Bridget Tichenor Links

Velador II

The Surrealist Cosmovision of Bridget Tichenor*

by Gloria Orenstein, Ph.D.

*permission to reprint article granted by Dr. Orenstein and

FEMSPEC--an interdisciplinary feminist journalCopyrighted by FEMSPEC

Bridget Tichenor’s visionary oeuvre partakes of the tradition of surrealist women who came to Mexico from Europe in the early forties. They left their war-ravaged homelands behind, discovered a culture and cosmology that resonated with their creative sensibilities, and decided to live in Mexico for the rest of their creative lives. Like painters Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Alice Rahon, and photographer Kati Horna, Tichenor also left a fallen world behind her, but one of a different kind. Whereas those surrealists who came to Mexico in the forties were fleeing the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust, Tichenor abandoned her life as a married woman and professional fashion editor at Vogue in New York. After visiting Mexico in 1953, she obtained a divorce from her second husband, Jonathan Tichenor, and moved to Mexico, making the country her permanent home.

Born in Paris in 1917, she attended schools in France, Italy, and England. Tichenor worked as a fashion editor at Vogue in New York from 1948-1952. She had already experienced life in four diverse cultures, and had undergone numerous international influences that would enable her to feel a correspondence between her own experience of cultural diversity (the destruction of personal worlds), and the Mesoamerican cosmovision. This influence would mark the style and themes of her work as a painter in her own New World, Mexico.

I am borrowing the word cosmovision from David Carrasco’s Religions of Mesoamerica which defines cosmovision as a term pointing “to the ways in which cultures combine their cosmological notions relating to time and space into a structural and systematic whole” (xix). When the European surrealists arrived in Mexico in the 1940s, the overwhelmingly powerful presence of pre-Columbian civilizations completely dismantled their western cosmovision. The myths of Mesoamerica stress a cyclical vision of creation, destruction and renewal of worlds, each phase of which has completely different realities. The cyclical movements of the wheels of time seem to have resonated with the patterns of holocaust and hope that the European surrealists who emigrated to Mexico understood personally and historically, as well as figuratively and symbolically. That is, the latter’s experience in Europe created an openness to new perspectives on the interrelationships between different realms (those of the dead, the gods, and the living) as well as to the knowledge that there have always been, and will always be, cataclysms which destroy old worlds, and sacred practices and ceremonial ways that catalyze the rebirth of new worlds.

Moreover, since the sixteenth century, Mesoamerica had been identified as the New Eden, a paradise on Earth. This New Eden could then become a “surreality” for these artists. Mesoamerica provided a world in which the imaginary could actually become real. Perhaps in Mexico this vaster, more “marvelous” dimension of life would become manifest, this vision of the supreme point, where, according to “The Second Manifesto of Surrealism” by André Breton, dreaming and waking, life and death, past, present, and future, would no longer be seen as contradictory (123-24). Thus, the surrealists found a source of hope for the rebirth of a new world out of the destruction of the old in the Mesoamerican cosmovision.

As foreigners to Mexico, they also must have felt comforted by the presence of such a variety of different civilizations within one country. They lived among contemporary descendants of the Olmecs, the Maya, the Zapotecs, the Mixtecs, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs. The European surrealists who came to Mexico in the forties had left war-torn Europe behind them. They certainly did not see themselves as “conquerors,” “invaders,” or as white European colonizers. Instead, they identified with the indigenous pre-Columbian peoples who also had suffered when they were overcome by European warriors.

In Tichenor’s career as a painter, we can observe a cosmovision in surrealist iconography that also describes a universe characterized by the intermingling of beings from various dimensions of time and space. These beings are diverse in their physiognomies and civilizations. They all live in a cosmos that sacred rituals constantly renew. The surrealist understanding of art and life—dream and waking reality as interpenetrating and communicating vessels—was much closer to the native view of art than to the European concept of the Fine Arts.

