“Security, stop that man,” I shouted at startled employees assigned to guard the distinguished collection of paintings by surrealist women currently living at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
They groped at an athletic young man sprinting by and, along with me, chased him as he ran directly to “Birthday,” a self-portrait by Dorothea Tanning. We formed a semicircle and crept forward but he scoffed at us, turned, and jumped right into the painting and kissed both of Tanning’s delightful breasts, bared by an open blouse, and then gently put his hands on her beautiful but quite serious face. Tanning, animated at last, pushed him away, alarming the predatory bird clawing a strange four-legged creature in the foreground, and the bird flew at the man who dashed straight back through a series of open doors, slamming each until finally shutting the bird out. Tanning stroked driftwood alive at the rear of her skirt, reopened all surreal doors, and resumed her elegant pose.
From gasping art patrons we learned the rascal had scampered over to Tanning’s “Family Portrait” and begun taunting the impossibly large paterfamilias who stared down at the family table, “Take off the icy glasses, Grandpa, I can’t see your eyes. If not for your grim visage I’d think you were dead. Perhaps I should pull that noose-like orange tie.”
To the man’s delicate blond wife sitting obediently at the table, he said, “Madam, please don’t sit there obediently like the family dog over there, begging for a plate in the maid’s hand. Come with me. There’s a better way.”
The young lady didn’t move, doubtless as cowed by her oppressive husband as distrustful of the interloper, who next appeared, quite uninvited, in Leonora Carrington’s “Self Portrait 1937-38.”
“Comely you assuredly are, Madam,” he said, “but flirt with you I cannot because your wild hair portends, if you’ll excuse this revelation, a thorough mental breakdown followed by electroshock therapy and wretched drugs that won’t help you regain the love of Max Ernst, who, alas, will forever be committed to Dorothea Tanning. I hope you’ll try to forgive them. Meanwhile, I suggest that you banish that misshapen three-breasted horse and turn to enjoy the magnificent white stallion statue, and at the same time remove its base like a saber through your head. Better still, dash through the open window and jump on that real living stallion and ride far away.”
Security and I probed the painting, seeking a point of entry. We failed to find one but startled the intruder who ran through the window and, cowboy style, leaped over the flanks of the white horse, landing on its back, and away they galloped. Where would he go? Where did he go? We heard nothing and had to examine each painting. There he was, riding the merry-go-round toward illusory “Hollywood Success” by Dorr Bothwell. Never has there been so anguished an amusement horse as this grimacing green creature upon which rides, perilously on her knees, a hooded and body-suited actress balancing herself with an extended and gloved left hand and a right hand brandishing garish pink and purple flowers I suspect no director ever noticed.
Our presumptuous guest looked disheartened, bolted from Hollywood, and sought gratification at “The Tea Party” by Sylvia Fein. Had this man no decency? Surely he’d read the artist in 1943 was in a stressed and delicate state due to her husband fighting in the war. And now she was alone at the party, not merely in a corner by herself but the only one there except for a feral blue-eyed cat staring at her. The man also stared at her as she gazed into a toy cup held by her wedding-band left hand, and clutched a bloody toy animal in her right. The sky was displeased en route to anger, and the man disappeared, whether because of fear or courtesy I do not know.
Editorial Note: These paintings and many more form the exhibition “Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.