When Mexico Became a Surrealist Mecca
Geographically, Surrealism is most often associated with the smoky Parisian cafés where artists like André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, and Man Ray consorted, analyzing their dreams to create art that could tap into the wild world of the unconscious. But as World War II brewed in Europe in the 1930s, these artists and the movement they’d spawned found themselves in need of new stomping grounds. The desire to escape conflict pushed them toward the Americas, and Mexico became Surrealism’s second home.
In a 1936 letter to Breton, Guatemalan poet Luis Cardoza y Aragón, who for many years lived in exile in Mexico, vividly captured the country’s allure: “We are in the land of convulsive beauty, the land of edible delusions,” he wrote, beckoning Breton to leave Paris for Mexico—a “place for the mutable, the disturbing, the other death, in short, a land of dream, unavoidable by the surrealist spirit.”
Leonora Carrington, Green Tea, 1942. © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
An exhibition at New York’s Di Donna Galleries unmasks Mexico’s profound influence on Surrealism. The show is accompanied by an in-depth catalogue, where essays by Mexico City–based curator Tere Arcq and art historian Dr. Salomon Grimberg, provide foundational research and writing documenting this unique marriage of place and painting. It was in Mexico, in the late 1930s and ’40s, that Surrealism’s scope expanded and diversified. Inspired by the country’s profuse landscape, rich pre-Columbian mythology, traditions of witchcraft, and relative remove from Europe’s traditional gender roles, its artists made some of their most mind-bending, visionary work.
Genesis and exodus
Frida Kahlo, La Venadita (The Little Deer), 1946. © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Breton founded Surrealism in 1924 with the publication of his famed “Surrealist Manifesto.” The text called for a new kind of art and literature powered by unconscious feelings and dreams—realms refreshingly far away from the harrowing realities of World War I and its aftermath—as opposed to reason and reality. “Completely against the tide,” Breton oncesaid, “in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally.” Surrealist work took many forms: automatic drawings and writings by Breton; paintings of melting, alternate worlds by Dalí; uncanny collages from Ernst; shadowy, mystifying rayographs by Man Ray, and more.
These artists drew from sources that unlocked buried instincts and emotions. The psychoanalytic investigations of Freud, dream analysis, and childhood artwork all offered fodder for inspiration. So did non-Western art. European artists encountered pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico—and the ancient mythologies they represented—in Paris’s Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The interest in these works intensified when influential Mexican artists made visits to Europe in the early 1900s.
Diego Rivera made Paris his on-again, off-again home between 1909 and 1921. The muralist had amassed an impressive collection of Aztec artifacts, which he consistently incorporated into his work. Rivera and his peers’ enthusiasm for pre-Columbian art reflected the turn-of-the-century Mexicanidad movement, which saw Mexican artists celebrating their indigenous roots in a rejection of colonial influence.
It wasn’t until the late 1930s that Surrealism’s relationship with Mexico deepened. As Adolf Hitler’s power grew, it became clear that Europe was headed toward another war. Progressive artists who feared for their lives looked for an escape route. Some, like Ernst and Yves Tanguy, headed for New York. Others made their way south to Mexico. As Arcq writes in her essay “Mexico and Surrealism: ‘Communicating Vessels’,” it was a migration that “detonated a creative explosion of extraordinary reciprocal influences and collaborations” between European Surrealists and Mexican artists.
It helped that Mexican immigration laws were less rigid than those in the United States. President Lázaro Cárdenas was famously lenient when it came to accepting émigrés, especially those who were politically aligned with his regime. The embattled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, for instance, befriended many European and Mexican artists, and had an affair with Frida Kahlo during his exile in Mexico.
A mere two months into his arrival, Breton was already hailing Mexico as “the Surrealist place par excellence.”
Impelled by political pressure and encouraged by his friends Cardoza y Aragón and fellow Surrealist poet Antonin Artaud, Breton embarked on his first trip to Mexico in 1938. Further cementing the European-Mexican creative exchange, Breton and his wife, painter Jacqueline Lamba, stayed with Rivera and Kahlo at their legendary home, Casa Azul.
