Frida Kahlo and Other Artists of the Surrealist Movement

In respect of the Surrealist movement and the works it produced throughout its era, women were always participants, nevertheless, they were not active ones until the group’s latter days. Surrealism was an artistic movement which Breton construed as the “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express the actual functioning of thought. […] in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”, as stated by Lee in her article, ‘The Overlooked Women of Surrealism’. This “moral concern” did not apply to women until the breakthrough of eminent figures such as Remedios Varo Uranga, better known as Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo. However, even these influential artists found that it was difficult to become accepted by this avant-garde group. While, in these artists’ early days they did not define themselves as surrealist artists however, they were affiliated to the movement through relationships with male members and through the elements in their works which were defined as surrealist artistic methods.

Initially, women were perceived as articles of the masculine lust and cherished aspiration. Not only this but they were also depicted as passive but desirous objects through the eyes of this male dominated movement. A prime example of this is René Magritte’s ‘Je ne vois pas la cachée dans la forêt’ work from 1929. This image shows an unclothed, individual woman surrounded by widely known male surrealist artists, with their eyes closed. The image enhances the reality at the time; that women were perceived as conceited objects. With the men’s eyes being closed, it alludes to the blindness to any but their personal subjective and internal realism as well as their fantasies. Taking into consideration the societal situation adhered to by women for decades, they were seen as confounded and fixated figures who were used as muses in abundance in surrealist objets d’art. This embodiment was a burden for many female artists as it prevented them from becoming members of the new experimental artistic group. The hinderance impeded their progression in the art domain until they each decided to revolt. This revolt occurred through their artistic talents and determination to overcome the multifaceted issues they faced, such as constraints in the domesticity realm, and complying with the role of the passive object.

Having studied various surrealist artists, Dairywala claims that the male artists displayed the female body as one that was curtailed to cleavage and legs. On the contrary, female surrealist artists took charge of the representation of the female body and portrayed it as one complete and whole individual, altering it to a “site of resistance, psychic power, and creative energy”, according to LaBate.

This paper will aim to discuss the contrasting portrayal of the human form by both male and female artists such as Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí. Works from these artists were chosen as they are deemed suitably contrasting examples regarding the different extremes in which the representation of the body was presented during the Surrealist movement which Juler describes as a “festering cauldron of unconscious desires, endocrine flows and sanguineous currents”.

As previously mentioned, the theory behind Surrealism was dissimilar for male and female artists. LaBate declares that since Surrealism gave way to the liberating mind, it wanted to “bypass the thinking mind and activate unconscious feelings, which would enable to render images of suppressed fears and emotions in their art”. This authorised female and male artists alike, to conceptualise the body in whichever preferred manner. For that reason works were completed upon two sources of progressive creativity from both counterparts. The first one being the envisaged, which emanated from the sage and was produced by men, with the second source being, the assimilated, which derived from occurrences and was created primarily by women.

The principal analogy to be seen in the works of the aforementioned artists, is that of the primary use of the body as a narration for the viewer, in a unique fashion, of emotions, desires, and former life experiences. During the early phase of the Surrealist movement women loathed the male surrealist automatism and the use of their bodies as muses. Nonetheless, within this context, the biggest contrast to be noted regarding the use of the human body in these surrealist works was how the representation of it was compassed by opposing artists. While the vicious approach taken by the male artists resulted in a collection described by Conley as an “anti-female manipulation of the female form”, the female artists represented their bodies in a more respectful attitude, giving the female body a more powerful, independent and esteemed perception.

The contrasting section of this paper will focus on two works by Remedios Varo, ‘Exploración de las fuentes del río Orinoco’ (1959) and ‘Armonía’ (1956). These paintings are being discussed as they are prime examples of how female artists’, “experiences justified their interpretation of femininity”, according to Jacqueline Yvonne White. The body that Remedios Varo represents is one reared on independence, adventure and creativity.

