Surrealism Under the Volcano
A new exhibition explores the mid-century creative explosion in Mexico.
Leonora Carrington. Les Distractions de Dagobert. 1945. Tempera on Masonite. Private Collection. © 2019 Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Over 80 years before today’s creative class began proclaiming Mexico City as the next promised land, a community of Surrealists found themselves enraptured by the country’s mystique. There’s no one answer that explains why so many artists from abroad traveled through or relocated to Mexico in the 1930s and ‘40s. The horrors of fascism in Europe were a major driver, as were Mexico’s welcoming immigration policies, but as gallerist Emmanuel di Donna explains, artists were indeed mesmerized by the country’s natural beauty and mythical undertones.
Regardless of how they got there—via the ravages of war, romantic entanglements, or simple curiosity—the group would end up pushing forward the narrative of Surrealism in intriguing ways. Their efforts are the subject of “Surrealism in Mexico,” on view through June 28 at Di Donna in New York. It’s the second installment in an ongoing series that aims to tell fresh stories about a movement whose history already seems settled.
In the exhibition’s intensely thorough catalog, Salomon Grimberg describes how Antonin Artaud “pioneered the Surrealist pilgrimage to Mexico” in the mid-1930s. Peyote trips figured heavily in his experiences. A few years later, the quasi-dictatorial Surrealism founder Andre Breton would turn up in the country as well. “Breton intended to introduce Surrealism to Mexico, but the unexpected happened,” Grimberg writes. “Surrealism jumped at him wherever he looked....In Mexico, Surrealism was a state of mind; existing nameless, without self-consciousness, or even self-awareness.” Such a fascination with Mexico’s accidental Surrealist moments would reach absurd heights. Grimberg recounts Benjamin Peret “finding a hand wrapped in newspaper on the street,” to which the painter Gunther Gerzso countered: “Why are you complaining? That is Surrealism!”
The high point of “Surrealism in Mexico” is the presence of so many women artists, who were arguably making more interesting work than their male counterparts. Chief among them was Frida Kahlo, of course, so famous by now that she’s basically a meme. (Regardless, it’s still a thrill to see the excellent and subtly strange Me and My Parrots (1941) in person.) While back in Europe, Di Donna says, women were “often seen as the wife or the girlfriend of the artist,” in Mexico they had a chance to stand in the spotlight themselves. Many—like the British painter Leonora Carrington and the Spanish artist Remedios Varo, who both arrived to Mexico in the early 1940s—are still finding their rightful place in history. Their dense, often eerie scenes add a dash of whimsy to the Surrealist obsession with dream-like imagery and symbolism.
While canvases by Varo, Carrington, and Bridget Bate Tichenor are populated by fantastical figures—women riding wing-powered air machines, or spooning stardust to melancholy moons—other artists in this show were working in an abstract vein. Volcanic activity was a popular theme for Gordon Onslow Ford, Matta, and Gerzso—and a suitably macho one. These artists “were more interested in the cosmic, the violence of nature,” Di Donna explains. “You really do feel this fascination for the underlying powers of the universe.” Mexico was, he says, a landscape in which a wholly new volcano could sprout from the earth, as if by magic. It’s no wonder that the Surrealists felt right at home in a country whose everyday realities could compete with their own wild imaginations.