Surrealist women and their connection with Catalonia – Victoria Combalía

Surrealist Women Artists and Their Connections with Catalonia

Thankfully, the presence of Surrealist women artists in museums and exhibitions has become ever greater in recent years, and study of them in the specialized media has considerably increased. They are no longer thought of as muses and lovers but as artists in their own right. Even so, there are still many side issues to do with their lives and works that remain to be explored. So when the Galería Mayoral asked me for an exhibition about Surrealist women artists and their connection with Catalonia I knew that the theme presented something of a challenge, since for some of them we know very little about the time they spent in our Catalan homeland. Ángeles Santos and Remedios Varo were born in Catalonia but travelled and lived in other cities and countries: Remedios Varo, in particular, is often considered a Mexican artist because she went into exile there in 1941 and never returned to our country. As it is, the rest of the Surrealist women artists we are showing here either came at one time or another to Catalonia or, like Frida Kahlo, had a special rapport with our country: in her case due to her passionate love affair with the Catalan artist Josep Bartolí.

Our rule of thumb has been to select them even though they might have spent only a few days in our country, as in the case of Valentine Hugo in Cadaqués—where she created various cadavres exquis with André Breton when they visited the Dalís—or that of Leonora Carrington, who crossed our border during World War II, fleeing from both her family and the Nazi invasion of France. This is an occasion to exhibit several of her excellent works, even though they are not from that particular moment, something that is all but impossible given the prevailing conditions of time and place.

Valentine Hugo

Of Valentine Hugo’s time in Catalonia we know very little. Although married to Jean Hugo (1894-1984), painter, draughtsman, stage designer and descendent of the great Victor Hugo, they began to slowly drift apart at the end of the 1920s. And this because the nearer she got to Surrealism the closer her husband became to Catholicism. In 1931 Valentine, who’d been a close friend of Paul Éluard’s since 1926, fell madly in love with André Breton, travelling with him and the Éluards to Brittany. The couple was very much a mismatch: André Breton had just been abandoned by Suzanne Muzard and in a sense it can be said that he “let himself be loved” by Valentine Hugo, who was a great admirer of the poet’s visionary, idealist and premonitory side. Although Breton, who was averse to music, made her sell her collection of personally dedicated scores, he also inducted her into the surrealist world by having her participate in national and international exhibitions (for example, the famous Surrealist Exhibition in Tenerife). In March 1932 they visited Gala and Salvador Dalí in Cadaqués and created various cadavres exquis with them. According to Valentine, when they got back to Paris they quarrelled and although she moved into an apartment at 42, Rue Fontaine (the building Breton lived in) in a moment of despair in May she tried to kill herself. Thus ended a relationship that would become amicable for the rest of their lives. Valentine Hugo possesses an ample oeuvre as a draughtswoman and book illustrator. Her style is elaborate, her subject matter surrealist or romantic, and she displayed remarkable technical mastery in her graphic works.

The Exposició Logicofobista: Maruja Mallo and Remedios Varo

Both Maruja Mallo and Remedios Varo participated in the Exposició Logicofobista, the Logicophobe Show, which was suggested by the critic Magí Cassanyes, who wanted to provide an overview of Surrealism in Spain. Although neither Dalí nor Miró participated, it brought together a number of artists affiliated with Surrealism. Participants included painters Artur Carbonell, Esteban Francés, A. Gamboa-Rothwoss, A.G. Lamolla, Joan Massanet, Ángel Panells, Jaume Sans and Juan Ismael, sculptors Leandre Cristòfol, Ángel Ferrant and Eduald Serra, and women artists Maruja Mallo, Remedios Varo and Nadia Sokalova.

