Published On: December 22nd, 2023Categories: Art Review

The Art of Resilience: A Trilogy of Female Surrealists from Anne Whitehouse
A Review by Alan Steinfeld

Anne Whitehouse’s women of surrealism series provides a chronicle on the inner workings of three extraordinary women to emerge out of the Surrealist art movement of the 1930s and 40s. While Surrealism sought to focus on the absurd, the fantastic, and the transhuman, the lives of Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, and Frida Kahlo reflect the very real challenges of the human condition. Published by Ethel Zine and Micro Press, these exquisitely handcrafted book series, designed by Sara Lefsyk, are a collector’s dream. Whitehouse’s engaging approach invites readers to delve into the personal struggles, triumphs, and contributions of these formidable artists. In many ways, the exceptional lives of the women she portrays can be characterized as “surreal,” exemplified by extreme physical suffering and emotional tribulations that set them apart from the most ordinary women of their times.

Such situations that confronted them reflect the sentiment of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote, “Works of art always spring from those who have faced the danger, gone to the very end of experience, to the point where no human being can go.”  Indeed, in these concise biographical sketches Whitehouse sheds light on journeys “no human being” would dare to embark upon.  Her approach to Carrington, Miller, and Kahlo adds a new layer of understanding to the Surrealist movement, showing it as a response to the harsh realities of the world.  Overall, Whitehouse is both absorbing and insightful, providing a fresh perspective into the lives of these exceptional artists. Each one was an important contributor to the Surrealist movement which equal the widespread male-dominated acknowledgments which litter the art history books. Furthermore, Whitehouse accuses the artistic movement of misogyny and the tendency to portray women as mere muses and symbols of mystical and erotic fantasies. She attributes the hostility to the Surrealist men’s love and admiration for each other. For instance, when Frida Kahlo was invited to Paris by the schools founder, Andre Breton, she received a very rude reception and eventually found refuge with the painter Marcel Duchamp.

Whitehouse’s first book in the series in 2020 was the “Surrealist Muse” (a reference to Leonora Carrington) whose title the painter/writer would certainly have rejected. In fact, Carrington is quoted in a MoMA exhibition stating, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” Whitehouse emphasizes Carrington’s fierce independence, even though she was the youngest and seemingly most glamorous member of the Surrealist circle. Still Breton described Carrington as “magnificent in her refusals,” declining the roles of muse for Man Ray, Miró, and even her first true love at 19, Max Ernst. Carrington reminisced about their brief affair as “an era of paradise,” until the War separated them. Years later she refused a further engagement when they met again New York afte the war. One of her final acts of defiance against male aggression occurred when she resisted the advances of the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. After he then locked in a Mexican bathroom her indomitable spirit adorned the walls with her menstrual blood as statement of her resistance. The episode reinforces the trilogy’s theme of how these resilience female Surrealists consciously chose to defy the societal norms of a male oriented society.

In each narrative Whitehouse’s non-linear approach enhances the intense dramas of these lives. One notable omission in the Carrington’s account is the lack of acknowledgment for her talents as a writer. A recent publication of her absurdist stories is equal to those of Franz Kafka. While Leonora eventually emerged from her schizophrenia depression and heartbreak as a wiser woman in Mexico, Whitehorse’s next biographic retelling is a contrasting tale of a creative presence who would never escape her own demons.


In the 2021 addition to the series, “Escaping Lee Miller,” Whitehouse delves into the equally remarkable life of photographer Lee Miller. Like Carrington, Miller used beauty, talent, and intelligence as her currency for a life full of travel and outlandish adventures. While Carrington expressed her inner struggles through her surreal paintings of humans infused with animal imagery, Miller’s creative journey reflected the outward absurdity of the times. Her extensive career as a photographer began with the frivolity of the bohemian picnics the 1930s and ended as a distinguished photojournalist capturing the most horrifying images of human suffering. It is at this point that Whitehouse declared: “The war destroyed Surrealism as a movement, because games like that weren’t amusing anymore.”  Lee’s passion for adventure brought her from the frontline combat of Normandy to the Nazi death camps of World War II. Yet in what could be called the most surreal moment in the mini-series, Whitehouse describes Miller being photographed bathing in the tub of the infamous Führer’s home at Berchtesgaden by her lover and journalist partner.

Whitehouse notes that what made Lee’s work so captivating was her ability to be both subject and object simultaneously. Having learned from the masters of her day, as an apprentices from Man Ray, posing for legendary photographer Edward Steichen, being painted by Picasso six times, and discovered by Condé Nast for a cover of Vogue, all contributed to her acclaimed photographic abilities.

However, the awfulness of war left her emotionally scared as she would later confess “I got in over my head. I never could get the stench of Dachau out of my mouth”  She returned to England a broken woman, her love for fashion and desire for sexual freedom stripped away. Despite her struggles with depression, suicidal thoughts, and alcoholism, Miller’s tenacity allowed her to reinvent herself as a master chef, reconnect with Picasso, and publish his first biography with her husband Roland. Unlike Carrington, who found redemption through her studies of Jung and alchemy, Miller lacked the psychological insights to heal her past. Whitehouse portrays her at the end of her life as a woman tormented by self-loathing. Nevertheless preserved her brilliant career by keeping her 60,000 photos and negatives intact in her attic, only recently discovered by her estranged son.


