Cherchez la femme: Women and Surrealism, was the first female- only Surrealist sales exhibition, held at Sotheby’s in New York during September and October 2015. It is remarkable because the Surrealist period produced a number of female painters and sculptures, who have mostly be ignored or overshadowed by their much more famous male counterparts.
The exhibition celebrated the women artists at the heart of the Surrealist milieu, and it bought together over fifty world-class artworks by international female Surrealists, some obscure, some rather more well known. Dalí, at the height of his surrealist powers, during the 1930’s and 1940’s had various encounters with several of these female artists. Leonor Fini; Dora Maar, Leonara Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Kay Sage…. Some familiar, some less so… the truth is women artists during the surrealist movement were often dismissed as merely ‘muses’ ( indeed Dora Marr was the long- time mistress of Picasso…not a surrealist entirely, but certainly a contemporary of Dalí.)
One can name paintings by Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst, or recall the ‘ Son of Man’ with the apple floating in front of the face of the man in the painting by Magritte; it is much more difficult to identify an artwork by any of their female contemporaries. Frida Khalo, Mexico’s most famous surrealist artist, painted and exhibited in the USA during the 1930’s; her most famous painting being “The Two Frida’s” (1939).
Dora Maar was born in 1907 and met Picasso becoming his mistress during the 1930’s at the height of the surrealist period in France. Some of her famous artworks recently auctioned at Sotheby’s include photographs and abstract drawings, especially of Picasso with whom she had a tormented relationship. At the heart of the Surrealism milieu was another female artist, Dorothea Tanning. She was married to Max Ernest, and she lived to 101, dying recently in 2012. The surreal imagery of her paintings from the 1940s and her close friendships with artists and writers of the Surrealist Movement have led many to regard Tanning as a Surrealist painter, yet she developed her own individual style over the course of an artistic career that spanned six decades .As Tanning said in a New York Times interview in 2002, “Surrealism is a piece of history, and it has stained the consciousness of everyone.”