For both surrealists and Mesoamericans, art was magical; art objects could transmit energetic power. Art could open doors to revelation, initiation, and illumination. In a documentary made by filmmaker Tufic Makhlouf Aki, Rara Avis, Tichenor reminds us that we modern people have experienced loss. What we call magic today was once the norm. In the past, humans were able to communicate with plants and animals. At that time, people could also see auras; mental telepathy was common. Today society considers the people who do see auras to be seers. However, at one time, such activity was part of normal, everyday reality. In Mesoamerica, art, used in conjunction with sacred rituals of world renewal, served the path of rebirth. Similarly, Tichenor asserted that the surrealists were important to her for they, too, opened doors to the imagination, to dreams, to the subconscious, and to the rebirth of realities within the invisible.

One must then understand the art of Tichenor within the context of the Mexican mythos. In such a world view, the images sculpted on the Mexican pyramids, temples, and stelae, as well as those found depicted in the Codices, were charged with magical qualities and energies of naguals (who were spiritual animal guardians) and of gods, like the feathered serpent. Tichenor’s art must also be interpreted against the background of giant heads of the Olmecs, gazing upwards, staring at the sky, or against the mysterious astronaut-like figures on the pyramids of Tula. Was there once an intercession between beings who came from the sky and those on Earth? Are we entering a cosmic cycle in which omens will reappear in the sky signaling the creation of a new civilization? These are some of the queries that Tichenor’s paintings elicit for us.

Her friend, painter Leonora Carrington, has called upon the iconography of the ancient religion of the great Goddess in order to invoke a return to the values symbolized by the cultures of Celtic Ireland or Crete. Tichenor, too, paints eggs, serpents, snail spirals, and antennea like horns of consecration or horns of the moon as icons of memory from the past. Yet, her cosmovision honors the mythos of the past in order to prepare us for the, as yet unknown, a mythos that will emerge in the future whose prophecies of the world-to-come may be read in the skies.

Tichenor’s people either lie out under the open sky, or perform a ceremony with fire to make contact with the source of creation. They await word from the future, from beings that may be otherworldlings or extraterrestrials, from spirit guides, and from celestial and natural phenomena that may be prophetic of our civilization’s destiny. Tichenor’s future vision of harmony has more to do with the cultures of earth-based indigenous peoples dwelling lightly on the land in tents (who have maintained contact with beings from other dimensions via shamanic practices) than with the world views of ancient alchemists, astronomers, or the western way of occult and esoteric practices.

It is interesting to consider the effects of chiaroscuro* in Tichenor’s work. Since all the work is set out of doors, there is no artificial light source. Nevertheless, in paintings like

The Surrealists (1956), and
De Hecho (1965) , the source of light seems to be located within the beings themselves. They radiate in the darkness of night, out of doors. Trees also glow in her art and they do so in primary colors. For Tichenor, light, itself, is the major influence upon everything. In the film Rara Avis, Tichenor says “All influence comes from light . . . . Light, Light, Light. I think that we are fed, not only by foods, but more so by light than by anything else.”

Thus, we might conclude that the pyramid and egg beings who glow in the dark, like the aristocrats out strolling at night in

Passeggiatta (1963) are illuminated beings. The light they carry and radiate is their own.

The only interiors in her oeuvre are located in caves or tents. The Subsolares (1978) perform witchcraft in a batcave. If caves represent the underworld and living in darkness, tents represent living in the light, living in the womb of rebirth to a new visionary culture that exists in ecological balance, as represented in the startling image Piebald Tent (1989). This tent is made from the skins of spotted dogs who run freely with a white horse on the surrounding land. Native peoples honor their animals when they use their skins to make clothing or shelter. It is, perhaps, either shocking or humorous for us to see dog skins used in this way. Yet, for native and nomadic peoples, it would be an honor, not a desecration, for the dog’s skin to be used for shelter.

In the last painting of her lifetime,

Tortoise in the Name of the Academy of Minerva (1965), the roof of the tent echoes the tortoise shell. People around the tent seem to be celebrating and praying. On a lower level, other people are wearing beaked animal masks. Nomadic peoples, who migrate seasonally and follow their flocks, carry their tents on their backs. In all of these paintings the tent becomes a symbol of a womb, an interior space, that in Tent Elf (1989) actually emits a row of eggs. The inner space of the tent, is, then, a domain of light, fire, fertility, eggs, nurturance and shelter. The people wearing animal masks remind us that we are really animals wearing human, social masks. Tichenor seems to be implying that when we return to our lost animal nature, when we begin to live closer to the land, and in harmony with the flocks, the crops, and the stars, we will not have to sacrifice our hearts (as the Aztecs did ) or our sons (as both the Mesoamericans and the Christian mythos require) in ceremonies or in battles in order to regenerate the world. Her cosmovision proposes the wisdom of the Earth Mother as a response to the violent forms of sacrifice demanded by both Mesoamerican and Christian cosmovisions of world-renewal and salvation.

