top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe Debutante

Vegetation, Creativity, Confession and Androgyny within female surrealists and their legacies

Written by Co-editor Molly Gilroy


“Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called a ‘person’, but then she wasn’t exactly a feral being- more like a mysterious with qualities of both”

The Vegetarian. Han Kang

Fragmented, dismembered and objectified, woman has been represented as a triad of images throughout art-history, and within the roots of “Surrealism’s patriarchal gendered agenda”(Haynes). Through taking an ecological reading within the works of Second Generation Female Surrealists, this post traces how the forest and vegetation inspires alternative female agencies with expanded consciousness. The materiality of the earth nourishes new female subjectivities of creative agency, self-confession and the possibility of the decomposition of gender. Firstly, Remedios Varo’s Allegory of the Forest (1948) and Leonora Carrington’s Again the Gemini are in the Orchard (1947) invoke the forest as woman’s muse for creative re-birth. The fractured female body of the masculine muse is re-imagined into a collective whole of non-homogenous femininity. New objects of life are created by Varo, whilst new seeds of energy are created by Carrington. Both artists experiment with cosmic sublime forces of creation, trampling over Surrealism’s ‘old roots’ of patriarchal ideals of femininity. Further to this expansion of female consciousness, vegetation offers a moment of cathartic self-confession. Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait Roots (1943) becomes a narrative conceit for the self-confession of an un-actualised fertile condition.The ‘Female Earth ’offers the comfort of actualising desires of fertility and nourishment, as seen in Kahlo’s self-portrait, with a comparison from a ‘confessional’ still of the unnamed female from Jonathan Glazer’s film, Under the Skin (2013). Finally, within Claude Cahun’s renowned photographic self-portraits, the gendered self is decomposed. In blurring the body with plant foliage in her 1939 Autoportrait, Cahun uses vegetation as a mask for an androgynous state. Through the lens of Cahun’s work of an ambivalence to gender, this post will examine the character of Yeong-hyein Han-Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007), taking part in a post-Surrealist tradition. Her female body evokes Cahun’s work, metamorphosing into a body made of foliage, and thus, obliterates the sexualised female body. Through artistic engagement with the forest and vegetation, woman becomes more than a mere ‘person’, transcending gender boundaries whilst transgressing the human body’snatural lifespan. Woman re-writes her own image, with the outer body becoming the centre of such transformations, as “artists increasingly deploy the body as a site of resistance”(Chadwick, “Mirror”).  Through examining the artists presented in this article, we become witness to the vegetative self-proliferation of the female body into new realms of female consciousness and expression.

“The old roots of Surrealism are decomposed into new future founding roots of expanding creativity re-birth, self-confessional agency and androgyny.”

For Remedios Varo, the realm of the forest, woman’s muse, offers access to ethereal, transformative and creative energies. Exiled from her new-found homeland of Paris, and moving to Mexico City at the end of 1941, Varo’s art began to embody her spiritual pilgrimage to “find deeper, more reliable roots” (Kaplan). Varo harnessed her independent creativity within Mexico. The forest in her paintings, a “reality apart”(Kaplan 39) proposes a mutual exchange of creative power, reflecting the creative inspiring city of Mexico. Within Allegory of the Forest (1948) [Figure 1] the natural energies of re-birth and an expansion of the limits of human lifespan is exchanged with the female artist, who, in return, encapsulates its powers by transcribing its aura into a tactile piece of art. Varo “identified her own psychic reality with the fruitful earth” (Chadwick, “Women”), and, arguably, her own creative reality within the realm of the forest blossoms. As the trees breathe in oxygen, expand and grow, Varo’s forest transforms and creates new worlds of female agency where “human and nature are combined in a state of reciprocity to one another” (Noheden). Haynes argues that Varo broke “standard stereotypes in her quest to represent the nature of creation and transformation”(Haynes) and, as her observers, we are thrust into an artistic in-medias-res, watching a magical transformation of the barren earth into thriving nature. The branches of the tree, though seemingly withered, continue to hold ethereal power, drawing their energy deep from within the earth, creating, elevating, and crystallising new life forms. The new life forms appear as the forest’s object trouvé (found object) which are collected and re-vitalised into living entities. The transformative aura of the forest, with the ability to physically breathe new life into skeletal emptiness, is captured by Varo in a“fluid and hallucinatory feel”(Chadwick, “Women”). We become entranced by an asexual birth and animation where the supernatural exposed roots have lifted themselves from the earth to birth new visions of feminine lifeforms. Female creativity, embodied by the cosmic glowing new roots, is elevated from the depths of the earth where Varo deconstructs the ‘old roots’ of Surrealism –Breton’s normative heterosexual masculine ideals and his male dominated circle – to produce ‘new roots’ of female expression. As Chadwick argues, women artists “attempted to create a new language, that spoke more directly to female experience”, with “nature as the dwelling place of the female creative spirit” and while the female artists generally merely ‘tagged along’, Varo “went ahead and challenged their male literary counterparts” (Phillips). Indeed, the material forms of the earth inform new creative female subjectivities and female futures as Varo forges new pathways within the roots of Surrealism, mirroring the forest as it forges new pathways within the foundation of the earth. Thus, for Varo, like Mexico City, the forest becomes a space for the actualisation of the innate and truly autonomous creative spirit.

