Impressionist & Modern Art

“The Problem of Woman”: Female Surrealists and their Unique Brand of Mystery

By Siân Folley

NEW YORK - “The problem of woman,” André Breton wrote in 1929, “is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that there were no female Surrealists of note. Not one of André Breton’s highly choreographed promotional group photographs includes a woman, for instance. And yet, as Whitney Chadwick asserts in her pioneering study Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, “no artistic movement since the Nineteenth Century has celebrated the idea of Woman as passionately as did Surrealism, and no group or movement has ever defined such a revolutionary role for her” (Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, New York, 1985, inside front cover). In most cases, however, the stories of these strong revolutionary women have been lost in the retelling, and the women of Surrealism were often dismissed as adored muses first, artists second. Indeed, as Chadwick remarks: “we know more about Kiki of Montparnasse and Nadja than we do of Lee Miller and Valentine Hugo”!

The Surrealist Leonor Fini.

In the Surrealist canon, the female figure is the supreme symbol for all that is erotic and, above all, creative. There is a sad irony, then, in the knowledge that the female artists who found they had a natural affinity with the movement faced such a remarkably difficult challenge in asserting their self-identity and artistic freedom. Those who rose to the challenge, however, produced an extraordinarily flamboyant and often controversial canon of paintings, writings and objets that are only now beginning to garner the same global attention that their male colleagues have long enjoyed.

This coming fall season, Sotheby’s is proud to present a remarkable range of works by female artists associated with the Surrealist movement across several different collecting categories. Highlights include Leonor Fini’s mesmerizing oil Portrait Surréaliste d’Adriana Williams and Eileen Agar’s Woman’s Head in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day sale on Wednesday November 4th 2014, as well as Toyen’s masterpiece The Message of the Forest, which will be sold as part of a single owner sale of Czech Avant-Garde Art from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection at Sotheby’s London on  November 12th 2014. Other offerings this season include Leonora Carrington’s The Temptation of St. Anthony and Remedios Varo’s Hacia La Torre both from the Visions of Grandeur: Masterworks from the Collection of Lorenzo Zambrano sale, to be held at Sotheby’s New York on November 24th 2014, and an extraordinary collection of the intimate correspondence of Frida Kahlo in the Books & Manuscripts sale at Sotheby’s New York on December 2nd 2014.

Leonor Fini’s Portrait surréaliste d'Adriana (Portrait of Adriana Williams), Estimate $200,000-300,000. Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, Sotheby’s New York, 5 November 2014.

Talented, flamboyant, and often controversial, Leonor Fini was a virtually self-taught artist whose provocative art and vivacious personality quickly garnered her a place at the heart of the Parisian art world. Having been raised in Northern Italy by her fiercely independent mother, Fini arrived in Paris in 1931, when she was just 24 years old. She found she had a natural affinity with the Surrealists, soon developing close ties with the leading writers and painters of the group – including Paul Éluard, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, and Max Ernst – and often exhibiting with them, although she objected to the overt misogyny of André Breton and never considered herself a Surrealist in the strictest sense. Painted in 1957–58, Portrait surréaliste d’Adriana is perhaps Leonor Fini’s most enigmatic and hauntingly beautiful portrait and undoubtedly testament to these artists’ enduring influence on her work. Fini’s characteristic rich, swirling golden background bears particular comparison with the grattage technique of Max Ernst and is present in many of the artist’s most iconic paintings, including La Toilette inutile of 1964.

Eileen Agar’s Woman’s Head. Estimate $10,000–15,000. Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, Sotheby’s New York, 5 November 2014.

Executed in 1942, Woman’s Head is indicative of Eileen Agar’s adaptation and manipulation of the Surrealist aesthetic with which she surrounded herself. After graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1926, Agar moved to Paris where she soon struck up a friendship with the Surrealist protagonists André Breton and Paul Éluard. Her collaboration with Paul Nash led him to recommend her work to Roland Penrose and Herbert Read, organizers of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London, making Agar the only female British artist included in the show. By 1940 her works had been shown in Surrealist exhibitions in Amsterdam, New York, Paris and Tokyo.

Toyen’s Message from the Forest. Estimate £700,000-1,000,000. Czech Avant-Garde form the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection, Sotheby’s London, 12 November 2014.