The exhibition opened on 4 May 1936 at the Librería Catalònia at 3, Ronda de Sant Pere in Barcelona. As well as Cassanyes, the organization fell to ADLAN (Amics de l’Art Nou/Friends of New Art), a group created in November 1932 by modern art patron Joan Prats, photographer Joaquim Gomis and architect Josep Lluís Sert.  It soon had many adherents, including J.V.Foix, Sebastià Gasch, Magí Cassanyes and Lluís Montañà. ADLAN organized exhibitions, concerts and debates and concluded its manifesto by saying: “If you wish to save what is living in the new and what is sincere in the extravagant.” It sought to be, and was, a hub of avant-garde art, both Catalan and from the rest of Spain and abroad.

The Exposició logicofobista invitation card read:

“As what we hate most is this boring dream of reality […] as the ideological culprit of all these spiritual excretions is this odious thing they sometimes call Logic, sometimes seny and common sense.

This is why we furiously proclaim ourselves


Maruja Mallo exhibited La huella (The Trace) and Ranas y excrementos (Frogs and Excrement), while Remedios Varo showed three works: Lecciones de costura (Sewing Lessons), Accidentalidad de la mujer violenta (Accident Rate of the Violent Woman) and La pierna liberadora de las amebas gigantes (The Liberating Leg of the Giant Amoebas).

Apropos of preparations for the exhibition, the sculptor Ángel Ferrant wrote to his confrère Marinel·lo: “Dear Marinel·lo:
at 8 this morning I got moving on our decision to headhunt Alberto. But for now it turns out he has nothing appropriate to hand to send us. […] Maruja Mallo’s two works will leave express today. Their titles are The Trace and Toads and Excrement. The first is the wood panel on which some hands and a horseshoe appear.”

These works by Maruja Mallo pertained to the style described by Gómez de la Serna as “from beyond the grave,” a style initiated in 1930, in which there are ravaged lands, skulls, dead birds and excrement—a decaying, ruined world that has been described as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Some of these works were shown at the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1932, and André Breton would eventually buy a painting from this series. Later on, her art would move towards a realism with universal themes like ethnicity or work, before she went on in her last period to paint masks and dancers.

Maruja Mallo returned to Spain in 1965 and we do not know if she visited Catalonia during this final phase of her life. As it was, in 1967 she won the Estrada Saladich Prize in Barcelona for her Espantapeces (Fish Scarers), from her old series Cloacas y campanarios (Sewers and Bell Towers). In that same year she participated in an exhibition at the College of Architects of Catalonia and the Balearics, organized by art critic Rafael Santos Torroella, who was director of its Cultural Committee at the time. The show exhibited a selection of 35 works from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid, including pieces by Picasso, María Blanchard, Juan Gris, Alberto Sánchez and Maruja Mallo herself, among other greats of Spanish painting and sculpture. She also took part in the 1967 Barcelona International Biennial and the 1968 Salon of Contemporary Art, also in Barcelona.

Returning to Remedios Varo, in May 1936 she co-wrote a letter with her colleague and friend Esteban Francés to the Surrealist Marcel Jean, in which she explained the reasons for her participation in the Logicofobista show and her commitment to surrealist ideas: “Dear Marcel, […]
 Right now in Barcelona there’s a collective exhibition of painting and sculpture with the individuals closest to Surrealism they’ve been able to come up with. They’ve asked Esteban and me for our collaboration and we’ve exhibited a few pictures with them, given that for the moment there are not enough completely surrealist individuals here to form a group. But we want you to know that, since it’s a group that is not completely surrealist, we’re somewhat marginal and are entirely independent of it […] we accept your discipline, we’re ready to sign your manifestoes, and would like to remain in contact with you and be kept abreast of your activities.”

Varo was born in Anglès, in the province Gerona, where her father was working as an hydraulics engineer. Due to the different assignments undertaken by the father, the family moved between a number of Spanish towns. Married to Gerardo Lizarraga, himself a painter, Remedios Varo had been exposed to surrealist ideas in Paris, where she resided in 1931-32, and when the couple decided to return they chose the most cosmopolitan Spanish city, Barcelona. Here, she had a studio in Plaça Lesseps and become the lover of Esteban Francés, another Surrealist painter who would also have to go into exile in Mexico. With him, Oscar Domínguez and Marcel Jean, Remedios would create numerous cadavres exquis, many using photographs from old magazines. Later on, Remedios would meet the French poet Benjamin Péret, live with him in Paris and go into exile with him in Mexico in 1941. There, she would carry on painting and be much lauded until her death. Remedios Varo’s oeuvre expresses the idea of cosmic unity and the interconnections between different planes of reality—matter and mind, the animal kingdom, the human and the vegetal—in scenes depicting sleepy towns, deserted streets, castles, fantastic machines and sorceresses.

