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Surrealist women artists follow Alice’s footsteps in new exhibition

Female surrealists are having their day in the sun at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma)

“In Wonderland: the Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” presents the work of surrealists who lived in North America in the years around the second world war. It is the first large-scale US exhibition to show these artists without their male counterparts.

“The men are shown all the time,” says Ilene Fort, the American art curator at Lacma and co-curator of the show. “Some women don’t like to be segregated, but sometimes you have to take people who have been ignored out of the group, so they can ultimately be treated as equals.”

This exhibition follows the lead of a 2009 show at Manchester Art Gallery, England, titled “Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism” about European women artists, which pointed the way to a US- and Mexico-focused exhibition.

“In Wonderland” is made up of 175 works by 47 artists. Familiar artists, such as Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois and Leonora Carrington, are joined by lesser known artists, such as Maya Deren, Helen Lundeberg and María Izquierdo. The exhibition’s title alludes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “These women identified with Alice. Some of them painted themselves as Alice”, says Fort, “They felt that being creative women meant they were bizarre.”

Fort collaborated with Lacma curator John Liebes and Tere Arcq of the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City. The partnership of the museums helped secure loans from Mexico, although many works remained unobtainable. “We couldn’t get many Kahlos, even the ones that are privately owed. They’ve been loaned so much already,” Fort says. Mexican government restrictions limit the number of works by “national treasures” that can be loaned, explains Fort. One third of the works comes from Mexico, while the rest come from Lacma and other US institutions. Because of loan agreements, some pieces will be seen only at Lacma. Smaller versions of the exhibition will travel to the Musée national des Beaux-Arts, Quebec (7 June-3 September), and Museo de Arte Moderno (27 September-13 January 2013).

In their research, the curators had to choose between many obscure artists. Fort says that the criterion for selection was that “The artist would have to express an interest in surrealism’s basic tenets: the marvellous, the uncanny”, among others.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Curiouser and curiouser'