A Paper on Colonial Realities In Western Art Movements: Women In Surrealism

Surrealism was both a movement of literature and art. Its purpose was seeing to rejecting the pervasiveness of the Rationalism and Enlightenment periods/movements of the 17th and 18th century respectively. These periods constituted of intellectual and “rational change” (History.com Editors 2018) of authority by focusing on the individual through a series of culture shifts (books, wars, revolutions etc.), hence the decline of the church’s influence and that of perception through the senses. In its rejection, Surrealism advocated for the freedom of “thought, language and human experience…” (Mann 2016) through practices such as automatism and drawing inspiration from Freud’s psychoanalysis. Surrealism was able to move from its Parisian origins and spread to the Americas through European exiles during World War 2 (WWII). The movement focused on the unconscious and subconscious which were recognized as the origin of dreams, imagination and creativity. Surrealism also celebrated madness which was believed (in Surrealist circles) to heighten creativity. Breton (founder of Surrealism) justified madness by blaming the state for limiting creativity through the law and this is realised in his debut 1924 manifesto in which he states:

“We all know, in fact, that the insane owe their incarceration to a tiny number of legally reprehensible acts and that, were it not for these acts, their freedom, (or what we see as their freedom) would not be threatened. I am willing to admit that it induces them not to pay attention to certain rules- outside of which the species feels itself threatened- which we are all supposed to know and respect.” (Breton 1924:3)

While Surrealism was premised on the agenda of liberating, this liberation maintained an effect of ‘othering’ by the men of Surrealism and the questionable nature of the label ‘madness’ and who it served. In Breton’s novel Nadja (1928) we witness a romance between Breton and a psychiatric patient who is also his muse. In the conception of her character Breton has “institutionalised the concept of the Surrealist female, one who was almost totally dependent upon her male companion and who belonged to her mate.” (Stent 2011:7). What this ultimately means is that while the men of Surrealism could be celebrated for their insanity and hypersexualise or fetishise their muses for the purposes of ‘creativity’ (Spector 1997:164), the Surrealist woman’s madness was seen as enough reason for her to be incarcerated or institutionalised. For further motivation of this claim, Breton (1924:14) writes, “And anyway, isn’t what matters that we be the masters of ourselves, the masters of women, and of love too?”. Essentially the Surrealist woman (coined as the femme-enfant by Surrealist men) is seen as an ‘object’ or fuel for the Surrealist man’s creativity. The 20th century woman’s role was characterized as wife, mother, irrational muse (in need of ‘rational masculinity’) or lover and any further contribution was often overlooked. This then leads to the aim of this essay: In putting aside the overplayed ideas of “truth”, “reality”, “authenticity and “mimesis” of the twentieth century male gaze and misogyny, this essay will reflect on the contributions of women Surrealists and how they tackled issues of representation, gender, sexuality and the reclamation of the ‘muse’ title in their own Surrealism. This will be done through exploring the works of artists, Frida Kahlo and Leonor Fini.

Referred to as “the reluctant surrealist” by Stent (2011:181), Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo often objected to being labelled a surrealist artist despite having had her works displayed at Surrealist exhibitions. She would respond to the label by saying “I never painted dreams. I paint my own reality” (Kahlo in Haynes 2007:126) although her work is paralleled to Surrealist concepts in that there exists a duality of her real life and the expression of her deepest (subconscious) emotions in her work. These features were synonymous to the Surrealist movement. With the movement’s founder being quite the homophobic and typical white, ‘cisgendered’, heterosexual male, a lot of the Surrealist inner circle followed suit in these sentiments. This heteronormative and conventional approach appeared in their works, particularly in addressing sex, sexuality and gender. Kahlo challenges the normative sexual and gender conventions of the early 20th century both in social interactions and fine arts by making use of her self-portraiture. It is also important to note that Kahlo was not fond of Breton and found him to be ostentatious and arrogant (Josten 2006:26).