Lee Miller

Lee Miller had an excellent relationship with Catalonia via her husband, the art historian and Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. Penrose had already been here in 1936 with his first wife, the poetess Valentine Boué, following their stay in the south of France with Picasso and Dora Maar. A defender of the Republic, he decided to travel to Spain with the Zervoses and English poet David Gascoyne in October 1936 to examine the state of the many artworks in Catalonia, under threat from the vandalism of the anarchists. Penrose photographed the group in Pedralbes Monastery; they also visited Gerona Cathedral and saw its famous Tapestry of Creation in the company of Joan Prats, the patron of modern art and friend of Miró’s. While married to Lee Miller, Roland Penrose would travel several times to Barcelona in the 1960s and 70s (when I had occasion to meet him in the 60s in the Galería Joan Prats), to Sitges and to Palma de Mallorca, for the writing of his monographs on Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies. Pepa Brossa, wife of the poet Joan Brossa, remembered Lee Miller as “a mature lady who’d undoubtedly been beautiful and who was taking the occasional photo,” and told me that, knowing nothing of her extraordinary quality as a photographer, she hadn’t paid much attention to her. (An ignorance shared by all until after her death, when her son Tony Penrose discovered umpteen boxes full of negatives). Lee Miller was an excellent Surrealist photographer who also ventured into the field of portraiture, and above all into documentary photography during World War II.

Frida Kahlo

As far as we know Frida Kahlo was never in Catalonia, but she did have a special connection with our country due to her love affair with Josep Bartolí, the Catalan painter and draughtsman (Barcelona, 1910 – New York, 1995). According to art historian Salomon Grimberg, who knew him well, Josep Bartolí “was an amiable, discreet, considerate and unpretentious person.” As a young man he’d begun working as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines like La Veu de Catalunya, Papitu and La Esquella de la Torratxa. Involved in the syndicalism of the day in Barcelona, passionately leftist, he collaborated with Helios Gómez and Carles Fontserè in the Union of Professional Draughtsmen. Bartolí was forced to go into exile in France towards the end of the Civil War when Franco’s victory was already assured and, like so many other Republicans, spent two long years in French concentration camps, this experience giving rise to the book Campos de concentración, published in Mexico City in 1944.

After stays in Paris and Casablanca he moved to Mexico City, where he had an exhibition of his work, before settling in the USA in 1946. We don’t know with any exactitude when his love affair began with Frida, who he met through Cristina Kahlo, but when the painter had to be admitted to a New York hospital in 1946 to undergo an operation on her spine, Bartolí followed her. Passionately in love, Frida and Josep planned to flee to France, where he’d rented a house, but the state of Frida’s health dissuaded them from the idea.

“For the remainder of his life,” Salomon Grimberg wrote to me, “Bartolí avoided talking about his relationship with Frida. At times he denied ever having known her, and even said that the person he’d known slightly was Diego Rivera.” Grimberg told me that on the death of Frida, Bartolí got married, but that this marriage didn’t last long because he was unable to forget her.