“We become witness to the vegetative self-proliferation of the female body into new realms of female consciousness and expression.”

Fig 1: Allegory of The Forest. Varo. 1948

Similarly, Leonora Carrington engages with artistic cultivation of alternative female futures of creative agency, trampling on the old roots of women as the passive readymade object. The traces between Varo and Carrington are no accident, with both women becoming expatriates in Mexico City, having fled the horrors of World War II, it “was there that they formed their Surreal Friendship” (Simpson). Both women, separated from their European families, forged new extended families with each other and “found their own [artistic] voices”(Simpson). Varo and Carrington enact large scale transformations of creative female futures; the act of painting disseminating the female self out of the masculine city and re-composing it within the forest of endless growth, transformation and creativity. Elkin argues that “space is a feminist issue and Carrington’s forest reinforces a feminine“magical connection…between the rhythms of the body and of nature. Carrington’s 1947 painting, Again the Gemini are in the Orchard [Figure 2] excludes masculinity, tracing the ‘Female Earth’ and the forest as woman’s creative muse, suggesting “a powerful role played by Nature as a source of creative power for women”(Chadwick,“Women”) through painting a collective female consciousness of creativity. Unlike Duchamp’s[1]forest in Etant Donné(1946-1966), Carrington’s forest does not attempt the suffocation and homogenisation of the female body, instead offering a female utopian community of wide possibility and individualism. Here, women plant seeds of growth, harnessing their alternative creative energies and inspiring new lifeforms, where “identification between women’s creative powers and those of nature” (Chadwick) are no longer suffocated. In contrast to Etant Donnes Carrington’s women are uniquely identifiable, with acts of individual agency, defying the homogenisation of the female form. Knapp argues that “mystery is her method” and it is with the intertwining of the ethereal forest, alongside an occult gathering of mysterious activities – as women metamorphoses into tree roots and dance amongst a bright cosmic explosion in the earth – that Carrington creates an alternative mysterious female sphere of the interconnectedness between woman and nature. We wander amongst the ‘Gemini’ in a non-urban female rendering of the flaneuse. Elkin argues that a “female flanerie- a flaneuserie- not only changes the way we move through space, but intervenes in the organisation of space”, and as the women occupy the orchard, stable ground is ruptured, with the natural energies of the earth released, tracing Varo’s new roots which rupture the space of the bleak decaying forest of ‘old’ Surrealism. Carrington paints a reality where women have turned from the male city-dwelling flanuese, to re-imagine their own forest-flaneuserie. Woman has turned to the mystical forest as a space of her own, for occult meetings of female creativity to be harmoniously practised and perfected. Carrington engages in the Second-Generation wave of Surrealism “taking a distinct turn towards the occult”(Bauduin). Reflecting Varo and Carrington’s creative meetings within Mexico, “helping them find their own artistic identities”(Simpson), ‘Again’ the women meet and ‘Again’ they are by nature, caught in an endless new world of creative energies, until their own bodies mirror the growth of the forest. The ‘sunflower women feed the earth’s seeds of fertility, becoming its ‘mother plant’, whilst their bodies are given cosmic fertile energy through a rupture of the earth. As the sunflowers grow, woman’s body mirrors such transformations, where a reciprocal relationship of energy is established. The women physically plant their new seeds of creativity, birthing their utopian space to continue their creative futures and continue their forest-flaneuserie identities, just as Carrington embraces Mexico as a place of her own creative re-birth. Pöhlman argues the future “is a concept that needs to be actively constructed and maintained in an imaginative process”and thus the forest’s creative energies become eternal, as do the women’s creative futures. Boundaries of human and plant dissolve to reach a more harmonious and non-hierarchical balance of the world. With the mutual exchange of power, the female within the forest becomes more than female and “more like a mysterious being with qualities of both” (Kang) and an agent of creative rebirth.

