Exhibition Review

Interlacing Friendships and Inspirations in Surrealism in Mexico at Di Donna Galleries, New York

Alexandria Deters | June 18, 2019

Surrealism in Mexico is a unique opportunity to not only see works by artists that are from collections around the globe, but to see works by male and female Surrealists artists created between 1940 and 1955 when in attempt to flew the chaos of World War II in Europe, settled in Mexico where for a time a Surrealist art community compiled from its various it subsects (abstraction/magic realism/Frida’s personal circle of friends) developed and flourished.(i) It is the works created by Lola Álvarez Bravo, Leonora Carrington, Esteban Francés, Gunther Gerzso, Kati Horna, Frida Kahlo, Agustín Lazo, Matta, Gordon Onslow Ford, Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, Bridget Bate Tichenor, and Remedios Varo that Di Donna Galleries was able to procure to illustrate the different ways the landscape and culture of Mexico influenced Surrealism visually (and in text(ii)) this unique time.

Exiting the elevator into the lobby of Di Donna Galleries I am greeted by a full crowd of seasoned collectors and academics came as no surprise to me, and was something I had even anticipated. Di Donna Galleries has a stellar reputation focusing in European and American art from 1900-1970s, specializing in works from the Surrealist Movement. Entering the exhibit knowing this and the Press Release stating that many of the works on view came from “loans from distinguished private collections, corporate collections, and non-profit foundations in Mexico, the United States, and Europe” echoing in my mind, my expectations for Surrealism in Mexico were high to say the least.

Frida Kahlo, La Venadita (The Little Deer), 1946, Oil on Masonite. Private Collection. © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Those expectations were met immediately when I encountered the first work, the iconic painting by Frida Kahlo La Venadita (The Little Deer) (1946) a small self-portrait of the artist depicting herself as wounded deer symbolizing her long-term emotional and physical relationship with pain and suffering. Kahlo’s physical suffering was at a height that year when on May 21, 1946 she underwent spinal surgery in New York, which was made possible by the financial kindness of film producer Arcady Boytler. As a thank you Kahlo created this work, accompanied by a poem expressing her gratitude.(iv)

Turning to gaze at the works in the first room, I encounter a space reminiscent of the dark the corners of my mind, frightening at times but exquisitely beautiful. The dark maroon walls of the exhibition, the rooms softly lit with each work being surrounded by its own halo of light. The works are evenly spaced so that each piece commands its own attention, forcing you to stop at look. The collage works on the opposite wall, remind the viewer that Surrealism had taken root in Mexico even before its mass exodus from Europe, but began in the 1930s, with the artist and critic Agustín Lazo, who is credited with first bringing Surrealism to Mexico. The lasting impact that Mexico had on Surrealism and the art world in general is seen for me in the collage by Lazo, Barcos, marineros y maniquí (1935) which was created by using “the same method of cutting up engravings from nineteenth-century texts [as Max Ernest’s collages]”(v) reminded me of the collages that I saw by Bruce Connor made in the 1960s at the MoMA.(vi)

Moving away from these collages and sketches, I encounter the fantasy and mysticism that Surrealism is known for. Like Remedios Varo’s Papilla estelar (Celestial Pablum) (1958) a strange scene of a woman in a lonely one room tower like structure winding a meat grinder not filled with meat, but with the galaxy and stars. Looking at these paintings of fantasy I was soon drawn to a small wall adjacent to Frida Kahlo’s Me and My Parrots (1941) of black and white photographs. It was in these photos such as Man Ray’s 1930’s portrait of Alice Rahon, that brought the humanity and life of these larger than life Surrealist figures in art history back to earth.