“Nostalgically,” Grimberg remarked, he spoke of Frida as “an invented being” and called her Mara, from maravilla (marvel). Moreover, in Buddhism Mara is the demon who tempts the Buddha with the vision of beautiful women.[1] Frida died in 1954 and the love letters she sent to her lover did not come up for auction until 2015. In them we can read: “I love you, my boy, my bartolí, my tree of hope, my sky of Mexico, my life.” Hers was a passionate love and Bartolí would comment to a friend that “Frida is one of the most intelligent, loyal, sensitive and valiant women I’ve seen in my life.” In one of Frida’s letters she tells him that at night she listens to songs in Spanish on the radio and hopes she may hear something in Catalan, “like the ones Bartolí is partial to.”On display in this exhibition are three drawings that belonged to Bartolí and two of the photographs taken of her by her American lover Nicholas Muray, which Frida gave to the Catalan draughtsman. The three drawings are very different and extremely interesting. One is a self-portrait of Frida at three different ages; another is a portrait of her drawing, with a kinetic description of her arm, and the last is a self-portrait with a pinkish pubis with eyes. This last drawing is proof that despite her corset and her disability she saw herself as a totally sexual being.

Dora Maar

Dora Maar visited Catalonia in 1933. I was able to pinpoint the date thanks to a photograph by her hand illustrating an article called “L’école de Tossa” by the French art critic Georges Charensol; the photograph was entitled Le Jury de Tossa (The Tossa Jury) and was published in the magazine Beaux Arts on 13 October l933.

When I was able to speak to Dora Maar by telephone in 1993 I asked her directly about her trip.[1] She replied that she didn’t come on an assignment for any magazine or newspaper, and that she came alone. Dora Maar also told me that she didn’t meet any representative of the intellectual and political life of Catalonia, but the fact of having

On Dora Maar, see Victoria Combalía, Dora Maar. Más allá de Picasso, Barcelona: Circe Ediciones, 2013. My telephone conversations with Dora Maar took place in 1993.

taken this photograph links her to Pere Creixams, a Catalan painter residing in Paris and organizer of the art competition whose jury Dora photographed. Later on, she would maintain a friendship with Miró, then in his properly Surrealist period, and photograph his daughter Dolores. She also had a good relationship with the Catalan sculptor Apel.les Fenosa.

In Barcelona Dora stayed at the Hotel Oriente on the Ramblas, then one of the city’s best. In the city she photographed a Blind Beggar, now in the collection of the Museo de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS), and some of her finest street photographs. She also photographed the Sagrada Familia, (the Nativity Portal) and Park Güell, which was also photographed by Man Ray in 1933, although there is no evidence that the two artists coincided.

But the biggest attraction for Dora in Barcelona was La Boquería Market, situated on the Ramblas: a marvellous spot that remained almost intact until 2008, but which is today swarming with tourists. Dora photographed the cheerful, animated women stallholders and children playing in the street. From the area around La Boquería there comes the excellent photograph Boy Stretched Out before an Iron Shutter, and one of two peasants in Plaça Sant Galdric, selling their vegetables from mobile stands that still existed until recently.

Heavily involved in the politics of the day as an activist in such ultra-left groups as Masses, where she met Georges Bataille, she also photographed the “disinherited” of Barcelona, like the inhabitants of Somorrostro, a shanty town which existed until the mid-1970s and is now completely redeveloped.

Next, Dora headed for Tossa de Mar, the small village on the Costa Brava that had already witnessed the presence of Marc Chagall and his wife and daughter (a friend of Dora’s), Otto Lloyd, Olga Sacharoff, Picabia, and the Cubists Gleizes and Metzinger.

Dora Maar told me she stayed in a family guesthouse, “the one that had running water. There were two family guesthouses there,” Dora told me, “One run by a German painter and the other by Spaniards, which had running water, something of a rarity in your country in those days.” It is more than likely that she roomed in the Fonda Rovira, the only Spanish boarding house that had running water, situated at the time in Carrer de la Guardia and which later on, now as the Hotel Rovira, moved right next to the beach.

Dora photographed various general views of the village, the Codolar (a small cove behind the walls), a fisherman at the door of his modest house, a woman sitting next to the boats, the sea glittering in the light and a boy bathing in the sea.

