The Return of the Surrealist Women

In Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, a woman, Carmella, revels in sending letters to strangers ...

In Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, a woman, Carmella, revels in sending letters to strangers: “Carmella writes letters all over the world to people she has never met and signs them with all sorts of romantic names, never her own. Carmella despises anonymous letters, and of course they would be impractical as who could answer a letter with no name at all signed at the end? These wonderful letters fly off, in a celestial way, by airmail, in Carmella’s delicate handwriting. No one ever replies.” Carmella is based on one of Carrington’s very real friends, the surrealist painter Remedios Varo, according to research included in the newly released collection Letters, Dreams, and Other Writings, translated by Margaret Carson and published by Wakefield Press.

Varo was a Spanish surrealist painter who spent the majority of her working life in Mexico. She met André Breton, considered a founder of the surrealist movement, in Paris, and felt an affinity with the surrealist project from the beginning. Her paintings draw one into a fantastical world of tall, stick-thin beings, often wrapped in draping robes and occupying flying ships, bicycles, and castles full of geometric shapes outlined by mysterious lights, frequently accompanied by her favorite animals, cats. Varo’s daily life is a constantly evolving surrealist practice. She describes children with fleshy sword appendages in her dreams and a solar system she has built out of everyday objects in her living room in order to manipulate reality. Her thoughts are laid bare in these pieces and made accessible in a way that few female surrealists’ reflections have ever been.

Along with fantastical recipes and dreams, the collection includes some of the letters that Varo wrote to psychologists, artists, and strangers, such as one man she found in the phone book, to whom she proposed a serendipitous night of intrigue.

Dear Stranger,

I haven’t a clue if you’re a single man or the head of a household, if you’re a shy introvert or a happy extrovert, but whatever the case, perhaps you’re bored and want to dive fearlessly into a group of strangers in hopes of hearing something that will interest or amuse you. What’s more, the fact that you feel curiosity and even some discomfort is already an incentive, and so I’m proposing that you come and spend New Year’s Eve at house No. … on … Street.

On the recipients’ end these letters might have caused alarm or delight, but Varo would never know. That is precisely the magic of these letters—to create wonder, spark imagination, and make one question if their day-to-day reality is what it appears to be at all.

Women like Varo were always a part of the surrealist movement, drawn by the rhetoric of overthrowing many of the conventions that held them back, but their presence was often secondary to that of their male counterparts, and largely unacknowledged by historians and academics until decades later. Many surrealists are known for treating their female peers as muses, objects, and the physical embodiment of their own sexual desires. This narrative is upended in three new books, in which the lives and works of women surrealists are regarded, and reintroduced, as deserving in their own right.

From the beginning surrealism was a revolutionary movement, meant to combat the rising tide of fascism and political control in Europe through artistic and personal exploration. The movement’s founding is considered to coincide with the 1924 publication of André Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme. Breton described what he saw as the surrealists’ battle against both a “reign of logic” that had manifested in excessively rational bourgeois thinking and the violence of World War I.

We are still living under the reign of logic: this, of course, is what I have been driving at. But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. Logical ends, on the contrary, escape us. It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge. It too leans for support on what is most immediately expedient, and it is protected by the sentinels of common sense.1

The surrealists proposed an alternative: unleashing the power of the human mind through unhindered expression. They explored this through artistic practices such as automatism, similar to free association or stream of consciousness, in which a person would write or paint their thoughts as they came, without self-criticism. In his manifesto, Breton provided the following definition:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.2

To the surrealists, dreams took on the weight of reality, and they plumbed the psyche to new depths in an attempt to connect with the full potential of the unconscious mind. If the mind were freed to reach a truer state of reality, they believed, the individual would be freed, and therefore so would society.

In 1940, New Directions editor-publisher James Laughlin brought together a collection of works to reflect the variety of surrealist writing of the time. This original forms the basis of a new collection, The Milk Bowl of Feathers, published by New Directions in 2018. This edition, edited and partly translated by Mary Ann Caws, expands on the 1940 version with new texts, many by women, “in order to salute, always freshly, the surrealizing spirit.”

“Newness” is at the core of surrealist philosophy, as described in one of Breton’s poems: “Everything is new, and happens, over and over, always for the first time.” Included in Milk Bowl are Claude Cahun, Mina Loy, Dora Maar, Joyce Mansour, Meret Oppenheim, Alice Rahon, Gisèle Prassinos, Kay Sage, Léona Delacourt, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Leonora Carrington, whose recently rereleased memoir Down Below and stories of talking animals and spirit women in The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington have sparked renewed interest in the women of the surrealist movement. In Carrington’s stories women are complex figures, and in her memoir she describes her mental breakdown and confinement in an asylum, writing against the surrealists’ romanticization of female madness.


Muses Explain Things to Me

By L. Gibson

The women’s writing in The Milk Bowl of Feathers provides an alternative to Breton’s view of the surrealist movement through voices like Léona Camille Ghislaine Delacourt, or Nadja, the woman Breton used as inspiration for his iconic surrealist novel, Nadja. The novel is considered to be semiautobiographical. It relates an encounter between Breton and Nadja that results in a 10-day romance, which culminates in Breton becoming disenchanted with Nadja after it is revealed that she is “mad,” and abandoning her. At first, she seems the perfect manic pixie dream girl, but she becomes too much. In distancing himself, he is able to think and dream about her without dealing with the difficulties of a relationship—the ultimate romance attained.

