Feminine, Feminist and Sinister: 

Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Occult Imagery

As Subversive Narrative Strategies

Despite the ambivalent position of women in Surrealist ideology, and the sexism prevalent in its practice, in many respects female Surrealists thrived within the movement. Women’s writing was published extensively in Surrealist publications; women’s art was shown at major Surrealist exhibitions.[1] As Natalya Lusty explains, “If Surrealism was not good with women… there [is] a way in which we might say that Surrealism was in many ways good for women.”[2] Women actively chose to work within the Surrealistic tradition, and they were attracted to it in large numbers. In fact, outside of the feminist movement, no other cultural force has attracted “such a high proportion of women participants.”[3] Given the problematic nature of its relationship to women, what would explain why so many have chosen (and continue) to work within the movement?

Surrealism, in valuing the subjective, the occult, and the feminine, left open the door for women to use these tools to strategically subvert masculine notions of femininity. Specifically, the large number of self-portraits that these women produced, which also incorporates animal imagery, is no accident or mere result of women’s innate ability to access the primitive and occult. It is rather a way to use the mythology provided by Surrealism as a means of self-expression. The appropriation of this imagery “perverts… and deconstructs [Surrealism] from within.”[4] The reason why so many women have chosen to participate in the movement is not merely because Surrealist imagery is so rich and well-suited to exploring questions of femininity, but because so many women have a great deal to say about feminism and their place in the world.

The self-portrait is, obviously, a particularly powerful tool for self-expression in a world that devalues feminine voices. While men created strange humanoid figures by employing Surrealist exercises, the women of the movement recognizably portrayed themselves and each other.[5] These works have a personal, narrative quality that focuses on concrete individual experience, rather than the abstract mechanical outputs typical of Surrealist exercises.[6] Although female artists have historically worked primarily with female subjects, these women used the subjective emphasis of Surrealist ideology to experiment with new ways of portraying a particularly feminine self. As Whitney Chadwick explains:

In mobilizing the body as a primary signifier of its cultural politics, Surrealism established new parameters within which women artists might begin to explore the complex and ambiguous relationship between the female body and female identity…In taking the artist’s own body as the starting point and in collapsing interior and exterior perceptions of the self, [their work] continues to reverberate within contemporary practices by women that articulate how the body is marked by femininity as a lived experience.[7] Having few precedents of this type of boldly intimate portrayal of female experience, Shandler Levitt states – borrowing a phrase from James Joyce – that “they drew on the only foolscap available, [their] own bod[ies].”[8] Consequently, these women explored a traditionally feminine subject – the female figure – with Surrealist tools:  they focused on the subconscious and interiority to develop a new language of self-expression.

The lack of precedent extended to the iconography that these artists employed. Without a symbology of their own to express strong female subjects, “many of the women turned to occultism, which held an attraction because of the powerful female archetypes and mythological goddesses in these systems.”[9] Following the thread of this historical example, they strongly associated with the practice of witchcraft,[10] reading widely in the hermetic oeuvre[11] and even writing spells for each other.[12] Their interest in the occult led to a fascination with alchemy, in part because of the androgyny that is the central ideal of the practice. The robed figures in many of Carrington’s paintings, such as those in Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen (Fig. 5), “serve as signifiers of the appropriation of male esoteric knowledge…mystically combined with female experience…[resulting] in the creation of a new type of female power.”[13] The imagery of alchemy was not just a source of creative inspiration and a means to express their appropriation of patriarchal power, but also – as it was for the men – a method of addressing the nature of the creative process, equating making art with making magic, and the power of skillful creativity with the power alchemical transformation.[14]

Fig. 5: Leonora Carrington,  Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen ,



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Fig. 5: Leonora Carrington, Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975

Nonetheless, the allusions to occultism in the work of female artists require significant reassessment. Whitney Chadwick has written extensively[15] about female Surrealists and the occult, but as with other scholars, the tendency has been to equate their interest in these fields to a type of “self-othering”[16] - an identification with – or ‘defection’ to – “aspects of femaleness that are ‘taboo, despised, marginalized’ in patriarchal culture.”[17] Instead of viewing this appropriation as the result of an “essential” feminine nature, or a misguided parroting of a history of marginalization,[18] it is important to view these images as subversive strategies. Estella Lauter, in her study of myth-making in contemporary female art, “sees the archetype as a tendency to form images in relation to repeated experiences…[and] that for the second time in history (the first ended with the witch trials), women are experiencing the kind of female collectivity that spawned those early images.”[19] Therefore, female Surrealists depicted imagery of the occult, of alchemy and of the post-Christian tradition of sorcery, not simplistically – as a form of mimetic identification – but complexly, to express a language of female experience with a new vocabulary.

