When Surrealism Came to Mexico

When Surrealism Came to Mexico

In Mexico City, expatriates who fled the horrors of post-war Europe commingled with the vibrant scene of local artists to produce some of the most enchanting Surrealist art.
In Mexico City, expatriates who fled the horrors of post-war Europe commingled with the vibrant scene of local artists to produce some of the most enchanting Surrealist art.

W hat conditions made Mexico City such fertile ground for the Surrealists?

In 1936, while planning a visit, André Breton asked the Guatemalan writer and diplomat Luis Cardoza y Aragón for an introduction to the city’s dynamic cultural scene. Aragón’s famous reply painted the metropolis in an appealingly mystical light: “We live in a land of convulsive beauty, the land of edible delusions,” he wrote, “a place for the mutable, the disturbing… in short, a land of dream, unavoidable by the surrealist spirit.” Soon after, Breton moved there with his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, and Surrealism found its second home. The City of Palaces would soon play host to a cast of European expatriates who fled fascism to live among a vital community of Mexican artists and intellectuals.

“Mexico City in the 1940s was a fascinating nexus of different artistic currents, home to some of the most exciting avant-garde movements in the world at that moment,” says Emily Nice, an AVP specialist in Latin American art at Sotheby’s. “In this decade, which scholars of Western art tend to think of as a dark period, Mexico City is a thriving hotbed of creativity as an old guard of established artists, the Muralists, mix with younger painters like Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo, the influx of Surrealists from Europe and American artists like Robert Motherwell and Edward Weston.”

Against this backdrop of cultural syncretism and experimentation, many artists were inspired to channel new modes of creative expression. Now, a group of exceptional works by Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini and others will feature in Sotheby’s upcoming New York Sales this May.

From left: André Breton, Diego Rivera, Leon Trosky and Jacqueline Lamba formed a circle in Mexico City beginning in the 1930s
From left: André Breton, Diego Rivera, Leon Trosky and Jacqueline Lamba formed a circle in Mexico City beginning in the 1930s
“We live in a land of convulsive beauty, the land of edible delusions, a place for the mutable, the disturbing…”
- Luis Cardoza y Aragón

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto (1924), which argued that once the strictures of bourgeois reason and etiquette were overthrown, the human imagination might finally defeat the drab tyranny of reality. After the unprecedented horrors of World War I, widespread faith in the power of rationality was shaken. Artists and writers in the Surrealist circle wanted to push beyond the veil of everyday affairs and probe the mysterious workings of the unconscious mind. Dreams and games quickly became hallmarks of Surrealist art-making, from collaboratively authored exquisite corpses to found objects, collages, assemblages and experiments in psychic automatism.

Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and the Dialogues that Shaped Surrealist Art

In Aragón’s “land of dream,” romantic couples often served as anchors of the bohemian scene. Their private psychodramas played out in studios and over meals, heavily influencing the movement’s prolific output. Divorce and remarriage were common; new romances were kindled at dinner parties among the constant shuffle of artists and writers. Breton and Lamba were soon joined in the city by the Austrian artist and philosopher Wolfgang Paalen and the French poet and artist Alice Rahon. The most legendarily tumultuous union, however, was perhaps between the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. When they first met, Rivera was one of the nation's most celebrated painters, working on his first major mural commission at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, where Kahlo, aged 15, was enrolled.

Leonora Carrington’s Les Distractions de Dagobert (estimate: $12-18 million) is a highlight of The Modern Evening Auction in May 2024
Leonora Carrington’s Les Distractions de Dagobert (estimate: $12-18 million) is a highlight of The Modern Evening Auction in May 2024
“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse.”
- Leonora Carrington

Women, in Breton’s circle, were often extolled as – and reduced to – embodiments of pure feminine instinct. Frequently cast as handmaidens of genius or as muses, they were prized for their strength of feeling and special connection to the natural world. If their creativity was acknowledged, it was often considered a naive, undisciplined brilliance – raw material awaiting its final refinement into high art. Such mythologizing of women as conduits of Surrealist thought undercut the intellectual rigor of their artistic contributions. They were often treated as translators of preexisting ideals and rarely received explicit credit as innovators in their own right.

