Women Artists, Surrealism, & The Occult

Nadia's Book

Published by Mandrake of Oxford, the ideas in Nadia Choucha’s thought-provoking book, Surrealism & the Occult, are many and rich and strange, not least the proposal that Surrealism and the Occult are bedfellows, inextricably linked.

“It is necessary to admit,” said the surrealist poet Benjamin Peret, “that a common denominator unites the sorcerer, the artist and the madman, which is none other than Magic.”

Practitioners noted the analogy between surrealist art and philosophy, and alchemy: after centuries of “domestication and insane resignation”  the imagination was being liberated by a “long, immense, reasoned derangement of the senses” (André Breton, quoting poetic prodigy Arthur Rimbaud.)

Max Ernst notes his first contact with the occult, magic and witchcraft and writes in his diary after WWI, how he died at the start of the war and “resuscitated” when the war ends “a young man aspiring to become a magician and to find the myth of his time.”

The author also introduces women surrealists, usually overlooked or ignored in other books on the subject, quoting Whitney Chadwick:

“The male definition of woman as a muse or intermediary is not an appropriate image for the creative woman.”

As Leonora Carrington remarked in 1983, looking back over her long life:

“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse . . . I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”

Leonora & Max

The territory Nadia Choucha explores is almost too large for its 126 pages. Nevertheless it’s a must-read for all those interested in the subject and the often hidden connection between Surrealism and the Occult. Despite its apparent accessibility and popularity (or perhaps because of . . . ?), historically the book – and, by extension, the author herself – have come in for a lot of pretty full-on criticism, from academics and self-appointed experts in both the territories of Occultism and Surrealism . . .

Of course, the way we see it the problem is one of what exactly is meant when we attempt to talk about “surrealism?”

According to that fount of all online wisdom, Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings. The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”


That prime-mover and self-appointed Pope of Surrealism, André Breton, had been inspired  initially after the coining of the term ‘surrealist’ by his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Breton made an attempt to define what he meant in the first Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924:

Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

Encyclopedia: Surrealism. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

Valentine Hugo

It could be argued that Surrealist with a capital ‘S’ refers specifically to members of a formal group, or its acknowledged descendants and offshoots, most of which are limited to or bound by an historical, chronological, context. It is to be remembered that from this point of view, numerous exemplars, such as those arch-Surrealists Antonin Artaud, Salvador Dali (and, to a lesser extent, figures like the very young Brion Gysin) ceased to be Surrealists the minute they were expelled – one is tempted to say excommunicated – by Breton.

The Other possibility is that we think of surrealists – with a small ‘s’ – as those artists and writers who are attempting to apply such principles as were being set forth in the Surrealist Manifestos all those years ago . . .

Sleeping Women Surrealists

As well as the many-and-varied selection of books about individual artist-practitioners – such as Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Ithell Colquhoun, Leonora Carrington, and even Eileen Agar – without doubt one of the definitive texts has got to be Professor Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Thames & Hudson.) It was originally published in 1985 as a large-format hardback, just right for coffee table adornment, with one of Kay Sage’s brooding images on the cover; then there was a second edition in 1991, both in hardback and paperback, only this time with one of Frida Kahlo’s distinctive self-portraits on the cover.

WC, Women Surrealists

Also worth mentioning is The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies, by Patrick Lepetit (new out from Inner Traditions/Bear & Co), and we are reliably informed that Dr. Leon Marvell has an excellent piece on Alchemy and Surrealism in the anthology Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (edited by Aaron Cheak, and published by our friends at Numen Books, whose other titles include the anthology Occult Traditions.)


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2 Responses to Women Artists, Surrealism, & The Occult

  1. Hello Emma & Matthew…
    Also worth checking out in this vein is “Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of a Myth” by Franklin Rosemont. The tone is dry even for an academic book, but it has its moments. Thanks for this nice roundup, including Choucha’s classic text.



  2. Very interesting post. Worth mentioning that the ‘Max Ernst and Alchemy’ book mentioned by the previous commenter is actually by M.E.Warlick, not Franklin Rosemont.

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