Beginning in the mid-1920s, Surrealism captured the Modern imagination. In essence, Surrealism began as a direct spillover from the Dada movement in art and culture. The Surrealists wanted to explore through poetry and prose the psychic dimension of the human mind. A huge source of inspiration was the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud.
One of the Dadaists, Andre Breton (1896-1966), wrote the “Surrealist Manifesto” in 1924 in Paris. He described Surrealism as an attempt to transmute “those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality.”
When people think of Surrealism, they often think of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and “The Persistence of Memory” (1931). Even in 1929, Dali’s “The First Days of Spring” shows a disturbing dreamland with fantastic figures, including at least one headless human.
What is important to understand is that Surrealism was global, especially as early Dada/Surrealists like Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp traveled the world. Surrealism occupied artists in diverse locations, including Europe, the United States, South America, and Mexico. The concept that the human mind could transcend the earthly plane was a central way to view the “absolute reality” described by Breton.
An influential Mexican painter (especially after her death), Frida Kahlo, was memorialized in the movie “Frida” starring Salma Hayek. Born in 1907 in a suburb of Mexico City, Kahlo later claimed she was born in 1910. Her life was difficult after she survived with many injuries a streetcar accident in her middle teens. In fact, she began to paint from the confines of a hospital bed. Later, Kahlo found many vivid experiences in her rollercoaster marriage to the artist Diego Rivera and in her friendships with artists like Georgia O’Keeffe. Her life was a series of surgeries and recoveries, and she never found a way to regain good health.
It was actually the author of the “Surrealist Manifesto,” Andre Breton, who discovered Kahlo when he visited her and Rivera in Mexico. He would introduce her to the art world as a Surrealist during her first show at the NYC gallery of Julien Levy in 1938. Although she believed her art was Realistic, her imagination (on a par with Dali’s) is evidenced in her paintings.
In 1939, Breton and Marcel Duchamp worked together to show Kahlo’s work to the Paris art establishment at the Pierre Colle Gallery. Kahlo was known for self-portraits. In “Frida Kahlo Without Hope” (1945 – oil on canvas mounted on masonite), the artist shows herself as a victim in a hospital bed. Many angry objects are hovering over her to show the oppressive nature of hopelessness. One Surreal image is a human skull that figures prominently in the composition.
Although Kahlo died in 1954, she left a huge mark on Modern art as a female Mexican painter and Surrealist.