“Carrington paints a reality where women have turned from the male city-dwelling flânuese, to re-imagine their own forest-flâneuserie”

Fig 2: Again the Gemini are in the Orchard. Carrington. (1947)

Further to an expansion of feminine creative energies, the forest and foliage become a narrative conceit for female confession, specifically of the desire to reproduce outside of the confines of male control and engage with nature’s asexual reproductive system. To lie within the foliage of the earth, as Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait Roots (1943) [Figure 3] depicts, is to lie amongst mystery, to occupy a liminal space between the concealment and revilement of personal confession. It is within this tension that Kahlo’s body possesses power, embodying her “organic view of life in which subjects are tied to the earth by roots systems” (Friis). Chadwick argues that we must take “a closer examination of the self-portrait to better understand their imagery and the particular role that Surrealism played…in shaping their self-images as artists”(“Women”). Through a language of art, “Surrealism gives form to an inner life that can be evoked, never described” (Chadwick,“Women”), where self-portraits within the natural earth offer a new language of inner female confessions and desires. The engagement with plant fertility for Kahlo, becomes intertwined with a denial of the masculine role in reproduction. Plants’ asexual reproductive system inspires woman’s desire for her autonomous control over her body as a reproductive force. Andre Masson’s Earth Artists (1939) depicts the earth as female in his automatic drawing, where the circumference line of the Earth blurs into the contour lines of a female body. Woman and Earth become inseparable in their definition, as Masson’s art creates a purely ‘female earth’.The Earth confesses a female form, and it is this confessional form, within nature, that we may trace through Kahlo’s Roots, with a comparison with the 2013 film, Under the Skin [ Figure 5]. Within Roots Kahlo’s body births new vines, imbuing her body with nature’s fertility, transferring its powers onto her own body. Like Carrington’st ree-women, Kahlo’s body transforms into a vegetative female trunk, her body reminiscent of Masson’s‘Female Earth’. Kahlo’s body becomes the central mediating force between decay and birth, suffocation and life, monstrosity and fertility. Her torso is revealed and dismembered in a ‘Magritian’[2]window. Yet, as the creator of her self-portrait, Kahlo holds agency over this decomposition, transforming her body as an agent of asexual reproduction. The vines seeping from her torso intermingle with human veins, the boundaries of the human body decomposed and re-composed into earthly material. While she reproduces new life, her veins trace themselves back into the earth, creating a cyclical image of nourishment and reproduction, both healing her own body and the earth. The painting becomes an actualisation of confession; of the childless woman’s desire for fertility, where nature is reborn and the earth nourished, with roots becoming a “symbol of her unfulfilled desire to carry pregnancy to term”(Friis). Her inward turmoil and anxiety, stemming from the desire for fertility is projected outwards, exploding confession through the symbol of roots. Kahlo acknowledges her broken body, “a damaged self”(Friis), where her stomach becomes the centre through which the female body confesses itself. In a strikingly uncanny similarity between Roots and the still from Under The Skin the forest – and the imagery of roots – is reinforced as a place of self-confession. Friis argues that “trees and roots imply the bonds between mothers and daughters” and the female’s inhabitation of the forest [Figure 4] confesses her desire to become rooted to a maternal figure. Whereas Kahlo’s self-portrait declares desiring fertility, reproducing daughters of the earth, the female in Under the Skin becomes engulfed by the forest, wrapped around in a blanket of vegetation and regresses into a foetal like position. While Kahlo’s body is elongated in maternal confidence filling the frame, Glazier’s female turns inwards and compresses her body into the forest. The female thus embodies a liminal position between growth and regression; a forest femme-effant. Her body, through cinematic double exposure, is larger than life, yet her foetal position places her into the ‘womb’ of the forest. Whilst Kahlo’s body retains clear outlines of her body, the edges of Glazier’s female dissolve into the forest, and with that, her body confesses the desire to be engulfed and nourished through nature’s protective and maternal qualities. A damaged self finds comfort in the mystery of the forest, potentially dissolving into a subterranean world we cannot access. Yet, there are cracks in the dissolving actualisation of Kahlo’s fertile desire. The crevice that runs through the earth suggests the fragility of this actualisation the possibility that her dream may be awoken. Art and vegetation may offer self-confession, yet as Kahlo teeters on the edge of falling into the earth, with her fertile roots consumed by the earth as their own, and as Glazier’s female dissolves into the cocoon of the forest, it appears that vegetation may only offer momentary actualisations of such desires.