Understanding the subversive use of the imagery of witchcraft leads to a reappraisal of the employment of animal avatars, hybridity and transformation in these artists’ work. As mentioned above, the problematic nature of some interpretations led to a continued view of women as somehow especially endowed with faculties that connect them to natural world, and therefore particularly interested in portraying animals in their art. This tendency, however, is more accurately interpreted through the transformational nature of these depictions. Transformation, as a “defiance of natural laws [that] is as natural as defying one’s parents or other authority figures”[20] then becomes a strategy for “making trouble” in the sense that Judith Butler describes in her seminal work.[21] Georgiana Colvile suggests that, “animals frequently reflect these women’s identity quest and imaginary escape into a different world, where they cannot be dominated.”[22] Furthermore, the identification with animal surrogates and hybridity are both the ultimate unmasking of the feminine ideal presented in Joan Riviere’s, “Womanliness as Masquerade.” According to Riviere, femininity is a mask that women wear as a strategy for negotiating their way through a world defined in respect to the masculine. When female artists remove this pacifying mask by identifying with the sinister, they are“[employing] the categories of the hybrid and the grotesque to criticize” a Surrealist ideology that values passive, feminine qualities.[23] Natalya Lusty argues:

The figure of the hybrid is [the] most persistent strategy for mapping out an epistemology of the self that refuses the static and regulatory cultural forms of femininity. Employed as a feminist and a Surrealist strategy, the hybrid produces an anxiety of difference that refuses to resolve the tensions it inaugurates.[24] Consequently, the use of animals and metamorphosis is not just an allusion to the occult, but a method of undermining the image of the Surrealist muse through the use of Surrealist imagery, and a contrarian method of positioning the female body and female experience in defiance of the patriarchy. Perhaps, then, these inherent qualities of Surrealism – the focus on magic, the alchemical, the personal, and the feminine – are what drew female artists towards the movement. Through their art, utilizing iconography involving animals and alchemy, they employed the tools provided by Surrealism as a means of critiquing the movement, and of challenging accepted interpretations of the feminine in society.


[1] Penelope Rosemont, “Introduction: Women in the Surrealist Diaspora,” in Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, ed. Penelope Rosemont (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 120-124.

[2] Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 11. Italics hers.

[3] Rosemont, “Introduction: All My Names Know Your Leap,” xxx.

[4] Allmer, “Introduction: Of Fallen Angels and Angels of Anarchy,” 14.

[5] Colvile, “Women Artists, Surrealism and Animal Representation,” 65-66; also Stefan van Raay et al, Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Katie Horna (Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2010), 24.

[6] Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult, 98.

[7] Chadwick, “An Infinite Play of Empty Mirrors,” 4.

[8] Shandler Levitt, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, 110.

[9] Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult, 96.

[10] Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 96.

[11] Haynes, “The Art of Remedios Varo,” 28.

[12] Remedios Varo, “A Recipe: How to Produce Erotic Dreams,” in Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, ed. Penelope Rosemont (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 280-282; also Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, 96.

[13] Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art (Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2004), 23.

[14] Ibid., 9.

[15] Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Tradition, Chapter 5

[16] Chadwick, “An Infinite Play of Empty Mirrors,” 13.

[17] Estella Lauter, Women and Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 12; with a quote in reference to the work of Rachel Blau Duplessis.

[18] Estella Lauter, Women and Mythmakers, 12 and 208.

[19] Ibid., 208.

[20] Shandler Levitt, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, 110.

[21] Butler, Gender Trouble, vii.

[22] Colvile, “Women Artists, Surrealism and Animal Representation,” 65.

[23] Lusty, Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 5.

[24] Ibid., 9.