Fantastic Women – Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Frida Kahlo

Meret Oppenheim: Souvenir of “Breakfast in Fur”, 1972; mixed media : fur, cloth, felt and plastic; collection Christiane Meyer-Thoss, Frankfurt am Main

I saw this exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle on 24 June 2020 (currently it is on show at the Luisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark, from 25 July till 8 November 2020) This was the second exhibition I was able to visit after the Corona lockdown. And it was a real positive surprise for me to see that Surrealism was taken up by so many women! You can almost say that it was a female movement (where as usual the men did get most of the attentiontion). The exhibition showed 260 works by 35 female artists, of whom I will show a selection, mostly of those who are using textile and other materials in their art.

The women surrealists wanted to change society, to escape bourgeois limitations and classic gender roles. In no other Modernist move­ment have female artists played such a signif­i­cant role as in Surre­alism. In the early 1930s, many of them came to Paris and joined the group that had formed around the move­ment’s founder André Breton. They wanted to change society and to escape bour­geois limi­ta­tions and classic gender role attri­bu­tion. Dreams, meta­mor­phosis, the subcon­scious and the female body all feature frequently in works by the female Surre­al­ists, while at the same time the works are often char­ac­ter­ized by a playful, self-aware approach to such themes.

Meret Oppenheim: Evening dress with Bra-strap Necklace, 1968, Mannequin torso, glass beads. oil paint, broken glass, textile; Collection Pictet

Meret Oppenheim, born 1913 in Berlin, drops out of school and goes to Paris in 1932. Until 1937 she is part of the surrealist circle around André Breton. In 1936 she creates the work Breakfast in Fur, a fur covered teacup which immediately becomes the quintessential Surrealist object. It is aquired for the Museum of Modern Art, New York in the same year. From 1937 on she lives in Basel. She becomes close friends with Leonor Fini. With her, Max Ernst , and others, she participates in a 1939 exhibition of fantastic furniture in Paris. Oppenheim will report later that she fall into a creative crisis which last 18 years. Nevertheless , she creates important works during the 1840s and 1950s. In 1959 she organizes Spring Banquet  which is restaged later that year at the Exposition internationale du surréalisme(EROS) in Paris, albeit in altered form, leading Oppenheim to dissociate herself from all further Surrealist manifestations

Frieda Kahlo: Selfe Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940; Oil on Canvas; Collection of Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Nickolas Murray Collection of Modern Mexican Art

A center of the Surre­alist scene devel­oped in Mexico around the now famous painter Frida Kahlo. Even though she did not consider herself a Surre­alist, Kahlo accepted an invi­ta­tion from André Breton and exhib­ited in Paris in 1939. There, she forged many friend­ships with female artists in the group. Not only Kahlo’s art, but also the culture of her home­land fasci­nated both male and female Surre­al­ists on multiple levels: the abun­dant nature, the rich pre-Columbian past, and the tradi­tional Mexican festi­vals and folk art.

Frida Kahlo: Diego and Frida, 1929 – 1944, 1944; Oil on wood with shell frame; Private Collection, Courtesy Galeria Arvil
Louise Bourgeois: Fragile Goddess, 1970; Clay, painted gold; Private Collection, New York

Louise Bour­geois, who actu­ally never exhib­ited with the group, but closely explored Surre­alism and its theo­ries during the 1930s while living in Paris. Her works incor­po­rate Surre­alist ideas and themes: an enquiry into the female body, ques­tions of iden­tity and, not least, dream-like and abstract elements. Meta­mor­phosis also plays an impor­tant role in Bour­geois’ artistic creativity. Her body of work, which is often seen as very contem­po­rary today, brings the Surre­alist approach firmly into the present.

This exhibition, which was planned in the Schirn Kunsthalle from February 13 to May 24, 2020, was held until the end of June, but is now still on view until 8 November 2020 at the Luisiana Art Museum, Humlebæk, Denmark. The catalog is still in demand: FANTASTIC WOMEN. SURREAL WORLDS FROM MERET OPPENHEIM TO FRIDA KAHLO, editor of Ingrid Pfeiffer. With a foreword by Philipp Demandt from the SCHIRN and Poul Erik Tøjner from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk. With the accession of Patricia Allmer, Teresa Arcq, Heike Eipeldauer, Annabelle Görgen-Lammers, Karoline Hille, Alyce Mahon, Christiane Meyer-Thoss, Laura Neve, Silvano-Abgabe, Ingrid Pfeiffer, Gabriel Weisz, as well. English edition, approx. 420 pages, 350 illustrations, 24 x 29 cm, hardcover, Hirmer Verlag, approx. € 39 (SCHIRN), € 49.90 (book trade).

Louise Bourgeois: View at the exhibition Fantastic Woman; diverse sculptures, hanging and standing, made of wood, stainless steel and bronze
Meret Oppenheim: Yellow Mask, 1936; Papier mâché painted, black fur; private collection Switzerland
Meret Oppenheim: Mask with Bäh-Tongue; wire mesh, plastic hemispheres , velvet tongue with inscription; private collection
Eileen Agar: Untitled, 1936; collage on paper; The Penrose Collection
Bridget Tichenor: the Imprisoned, 1965; Four stacked wooden cages with bars and painted Masonite heads inside; Private Collection, Mexico
Dorothea Tanning: Don Juan´s Breakfast, 1972; Velvet, wool flannel, wool, sawdust, metal, cardboard; Modern Museen, Stockholm, donation from the artist
Dorothea Tanning: By What Love, 1970; Tweed, metal,wood, chain and plush ; Centre Pompidou, Paris