A series of great women artists

Art has always been a reflection of the human experience, a canvas upon which our stories, struggles, and triumphs are painted. Yet, as we delve into the records of art history, we uncover a disheartening truth: the spotlight has overwhelmingly favored the works of men. In the collections of eighteen major US art museums, a staggering 87% of artworks were created by male artists, and a parallel trend persists in institutions like London’s National Gallery, where women artists make up a mere 1% of the collection.

These statistics paint a stark picture, but behind the numbers lie incredible stories of women artists whose talents have often gone unrecognized. In this exploration, we invite you to discover the lives and works of a few extraordinary women artists who deserve your attention. Their artistry defied convention, their stories inspire, and their legacies continue to reshape the art world.

Leonora Carrington, 1917-2011

Leonora was an English-born Mexican Surrealist artist and writer known for her haunting and autobiographical paintings that incorporate images of sorcery, metamorphosis, alchemy and the occult.

Raised in a wealthy Roman Catholic family in Lancashire, England, Leonora rebelled against her family and religious upbringing from an early age, being expelled from at least two convent schools before being sent to boarding school in Florence at 14. There she began to study painting before moving to London to pursue art at Amedee Ozenfant’s academy and encountering surrealism for the first time. 

She met Max Ernst, a German painter, sculptor and poet who was a pioneer of Surrealism in Europe, in 1937 and soon became romantically involved with him, with them running away to Paris together, leading to her father disowning her. While most critics dismissed women, Max encouraged Leonora and in Paris she met the wider Surrealist circle such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso and exhibited with the Surrealists internationally. A short time after their move to Paris, in 1939 Ernst was deemed an enemy alien, arrested and imprisoned, and Leonora fled France for Spain, suffering a mental breakdown in 1940. 

Through a marriage of convenience with Mexican diplomat Renato Leduc, Leonora secured passage to New York in 1941 staying about a year, before moving to Mexico in 1942, divorcing, becoming a Mexican citizen, and settling in Mexico City, where she flourished and lived the rest of her life.

Leonora’s artistic style was marked by its dreamlike and fantastica qualities (“I’ve always had access to other worlds. We all do because we dream”), featuring mythical creatures, anthropomorphic animals, and ethereal landscapes rendered with vivid colors and symbolism. Leonora’s life and creations remain a testament to the boundless power of imagination and art’s capacity to transcend conventional boundaries.

Leonora made history in 2005 when her painting “Juggler” (1954) sold at auction for US$713K, believed to be the highest price paid for a work by a living Surrealist artist. More recently her work, “The Garden of Paracelsus” sold for US$3.3M in 2022. Leonora died at 94 in 2011 as a ‘national treasure’ in Mexico, the country she had made her home.

Lourdes Grobet, 1940-202

Born in Mexico City in 1940, Lourdes Grobet was one of Mexico’s most prolific artists, with a body of work spanning more than six decades. Though her work was wide-ranging, she is best known for her photography projects that push boundaries in their intimacy and breadth and serve as tributes to both their subjects and viewers.

Lourdes’ most symbolic body of work features the Lucha Libre, which had fascinated her since childhood. An extensive series of more than 11,000 photographs spanning over two decades, it depicts Lucha Libre legends such as Blue Demon and El Santo, both in the wrestling ring and in more vulnerable moments. 

When Lourdes was a child in the 1940s and 50s, interest in Lucha Libre spanned both the working and middle classes, but by the 1970s wealthier Mexicans had largely shunned their nation’s popular culture. Her photo series served as an inquiry into these changes in taste and culture and a way to rekindle the recognition she believed the luchadores deserved as important cultural figures. For Lourdes, the Lucha Libre was an embodiment of real Mexican culture and interwoven with the country’s historical embrace of masks, from pre-Columbian to the Zapatistas. Playing with and veiling one’s identity was central to her work.

Brave and uncompromising, Lourdes lived on her own terms. As she told it, her marriage ended in divorce partly because she decided to go skydiving: fulfilling a childhood dream and her belief you have to make your wishes come true came before her husband’s objections. The experience, ”you feel freed, freed from time and in complete silence,” inspired her to later apply to go aboard the rocket that launched the Morelos Satellite. Though her application was unsuccessful, she described the three months waiting and hoping her wish would come true as enjoyable, “allowing my imagination to take flight, since all my life I’ve always loved to fly – in every sense of the word.”

She passed away at her home in Mexico City in 2022 with tributes describing her as “one of the greatest representatives of photographic art in Mexico.”

