varo, her work depicts women as mystics, magicians, and shape shifters. Like several other women mentioned here, she never actually considered herself a surrealist, and also like them, never cared to embrace or align herself with any one school or style. She does have the distinction of having been engaged to an Italian prince, who she abandoned upon meeting other artists in Paris. She became close with a number of artists throughout her lifetime and was celebrated for both her strength as an artist as well as her beauty and stylistic panache.

A number of her paintings revolve around the notion of a dominant woman and a submissive male. She often depicted women as sphinxes. In 1942, she painted the first erotic nude of a male painted by a woman. As with all the women in this article, she featured women of power. A particularly haunting painting, Le Carrefour d’Hecate (The Crossroads of Hecate) features four white-garbed and white skinned figures in what appears to be a labyrinthine hallway approaching a seated red-haired woman. The figures do not engage with one another, nor do they really engage with the red-haired woman. The painting leads the viewer to question what sort of play is taking place in the painting. She was enormously famous during her lifetime, perhaps more of her beauty and unusual lifestyle (she was unabashedly non-monogamous), but by the time of her death in 1996, she was virtually unknown and lost to memory. Fortunately, she is now being re-appraised by art historians as “the most undervalued female artist of the twentieth century.” (Art Dealers Association, n.d..). Many thanks have to go to the National Museum of Women’s Art in Washington, DC as well as writers such as Linda Nochlin and Whitney Chadwick for bringing a number of these forgotten women artists to the fore once again.

     Ann McCoy, who teaches at Yale University, does not seem likely to fall into obscurity either during or after her lifetime. Ann McCoy was born in Colorado in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II and certainly at a time when the previously mentioned artists were coming into their own. It is ironic that she at one time lived in Berlin in the atelier of Arno Braker, one of Hitler’s approved artists.  McCoy’s work is based on her interest in alchemy and dreams. Her earlier works were wall-sized pencil drawings based on her dreams, that would often take a year or more to complete. Rich with evocative imagery, their size and subject matter invite the viewer into the picture plane. Her works include images of birth, death, and rebirth. In The Death of My Father,  which is entirely drawn in pencil, measures 9 feet by 14 feet, and took her five years to complete, we see a fetus in an egg, a skeleton, wings, and a peacock. This imagery, according to McCoy herself, is about resurrection and redemption, “The peacock became a symbol of Christ and resurrection and I felt a need for resurrection after a dark period. In alchemical literature, the sun or the peacock often appears after a period of devastation, signaling a new beginning.” (Knowlton, n.d.). In recent years, McCoy has been creating sculptures that show ritual processions. They are reminiscent of processions in the ancient world, such as the Bark of the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt.

In the gorgeous Processional with Light Bringer, a cast sculpture of cast bronze and silver from 2005, this work represents the night sea journey. The horses drawing the boat on this journey are untethered and are meant to represent the female libido (Streitfeld, 2012). The bull in the boat represents Taurus, which figured in the astrology of the opening of the exhibition in which it first appeared, a Taurus New Moon which was meant to usher in a new female consciousness.


     Audrey Flack is another artist deeply interested in ushering in a more female consciousness. Audrey Flack has worked in the styles of Photorealism, New Realism, and Abstract Expression. One of her main philosophies on art is that it should be easily comprehended by the viewer, hence her interest in realism. After encountering the painter Jackson Pollack in a bar, she gave up Abstract Expressionism, leaving behind the machismo that Abstract Expressionism embraced. From there, she began her well-known Vanitas paintings.

     Flack’s PhotoRealist paintings were often in the Renaissance Vanitas vein; that is, still lifes created to remind the viewer that all life is mortal, and allude to figures such as Marilyn Monroe. Tarot enthusiasts may be familiar with her painting, Wheel of Fortune, a Vanitas featuring the Wheel of Fortune card from the Tarot, lipstick, a human skull, and dice. She is much less known for her sculptural works, which although executed in a somewhat Classical, Realist style, are all of mythological subjects. She began creating these sculptures in the 1980s, all of Goddesses, and meant to show the beauty of feminine strength. Many of these sculptures, such as Egyptian Rocket Goddess, combine the beauty of ancient Greek sculpture with modern themes. Flack herself refers to the sculptures as “Postpost modern,” indicating the fusion of an ancient aesthetic with a very contemporary sensibility. In 1992, Flack created matching twenty-two-foot-high Goddess sculptures for Tech Park in Rock Hill, South Carolina, called “Gateway,” as a means of bringing the town into the future (Strickland, 2012). The sculptures were transformative to the town, bringing it from its blue collar past into a more modern, multicultural present and future.

