Detroit Institute of Art adds four Surrealist works by female artists

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) announced today the recent acquisition of four major works by surrealist artists: Alice Rahon’s Androgyne, 1946, brass wire and sheet; and Painting for a Little Ghost Who Couldn’t Learn to Read, 1947, oil and sand on canvas; and Remedios Varo’s Caja de Jean Nicolle (Jean Nicolle’s Box),1948, oil, wood, glass, metal leaf, ferrous metal, and masonite. The fourth work, Rita Kernn-Larsen’s And Life Anew… 1940, currently on view at the DIA, was previously announced by the museum.

These works demonstrate the important contributions of women artists to the surrealist movement, many of whom are only now beginning to receive the recognition that their male counterparts have enjoyed for decades. They also illustrate the experimental nature of mid-20th century surrealist practice and provide further nuance to the story of the displacement of European artists, intellectuals, and others during World War II.

“We are thrilled to bring examples by Kernn-Larsen, Rahon, and Varo into the DIA’s collection,” Jill Shaw, the DIA’s Rebecca A. Boylan and Thomas W. Sidlik Curator of European Art, 1850-1970, said. “While these women were all known by their peers, as well as larger international audiences during their careers, American museums have only very recently eyed them for inclusion in their permanent collections.”

Androgyne and Painting for a Little Ghost Who Couldn’t Learn to Read by Alice Rahon

Painting for a Little Ghost Who Couldn’t Learn to Read, Alice Rahon (1947). Image courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts.
Painting for a Little Ghost Who Couldn’t Learn to Read, Alice Rahon (1947). Image courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts.

The two works by French poet-artist Alice Rahon, Androgyne and Painting for a Little Ghost Who Couldn’t Learn to Read represent her work in multiple mediums during the 1940s, after World War II prompted her to flee Europe.

Although she was known to share a variety of origin stories about herself, Rahon was born in 1904 in eastern France, and her family moved to Paris in 1920. She married artist Wolfgang Paalen in 1934 and the couple’s circle in Paris included artists involved in surrealism, including the leader of the movement, André Breton, who took an interest in her poetry and arranged for it to be published by Éditions Surréalistes.

In 1939, Rahon met Frida Kahlo in Paris during the group show Mexique, where Kahlo presented her paintings for the first time. The Paalens left Europe for Mexico on the eve of World War II and took up residence in the San Ángel neighborhood of Mexico City near Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera.

Rahon’s paintings are highly symbolic and often based on personal, lived experiences. Painting for a Little Ghost depicts whimsical characters, some of whom are biomorphic in form, others who fly kites are composed of triangular and diamond-shaped lozenges. After arriving in Mexico City, Rahon began painting the subjects of her journey and the colors and landscapes of her new country.

Caja de Jean Nicolle (Jean Nicolle’s Box) by Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo made fewer than 400 works of art during her career, over half of which are drawings, and created a few painted wood constructions such as Caja de Jean Nicolle (Jean Nicolle’s Box), which the Spanish-born artist made while in Venezuela.

Varo was born in Spain in 1908, but her engagement with surrealism spanned countries and continents. In 1930, after receiving comprehensive training at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid – the school attended by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso – Varo married anarchist painter Gerardo Lizarraga and moved to Barcelona where she joined the avant-garde Grupo Logicophobista. Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, she fled to Paris with surrealist poet Benjamin Péret and was enmeshed in the activities of the surrealists. Forced into exile again due to World War II, Varo emigrated to Mexico.

Varo’s experimental work is exacting, meticulous, and deliberate,with Caja de Jean Nicolle exemplifying that methodology. The reverse painted glass panels were executed in a manner opposite from painting on canvas: she creatively conceived the compositions from front to back, painting the smallest physiognomic and symbolic details first, and she worked her way back to create the general forms of the bovine figures that dominate the picture plane.

And Life Anew… by Rita Kernn-Larsen

Acquired in 2021 by the DIA, And Life Anew… is one of the only paintings by the Danish artist in an American museum collection today. The painting, part of the James Pearson Duffy Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, is now on display (as of May 3) at the DIA.

Kernn-Larsen’s work remains largely unknown in the U.S., however, it was an American – the art patron and dealer Peggy Guggenheim – who provided her with one of the biggest breaks of her career. In 1938 – the same year that Kernn-Larsen participated in the landmark International Surrealist Exhibition with Salvador Dalí and other notable artists – Guggenheim gave her a major exhibition at her newly opened gallery in London. Kernn-Larsen and her future husband, Isaac Grünberg, traveled to London for the exhibition and stayed there due to the impending war. They remained in London until the end of World War II, and it was there, in 1940, that Kernn-Larsen painted And Life Anew…

The formal similarities between the seated woman figure in the painting and Henry Moore’s remarkable Reclining Figure in the DIA’s collection are striking. Kernn-Larsen participated in the Surrealism Today exhibition at London’s Zwemmer Gallery in June 1940, an exhibition where Moore presented his newly made elmwood Reclining Figure sculpture. It is possible that Kernn-Larsen painted And Life Anew… as both a celebration of her daughter’s birth as well as a response to Moore’s exceptional Reclining Figure, a work the latter artist described as his “most important piece” to date.

“The acquisition of these remarkable works helps the DIA diversify its holdings of modern European art, and, more specifically, surrealist art,” Judith F. Dolkart, Deputy Director, Art, Education & Program at DIA, said. “In our galleries, we are now able to tell a more comprehensive story about surrealism—one that highlights the important contributions to the movement by women artists.”

All four acquisitions further deepen the DIA’s commitment to highlighting and collecting works of art by important women artists across all time periods and movements.

Museum Hours and Admission 

9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesdays – Thursdays; 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed on Mondays.

General admission (excludes ticketed exhibitions) is free for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne County residents and DIA members. For all others, $14 for adults, $9 for seniors ages 62+, $8 for college students, $6 for ages 6–17.

For membership information, call 313-833-7971. 

About the Museum

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), one of the premier art museums in the United States, is home to more than 65,000 works that comprise a multicultural survey of human creativity from ancient times through the 21st century. From the first Van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum (Self-Portrait, 1887), to Diego Rivera’s world-renowned Detroit Industry murals (1932–33), to the first museum in the United States to have a permanent collection of galleries and a curatorial department devoted to African American art, the DIA’s collection is known for its quality, range and depth.

The DIA’s mission is to create opportunities for all visitors to find personal meaning in art individually and with each other. 

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