Leonora Carrington, Mujeres Conciencia, 1972. © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
A mere two months into his arrival, Breton was already hailing Mexico as “the Surrealist place par excellence.” He began to coax other artists from his Parisian circle to join him. Breton even dedicated the final 1939 issue of his Surrealist magazine, Minotaure, to the art he encountered there. Reproductions of works by Kahlo, Rivera, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and more covered its pages; so did a passionate essay hailing the country as a place where “reality had surpassed the splendor already promised by dreams.”
By the mid-1940s, European Surrealists like Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, José and Kati Horna, Gordon Onslow-Ford, Esteban Francés, Wolfgang Paalen, and Alice Rahon had followed Breton’s lead. In Mexico, they mingled with local artists like Kahlo, Lola Álvarez Bravo, and Gunther Gerzso, who had already been incorporating dreamlike imagery into their canvases.
A deep well of inspiration
Gunther Gerzso, Los días de la calle de Gabino Barreda (Retrato de Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Benjamin Péret, Esteban Francés y autorretrato) (The Days of Gabino Barreda Street [Portrait of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Benjamin Péret, Esteban Francés and Self-Portrait]), 1944. Courtesy of Di Donna Galleries.
Few works capture the Surrealist community in 1940s Mexico City as powerfully as Gerzso’s 1944 painting Los días de la calle de Gabino Barreda (“The Days of Gabino Barreda Street”). Gerzo had befriended many European artists as they settled in the country’s capital. He depicted himself among several of them—Varo, Carrington, Benjamin Péret, and Esteban Francés—in this otherworldly group portrait. Gerzso named the piece after the street where Varo and Péret had shacked up in a rat-infested apartment. The home became a Surrealist haunt, where art was discussed and wine imbibed. As run-down as it might have been, art by Ernst, Tanguy, and Pablo Picasso (gifts for Varo and Péret before they cut out of Europe) adorned the walls.
Gordon Onslow Ford, The Circuit of the Light Knight through the Dark Queen, 1942. Courtesy of Di Donna Galleries.
Gerzso’s painting is chock-full of disembodied forms, hybrid creatures, and windows and doors cracked open into other realms. But it is also rooted in reality. While Péret’s head floats in the middle of a strange pyramid-vortex, Gerzso also shows his bald spot—an accurate reflection of the living, breathing artist. Varo, for her part, is depicted crouching, shrouded in a mask, and surrounded by a brood of glaring cats. On canvas, she resembles a mystical goddess, and in reality, she did regularly present in costume. Around them, allusions to both Mexico and Europe mingle. Behind adobe structures and across an ocean, smoke billows into the sky—a symbol of war in Europe. The painting, as art historian Salomon Grimberg has written, “became testimony to Breton’s legacy in Mexico and of Surrealism in exile.”
“I never knew I was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one,” Frida Kahlo said.
The Days of Gabino Barreda Street hints at a powerful shift. Upon arriving in Mexico, Surrealism didn’t just migrate—it transformed. European artists were already enamored with the pre-Columbian artifacts and contemporary art of Mexico, but close, constant proximity further influenced their work. The attraction was mutual. Mexican artists like Gerzso and Kahlo began to more overtly incorporate Surrealist imagery into their own compositions.
Frida Kahlo, Niña tehuacana, Lucha María (Sol y luna) ( Girl from Tehuacán, Lucha María [ Sun and Moon ]), 1942. © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Di Donna Galleries.
Kahlo’s work, in particular, became a flash point for the Surrealists. When Breton first visited her studio, she was in the process of completing Lo que el agua me ha dado (1938), a canvas depicting a bathtub in which a series of influential symbols from her life (a traditional Tehuana dress, her parents, a volcano spewing the Empire State Building) bob around her toes. Breton immediately invited her to exhibit in Paris, where her appearance “left everyone breathless, like a bunch of silkworms watching as a locomotive passes at full speed,” as Lamba wrote to Rivera in 1939.
Kahlo resisted strict categorization within the movement: “I never knew I was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one,” she told her dealer Julien Levy in 1938. “I myself still do not know what I am.” Even so, she gave her work to numerous Surrealist exhibitions, one of which became a significant milestone in Kahlo’s career and a watershed moment for Surrealism in Mexico.
