Historically the marginal realm of the feminine, the home for women artists was not always the mere prison of patriarchy. Tor Scott introduces the surrealist women who rendered the domestic sphere as visionary spaces for alchemy and transformation.
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
From governesses caring for young students, mothers nursing babies, to witches stirring bubbling cauldrons, we find female figures occupying the domestic sphere with what Griselda Pollock referred to as a sense of “social locatedness”. Pushing back against these stereotypes female Surrealist artists manipulated conventional perceptions of domesticity, creating a new visual language with which to explore woman’s spiritual and psychological relationship with the home. The commonplace is transformed with uncanny optical cues, and the symbol of the house becomes a metaphor for the feminine consciousness. Playing with the magical and spiritual potential of interior spaces, artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Unica Zürn and Francesca Woodman sought power in seemling ordinary rooms, in dusty corridors, and creaking doorways, transforming them into hermetic realms bursting with secrets and overflowing with possibility. In these poems, collages, photographs, and paintings, we encounter clouds that float through open wardrobe doors, disembodied eyes hovering above empty hallways and ghost-like figures bursting forth from behind peeling wallpaper.
The surreal capacity of domestic spaces fascinated the American painter and writer Dorothea Tanning. Throughout her oeuvre, we witness strange gatherings of children in haunted hallways and bizarre, biomorphic sculptures of household objects that seem to come alive. These themes can be viewed in works such as Palaestra (1949) and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943). Tanning and her partner moved to Sedona in the 1940s and painting dark, cool interiors (as seen in Interior with Sudden Joy (1951)) became a psychological way in which to escape the Arizona heat. She describes the sanctuary she found in painting in her autobiography:
“…I lock the door and paint interiors. Great events. A white and dark picture would muffle the red world outside. Big bare rooms with the frozen white figures…opalescent light and velvet dark. ”
Tanning also created eerie three dimensional works; ordinary pieces of household furniture were transformed into phantasmal soft sculptures, where chairs have tails and tables have elbows. For example, in Canapé en temps de pluie (1970) the artist has taken a conventional tweed sofa, and transformed it into a mutated coupling of two fleshy figures, which appear before the viewer in a tangle of fabric limbs.
The recurring motif of doors and eerie domestic spaces that we see throughout Tanning’s practice are often anxiety inducing, and seem to explore the artist’s subconsciousness. The artist does not depict homely, motherly spaces, but rather threatening rooms with a looming sense of neurosis. In a 1999 interview for the Boston Sunday Globe, she described the oneiric origins of what appears to be and uneasy obsession with the doorway motif;
“I do recall I had a dream about doors a long time ago, and those doors appeared in many canvases afterward. It was a horrible dream. I opened it and it was another door right behind.”
This sense of apprehension and frustration is explored quite clearly in her famous painting titled Birthday (1942). Here, the artist has painted a self-portrait, placing herself in what appears to be – at first glance – a rather normal corridor, despite the odd, winged creature that lurks at her feet. However, on further investigation we can see that this hallway belongs to no ordinary house, and that one door seems to lead directly to another door, and another door, and another until the passageway all but disappears in a pattern of infinite regress. These motifs re-appear in paintings such as Intérieur (1953) and Lumière du foyer (1952), the latter of which is particularly unusual: a five-sided canvas, which traces the outline of two oblique doors. When mounted on the wall, one might have the impression that they could step into this work, like an enchanted portal to another world. The theme of opening and closing runs throughout Tanning’s work, sometimes visually, sometimes referred to semantically such as in Ouvre Toi (1971) (Open Sesame). Currently on display at the National Galleries of Scotland, the pages of this livres d’artiste unfurl and lengthen to reveal miniature friezes in bright colours, the cloud-like shapes of humanoid figures frolic from left to right. As the title would suggest, opening this exquisite book almost feels like stepping into a secret domain, where only few are permitted to enter.