Toyen's masterpiece and one of the most enduring images of Czech Surrealism, Message from the Forest of 1936 shows the artist at her innovative and figural best. Painted on a large format – the largest in Toyen's oeuvre, repeated in only a handful of other works – The Message of the Forest is the culmination of a subject that Toyen first explored in the three versions of Hlas vesa "The Voice of the Forest" of 1934, now in public collections in Paris, Prague, and Brno. Against a dark, mysterious wooded background that bears comparison with the grattage technique of Max Ernst, looms an owl-like beast bearing in its one remaining claw the severed head of a woman. The dramatic painterly virtuosity with which Toyen has built up the creature's body, together with the striking electric blue and bright green palette, contrast with the vague expression and more sober execution of the head, producing a prime example of the unsettling 'convulsive beauty' which for André Breton represented the aim of Surrealism in the visual arts.

Leonora Carrington’s The Temptation of St. Anthony. Estimate $1,800,000–2,200,000. A Vision of Grandeur : Masterworks from the Collection of Lorenzo Zambrano, Sotheby’s New York, 24 November 2014.

In the mid-1940s, a filmmaker named Albert Lewin organized a competition of ten reputable artists to produce a painting to be featured in one of his movies. Lewin asked Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Dorothea Tanning, Paul Delvaux and others to paint a surrealist version of an often repeated subject in art and literature: The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Commenting on her own entry, the present work, at the time it was exhibited at Pierre Matisse’s New York Gallery in 1948, the eternally humorous and cryptic Leonora Carrington said: “The picture seems pretty clear to me, being a more or less a literal rendering of St Anthony complete with pig, desert and temptation. Naturally, one could ask why the venerable holy man has three heads, to which one could always reply, why not?” The competition jury was composed of Alfred Barr, first director of MoMA, Marcel Duchamp and Sidney Janis. Dalí participated with one of his best known paintings ,now at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Max Ernst's version, now at the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, Germany won the competition with a version much inspired on Grunewald and other early Renaissance German painters.

Remedios Varo’s Hacia La Torre. Estimate $2,500,000–3,500,000. A Vision of Grandeur : Masterworks from the Collection of Lorenzo Zambrano, Sotheby’s New York, 24 November 2014.

Of Spanish origin, Remedios Varo Uranga emigrated to Mexico in 1941, fleeing the savagery in Europe accompanied by the poet Benjamin Péret. Varo had studied at the prestigious Academy of San Fernando in Madrid before traveling to Barcelona and then on to Paris where she met the artists of the European avant-garde and joined the circle of André Breton. She went on to participate in the exhibition of Surrealist objects in 1936 in Paris and was included by Alfred Barr in the landmark exhibition of Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York that same year. It was the work she produced in Mexico—including the present work, Hacia la Torre—that is considered the most significant of her career, however. In 1961 she painted her most ambitious work, a triptych in the manner of the great Flemish paintings she so admired. Hacia la torre is the first pictorial manifesto of this trilogy and, without a doubt, one of her most iconic works; filled with biographical references possible only in the creativity she rediscovered in her beloved Mexico.

Frida Kahlo’s Correspondence to Diego Rivera 1940s-1953. Estimate $80,000–120,000. Books & Manuscripts, Sotheby’s New York, 2 December 2014.

An exceptional collection of rare autograph letters which touch on the most intimate subjects of the artist’s life, including love letters which are four and six pages long. Signed "Fisita", "Frida la llorona", "Tu Frida", "Tu antiquísima ocultadora", "Tu antigua ocultadora y niña Fisita," Kahlo's words embody the fierce passion which existed between her and Diego Rivera and led to their famous remarriage. Many of the letters furthermore reveal her tenderness and care for him as they are written in an endearing style in various ink and pencil colours, and in unusual types and sizes of paper. One of the notes bears a dried carnation; this floral scent was Kahlo's favorite perfume. Also included here are the couple’s second marriage certificate, several romantic envelopes used as note leaves, and a Yin Yang symbol drawn on a leaf which is a recurrent image in both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s work and appears many times in her diary. Kahlo is notably depicted holding this symbol in Rivera's magnificent mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central [Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Central Alameda]. This Chinese symbol becomes a metaphor for Rivera and Kahlo’s complex relationship: Rivera began as Kahlo’s mentor; they then married, separated, and got back together; they were political comrades; and they painted each other frequently. 

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's