Women Surrealist Influence on Contemporary Music

February 1, 2012

Last year, I went to a Prince concert at the Great Western Forum. When I saw performer Janelle Monáe open for him that night, the black-hooded figures that surrounded her on stage struck a familiar chord with the work of a particular artist from the exhibition that I've been working on, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Maya Deren's film Meshes of the Afternoon graces the entryway of the introductory gallery. In the film one can see a dark shrouded figure ambling up a walkway in the Hollywood hills.

Installation view, Maya Deren, Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943, © Tavia Ito, courtesy of RE:VOIR

After watching Monáe's music video for “Tightrope” (2010), you can definitely see how the shadowy figure from Deren's work is appropriated to fit the theme of Monáe's video, which is set in a psychiatric ward.

Janelle Monáe, music video for “Tightrope” (2010) (still)

After this find, I was curious to see if other women surrealist artists had further influenced recent music. Here are some other examples that I discovered:

If you watch Madonna's music video “Bedtime Story” (1995) closely, you can see elements of style similar to those of surrealist artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, who worked primarily in Mexico (compare Carrington's bird motifs in her work to those that are featured in Madonna's video).

Leonora Carrington, Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess (detail), 1964, private collection; Madonna, music video for “Bedtime Story” (1995) (still); Leonora Carrington, Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975, Charles B. Goddard Center, Ardmore, Oklahoma

Additionally, while Remedios Varo’s  Los Amantes is not included in LACMA’s exhibition, note how the director of Madonna’s video uses a motif similar to Varo’s, mirroring Madonna's face and body.

Remedios Varo, Los Amantes, 1963, unknown collection; Madonna, music video for “Bedtime Story” (1995) (still)

Last year Thurston Moore, formerly of Sonic Youth, wrote a song dedicated to Mina Loy, an American artist included in the In Wonderland exhibition whose surrealist beginnings eventually developed her literary work that is more commonly associated with the Dadaist movement. You can listen to Moore's explanation of his eponymous song on Loy here.

Florence + the Machine's song “What the Water Gave Me,” inspired by Frida Kahlo's painting, also illustrates women surrealists’ effect on musicians and their work. Featured in the exhibition catalogue, singer Florence Welch states to Digital Spy: “It's about water in all forms and all bodies. It's about a lot of things; Virginia Woolf creeps into it, and of course Frida Kahlo, whose painfully beautiful painting gave me the title.”

Last, Le Tigre’s song “Hot Topic” (1999) is an ode to past and current visionaries who’ve been essential to supporting both the feminist movement and the LGBTQ community. Yayoi Kusama, whose documentary photograph of The Anatomic Explosion Happening at Statue of Alice in Wonderland, Central Park, New York (1969), is one artist mentioned in the song. (Bonus points if you can name the other artists called out at the end of the video that have been featured at LACMA!)

I'm sure there are other musical finds inspired by women surrealists that could be posted here, but these few examples show that some of these women surrealist artists have clearly made a visible impact in today's pop culture.

If music and surrealism are to your liking, be sure to also check out Grammy-winning vocalist Perla Batalla and the Eclipse String Quartet this Saturday as part of LACMA's Art & Music series.

Devi Noor, Curatorial Administrator, American Art