The first work we look at in Kahlo’s challenging is Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (Fig 1) painted in 1940. In this piece we witness the most overt challenge to the conventions of femininity at the time to be the suit Kahlo has on. With the many interpretations of the work comes speculation that the suit she is wearing is in fact her then recently ex-husband, Diego Rivera’s. The floor in the image is littered with her hair and a distinct lock on her lap as she sits on a chair, holding a pair of scissors in between her legs. At the top of the piece are the lyrics from a popular Mexican song “”Mira site quise, fué por el pelo, ahoraque estás pelona, yanote quiero” which are translated to mean, “Look, if I desired you, it was for your hair; now that you’re bald, I no longer desire you” (Josten 2006:29). Given the recent events in her life at the time with the divorce as well as her growing independence as an artist- having had recent exhibitions in both New York and Paris- we may view Frida’s androgynous approach or look as her declaration of being an individual female artist who can participate in a male dominated arena of fine arts as an equal by giving herself masculine agency. Her wearing the suit may also be her posing the question of whether she must be a man or perform masculinity to succeed as an artist (Stent 2011:200). It may also to a degree be directed at Rivera in proclaiming that she is stepping outside of his shadow as a lover and a fellow artist (the act of cutting her hair and the song lyrics). As Josten (2006:29) states, “Kahlo does not have to maintain her long, feminine hair in order to keep his love as she is now a self-sufficient, professional and unconventional woman in her own right…” Furthermore, by rejecting aspects commonly known to be associated with femininity (such as hair, the way women should sit and attire), she is extending the confines of gender and sexuality in both her personal and artistic demeanor by trying to increase categories in the identity spectrum. The wearing of the suit may also be her suggesting her interest in women/association to lesbianism in that lesbians have been and are stereotypically associated with masculine attire or androgynous features. It is her making a statement about how her femininity extends the traditional Mexican female who wears her hair in a plait(s) and wears colourful dresses (that Rivera so admired). It is multifaceted which is why she still keeps the earrings and short heels on- she is not eliminating her femininity; she is broadening and redefining it. We also see this in what the pair of scissors could symbolise:

“…the appearance of scissors also parallels a playfulness that exists throughout Surrealism. In this instance Kahlo appears to tease and provoke the viewer with the weapon, her prop providing a sexual gesture that alludes to her bisexuality…” (Stent 2011:202)

This quote suggests that in her positioning of the role she played in a homosexual relationship, she could take on or perform a more masculine or feminine role or both simultaneously and was not limited to one.

We can therefore say that although she rejected the ‘Surrealist’ label, her work was more synonymous to their principles than the Surrealist males themselves and this can be justified by Caws, Kuenzli and Raaberg (1991:8):

“Moreover, surrealist principles were dedicated to breaking down the binary oppositions of mind/body, rational/irrational, and art/nature that had functioned to identify woman with the rejected terms- body, irrationality and nature- and situate her in an inferior position”

Given the above quote we realise that Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair closely reflected the initial principles of Surrealism by desexualising Kahlo’s female body juxtaposed to the Surrealist man who reduced the femme-enfant to a sexual object with restricted agency. She claimed her agency and she furthermore blurred the lines of the heterosexual/homosexual binary opposition.

  Fig. 1 Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)

In continuing the theme of the binary opposite, we look at Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas) (Fig 2) (1939). Additionally, we explore the mutual dependence in this work and its binary opposites- internal organs are now external and the Frida on the left represents a Victorian European Frida (her German roots) while the slightly more ‘melanated’ Frida on the right represents her Mexican roots. With what each Frida carries/reveals we can decipher which is rational, which is irrational and why she needs both (highlighted by the two Fridas sharing a heart and joining hands in the middle- the Mexican one supporting the European one’s hand). The European Frida holds surgical clamp scissors to control her bleeding and prevent a haemorrhage. Her heart chamber appears to be empty and there are blood stains on her pure white dress as she sits with her legs closed, eyes distant from the viewer. She is more reserved. We can identify this Frida as the one after the divorce with Rivera. As the rational one who is literally and figuratively trying to keep living without him but seemingly she is doing so with great difficulty suggested by the distant expression on her face. The European identity can also be considered as unfamiliar to Frida which is why the viewer may read her as stiff and aloof. The Mexican Frida holds an oval portrait of Diego in her lap, her heart appears to be torn/broken and the main artery is wound up around her arm. She looks at the viewer directly, legs slightly spread under her skirt with colourful Mexican attire. This Frida seems to be more vibrant, nonchalant and relaxed. We can link the symbolism of Diego, the main artery, a torn heart (perhaps from all of Rivera’s affairs) and her expression to familiarity but also irrationality in possibly wanting to go back (of which she does when they remarry). In this piece Frida seems to be presenting two choices; that is if she chooses what she knows (Mexican Frida/Diego/irrationality) she risks death whereas if she chooses unfamiliarity (Modern and independent Frida/Survival/rationality) she risks unhappiness. None of the outcomes seem fair is what she seems to be expressing (with the stormy backdrop that both Fridas sit against) and then again perhaps if she merges the two there can be happiness. According to Greeves (in Scott 2017), a part of the Surrealist project was providing “new ways of seeing” which is exactly what Kahlo does in this work- offering us new and several ways of seeing her conundrum.