The third installment in Whitehouse’s Women of Surrealism series is “Frida” (2022), centering on the celebrated figure of Frida Kahlo. Her stardom and enduring cultural impact eclipses most every woman artist of the 20th century. Her iconic face is plastered throughout Mexico and many of the cultural centers in the US symbolizing the independence of creative women. Nevertheless, her suffering was no less than that of the fellow artists already mentioned.

The encapsulation of Frida, like the previous two book in the series, reveals the hidden wounds beneath the currency of creative genius and raw sexuality. Those unaware of the hardships of Carrington and Miller, may feel Frida to be that great artist who used her imaginative daring as a balm for her physical and emotional suffering.  Art scholar John Berger argued that “the sharing of pain is one of the essential preconditions for rediscovering dignity and hope, and Kahlo’s work served as a source of healing and empowerment for herself and others.” Besides making her one of the most significant contributors to the Surrealist movement, her use of bleeding hearts, heavy braces, and corsets made of leather and metal in her paintings served as symbols of the metaphorical enslavement women had faced in the past.

Despite the tumultuous life with her longtime partner, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, this relationship was a notable upgrade to the situation of the other two women and their male counterparts. As opposed to the competition in creativity Carrington felt with Ernst and Miller with Man Ray, Rivera immediately bowed in recognized to the depth and complexity of Kahlo’s artistic voice.  He wrote a stunning appraisal of her work for her first exhibition catalogue: “Acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life.”


In conclusion, readers may criticize Whitehouse for her lack of chronological structure in these abridged biographies, or reproach her for her predilection for personal drama over artistic contributions. However, Whitehouse’s unconventional style of jumping back and forth between various crises in these women’s lives adds an emotional impact of her storytelling, generating a poetic quality to the writing. Equally, the lack of a formal structure displays a greater sense of the psychological trauma each sought to resolve through the intention of their work. Rather than simply showcasing their inspirations we find greater meaning in learning how each channeled their pain into universal emblems of articulation. Looking back, we can see how the unwavering power of the creative imagination emerged out of these influences and pushed them beyond traditional gender roles. Their trailblazing efforts enabled social change for those who followed, allowing women to take on a more prominent role in generating new forms of expression.


Yet in these concise reflections one point seems to have been overlooked. Whitehouse’s failure to mention how the search for personal expression broaden their creativity beyond the formal elements of surrealism. Whereas Carrington drew upon alchemy and mystical elements, and Miller spotlighted themes of war and desolation, Kahlo used her own traumatic experiences as fodder to comment on Mexican culture and folklore. Despite this minor critique, Anne Whitehouse’s trilogy provides a captivating examination of three formable revolutionaries: Women who survived extraordinary challenges and defied societal norms in pursuit of an inner calling to say who they were and what they felt – to the world. The series serves as a testament to the power of the human spirit and the role of women in shaping the course of artistic trends. The booklets are a must-read for anyone interested in exploring the intersection of art, feminism, and the human experience.

Still a lingering lament remains regarding the gifts of creation woven out of the anguished fabric of these tortured souls. It can be said, without hyperbole, that the “women of surrealism” plumbed the depths of despair. I wonder, as Emily Dickinson did, about the wounded people she knew, if these grand dames of 20th century art ever truly found relief from the physical, mental, and emotional afflictions they sustained.
In the poem I measure every Grief I meet” Dickinson wrote:

“I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm – 

That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm – 


Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –…”

The portrayals of Anne Whitehouse’s pioneering women and the tenacious times they endured, serves as an encouragement for those looking to overcome seeming insurmountable odds. The dedication to an inner calling in the face of adversity offers a model for harnessing hardships into vehicles of transformative expressions.


Reviewer Alan Steinfeld is an author, filmmaker, lecturer, and host of the popular YouTube channel “New Realities.” He has also produced the Manhattan cable television program of the same name for the past 25 years and has interviewed several esteemed guests such as Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Ram Dass and the visionary painter Alex Grey. For the past decade, he has been studying the influence of the arts on human perception. He has written several articles about visionary art and the metaphysical elements in the paintings of the Scandinavian artists Hilma af Klint and Edvard Munch. In addition to his work in media and the arts, Alan also holds a Masters in Chinese Medicine, and a bachelor’s degree in English literature from SUNY Buffalo, with a concentration on Shakespeare, James Joyce and Henry James. He can be reached at:


Alan Steinfeld, author, filmmaker, lecturer, is also the host of the popular YouTube channel “New Realities,” with guests such as Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson and the painter Alex Grey. He has written several articles about art, creativity and the metaphysical influences. He has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from SUNY Buffalo, with a concentration on Shakespeare, James Joyce and Henry James.Email:


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