By masking and unmasking ordinary people and objects whose realistic descriptions we had once taken for granted, Tichenor reveals their hidden, expanded dimensions, their inner lives, and their obscured underworlds. Also, via a technique of “making it strange,” Tichenor masks people whose ordinariness we had assumed, thereby transforming them into archetypes in the universal human epic. The masked harlequin Suegra (1966) and the harlequins

Primos at a Picnic (1956) become stock characters from the commedia dell’arte. Tichenor’s art enables us to perceive our own suegras (mothers-in-law) and primos (cousins) from the perspective of all of life being a stage. Eventually we will come to think of our own relatives as archetypal characters and as sacred ancestors.

The harlequin costumes also enable us to distance ourselves from the human comedy in order to better perceive the dramas of other species with whom we share life on this planet. The harlequin-costumed people generally represent white Westerners. Even when sporting horns and a bird mask, their limbs show through the costume of the actor or shaman. They are those of a white man as in El Pescador (1967) in which the harlequin persona comes equipped with horned antennae to capture signals, vibrations, energy, and messages from his or her surroundings.

The Mesoamerican cosmovision also includes many stock figures and objects that repeat in stories, legends, ceremonies and myths. Winged serpents, owls, dogs, turtles, fire, eggs, jaguars, gods and goddesses participate in stories about the creation, destruction, and rebirth of the world, and the great cycles of civilization. The deities and animal powers that Mesoamerican mythology depicted were as real to the Aztecs, the Maya, the Toltecs, etc. as the snail-people, egg-people, and pyramid-people are to Tichenor. Her painted work freezes moments in time from her own subversive surrealist, epic tale cycle. We find depicted moments of prophecy and revelation in

Tarotmaquia (1979) and of decision-making in Juntas de Sabios (1961), moments of guidance, prayer and revelation in Llegada (1972), and moments of harmony with nature and celebration of the wisdom of the goddess in Piebald Tent (1989) and
Tortoise in the Name of the Academy of Minerva (1989) . As Tichenor’s cosmovision unfurls the pageant of beings from many worlds and dimensions, she permits us to glimpse moments in the sacred history of various civilizations, including those of the Egg Beings, the Pyramid Beings, the Unicorns, the Otherworldlings, the Guides, the
Multi-Eyed Ones--Velador II, the Shell Women, the Harlequins, the Spirit Trees, the Winged Horses, the Third Eyed, the Flames, the Bird Women, the Frogs, the Sheep, the Foxes, the Ermines, and the Tortoise People.

All forms of matter and manifestation are conscious, and all watch over each other in an awe-struck gaze precisely like the one we assume as we view these paintings for the first time. All is alive, enigmatic, and sentient. With open third eyes or organs for perceptions of other dimensions we can assume that some beings are even enlightened.

Her art is about these encounters among species—masked, costumed, and in protective shells. The ovoid species has human eyes and hands that come out of their egg forms. The ovoid shape has been used in her group portrait of Carrington, Chiqui Weiss, and Kati and Jose Horna entitled

The Surrealists (1956) . Perhaps they are eggs because they are hatching a new vision. Only their eyes can be seen, for their faces are veiled. Surrealism is a movement of visionary artists. Thus, their eyes seem to peer inward, or are partially closed, for the surrealists were painting from an interior model.


De Hecho (1965), the Pyramid People come face to face with the Egg People. We feel that a cosmic cross-cultural or interspecies encounter is taking place. Is this another version of the colonizers? Are they deities? Royalty? Commoners? E.T.’s? The Pyramid People seem to be looking at something else and ignoring the Egg People. Do they see into another dimension?