In Milk Bowl Caws includes translations of drafts of letters that Delacourt wrote to Breton, which provide a missing interpretation of his romantic adventure.

After your departure

Why not just go to sleep forever?

This fire? I’m suffocating!


The night looks evil, and the soul of the volcano wakes up—first, a muffled ‘repressed sob?’—full of bitterness

Why, when everything is black—

Oh flame—why are you keeping watch? To spit out my anger! my disgust my misery! to loosen my heart to cast far off its fetters!—To hear my reason—to breathe its perfume—It’s too airless here and the fire …

a page of my book

1 December 1926

In her introduction to The Milk Bowl of Feathers, Caws describes the importance surrealist artists placed on communication between visual art and written language. Letters, Dreams, and Other Writings allows an exploration of this relationship through comparing Varo’s written records to her visual works. Varo once described her writing process “as if I were making a sketch,” and many of the images in her collection did later appear in her visual work.

In Now, Now, Louison, French writer Jean Frémon delves into this connection in the life of another artist, Louise Bourgeois, through a fictionalized account of her life. Bourgeois’s work is known for its themes of domesticity, sexuality, the body, and the subconscious, and touches on surrealist and feminist schools of thought without any formal affiliation. Frémon plays with the memoir form through what he calls “imagined biography.” Bourgeois acts as the narrator who speaks to her younger selves in the second person, alternately addressing herself and the reader throughout. Interwoven memories sketch a portrait of the artist through the various stages of her life.

Frémon is a critic, novelist, and gallerist who commissioned Bourgeois’s first European exhibition in 1985. Over the course of the next three decades, until Bourgeois’s death in 2010, he got to know her well, and he uses this knowledge to construct an approximation of the artist’s inner dialogue. Frémon’s approach is slightly off-putting, as it lends a voyeuristic quality to the imagined inner life of the deceased artist. In Frémon’s essay included as an afterword, he writes that although he began this project when Bourgeois was alive, he never spoke to her about it.

Bourgeois speaks to herself in fragments and snatches; we’re in her head. We see her desire to speak, her reluctance to speak, her moments of rage, her self-possession when faced with overwhelming feelings. The portrait is built up of tiny strokes, one added upon another, like dashes of pencil. …

After 1995, we didn’t work together as much, but I continued to visit her regularly, though I never said a word about the book I was writing. I knew that even if I came up with something decent, I would never publish it during her lifetime. I needed the freedom of imagination that she used so well in her own work, but which she would not have been able to allow someone who was writing about her. That’s how I felt, at least. Whenever I visited, she’d ask me what I was writing, and since I always had several projects underway I could always say something without having to mention the project about her.

This essay exudes the same attitude that the surrealist movement was accused of from the beginning: men taking a woman’s work and appropriating it for themselves, not allowing the female artist to speak for herself, fetishizing or objectifying the woman in the name of art. Rather than being a collaborative project, or one that asks Bourgeois to address the issues as she saw them, the essay imagines her life through the perceptions and experiences of a man.

The construct is somewhat similar to Breton’s project with Nadja—a man telling a woman’s story through his experience of her. While The Milk Bowl of Feathers reinserts Nadja’s voice into the conversation, Now, Now, Louison continues to push Bourgeois to the side. This is not to say that men can never write women characters. When a character is based on a real person, however, it seems callous and controlling to purposely not disclose a project to them.

Frémon does include how he imagines Bourgeois might have interacted with the men in her life, such as her father, whose patterns of infidelity and emotional manipulation she mined throughout her career. Bourgeois was avidly against paternalism. Frémon imagines her saying to herself:

It’s a fact: all fathers are vain braggarts and vacillators, particularly mine, and all presidents of absolutely anything—the republic, the hunting club, the local council, or the housing association—are ineffectual and pretentious, strutting about at the drop of a hat, all Don Quixotes—Leave those windmills to me! I’ll take care of ’em!

Surrealists were trying to make this exact point: that structures of power that relied on logical thought and entrenched social expectations were stifling. Women surrealists had the twofold battle of fighting paternalism within surrealism’s own circles, among men who proclaimed lofty challenges to convention but failed to enact gender equality in their personal interactions. It’s unclear if Frémon is poking fun at himself with these statements or just does not see the similarities between his project and those of all the other Don Quixotes.

Carmella in Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet says,

Men are very difficult to understand. Let’s hope they all freeze to death. I am sure it would be very pleasant and healthy for human beings to have no authority whatever. They would have to think for themselves, instead of always being told what to do and think by advertisements, cinemas, policemen, and parliaments.

Through these three books we are given a glimpse into the lives of women who worked to undermine paternalistic structures, to make surrealism a movement for all. They created worlds in which flying horses, hags, and  freedom of collaboration were possible—where even the most unimaginable could, through art, become real.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín. icon

  1. André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (University of Michigan Press, 1969), pp. 9–10.
  2. Ibid., p. 26.
Featured image: Detail of Remedios Varo’s La llamada (The Call) (1961). National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC