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Women Surrealists and Tarot

Tarot archetypes appear in the art of several women surrealists currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The closest to an actual tarot card is The Lady Magician by Sylvia Fein. The magician’s table is draped in a white cloth and scattered with perfume vials, shells, a framed picture, paint brushes standing in a glass vase, and a feather in a little glass bottle. I wonder if the card with the large border that’s tucked under the cloth is a Tarot card. Sylvia Fein was born in 1919 and calls herself a magical realist. Her website with examples of her work is at SylviaFeinPainter.com.

If the upright tarot tower is about destruction, is its opposite meaning construction? The Flutist by Remedios Varo turns tarot imagery on its head by levitating fossil-embedded stones and setting them in place using the power of the flute’s vibrations. This tower has eight sides to represent the musical octave, and the flutist’s face is inlayed with mother-of-pearl to signify enlightenment and the ability to co-create the universe. Varo modeled her tower on a planetarium built near Mexico City by the disciple of a Russian mystic.

 Varo was a key figure in a group of American and European Surrealist women who gravitated to Mexico in the 1940s, formed close friendships, and studied alchemy, tarot and theosophy together. Some of the most powerful works in this show are large canvases by these icons of surrealism: Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington and Frieda Kahlo. These works depict women as alchemists, artists and manipulators of the basic structure of the universe.

Frieda Kahlo’s tower is a high-rise apartment building in New York City from which Dorothy Hale jumped to her death in 1938 after throwing a farewell cocktail party for her society friends. One of Dorothy’s friends commissioned Kahlo to do a memorial portrait, expecting something traditional and respectful. Needless to say, she was horrified when The Suicide of Dorothy Hale was unveiled. She kept it crated up in storage for decades.

The exhibit In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States runs until May 6. A catalog with the same name is available from the online gift shop at LACMA.org. 

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