Fig 3: Roots. Kahlo (1943)

Fig 5: Under the Skin. 2013

Through the metamorphosis of the human into the plant subject, the female body is re-written against itself and decomposed into an androgynous existence, traced in the self-portraits of Claude Cahun. The forest and vegetation become a muse for transitional identities that grow and multiply beyond the idealised female “that was like an albatross around the neck of the woman artist” (Chadwick). Surrealism has always privileged the ‘beyond’ state of the mundane self – identity in a “convulsive”state of beauty (Breton) – and by decomposing the body into vegetation, as Autoportrait (1939) [Figure 5] Cahun decomposes gender to reach a privileged state of androgynous non-confined possibility. Cahun’s ecological Autoportrait addresses the notion that “we must posit a certain non-human agency as the condition of possible human agency”(Bennett). Leperlier argues that Cahun writes against herself (“Afterword”) and though the self is scattered across the boundaries of the human and non-human, male and female, vegetation allows for a new wholeness of the body to occur. Her body rests harmoniously cocooned in foliage whilst laying on a layer of animal fabric, occupying a liminal position between plant and animal, engulfed in “exotic skin” (Chadwick, “Mirror), culminating in an “ultimately unknowable”(Kline) body. Cahun’s body, at the base of the foliage, slips away into a new subterranean world of the asexual nature of vegetation, entering a new realm of the ultimate dematerialisation of the self. To follow her into journey, we must also re-write our bodies into the most ‘natural’ masquerade state of gender ambiguity. Nature becomes an enigma, as does the androgynous body that identifies with vegetation, imbued with the permeable membranes of nature. Cahun uses her own body equated and cathartically rested within vegetation to engage in a sexual revolution that defies the Surrealist ‘female mannequin’ of “broken, torn and dismembered, mutilated, violated and punctured female bodies”(Haynes). Thus, Posner argues that the “female subject has continued to interrogate herself”, as seen in Cahun’s Disavowals: “I want to hunt myself down, struggle with myself”. Cahun interrogates the notion of a singular self, creating “another vocabulary…to multiply myself to assert myself” (Disavowals). Within Autoportait, Cahun engages in an interrogation of femininity; a study of the gendered self in a process of decomposition and erasure. While Carrington and Varo enter the sphere of the forest to access female creativity, Cahun uses vegetation to obscure the gendered body and as a space to access her other ‘selves’. Her naked body is exposed, yet David Bates questions “to become not a woman and not a man in representation is to become what?” and it is this liminal undefinable category that Cahun and Yeong-hyeem’s body, where “gender ambiguity may function as a powerful ‘glitch’ in the social system”(Haynes). Cahun’s work as a female surrealist “served as an important harbinger of woman’s desire to speak through their own bodies”(Chadwick, “Mirror”). Such bodily agency and empowerment may be traced from Cahun’s self-portraits to Yeong-hye metamorphosis into foliage where her body “said so much, and yet was no more than itself”(87).Taking part in a post-Surrealist tradition, Yeong-hye liberates herself into nature and into an androgynous existence, using her body to speak for itself, to decompose the female mannequin: “Iwas in a dream, leaves were growing from my body”. Reminiscent of Cahun, “the more she changed, the more she declared herself” (Kline), as Yeong-hye’s body metamorphoses into a myriad of leaves, and the borders between dream and reality, fantasy and actualisation of fantasies dissolve. Her dream of accessing the realm of asexual nature becomes actualised: “this body was the body of a beautiful woman, conventionally an object of desire, in which all desire had been eliminated”. The Vegetarian creates an image of gender erosion, where Yeong-hye’s movements within her new skin of vegetation attempts to eradicate the gendered body and “shuck off the human”. Yeong-hye’s body becomes imbued with natural growth, and once more, unlike Etant Donné, growth is privileged rather than fragmentation; “I am doing a handstand, leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands”. She becomes self-sufficiently fertile, with the ability to physically grow ‘more’ ofherself and thus, more selves, multiplying her powers, and spreading her body further into mundane space. Yeong-hyetraces Cahun’s ambition“to live without a support: as if of the plant species, [to] place one’s ideal self in oneself”. To go beyond the female and the human body, to enter a new subterranean realm, mediated by nature, is the Surreal aim, where conventional boundaries of stability are crossed. The external world of nature is turned inwards[3]and as such, the internal selves of Cahun and Yeong-hye are imbued with the mysteries of nature. Kang’s assertion that “whether human, animal, or plant, she could not be called a ‘person’…more like a mysterious being with qualities of both” in-fact, can be applied to both women. Disseminated human matter breaks down the borders of the human by infusing the body with ecological particles. As such, the “interrogation of ‘the non- or not quite human body can make big things happen”(Bennet) where the androgynous ecological consciousness of Cahun and Yeong-hye allow infinite futures to be imagined, transgressing the boundaries of human lifespans into a more expansive limitless existence.

