If I were to ask you what Gala Dali, Peggy Guggenheim, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning all had in common, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know; I wouldn’t be surprised if you admitted that you’d not heard of half of them. Each of these ladies were, at the time, well known in their own right in the world of modern art; and each of these women were intimate with the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst. I found myself struck by how so many talented and artistic women gravitated towards him – and much less surprised at how their own skills and talents were eclipsed by his. Well, he is a man, after all.
Not all of the women were artists; Gala Dali (then married to Paul Eluard) is best known for her long and productive marriage to the Surrealist artist Salvador Dali, who painted and sculpted her many times, acknowledging her as his muse and without whom, some say, he would never have been successful. Peggy Guggenheim was a wealthy American with a canny eye for modern art, and her collection became the basis of one of New York’s finest collections. It was down to her efforts that Ernst escaped Nazi occupied Europe; it came as no little surprise that he married her.
The other three women, however, were all very talented artists in their own right, yet their work has predominantly been forgotten. They may each have declined the label “surrealist” in describing their works, yet its influence is apparent and I find distinct similarities between the three which may (or may not) have been down to Ernst’s influence. I have to concede that I find this fascinating.
Leonora Carrington was a wealthy English debutante when, as a teenager, she eloped with Ernst to Paris, despite him being twice her age and married to someone else. He was later to abandon her (for Peggy Guggenheim and America) which led her to spiral into mental illness and a dreadful period in a Spanish asylum. Carrington’s works often feature human/animal hybrids, occult symbolism and a treatment of landscape and humanity that wouldn’t be out of place in Bosch. Tate Liverpool recently held an exhibition of her work; needless to say, it got very little publicity.
Leonor Fini was an Argentinian artist fond of cats and flamboyant head-dresses. She never completely bought into the Surrealist manifesto to the same extent as Carrington (with whom Fini was great friends) but used her imagination to portray herself as a Sphinx – ever inscrutable and always gorgeous – in a more domestic landscape. Her paintings are harder and more solid than Carrington’s ethereal pictures.
Dorothea Tanning was Ernst’s fourth and last wife, and her paintings show the influence of Dali, Ernst, Cezanne and Magritte. I actually find her pictures the more domestic of the three, and less bound by the numinous; she would be more “magical realism”, where magic and reality intersect yet live harmoniously together. Like Fini, there is a finished edge to her work, and like both Fini and Carrington, she is all but forgotten.
I am struck by how closely this story echoes the stories of so many women artists, but the fact that five such talented and influential women have effectively been overshadowed by one man – who was by no means the best in his field – both fascinates and horrifies me. I have only skimmed the surface here. This has the potential to be a wonderful research project for someone with more time and resources than I have. I firmly believe that these women should not be consigned to being a side note in history, an addendum to a male artist’s life. They deserve to be returned to the limelight.