Long considered muses rather than makers, the importance and value of the art produced by the female Surrealists is now—at last—being reconsidered. Over the past five years, records have been set for artists including Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo, Kay Sage and Leonora Carrington. Work by four out of these five artists have achieved prices in excess of $1m, which would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. At all price points, the work of female Surrealists has been exceeding market expectations.
In many ways, 2017 was been a banner year for female Surrealists: from the comprehensive survey show “We Are Completely Free: Women Artists and Surrealism” at the Museo Picasso Malagá to the reconstruction of Luise Straus-Ernst’s 1917 War Exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne (“1917—In Memory of Luise Straus-Ernst”). There was the publication of a new Carrington biography marking the centenary of her birth (The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead) and the arrival of Whitney Chadwick’s The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism which re-examines the relationships between female artists during the Second World War.
Plans are underway for a major solo exhibition dedicated to the work of Dorothea Tanning at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid and at Tate Modern in London this year and next, while the exhibition “Dorothea Tanning: Night Shadows” closed last November at Alison Jacques Gallery in London. Her market has been rising for the past several years: A Mrs. Radcliffe Called Today (1944) soared above its £50,000-£80,000 estimate when it was sold by Christie’s London for £314,500 ($512,716) in 2014.
Meanwhile, White Cube in London staged “Dreamers Awake”, a group show of 50 women Surrealists last summer, while Throckmorton Fine Art in New York staged “Surrealismo: Ojos de México” (21 September-2 December 2017).
Historically, the Surrealist movement has not always been kind to its women. The female painters, poets, writers and photographers who made valuable contributions to the movement were consistently consigned to the edges of the narrative: “They weren’t artists… they were our muses,” as Roland Penrose, the artist who was married to the Surrealist poet Valentine Boué (and later to the photographer Lee Miller) memorably said.
Surrealism was a boys’ club and women were often on the outside—sometimes deliberately so: Leonor Fini was introduced to the Surrealist group by Max Ernst but refused to defer to the movement’s founder André Breton, finding him patronising and misogynist. She was included in two of the group’s exhibitions, but was happy to exist at some remove.
Nonetheless, this made it more difficult for the female artists to get serious recognition from dealers, collectors and even fellow artists, which has impacted their critical and commercial legacies. For example, Fini’s La Grange batelière (1977) sold at Sotheby’s London earlier this year for £224,750 ($276,853)—a relatively modest price yet nonetheless one which more than doubled its £120,000 high estimate.
Another factor impacting the market for the female Surrealists is their geographic spread. Spanish painter Varo and the English-born Carrington both settled in Mexico during the Second World War and their art is often classified as Latin American as much as it is Surrealist. Their collecting base remains largely regional: in Sotheby’s sales globally since 2005 there have been more than 30 Latin American buyers actively bidding on Carrington’s works. By way of comparison, there wasn’t a single Latin American buyer for works by Fini, who lived in Europe for most of her life, during the same period.
Similarly, the painter Toyen, who was born Marie Čermínová, returned to her native Czech Republic after a brief period in Paris between 1925 and 1928 and was one of the founding members of the Czech Surrealist group in Prague.
She lived there until 1947 and the main body of her Surrealist work dates from this period. Her work attracts more Czech collectors than those from other countries and the majority of the top prices for her works were made at auction houses based in the Czech Republic. Yet a wider appetite for her work is being established: when Tous les éléments or Les Quatre éléments (1950) sold at Sotheby’s London last year for £344,750 (est. £120,000-£150,000), it was pursued by bidders from all over the world.
Another female Surrealist whose market prices reflect increased demand is Kay Sage. The second wife of the more famous Yves Tanguy, one of the founding figures of Surrealism, she worked alongside her husband, although always in a separate studio. During her lifetime she was acknowledged as a visionary artist and she is one of the few female Surrealists whose work has sold for millions of dollars.
Her 1956 oil Le Passage sold for £4.3m ($7.1m) — far above the presale estimates of £70,000 to £90,000 at Sotheby’s London in 2014, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon: the top five prices for work by Sage have all been made since 2013 and those prices tail off quickly—a major canvas sold a decade ago would only have made tens of thousands of dollars (prior to 2013 a work of hers never achieved more than $100,000 at auction).
This new demand is partly to do with scarcity (on her death in 1963 a huge body of her work was bequeathed to MoMA, and privately owned works are comparatively rare) but it also indicates the growing appetite for her work. Nonetheless, her record lags behind that of Tanguy, which was set at Christie’s London in 2005 when Les Derniers jours (1944) sold for $7.5m (which would be about $9m now if adjusted for inflation).
The most expensive female Surrealist is Frida Kahlo, whose Dos Desnudos en el Bosque (La tierra misma) (1939) sold at Christie’s in 2016 for $8m (est. $8m-$12m). But, Kahlo is an anomaly amongst her peers, most of whom—including Tanning, Fini, Eileen Agar and Toyen—have yet to pass the $1m mark.
Prices for work by the male Surrealists are significantly higher. The record for a work by René Magritte was set in February when La Corde sensible (1960) sold at Christie’s for £14.4m ($17.9m) (est. £14m-£18m) while the top price for a canvas by Paul Delvaux was made at Sotheby’s London in 2016 when Le Miroir (1936) sold for £7.3m ($10.6m) (est. £5.5m-£7.5m). Meanwhile, a Max Ernst sculpture, Le Roi jouant avec la reine (conceived 1944, cast 1950s), sold at Sotheby’s New York earlier this year for $15.9m (est. $4m-$6m)—a record for a Surrealist sculpture at auction.
This suggests that there is much room for growth in the market for female Surrealists, whose historical importance is only now beginning to be understood.