Kenyan born, but now living in Brooklyn, NY, Wangechi Mutu arguably brings the most multi-cultural, indeed multi-continental aesthetic to this discussion. Using collage and mixed media, Mutu creates works about being female and being in a female body. She says, “Females carry the marks, language, and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” With her scissors, she uses imagery from fashion magazines to critique the Western gaze towards women, and also to examine the changes in women’s bodies through transformations both natural and medical.

     In the collage, The Bride Who Married a Camel’s Head, from 2006, a squatting woman with a snake wrapped around her waist seems a melding of fashion magazine beauty and modern horror as she holds aloft an African mask with blood spurting out of its mouth. The image is a heady statement on the wages of colonialism and imperialism.  Wngechi Mutu has also taken on the art of animation to create the eight-minute short film, The End of Eating Everything. This very surrealistic film confronts the modern reality of consumption, conservation, and hunger, and features Mutu’s own head superimposed on a strange body that moves as if through water towards a flock of birds, trying to bite them, to consume them, as words on the screen note, “It has been this way a long time.” It is a commentary on global warming, human interventions on the earth that are threatening the environment. In the collage, Cancer of the Uterus, it is now the female body that is threatened in a very intimate way. A huge goddess formed out of a uterus featuring a large lipsticked mouth peers out at the viewer from fur and black glitter. In both of these works, she tells the tale of violence towards a body, whether it is a human female or that of the earth itself.

The work of Wangechi Mutu would be powerful enough on its own, but this amazing artist has also created a campaign called “Africa’s Out,” referring to the often beleaguered LGBTQIA communities of the African Union. The campaign kicked off in 2015 with an art exhibition featuring artists from all over the world to bring attention to the crisis of the LGBTQI people living in Africa, often in areas where homosexuality is not only outlawed but punishable by death. Like all of the artists in this article, Wangechi Mutu is working towards empowering and transforming herself, women, and the world with her artworks.

     The final commentary is to note that when working in a style that requires the artist to imagine other possible worlds, the artist can create change, transforming not only their life but the lives of those around them. Knowledge of lesser known female artists from the past is critical in empowering all people in the present to seek new ways of thinking and being in the world. Looking at female artists that have been forgotten or neglected in the standard art history narrative must be addressed, and artists from our own time must not be ignored.  Women such as Leonora Carrington show us that not only did the female Surrealists rise above the “femme enfant” role chosen for them by their male counterparts, they created astonishing works. In the case of Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, friendships formed which allowed for mutual support and admiration.  Leonor Fini had rebelled since childhood against traditional modes of thinking and created artwork about powerful women.  Inspired by dreams and ancient ceremonies, Ann McCoy’s drawings and sculptures take the viewer into hidden and sacred realms. Although she considers herself more of a realist, Audrey Flack’s work, through its subject matter and sheer size, proclaims women as goddesses.  Finally, the youngest artist of all mentioned here, creates multi-media, interdisciplinary works to raise consciousness about current issues. These artists and their forbears remind us that one does not have to bow to a rigid mode of portraying the world and can indeed imagine realms where women and men can be sphinxes, birds, and gods.


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Helena Domenic is an Associate Professor of Art History and Fine Art at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. She teaches various courses on African Art and art history as well as several studio courses in drawing and painting. Helena holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and an MA in Art Education from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Helena is also an Elder in the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and has lectured at numerous venues throughout the country, including Pantheacon, Sacred Space, Free Spirit Gathering, Ecumenicon, and many others. She is also an accomplished professional artist and has shown her artwork at a variety of galleries in the United States and abroad, in addition to having published a Tarot deck and book, The Fellowship of the Fool. Helena’s artwork may be viewed at http://www.mythandwonder.com.