The remarkable paintings of the Spanish Surrealist Remedios Varo are similarly haunting; wraiths and liminal deities roam surreal architectural forms of the artist’s own creation. Varo’s domestic spaces are anything but ordinary; the home is no longer a place of tradition and confinement, but instead a playground for the arcane. In works such as Mimetismo (1960), we witness extraordinary happenings which occur with a casual air of the everyday. In this picture the central figure has Varo’s signature heart-shaped face and appears to be in a state of metamorphosis, or mimicry, as the title suggests. Her legs and arms are identical to that of the chair on which she sits – small, wooden and carved with traditional patterns. Even her face has taken on the pattern of the chair’s fabric; dashed all over in tiny crosses and red fleur-de-lis. Clouds appear from behind a half-open cupboard door, and a cat looks upon the scene from its hiding place underneath the floorboards. Seemingly banal household objects have taken on a life of their own and have become autonomous entities. This theme is also explored in Resurrected Still-Life, 1963, where plates and apples swirl in orbit around a large candle on a circular dining table. The title is a telling blend of the necromantic and traditional, but instead of bringing the dead to life, the artist is enchanting typical domestic objects.
For Leonora Carrington, the kitchen was a room with great magical potential; a place of creative significance, where meals were eaten, pots and pans bubbled and transformative occurrences could take place. The artist spent much of her time in this familiar domestic space thinking, cooking, entertaining guests and conjuring surreal images from real objects. The kitchen is traditionally linked with female gender roles, and as such, it is not surprising that Carrington chose this room as a setting for many of her paintings. In fact, it seems that she purposely chose a space that has been seen to confine women, and turn it into a source of feminine power and witchcraft. As Katherine Conley notes; “Carrington reveals houses and their kitchens as laboratories in which women work on fantastic transformations…” Conley goes on to describe the way in which Carrington’s artistic practice was informed by the objects from within her home, particularly the cauldron, a magically charged symbol which appears again and again in her oeuvre. By choosing this object, Carrington takes an ordinary, domiciliary vessel, and gives it great power, not only with which to nourish those who sit around it, but also with which to conjure and create. In her novel The Hearing Trumpet (1976), the cauldron becomes a portal, but also a vessel within which a soup-like, magical potion is stirred, properties of which could restore one’s youthfulness. These themes are further explored throughout Carrington’s work in paintings such as A Sanctuary for Furies, (1974), The House Opposite (1945) and The Old Maids (1947), wherein the domestic setting of the kitchen, or the motif of the cauldron take a central role. In each of these images, the domestic space is used as a stage in which to act out magical things. This is a deliberate way in which to visually upend the idea of a traditional, female dominated space. As Chadwick notes “In life as well as in art, Carrington grounded her pursuit of the arcane and the hermetic in images of woman’s everyday life: cooking, knitting, and tending children.” These occupations are no longer commonplace, but are now infused with a sense of the marvellous.
Whitney Chadwick noted that Leonora Carrington used “…the image of the house and the domestic activities that take place within its walls as metaphors for woman’s consciousness.” This can be seen clearly in Carrington’s famous self portrait of 1937-38 titled The Inn of the Dawn Horse. In this picture the artist is visited by a feral looking hyena, whilst she perches awkwardly on a satin armchair, her legs spread apart and hand outstretched as if to summon the beast towards her. Above her head floats a white rocking horse which is suspended in midair. This is not a conventional painting of a woman reclining in her parlor, it is a psychological self-portrait that explores those matters which weigh on Carrington’s consciousness – most obviously her difficult relationship with her family, whom she was frequently rebelling against. She is at once the rocking chair and the hyena – confined by familial expectation and yet, untamable. The domestic space frames the scene perfectly; it is calm and formal, and completely at odds to the characters within it.
When the British painter and writer Ithell Colquhoun exhibited her work Interior at the Mayor Galleryin 1939, it received the following review “…Interior… with it’s glazed domes in deliberately false perspective, has the vaguely sinister effect which sensitive persons often suffer in strange buildings.” Buildings, architectural spaces and interiors became a focal point of many Surrealists during the interwar period, as the comfort and safety of home was being threatened by violence and destruction. Edith Rimmington, a Surrealist contemporary of Colquhoun used the metaphor of interior spaces in her automatic poem Time-Table (1942) which featured in the Surrealist publication Fulcrum. The result is an unconscious expression of internalised anxiety. Here, sadness and dread seem to occupy the halls of Rimmington’s imagination; “Death is alive in rhythm at the screech of the siren like a calm box pouring out music, projecting a life-time through endless rooms.” Arguably, much like Tanning’s never-ending door imagery, the feel of frustration that accompanies the phrase “endless rooms” is emblematic of the artist’s inner feelings of helplessness, perhaps as a result of the devastation of WWII.
