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Overlooked Eastern European female Surrealist artists take centre stage in London exhibition

London exhibition showcases female Eastern European surrealist art
London exhibition showcases female Eastern European surrealist art Copyright Credit: Cromwell Place, London
Copyright Credit: Cromwell Place, London
By Theo Farrant
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This unprecedented showcase features the works of outstanding Surrealists from Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and the former Yugoslavia, tracing the development of the movement from the 1930s to its present-day revival.

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The world of Surrealism is often associated with the works of famous male artists such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Max Ernst.

However, an exhibition currently running in London seeks to shed light on the unique and often overlooked contributions of women to the movement, specifically within the Eastern European avant-garde.  

Titled “I saw the other side of the sun with you,” the unprecedented exhibition showcases the work of many outstanding Surrealists from Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and the former Yugoslavia, charting the development of Surrealism from the 1930s to its present-day revival. 

The exhibition was commissioned by the esteemed European ArtEast Foundation and is currently being hosted at Cromwell Place in London. 

According to Anke Kempkes, the curator, women artists from Eastern Europe in the interwar period used Surrealism as a means to develop innovative and radical visions on gender issues and sexuality. The art form also provided them with an outlet to process trauma during World War II. 

"The exhibition, which is a world first, showcases the unique Surrealist language developed by these pioneering female artists and their lasting impact on younger generations," explains Kempkes. 

"It emphasises the transhistorical dimension of Surrealist language as a strong female lineage in Eastern European art history that remains relevant today," she adds. 

What's on display at the exhibition?

Zuzanna Janin archive and lokal_30, Warsaw
Portrait of Theodor Szczepański (1964) by Maria AntoZuzanna Janin archive and lokal_30, Warsaw

The exhibition features a diverse array of over 50 different works, spanning from painting, drawing, illustration, sculpture and video works as well as an assortment of archival materials.

Pioneering artists such as Maria Anto, a Polish artist known for her psychologically charged architectural and urban structures, and the apocalyptic landscapes of Zofia Rydet, highlight the development of surrealism in the region. 

The title of the exhibition, "I saw the other side of the sun with you," is actually taken from an excerpt of Anto's poetic writing from 1975, which reflects her relationship with her daughter Zuzia. 

The exhibition also showcases the work of other trailblazing women artists such as Milena Pavlović-Barili (1909-1945), a Serbian painter and fashion illustrator whose works for American Vogue fused surrealistic iconography with high fashion in Medieval and Renaissance settings. 

Her retro-modernist "poetic infantilism" laid the groundwork for the artistic style of Ljiljana Blazevska, a Serbian painter known for her post-surrealist expressions, whose work is also on display. 

Collection Tomasz Żmigrodzki and The Foksal Gallery Foundation
Hunting (2021) by Agata SłowakCollection Tomasz Żmigrodzki and The Foksal Gallery Foundation
Fondacija Milenin dom Galerija Milene Pavlović Barili
Doll (1936) by Milena Pavlovic BariliFondacija Milenin dom Galerija Milene Pavlović Barili
PIOTR TOMCZYK/MUZEUM SZTUKI
Untitled (1945) by Teresa ŻarnowerPIOTR TOMCZYK/MUZEUM SZTUKI

In addition to historical artists, the exhibition features contemporary female artists who are carrying on the legacy of dissident female voices in the art world.

One such artist is Agata Slowak, a Polish artist born in 1994, whose work focuses on topics related to gender and feminism, drawing inspiration from the first generation Surrealist Lenore Fini. 

Slowak's art explores the role of ritual and magic as alternative forms of knowledge transfer and community-making among women.

Margo Litvinova and Oleksandra Tsapko, born in 2002, round off the show with their collaborative short film titled The Bee (2023). 

The film is a surrealist exploration of the unbearable burden that every Ukrainian who was forced to flee their home with the outbreak of war experiences every day, inviting viewers to confront the harsh realities of war through a surreal and symbolic lens. 

The "I saw the other side of the sun with you" exhibition runs until 30 April 2023 at Cromwell Place, London.

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