Fig. 2 Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas) (1939)

Like Kahlo, Leonor Fini- an Argentinian surrealist painter and designer- overthrew the ‘passive muse’ femme-enfant narrative of the male Surrealists by introducing and exuding the energy of the femme fatale- particularly in her use of the sphinx in her works. In describing the femme fatale, Grew (2015:3) states that:

“…her ambiguity came in many forms. She may create gender ambiguity by dressing and/or behaving in a ‘masculine’ manner – such as by participating in male-dominated spheres such as politics and medicine.”

He further mentions that she is commonly identified by western scholarship of the time (predominantly white heterosexual males) as the “the sexual temptress, the castrating destroyer; the polar opposite of the domesticated, passive woman (or muse) who is subservient to the needs of her man.” (Grew 2015:3). We learn that the femme fatale is a woman with agency in her ambiguous identity to the extent that it threatens social convention because she cannot be characterized within the bounds of limiting identity politics of the time. This can be seen in Fini’s The Alcove: An Interior with Three Women (Fig 3) (1939) as well as Sphinx Amalburga (Fig 4) (1941). In the former she pays homage to fellow Surrealist artist and friend, Leonora Carrington, by using her portrait as the ‘warrior woman’ wearing a breastplate. Carrington, at the forefront of the image, seems to be guarding the other two women lazing on the bed in the background. This may be a disruption of the patriarchal narrative that women need masculine protection and. It is a claim to power that women can perform those roles on their own. Sphinx Amalburga “Sphinx Protector” sees the surreal form of half woman and half sphinx watching over a restful and nude man. We immediately recognize the hybrid as the autonomous femme fatale as Fini has reversed the roles and characterized the male as the femme-enfant in need of the hybrid’s protection. This imagery is also powerful for the Surrealist woman because by maintaining the hybrid women’s sensuality she “…blurs binary notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ femininity, thereby resulting in ambiguity.” (Grew 2015:4)


Fig. 3 The Alcove: An Interior with Three Women (1939)

Fig. 4 Sphinx Amalburga (1941)  

It can therefore be said that the Surrealist women of the early 20th century played active and important roles in expanding the limited feminine identity Surrealist men thought they could birth (the femme-enfant). They were able to bring forward their merged realities and inner turmoil and desire through intuitive reality opposed to the imagined reality of the male Surrealists by placing themselves as the subjects of their own works- essentially speaking for themselves by themselves as presented in Kahlo’s self-portraits and Fini’s use of the Sphinx as a signifier of power transcending gender.




Breton, A., 1924, Manifesto of Surrealism, http://www.exquisitecorpse.com/assets/manifesto_of_surrealism.pdf

Caws, M.A., Kuenzli, R.E. & Raaberg, G.G, 1991, Surrealism and Women, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

Fini, L., 1941, Sphinx Amalburga (Sphinx Amoureaux), Oil on canvas, 15 x 18 inches

Grew, R., 2015, States of Transition: the femme fatale in the art of Fernand Khnopff and Leonor Fini, IN: Facos, M and Mednick T.J., (eds.) The Symbolist Roots of Modernism, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, pp 71-84

Haynes, A., 2007, (Re)Visions of Difference: Surrealist Encounters, Magical Realist Moments, Bi-Sexual Desires, ProQuest LLC, Cardiff University

Josten, J., 2006, Reconsidering Self-Portraits by Women Surrealists: A Case Study of Claude Cahun and Frida Kahlo, Atlantis

Kahlo, F., 1940, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, Oil on canvas, 15 3/4 x 11″ (40 x 27.9 cm), Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., © 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mann, J., 2016, How the Surrealist Movement Shaped the Course of Art History, 23 September, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-what-is-surrealism, Date of Access: 04 November 2018

Scott, I., 2017, The Pivotal Role That Women Have Played in Surrealism, 04 July, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-women-surrealism-muses-masters, Date of Access: 04 November 2018

Spector, J.J., 1997, Surrealist Art and Writing, 1919-39: The Gold of Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press