The “Exposición Internacional del surrealismo”opened at the Galería de Arte Mexicano, run by powerhouse gallerist Inés Amor, in 1940. Organized by Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen, the show brought together work by European and Mexican Surrealists (Dalí, Ernst, Rivera, Varo, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Jean Arp, René Magritte, Meret Oppenheim, and more) and unveiled one of Kahlo’s most significant and boldly Surrealist paintings: her 1939 work Las dos Fridas (“The Two Fridas”).
Paalen also showed work by these artists alongside pre-Columbian artifacts from Rivera’s collection, reaffirming the influence of ancient Mexican spirituality on the movement. Paalen and his wife, fellow painter Alice Rahon, were also avid collectors of pre-Columbian work, and after moving to Mexico, they began to make art directly inspired by the gods and myths represented in those works.
For her ethereal, undated painting El Dios Ehecatl encontrando una mujer (“God Ehecatl Encounters a Woman”),Rahon drew from the 16th-century Codex Azoyú. In Rahon’s painting, wispy, towering figures seem to melt into a desert landscape (in this era, Mexican spirituality was inextricably linked to the natural world). For his part, Paalen explored the powers of the Aztec god of wind in the series Les Premières spaciales (1941–44). His largest painting, Les Cosmogones (1944), references ancient cosmologies in a whirling tumult of lines and forms that suggest a universe in the throes of transformation or rebirth.
The Surrealists were enchanted by the spiritual power of nature. The volcanoes that rose from the Mexican landscape offered especially rich fodder for artists. In the first issue of Dyn—a magazine Paalen founded in Mexico in 1942 that mingled Surrealism, indigenous art, and science—Rahon contributed a poetic ode to the volcano Iztaccíhuatl. Chilean artist Roberto Matta was also taken by the volcanoes he visited while in Mexico, later incorporating them into ecstatic paintings like The Disasters of Mysticism (1942) and The Earth is a Man (1942). “I saw everything in flames, but from a metaphysical point of view,” he wrote of the transformative experience. “I was speaking from inside the volcano, beyond the volcano.…I painted that which burned within me and the best image of my body was the volcano.”
A place where female artists could thrive
The mystical and esoteric aspects of spirituality were of special interest to a group of female Surrealists whose work blossomed in Mexico under the autonomy they enjoyed in their new home. Varo, Carrington, and Horna became something of a trio in 1940s Mexico City; they all made work inspired by pre-Columbian mythology, tarot, alchemy, astrology, and the occult.
While female Surrealists in Europe had mostly been relegated to the position of muse, in Mexico, they claimed the role of artist. Here, they felt blissfully free from rigid European gender roles—a sensation bolstered by their introduction to Mexico’s ancient matriarchal societies and pagan cults where women wielded potent, magical powers. Kahlo had long been inspired by this aspect of Central American history—so much so that she wore her debt to Mexican matriarchal cultures on her sleeve, quite literally. Her elaborate embroidered outfits hailed from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the only region in Mexico that still saw women as the dominant sex.
Leonora Carrington, Operation Wednesday, 1969. © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Across Varo, Carrington, and Horna’s works, women take center stage as mighty goddesses and sorceresses, reclaiming power over areas they’d previously lost or been consigned to. In Carrington’s The House Opposite (1945), for instance, she transforms a traditional domestic space into an occult laboratory for magic-making; in the kitchen, three figures (likely representative of the artist, Varo, and Horna) gather around a cauldron, cooking up what looks like a very strong, perspective-altering potion. Similarly, in Varo’s 1961 work Bordando el manto terrestre (“Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle”), a group of women reclaim the domestic act of weaving by literally constructing their own world; the cloth they produce doubles as the environment in which they live—and possibly rule.
Carrington, Varo, and Horna—along with many other Surrealists—would stay in Mexico for the rest of their lives, long after World War II had ended. There, untethered from limiting European traditions, their work expanded and evolved as the country’s lush landscape, mythological and mystical traditions, and the work of contemporary artists like Kahlo and Rivera seeped in. In Mexico, the shape of Surrealism transformed into a movement more inclusive, diverse, and deeply innovative than Breton, upon founding it, could have ever dreamed.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to “Di Donna Galleries” as “Di Donna.”
Clarification: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article omitted references to the contributions of curator Tere Arcq and art historian Dr. Salomon Grimberg to the “Surrealism in Mexico” exhibition at Di Donna Galleries. The text has been revised accordingly with proper references to their work.