In the painting of ‘Exploración de las fuentes del río Orinoco’ by Remedios Varo, we are presented to the theme of journey. The central figure is a female one, attired in an Inspector Gadget-like outfit. She has a serious look of concentration on her face, or perhaps one of sheer curiosity, as she approaches a newly discovered, untouched, overflowing goblet, which is perceived as the source of the venezuelan river, the Orinoco. The playful element of creativity in this picture is evident from the waistcoat-cum-boat vessel in which the explorer is contained. The watercraft and the explorer and intertwined through thin, white strings, which the explorer uses to control the direction of the travelling vessel, or rather, they control her and guide her towards the goblet, or ‘the source’. This element of adventure was not something that was presented in surrealist works by male artists.

The representation of a female explorer overthrows the conventional idea of the male in seek of adventure and presents, what Kaplan referred to as a resolute woman. Remedios Varo has reconstructed the representation of the female body to a pictorial narrative to portray an active figure, out exploring the depths of nature. The relationship between female and nature is evident in this picture, in the womb-like or egg-shaped vessel. The fact that childbearing was abhorred by male artists who were members of the Surrealist movement, Remedios Varo, emphasises the importance of a woman’s role within the cycle of nature through the structure of this craft. Given that the explorer travels in a vessel of this description alludes to the idea that the artist wished to portray a female figure in search of adventure and excitement, always accompanied by a reminder of the relevance and significance of woman to nature.

In Remedios Varo’s second painting, ‘Armonía’ from 1956, the theme of music is demonstrated. Music is something that was associated with the bourgeoisie, however, in this context, Remedios Varo uses it to depict an intellectual and creative figure, which similar to the figure in the previously discussed painting, is a female. As stated by Zaplana, the idea behind music, is that it is an element of harmony and spiritual power which helps to sustain against opposition or precariousness. Even though there is a female figure as the focal point of this painting, it is important to distinguish that it is an alchemist, androgynous female one, as a consequence of the appearance and the apparel. The notion of the alchemy comes from the figure being dressed in a white lab coat and in the act of creation on the musical stave. Unlike the source in ‘Exploración de las fuentes del río Orinoco’, which was an overflowing goblet, in this painting, the figure is the source of creativeness. The fact that this figure is the center of attention emphasizes the role of the female being the creator, the musical composer and the scientist all at once. This alludes to the idea that Remedios Varo intended to breach the frontier of gender roles and the patriarchal dominance. This suggests a pursuit of the self-reliant female figure on a quest for her individual identity by creating a compelling image of a woman with a purpose outside of the domain of domesticity and within the boundaries of creativity and intellectuality. Even though the figure in the painting is encased in a room it is not a kitchen, a cleaning room nor one in relation to the domestic. It further enhances the power behind creativeness that is being carried out by this figure, as we see random objects throughout the picture, waiting to be placed on the stave at which the figure is seated and attending to. She is the advocate and a central element to Remedios Varos’ works, through which she represents the experience of women as a creator outside of the realm of fertility and the domain of domesticity. This image is a representation of the woman as an aspect of a harmonious universe and it confronts the antiquated undermining of the female figure.

There can be comparisons drawn, regarding the representation of the body in works by the well-known artists, Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí. These artists, albeit presenting works based on different experiences, present the human body in a vehement and vivid manner.

While the paintings of the encumbered Dalí came as a result of the absurd as he challenged the standard norms of society, he displayed the female body in a very negative manner. As discussed in ‘The European Avant-Garde: Text and Image’, Dalí represented the body as “frequently violated”, “fragmented, decomposed and distorted”, he often removed body parts meanwhile, “extra parts are added”. Childhood experiences, such as his father engaging with prostitutes and educating Dalí about the transmission of STIs, contorted his concept, not only of his own sexuality but also of the human body. As a result of this, throughout his life, he was sensitive to the women in his presence. He vividly portrayed salient figures such as his sister in his earlier works and his wife Gala, which were much more innocent and pleasing to the eye. However, his career took a climactic turn which meant that his representations and their meanings throughout his progressive artistic course differed. This eventually led to the depiction of distorted, unpleasant female figures in his works, such as ‘Joven virgen autosodomizada por los cuernos de su propia castidad’ (1954). These paintings also contain powerful anatomical features which enhance the eccentric representation of the human body.