Who are the women and animal-human hybrids, one with the lunar crescent on her head, that are visited by a gigantic bird deity in

Visitation (1970). Are these Hebrew people holding six-pointed stars, and lying on the ground facing the heavens, in Llegada (1972)? Do they realize that they have dog guardian spirits? Are they awaiting the arrival of their god? These are all multiple-eyed presences, whose mission is the surveillance of everything that happens in our world. Are they spirit guides? Extraterrestrials? Do they reign over our free will? Are they beneficent? Not only do Tichenor’s beings usually not notice the presence of guardian spirits and deities, but they are completely unaware of the fact that they are being watched. If we could view the world as our ancestors and spirit guides do, from the other side, perhaps we, too, might perceive the beings who surround us such as the guides, which seem to be inspired by portraits such as John Van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini in the Kaiser Frederick Museum, Berlin. Tichenor said that the guides came to her after the death of her son, in a very sad moment of her life. They came again to her when a dear friend, with whom she had lived in Italy, died.

All Tichenor’s guides wear some form of crown or headpiece. These non-royal crowns may be decked out with insects, flames, rams’ horns, snail shell motifs and other organic shapes. The artist makes us realize that our true guides are not royal kings with crowns of gold, but dream beings or masters from a shamanic realm, whose crowning glory is the organic world of nature and the four elements. We may think that we come from Eggs, but that is only our biological lineage. Spiritually, we all descend from the Crowns of the Masters and Guides who are our real, noble ancestors in the other world.

Although “subrealist” was Tichenor’s own term for her style, this is not only a surrealist cosmovision, but an ecofeminist one as well. In

Tortugeando (1970) a Harlequin (white western man) sporting a parrot on his head travels on the back of a turtle with a human or sentient face. He drives the turtle with a leash. In the Mesoamerican mythos of the Maya, the Maize God was reborn from the cracked carapace of a turtle, and the first image of the turtle was seen at Creation (Friedel 80). For the Maya, the turtle was the Mother of the Maize God. For the North American Native Americans, the turtle represents Turtle Island or the sacred land of North America. Only the European Harlequin conquerors have enslaved the Great Earth Mother and the Mother of the Maize God. We have made playthings of all the gods, and insulted the entire animal kingdom by forcing animals to serve human, ego-centered needs.

Instead of controlling and domesticating the white horse (the Celtic Goddess Epona), we should honor her as Tichenor does in the painting of the winged white horse chased by two golden dogs. Other white unicorns and horses carouse and romp freely in the landscape of Michoacan, where Tichenor bought her ranch, Contembo, in 1959-60. In Pegasus (1976), the winged white spirit-messenger horse is resplendent. He is truly a free spirit who flies throughout the entire painted oeuvre of Tichenor like an angel. As a winged messenger of the gods, he brings a message of spiritual liberation.

When the white horse and the tortoise have been liberated from their subjugation by the conquerors, as in

Tortugeando (1970) , then Tichenor’s subversive surrealist art will have produced its transformatory effect upon us all. When the unicorns and winged white horses that symbolize the spirits of all the caged, the dominated, the enslaved, and the oppressed—the spirits of women and of non-human nature, of artists and of native peoples—when that white light can be seen flying freely under the angelic orb in the skies of Michoacan, then we will know that we have been touched by the magical paintbrush of the “marvelous” as only the surrealists understood it.

Tichenor’s oeuvre cannot be said to be political in the ordinary sense of the word. Nevertheless there are several aesthetic and stylistic features that have political resonances. For example, in Masque I (1984), a white woman is masked in a black face. In Esperando, reproduced on the cover of this journal, eight women, mostly draped in white religious-looking garb, have their faces painted black. From their white feet and hands we know that they are Caucasian women presenting a black person’s face to the world. They seem to be nomads. They are sitting near small shells and a miniature pyramid perhaps symbolizing other cultures.

Masque III (1985) depicts a Caucasian woman in black face wearing a Sunflower Headdress and costume. All the beings inside the eggs and shells, the roots and pyramids are also Caucasian.

Tichenor’s spirit guides, while elaborately costumed, and wearing headdresses and crowns, are not masked. All but one of them are men. The beings who are masked in black face are all women.

