Many people recognize the name Frida Kahlo.
The tortured Mexican artist and wife of famed painter Diego Rivera was world-renowned for her surrealist works.
But she was only one in a larger movement of 20th-century women artists - many wives or lovers of artists - whose topsy-turvy works are featured in a landmark exhibition opening today and continuing through May 6 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Dubbed "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States," it reflects the kinship the 47 well-known and little-known artists who made art during the period of the 1930s to '70s felt with the central figure of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" because, like Alice, their lives were disrupted by people or events beyond their control.
"A lot of the women had tragic lives and used the surrealist aesthetic as a way of dealing with their inner problems, their past, their future and creating new identities in the process of healing," says Ilene Fort, curator of the exhibition organized into nine major themes demonstrating the recurrent issues in women's lives and art.
Entering the exhibition, the Alice connection is exemplified by several works, including Sylvia Fein's 1943 painting, "The Tea Party." It depicts the artist as big Alice at a tea party with no other guests. On the table is a spread of pears, pomegranates and children's rhymes.
Fein made the autobiographical painting as a way to cope with her loneliness and worry while her husband served in World War II.
In a neighboring gallery are self-portraits of artists, portraits of their family or friends, and masks, including Leonora Carrington's catlike "Red Mask," 1950. And it's there Kahlo's "The Two Fridas," 1939, is displayed alongside little-known Helen Lundeberg's "Double Portrait of the Artist in Time," 1935.
"The fascinating thing is that Helen and Frida often did similar themes, and Helen was always earlier," Fort says. "I don't think they knew each other.
"In fact, 90 percent of these women were drop-dead gorgeous," she says. "Their beauty, and their talent, and their sophistication enabled them to enter this world ... as lovers and always muses, because that's how the male artists thought of them. But the women wanted to do their own art."
Women's work was more personal.
Consider Dorothea Tanning's "Birthday," 1942, about passing through doors from the past to the future; or Gerrie Gutmann's "The Theft," 1952, a horrific twist on the Madonna that shows a ghoulish woman clutching a baby's casket to her chest - a response to losing custody of her only child, a son.
Many of these female artists took male fetishes and offered new perspectives, including Doris Lindo Lewis, who made breasts part of the natural landscape in "Mamscape," 1934. Gertrude Abercrombie's "The Courtship," 1949, portrayed men's pursuit of women as a holdup.
Remedios Varo - second only in importance to Kahlo - combined realist and avant-garde painting styles to create gorgeous works, including some that showed an interest in the spiritual, witchcraft and moving up to a higher level of consciousness.
They include Varo's owl-like creator conjuring birds from music and starlight in the 1958 painting "Creation of the Birds." In "Celestial Pablum," also from 1958, a woman sits in a tower grinding stars into stardust she then spoon-feeds to a caged crescent moon.
As she puts it, "Of all the 20th-century modernist movements, surrealists were the ones who most liberate creative women and encourage them to be themselves, be independent and follow their own paths."
Sandra Barrera 818-713-3728 email@example.com
In Wonderland: The Surrealists Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States
What: The first large-scale international survey of women surrealist artists in North America.
When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. today; and everyday thereafter from noon to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday thereafter, through May 6.
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles.
Tickets: $20; children 17 and under are admitted free; includes admission to LACMA's permanent collection and non-ticketed special exhibitions. To purchase, visit www.lacma.org, call 323-857-6010 or stop by the ticket office during regular museum hours.