“We must re-write our bodies into the most ‘natural’ masquerade state of gender ambiguity...”

Fig 5: Autoportrait. Cahun.

Creative, self-confessional and androgynous. The woman has become these things through scattering her body into the forest and metamorphosing into its materiality. Varo and Carrington ‘gaze’ at the forest as their creative muse, yet rather than assigning it characteristics and attempting domination, they engage with its powers, blurring the hierarchy of human and non-human. Woman’s harmonious engagement with nature and its material forms of vegetation further challenges the notion of the “surrealist tradition of modern art view[ing] man as a creature involved in a fundamental conflict with himself and the natural world”(Groys). Woman eradicates conflict within the space of the forest, through the human body metamorphosing into vegetation, to share a “vision of life as an odyssey”(Chadwick, “Women”,). Varo and Carrington share a vision of creative rebirth within the realm of the female earth, “casting the artist as in the role of a seeker of truth” (Chadwick “Women”) and Kahlo casts herself within roots as part of a process of self-confession. The forest and vegetation as a place of seeking truth is further explored in Cahun’s self-portrait and The Vegetarian. Dissolving boundaries between the human body and foliage culminates in an androgynous body of truth and catharsis, and by transcribing the female body into nature, the body transgresses the human limits of time, and lives in a new mysterious existence. Cahun asks herself the question “what would you like to be?”. She answers with “more and better. My own true perfection”. Cahun’s desire embodies woman’s’ engagement with the forest and vegetation; to empower their bodies and become imbued with natural transformative powers of perfection. Thus, the old roots of Surrealism are decomposed into new future founding roots of expanding creativity re-birth, self-confessional agency and androgyny. Like the forest and its leaves, the works of female surrealists and their identities, grow, expand and transform.

“Like the forest and its leaves, the works of female surrealists and their identities, grow, expand and transform.”

[1]Duchamp’s voyeuristic image places the female body torn open, her limbs fractured from her body amongst a decaying forestry. The female’s legs may be mistaken almost for tree stumps as she dissolves into Duchamp’s fantasy; the female muse as passive, mannequin-eseque and immobile. Her body becomes physically rooted with female creativity immobilised. Daubner express, whilst viewing the image “I find it disturbing that she must forever remain contained in this enclosure, as if imprisoned in a cage. Or coffin.”

[2]Rene Magrritte – La clef des champs (Key to the Fields) 1936.

[3]Again, further traces of the female body akin to nature’s material structure may be noted in regard to Remedios Varo’s Breaking The Vicious Cycle (1962). Here, the stomach of the female body is peeled open, and her inner organs are replaced with organs of forestry roots. Varo, like Cahun, engages in the subtle form of gender ambiguity, “the active blurring rather than the undifferentiated expression of gendered identity”(Haynes).


bottom of page