Remedios Varo, Papilla estelar (Celestial Pablum), 1958, Oil on Masonite. Colección FEMSA. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid.
Frida Kahlo, Me and My Parrots, 1941, Oil on canvas. Private Collection. © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The far back room, full of paintings void of traditional figures, feels like I am seeing the inner-mind of these artists, chaotic and full of symbolism and trying to natural and mystical world, the first seedlings of what would become abstract expressionism. The works seemed to sing Tere Arcq statement that many of the artists on view “were all opposed to the idea of an illusionistic or literary Surrealism, instead favoring an abstract Surrealism based on psychic automatism that would allow them to access successive states of consciousness in order to achieve the transition from emotion to abstraction.”(vii) Yet this drive towards the abstract, was only able to go so far, because “the Surrealists strongly believed in the spiritual power of nature, and the landscape of fantastic volcanos that they discovered in Mexico inspired many of their creations.”(viii) The motif /memory of a volcano is seen repeatedly in these back room works such as with Matta’s, Centro del agua (1941); Gunther Gerzso’s Paricutin (1945); Esteban Frances’ Untitled(1946) all reflections of their experiences and memories of seeing a volcano erupt in 1941 (most likely the still active volcano Popocatépetl ) and  the birth of the volcano Parícutin in 1943. 

This focus on a natural event or structure, such as a volcano erupting, is distinct cue that while these works may foreshadow Abstract Expressionism, they are still distinctly surreal in their intentions.

Leonora Carrington, La Grande Dame, 1951 © 2019 Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Installation view of Surrealism in Mexico, Di Donna Galleries, New York 2019. Image courtesy of Di Donna Galleries, New York)

It was the sculpture by British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington(ix), La Grande Dame (1951) that I went to over and over again, maybe because of its stature, standing taller than me, a figure looking over everyone in the crowd. Or maybe it resonated with me because I am cat lady, a person who loves felines and tends to be drawn to any work that praises those furry mammals. For Carrington the work represented “the Egyptian goddess Bast (or Bastet), the divine mother of cats, who were sacred animals in the country of the Nile…..the scene….transforms the narrative by incorporating the Triple Goddess, a symbol of female power in matriarchal societies, whose colors – white, red, and black – also relate to the phases of the Moon and the three ages of woman, a recurrent motif in Carrington’s oeuvre.”(x)


The strongest sense one has from this exhibition is the obvious interconnected relationships and art experiences, and overall community that developed between these artists that fostered artist creativity and imagination. La Grande Dame created during Carrington’s close friendships with Remedios Varo, Benjamin Péret, and Kati and José Horna, exemplifies these feelings while illustrating a perfect hybrid of the mystical, feminine, the reinterpretation of past myths and histories into something new that comes to mind when thinking of Surrealism.

SURREALISM IN MEXICO on view through June 28, 2019 at Di Donna Galleries.
The exhibition is accompanied with an illustrated catalogue produced by Di Donna Galleries including the essays: "Mexico Reflected on André Breton's Mirror" by Salomon Grimberg, "Mexico and Surrealism: 'Communicating Vessels'" by Tere Arcq, and "Chronology" by Erin O'Neill. Available for purchase online or at the gallery. $80.00



(i)“Carrington, Tichenor, and Varo typically worked in illustrative styles, fusing autobiography, cosmic and ancient myths, and poetic aspects of the natural landscape in developing their own unique forms of magic realism….. Paalen, Matta, Francés, and Onslow Ford developed new types of abstraction in response to local history and geology.”- Di Donna Galleries. (2019). SURREALISM IN MEXICO: April 26 – June 28, 2019. (Press Release).
(ii)Arcq, Tere Jennifer Field, Salomon Grimberg, and Erin O'Neill. SURREALISM IN MEXICO, exhibition catalogue, 26 April – June 28, 2019, Di Donna Galleries, New York, NY.
(iii)Di Donna Galleries. (2019) SURREALISM IN MEXICO: April 26 – June 28, 2019. (Press Release).
(iv)O'Neill, 88.
(v)Field,.56.
(vi)BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE, July 3–October 2, 2016, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.
(vii)Arcq, 45.
(viii)Arcq, 47.
(ix)Carrington, is known for making Surrealist work focused on mysticism, feminism and environmentalism. She first became aware of Surrealism through the work of Max Ernest, whom she met in 1937 and became his lover and collaborator during the late 1930s. Carrington also was a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico in the 1970s.
(x)Arcq, 96.


Alexandria Deters is an artist, writer, and researcher in the Bronx. She received a BA in Art History and a BA in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University in 2015 and in 2016 received her MA in American Fine and Decorative Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York. She has written for Gallery Gurls, EL CHAMP, and POZ.com and currently works at Peter Blum Gallery, New York.

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