Canadian artist Mimi Parent created various images that linger on the theme of the consciousness and the female presence within the domestic space. In Le Labyrinthe (1980), the artist depicts a figure standing in an unidentifiable room, the walls of which appear to be either shrinking, or fading to mist. Much like in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), walls (and the paper clinging to them), once banal and average, now seem to beckon the viewer to take a closer look. Often, we find spectral, feminine figures bursting forth from behind the plaster of these walls – such as in the work of Tanning – or seemingly anchored in place, merging with the very fabric of the building and becoming part of it. Varo’s work Luz emergente (1962) is one in a series that repeats this theme; humanoid forms loom from the walls, half free, half contained. This can also be seen in the work of photographers such as Lauren E. Simonutti or Francesca Woodman. The latter famously used an abandoned building as an unsettling backdrop for her photographic works, placing her naked body behind old mirrors and wrapping herself in strips of crumbling, floral wallpaper. Here, Woodman has created a ghostly narrative in which she is the protagonist and the rooms that she occupies are metaphors for her own imagination, or mental state. In keeping with female Surrealists that came before her, Woodman uses eerie interiors as a visual exploration of a fevered, female mind.
The setting of a house and it’s rooms as a metaphor within which to explore one’s own psychological trauma is used most explicitly by the German poet and artist, Unica Zürn. Zürn wrote her unsettling novella The House of Illnesses (1958) whilst suffering from a bout of jaundice, and confined indoors. The text is fluid, with clear prose but is laced with disturbing imagery, the combination of which instills a sense of disquiet within the reader. Written in the first person, it describes a stay in an institution, the rooms of which appear to be composed of different body parts. These are given bizarre names such as the Hall of Bellies, the Chamber of Hands and the Vaults of the Head. Zürn is forbidden to enter some of these rooms, which appear to hold great secrets. As the story progresses, it is clear that the building itself is a huge living, breathing organism, made up of jumbled extremities and bodily fluids, some of which trickle from beneath door frames;
“You are not allowed to enter all of the rooms. Either they are too beautiful, so that when you have to leave them you long for the rest of your life to return to them. Or they are so revolting that when you leave, the memory of them sticks to you like a mucus and there is no getting rid of it.” 
A modern approach to this femine Surrealist tradition can be seen in the work of Penny Slinger, who famously designed a dress in the shape of a golden dollhouse for Dior’s 2019 Haute Couture show. In this instance, the woman is occupying the house as much as the house is occupying the woman. The model wearing this fantastic piece of work is almost bursting through the roof of a conservative, classically formed building: she is anything but a doll that can be manipulated, anything but a toy confined to the realms of cardboard walls. Conversely, the way in which the dress fits the body, almost allows it the appearance of being part of those who wear it, turning the feminine form itself into a portal to new worlds. This is also explored in Slinger’s work An Exorcism which was published in 1977, and contains a series of photographic collages. The setting for each of these works are black and white images of a derelict manor house, upon which the artist pastes various Surreal encounters. Slinger describes developing the photographs in her dark room, and her feeling “…that this Stately Home had something yet to contribute to my own exploration of the psyche.” Again, returning to the idea that the house and it’s rooms are a stage within which to act out one’s own psychological drama.
The use of domestic spaces as a tool with which to explore symptoms of an unsettled psyche and display the alchemical fecundity of women, to this day remains a way in which to upturn conventional gender roles. By using architecture to represent the subconscious, these artists were able to create otherworldly scenes that draw the viewer in, creating arenas in which women are empowered, rather than confined, and are free to explore their own thoughts, desires and hermetic ambitions.
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2019. Leonora Carrington: The Story of the Last Egg, Gallery Wendi Norris.
 Pollock, G. 2015. Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art. Routledge, pg 93.
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 Conley, K. 2013. Carrington’s Kitchen. W&M Scholar Works, pg 6
 Chadwick. W. 1991. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. Thames & Hudson, pg 199
 Chadwick. W. 1991. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. Thames & Hudson, pg 199
 Time-Table by Edith Rimmington, published in Fulcrum 1942
 Zürn, U. 2019. House of Illnesses. Atlas Press, pg 49.