Among the many possible things one could comment on regarding the phenomenon of the masks in Tichenor’s oeuvre (their exquisite variety, their sources in the Commedia, etc.). I think it is also important to reflect upon the fact that various Caucasian women appear publicly in black face or in vegetal masks, whereas men do not. In terms of the surrealist politicized dimension of a transformatory vision, one could say that, for Tichenor, women would be the leaders in changing world consciousness. The images she has created of these women take on the issues of racism and speciesism in imaginative and dramatic ways that do raise the political as well as aesthetic consciousness of the viewer. Have these Caucasian women, then, rejected the racist, hierarchical ideology and values of the European conquerors, the western Harlequins?

A first step in reconciling the contradictory western and native paradigms takes place in

Tarotmaquia (1979), where a western Harlequin throws the Tarot with a native nomad in the desert. Here the nomad, or person of color, wears a white mask. Although we do not see the Harlequin’s face, we may imagine that a rapprochement between the two is taking place.

Eventually, the Harlequin dons the black face. The white mask the nomad wears in Tarotmaquia is not a white face. It is an artificial mask put on over the eyes, perhaps indicating that the nomad had always been obliged to see through the white man’s eyes. Yet here they have come together in the desert, like at a summit retreat, to change the way the cards have been dealt. From then on it is the harlequin who will wear the black face.


Fiesta Lesor Tent/Regateando (1989) , a radical change seems to have occurred. The Harlequin, in this case a white woman with a black face, lies out in front of a tent. She reads to a nomadic native person, on whose shoulders are perched an elfin black-faced woman and child. They transform the story into a stream of fire. The resolution of the contradictory paradigms of western patriarchal religion versus native earth-based spirituality—or the book versus the fire—takes place when the western woman shares her knowledge with the native woman. She takes on the native way of life and racial characteristics (the black face). The black-faced white western harlequin woman has closed the gap separating book knowledge from cosmic knowledge. She offers the book knowledge to be transmuted and transmitted to the cosmos via the energy of the fire.


Tortoise in the Name of the Academy of Minerva (1989), Tichenor’s ecofeminist political and surrealist vision finds fulfillment as beings in black faces and animal masks bow down to the Turtle, understanding that their ultimate source of wisdom is the Great Earth Mother. These beings, who frequent Minerva’s Tortoise Academy, are quite literally “out on a limb,” for the tent is far out on a high ledge from which a fall by any of the dancers could be fatal. But one does not fall in the world of the Earth Mother Goddess, the world of the Tortoise, the mother of the Maize God, or the world of Minerva’s wisdom. The fall only belongs to the patriarchal book of knowledge passed on by the Church fathers. For these beings of a new era, their Tree of Knowledge is the Tree of Life in the Mexican Garden of Eden of the new world—The New Eden whose revelers kiss the Earth, their Great Mother, and bow to the Tortoise, whose longevity has always been related to her nomadic lifestyle, carrying her home with her wherever she goes. Here the tent is decorated to match the Turtle’s shell, elaborating a metaphor depicting the alignment of Earth’s survival with feminine wisdom. Until the omens in the sky tell us otherwise, Tichenor suggests that we can learn everything we need to know from the language of the Earth.

Even the masked beings of Dualidad I,

II, III, IV (1978) are seeing into the past and the future simultaneously through their two sets of eyes. The Polydors, Veladors
Velador II (1976) , and Isidors inspire us to learn to see through all of our eyes—both those in our face, and those behind our heads. Indeed, Bridget suggests that we have eyes everywhere, most of which have not yet opened.

The metaphysical dimension of Tichenor’s cosmovision specifically indicates an evolution of the human species toward psychic and clairvoyant vision, which will enable our species to communicate with the guides so that we may be shown how to live on the Earth in ways that will never allow the planet’s destruction to occur. Tichenor’s oeuvre transmits to us, via subversive surrealist iconography, the knowledge that we have the power to interpret the omens and to perform the ceremonies needed to prevent the cataclysm and to bring about the birth of a New Cycle now. We have only to let the light into our eyes.

Works Cited

Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Breton, André. “The Second Manifesto of Surrealism.” Manifestos of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1972. 117-194.

Friedel, David, Linda Schele and Jan Parker. Maya Cosmos. New York: Morrow, 1993.