Nahui Olin, 1893-1978

María del Carmen Mondragón Valseca (later to be known as Nahui Olin) was born in 1893 in Mexico City. The daughter of a diplomat, Nahui spent her youth in France where her father was working, beginning to write poetry and prose between the ages of four and twelve. In France she also met Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, whom she married in 1913. The couple returned to Mexico in 1921 and remained in an open relationship until 1922. 

During the 1920s and 30s, Nahui developed her skills as a painter whilst also working as an artists’ model within the intellectual circles of the Mexican avant-garde. Her decision to disrobe and be photographed nude, a groundbreaking act for her time, was a deliberate rebellion against the patriarchal norms that sought to confine her. Likewise, she is often credited with being one of the early adopters of modern and daring fashion in Mexico, challenging traditional dress codes. Her luminous personality and artistic prowess soon attracted the attention of Mexico City’s cultural elite, including figures like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. 

During these years, she met Gerardo Murillo, better known as Dr. Atl – an activist, academic, volcanologist, and painter – and with whom she enjoyed a lively affair. It was Dr. Atl who coined the name she would use for the rest of her life, Nahui Olin – a Nahuatl reference to renewal and the sun’s force behind the cyclic rhythm of the heavens, a symbol of earthquakes and change.

Their stormy relationship was tormented by jealousy and infidelity. At the time, women were not meant to respond to their husbands’ infidelities, but Nahui did, and this triggered violent encounters and denunciations with the result that the couple endured scandal and gossip. After having several further affairs, Nahui stepped out of public life in the 1940s though she continued to paint until her death in 1978.

As a painter, Nahui’s canvases burst forth with vibrant colors and evocative imagery. Her work drew from her personal experiences, as well as her fascination with the natural world and indigenous Mexican culture. Her exploration of the female form, in particular, was a recurring theme, a testament to her unapologetic celebration of womanhood.

Remedios Varo, 1908-1963

Remedios Varo was a Spanish painter known for her meticulous and dreamlike paintings. Born in 1908 in Angles, Spain, Remedios was influenced both by her father, a hydraulic engineer, who trained her in mechanical draftsmanship and encouraged her independent intellectual pursuits, and her strict Catholic schooling, against which she rebelled. She pursued art training at the prestigious School of Arts and Crafts in Madrid, the alma mater of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, where she met Gerardo Lizarraga, whom she married in 1930. She subsequently fled from war in Spain and then France before securing passage to Mexico in 1941/2 (via a divorce and a marriage to Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret).

In Mexico, Remedios surrounded herself with a group of likeminded women (Leonora Carrington and Kat Horna in particular – the group was sometimes referred to as ‘the three witches’) who were interested in alchemy and the occult. They were sensitive to male surrealists not seeing their female counterparts as talented and a shared ancestral feminine consciousness, often illustrated in Remedios’ work by repeated motifs of isolation, the cage and the tower. This was her way of responding to the female marginalization in the world of art at the time. Another common theme in her work was her highly imaginative inclusion of magic, mythical creatures, alchemy and utopian vehicles.

It was in Mexico that Remedios’ artistic career blossomed: out of her 140-piece art collection, 110 were born in Mexico and she had her first solo show in Mexico City in 1955, which received the support of Diego Rivera. She continued to work and exhibit until her death in 1963, aged just 54 brought on by a heart attack. She was described as “the sorceress who left too soon” and in 1971, the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City mounted a retrospective that attracted the largest audiences in the institution’s history.

Rosa Rolanda, 1895-1970

Rosa was born in Azusa, California in 1895 to parents of Scottish and Mexican descent. She began her artistic career as a celebrated dancer and choreographer and in 1916 was chosen out of 300 applicants to perform as one of six esteemed Marion Morgan Dancers, allowing her to travel to New York City where she performed on Broadway. Rosa was already fond of painting and sculpture and moved in a circle of New York artists, which included Georgia O’Keefe, who became a lifelong friend. 

She subsequently toured Europe dancing with the famous Ziegfield Follies before returning to New York in 1924 where she met Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican painter, caricaturist, illustrator, ethnologist and art historian. The following year they traveled to Mexico City together (they later moved there permanently), where they joined a leading group of Mexican Modernists including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Carlos Chavez, with whom they shared a political allegiance to progressive causes and a strong interest in pre-Hispanic and Mexican popular art. 

She first took up photography whilst she and Miguel traveled widely through Mexico and Asia and later, encouraged by Miguel and her friends, painting. The majority of Rosa’s canvases depict colorful, folkloric scenes of children and festivals, portraits of friends such as the movie actresses Dolores del Rio and Maria Felix, and self-portraits. Her style was influenced by the work of Miguel, but also by post-revolutionary painting and surrealism. She explored different techniques and materials, such as oil, watercolor and crayon. Rosa died in 1970 in Mexico City, Mexico.