Another Costa Brava photograph depicts an unusual house. Dora Maar didn’t remember where it was, but said it was in Spain: it turned out to be a villa in S’Agaró called Xalet Montseny, built by the architect Francesc Folguera (an associate of Masó’s), which was knocked down in 1949 to make way for the coastal path between the beaches of Sant Pol and La Conca. Obviously, Dora was interested in the irrational, kitsch and phantasmagoric look of the building, which had a windmill, as well as a decoration of pebbles, ceramic and shells.

Dora’s trip to Catalonia, then, was not only interesting for its documentary aspects but provides the basis for some of her best photographs.

Ángeles Santos

Angeles Santos is, along with Remedios Varo, the only Catalan woman among our protagonists. She was born in Port Bou and as a child lived in Ripoll and La Jonquera. She embarked on her artistic career in Valladolid and it was Madrid that fêted her, on account of her friendship with Gómez de la Serna, García Lorca, Huidobro and other avant-garde intellectuals. Ángeles Santos dazzled with her Un mundo (A World), a visionary, surreal and exceedingly strange painting with a cubic Earth and bald female figures who play music on another planet, which according to Ángeles Santos is none other than Mars. She also painted Alma que huye de un sueño (Soul Fleeing from a Dream), the subject matter of which is totally surreal.

In 1936 Ángeles Santos married the Catalan painter Emili Grau Sala, and although she lived in Madrid for a number of years, she returned to Catalonia, where she exhibited regularly, even though her figurative style was far more amiable now than the one prior to the Civil War.

In 1966 she presented her Self-Portrait of 1928 at the Architects College of Catalonia and the Balearics in the collective exhibition Frente al espejo (In Front of the Mirror), and, in the years to follow, her Surrealist period found recognition in shows such as El surrealisme a Catalunya and El surrealismo en España (both in 1975).

Leonora Carrington

The episode that links Leonora Carrington to Catalonia was her simple crossing of our border with France. Simple, but also dramatic. When World War II broke out, her lover Max Ernst was put in prison for being German and although subsequently freed, six months later he was imprisoned again in Les Milles concentration camp. In desperation Leonora decided to leave for Spain with an English friend, Catherine Yarrow, not only because “in my evolution, Spain represented for me Discovery,” but also because she hoped to get a visa for Max Ernst’s passport in Madrid. In Andorra, Leonora was already a hostage to strange behaviour and was paralysed with anguish. The two women crossed into Catalonia via La Seu d’Urgell in a Fiat, before arriving in Barcelona. “I was quite put out by my entry into Spain: I thought it was my kingdom; the red earth was the dried blood of the Revolution. […] I was in a great state of exaltation when we arrived in Barcelona that evening.”To her friend she proposed that they should leave the Fiat in the city and travel to Madrid by train. There, the story is well known: she was almost raped, suffered from hallucinations and lost her mind. All this in a Madrid full of soldiers, Falangists and policemen: it was July 1940. Her visit to the British Embassy in Madrid resulted in her being conveyed to the clinic of Dr Morales in Santander. Later on, Leonora managed to flee to Mexico, where she embarked on a long, fertile artistic career, crowned with success. She was a close friend of Remedios Varo’s. Revelatory of Carrington’s interest in alchemy and the Kabbalah, her works depicted a phantasmagoric world teeming with real or fantastic animals that were taken to be the equals of the humans.

A brief conclusion

By searching and digging we would find a few more women artists who left their mark on Catalonia. Kati Horna took photographs in Barcelona during the Civil war; exiled in Mexico in 1939, she formed a close friendship with Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington; part of her photographic output can be categorized as surrealist. Meret Oppenheim entitled one of her works Dream in Barcelona (1935). As well as poems, Valentine Penrose created collages. Amparo Segarra, the wife of Eugenio Granell, and the author of excellent collages in the 1960s, lived in Barcelona during the Civil War. But the digging would have been interminable and we would never have put an end to our investigations. This selection must suffice for contemplating a few surrealist artworks, some of them previously unseen, moreover.

Victoria Combalía


Published in Surrealist Women and their Connection with Catalonia. Barcelona, 2017. Mayoral. p. 11.