In Mexico City, relationships between women were fundamental to the cultural milieu. One of the key figures was Inés Amor, director of the Galería de Arte Mexicano (GAM), the city’s most influential and commercially successful art gallery. Under Amor’s visionary leadership GAM’s program included artists such as Kahlo, Rahon, Olga Costa, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Amor offered more than a platform to sell their work locally and internationally; she was committed to providing the professional resources necessary for her artists to develop their artistic and intellectual interests. She was known for her rigor and selectivity, only showing artists whose distinctive personal vision was matched with technical mastery. Her deep understanding of the creative process gave her a special affinity for drawing, which she loved because it offered a window into the artist’s mind as an image developed toward its final form.

Photos of Jacqueline Lamba (left) and Frida Kahlo (right) by Dora Maar

Friendships among artists also proved fruitful. Some of the most intimate and candid photographic portraits of Kahlo were taken by Lola Álvarez Bravo, and Kahlo developed a close friendship with Lamba based on their shared intellectual and artistic interests, which included discussions of bisexuality and androgyny. Like Kahlo, Lamba was young when she met her future husband; she was 23 years old and “scandalously beautiful” when she married Breton, who later wrote in Mad Love (1937) that he knew immediately their fates would be “entwined.” Lamba was an artist, although she did not begin to exhibit her work seriously until after her separation from Breton. She suspected, not incorrectly, that her marriage would overshadow any abiding interest in her art. Breton was also fascinated by Kahlo and considered her art visionary (“a ribbon around a bomb”). His admiration, however, was unrequited; Kahlo found him pretentious and “rotten,” and never fully embraced the label Surrealist to describe her art.

Kahlo had a supportive, if unfaithful, partner in Rivera, who considered her his artistic equal. In the years leading up to and following the couple’s brief divorce in 1939 (they rewed in 1940), Kahlo experienced one of the most intensely productive periods of her entire career. She plumbed her own life for inspiration, from a bout of childhood polio to the life-altering bus accident in adolescence, producing intimate self-portraits and domestic scenes translated through a refined sensibility that combined a highly personal language of objects with a vibrant quotational style that pulled omnivorously from art history, making allusions to Mexican folk painting, scientific drawings, photography and the Old Masters. Some of these works are among Kahlo’s most renowned, including the monumental Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas, 1939), currently in the permanent collection at Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.

Frida Kahlo, Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas) (1939). Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

In Mexico City, many European women seized a level of artistic freedom unavailable at home; no longer expected to play wife or muse, they could focus on their own work. The English artist and writer Leonora Carrington had already defied the restrictive gender roles of her upper-class Roman Catholic upbringing when she decided to pursue art. “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse,” she said. “I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” Following a transformative and turbulent affair with the older German artist Max Ernst, which ended abruptly with his internment as an “undesirable” at a French concentration camp, Carrington sold their countryside home and fled to Spain, where she was assaulted and institutionalized – experiences documented in her memoir, Down Below (1943). Eventually she married and moved to New York before settling in Mexico City, where she lived on and off for the rest of her life.

There, Carrington discovered a burning desire to experiment with new media, including egg tempera, which led to a profusion of richly rendered tableaux that married her feverishly mythological iconography with greater technical mastery. Some of her most iconic paintings date to this period, including her magnum opus Les Distractions de Dagobert (1945): a garden of earthly delights in the Boschian tradition that includes many of Carrington’s signature leitmotifs across meticulously rendered vignettes illustrating the decadent life of Dagobert I, the storied 7th-century Frankish king of the Merovingian dynasty.