The title alone of ‘Joven virgen autosodomizada por los cuernos de su propia castidad’ is vexing and unpleasant for the viewer. The plethora of phallic objects present throughout, further enhance the title of the painting. In addition to this, it is a heightened representation of the human body and of allusions to sexual activity. It is therefore an adequate portrayal by Dalí regarding violent and loathsome connotation. The stance of the female figure is significant to this sexual overtone since the title of the work contains the word autosodomizada, which comes from the verb sodomize but, in this case, she will sodomize herself. Her own legs appear to be crossed over in the bottom half of the picture, however, around her buttocks area, Dalí has replaced it with an oversized rear, as an emphasis of the hint to sexual misconduct and the possibility of penetration from the floating horn-shaped phallic objects that are exerted in this painting. As mentioned in the opening section of this paper, Dalí has represented this body curbed to state of nudity. Unlike the female body represented by Remedios Varo, the purity of femininity has been overpowered by these phallic objects and the amendment Dalí has done to the figure, in order to convey this bold statement. By doing this Dalí has challenged the confining structure of the founded society and demeans it.

Frida Kahlo’s painting ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ (1932) is a representation of herself, evidently in pain and anguish. She is surrounded by six distinct objects, each one being significant to her and everything she experienced throughout her life. Unlike Dalí’s painting, this one is a depiction of personal space, powerlessness and disjointment. On a comparative note, a similar aspect about this image and Dalí’s one previously discussed, is the representation of the naked female body. The distress depicted in Frida Kahlo’s work is heart-wrenching, as we know that she had a miscarriage and then was informed that could never conceive a full term which had a huge negative impinge on her. Presented in the picture is a male fetus which may suggest that of her miscarried son. There is a fetus which proposes the idea of a theme of the medical world and hospitals which is presented in the image, as well as the title. Also, to be seen, is an orchid on the floor, which may be perceived as a uterus given the context of the painting and the shape it holds as it has been placed in the bottom half of the picture. As the figure holds her stomach, the “umbilical cords” are actually red ribbons, appearing from her body.

Finally, the last object is that of a snail. A snail is a symbolic creature in literature and art. It symbolises slow-moving processes. In this frame of reference, the snail may allude to the operation carried out consequently of the miscarriage Frida Kahlo experienced. Similarly, to the work of Dalí, the figure in Kahlo’s work is interesting, as the posture is striking much alike the female in Dalí’s painting. In ‘Henry Ford Hospital’, we are shown the body in a slightly twisted form; her top half is facing the viewer, meanwhile, her bottom half is curled away, yet allowing us to see what is occurring. By means of this posture, not only does it add to the aching experience of the figure but it also emphasizes the role of the female in the cycle of life. Furthermore, it is a portrayal of the helplessness and undeserving suffering experienced by women. This last point links back to the image by Remedios Varo and how women are perceived as the pivot of the circle of life.

To draw a conclusion to this paper, even though the aforementioned female artists were latecomers to the movement, they had a profound effect on the group and on the artistic domain. Through their works they inhabited disparate attractive insights of women vis-à-vis men. Meanwhile, on the contrary, the male artists took it upon themselves to depict and accentuate the means of the unconscious and even the subconscious. They believed that these regnant human features had an impact on the artistic creations by means of dreams, fantasies and desires. This led to the perennial motif of the nude female body during the early era of the movement. On the other hand, female surrealist artists were apt to focusing their attention on personal facts of existence which they confirmed through the medium of both the unconscious mind and the concept of dreams. However, it was not depicted in a fantasy way similar to that of the male surrealist artists, but in a self-referentiality form which allows us to comprehend the symbolic meaning and personal reworking of the boundary which surrealism offered – that of the interior realm and the exterior representation.

Women represented the body in a less sexualised manner, yet, portraying impelling images of independent and creative femininity. As stated by Belton, female surrealist artists attempted to conceptualise “a new perspective on the very function of representation itself in contemporary society”.