Leonora Carrington, Who art thou, White Face? (1959). Estimate: $1.8-2.5 million
Leonora Carrington, Who art thou, White Face? (1959). Estimate: $1.8-2.5 million

One of Carrington’s closest associates was the Spanish artist Remedios Varo. Like Carrington, Varo was a rebellious child; her engineer father taught her draftsmanship and encouraged her artistic talents, which inspired Varo’s lifelong interest in baroque machinery. In Spain, she was a peripheral participant in the Surrealist orbit as the partner of the French poet Benjamin Péret. After the Spanish Civil War, the couple moved to Paris and mingled with the day’s leading artists, including Breton, Ernst, Carrington and Salvador Dalí. Several years later, as France faced the threat of Nazi occupation, she and Péret embarked for Mexico.

Remedios Varo, Esquiador (Viajero) (1960). Estimate: $1-1.5 million

It was there that Varo, along with Carrington and the photographer Kati Horna, became known as one of the “three witches” for her obsessive interest in esoteric knowledge, ranging from Indigenous cosmologies and pre-Enlightenment alchemy to metaphysics and tarot. This shared pursuit served as a powerful engine for their long-lasting friendships. Throughout the 1940s, as Carrington developed her craft and created some of her most acclaimed and uncanny works, Varo was employed as a commercial illustrator. From 1955 onward, however, Varo’s imagination and technical capabilities blossomed; in the final eight years of her life, she created some of her most sumptuous paintings, many of which featured in the captivating exhibition Remedios Varo: Science Fictions at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2023. Across these intricately wrought compositions, Varo describes fantastical worlds ripe with the promise of adventure. Her characters are often poised on the cusp of escape or transformation, or else serenely absorbed in some form of supernatural labor.

Women Artists at the Heart of Surrealism

Scholarship on Surrealism has often sidelined the friendships between women artists, although efforts to provide substantial accounts of these intricate networks, such as Whitney Chadwick’s recently revised and reissued Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985) and Farewell to the Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism (2017), have grown increasingly popular. Many women disavowed any direct association with the movement, displeased with its masculinist ethos and dubious idealization of the femme-enfant, or the naive child-woman whose channeling of Surrealist values made her an ideal canvas for the projection of male fantasies. The Italian artist Leonor Fini, known for her blistering intelligence and flamboyantly theatrical dreamworlds, refused any official affiliation due to her distaste for Breton’s paternalistic authoritarianism in the Surrealist circle; she also spurned the institution of marriage, preferring to maintain autonomous in life as in art.

Leonor Fini, Le Train (1975). Estimate: $200,000-300,000

Over the last decade cultural institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice have mounted landmark exhibitions that convincingly revise and expand the Surrealist canon. Increased attention to women artists associated with the movement has also led to several notable additions to public collections, such as the Museum of Modern Art’s recent acquisition of masterpieces like Carrington’s And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953) and Varo’s The Juggler (The Magician) (1956).

One of the most astonishing presentations, however, was a room of works by women artists in Cecelia Alemani’s watershed exhibition The Milk of Dreams at the 2022 Venice Biennale, which borrowed its title from a children’s book by Carrington. Displayed in a gallery called La Culla della Strega (“The Witch’s Cradle”) were videos of Josephine Baker and Maya Deren; photographs by Claude Cahun, Gertrud Arndt and Florence Henri; sculptures by Augusta Savage, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and Rahon; and a selection of extraordinary paintings by Carrington, Varo, Fini, Meret Oppenheim, Loïs Mailou Jones, Eileen Agar and Ithell Colquhoun, among many others. The gallery served as an intoxicating capsule of that moment’s revolutionary energy, reflecting a time when radical new forms of artistic expression were born from a geopolitical reality that seemed fractured beyond repair.

Here, at the heart of the Biennale, Alemani orchestrated a moment of communion between women artists, decades after they defied convention to conjure new visions of reality. Gathered in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, the works harmonized – a sublime testament to their enduring powers of enchantment.

Auction Highlights of Surrealism in Mexico

The New York Sales

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