Angels of Anarchy, Women Artists and Surrealism

26 September - 10 January

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Gallery posts: The dark side of the moon of surrealism (Ella Wredenfors)

6 November 2009

My dislike of surrealism is deeply held; I always wondered how something which was supposed to plunge into the turbulent depths of our psyches always ended up looking like it contained an easily discernible visual code. I remember being about 12, standing in front of a sickeningly minutely-painted Dalí in Moderna Museet, and having the component which represented Gala pointed out. Surely it shouldn’t be so simple? Surely, that just makes surrealism just one expensive game of peek-a-boo for the easily confused?

Now, that’s a vast, nasty simplification. However, occasionally these vast, nasty simplifications hold a grain of truth. It is this disconnect between the violent and arbitrarily personal subject and the visually programmatic product that has always left me cold. Perhaps, when removed from the domination of the surreal old school tie, something new will emerge.

True to the tenets of surrealism, there is both something wonderful and something terrible about Angels of Anarchy. The galleries are dark, hushed and stuffed to bursting with a visually exciting selection of objects. There is something deliciously Victorian about the experience, which could have only been enhanced if the pictures were packed irregularly onto the walls and the objects stuffed into bursting wooden cabinets.

Again and again, there are objects and photographs which, on a visual level, are beautiful. Perhaps because these are the objects which are not particularly surreal. If this exhibition serves to do anything, it shows that surrealism really is a very broad church. However, the thematic arrangement of the galleries makes it easy to discern where the artists’ paths lie closely together along very well trodden ground. The photographic portraits, though evocative of tempting biographical detail, for me smack of that tired, pseudo-feminist self regard which has become a staple of any discussion of art created by women.

Unfortunately this exhibition, like most people’s understanding of the movement, is dominated by that inescapable and iconic (in both senses of the word) practice, painting. The fleeting glimpses of ... something … which the photography provide make the paintings seem positively unwieldy in comparison. They seem so schematic and simple, depicting such regularised forms in such regularised style.

We all know surrealist painting is bursting with cocks and popping juxtaposition. Where often the phallic images of their male counterparts held all the power of an improbable dildo, the simple and reductive depiction of vaginal imagery, such as in Eva SĖ‡vankmajerová’s Bed, equally has no relation to what half the population have between their thighs.

I do not detect the clarion call of challenge in these works. Yes, they do respond to the art movement in which they worked, but they worked in very much the same milieu as their better known male counterparts. There comes a point when if all an art work does is subvert then it loses all integrity or power it may have in itself.

At the end of the day, as with most things, it all depends where you stand. If you adore surrealism, this exhibition will illuminate the variety and inventiveness of a neglected cross-section of the movement. However, if, like me, you’re not that hot on the schematic, programmatic nature of surrealism, this exhibition may not convert you to fandom.

Undoubtedly these female artists were overlooked, but it would be wrong to demand that they be retrospectively elevated. Instead, perhaps, Angels of Anarchy offers the dark side of the moon of surrealism. It may not be made of cheese or gold or populated by sexy green alien ladies, but, like the illuminated side, it offers an evenhanded collection of visionaries, idiot savants and annoying morons.

Ella Wredenfors writes the North West culture blog Run Paint Run Run.



  1. whatever your opinion of surrealism, surely the intent of this exhibition is not the 'elevation' of these women, but their reinstatement.

    lisa harrison on 9 November 2009

  2. I have to say that I'm in agreement with your stated sentiments about the movement of surrealism itself, or at least I was until I discovered the book "Unexpected Journeys," by Kaplan, which details the painter Remedios Varo's experiences and paintings from that era. It made me feel that she saw what was "supposed" to be happening in that movement and actually created the sensation of it on canvas. However... there are methods, when looking at your dreams, for unraveling the meanings of certain symbols or the reasoning your subconscious had for the juxtaposition of certain ones of those symbols. It makes sense that the process of painting something would help "explain" to the painter (and after study, even the viewer) why the strange image situated itself in the painter's mind. On the other hand, "bizarre and shocking" does not necessarily equal "subconscious." For example, there was certainly plenty of violence and sexual perversion about in society during the Surrealist movement--major wars, for example--so it hardly seems reasonable to claim that the artists were exposing something hidden deep in the subconscious by painting sick and violent images, or genitalia. But Varo's work showed something else (the image shown on this site is not at all representative)--it showed the hidden relationships between humans (often women) and animals, the natural world, the planets, music, etc. There was a magic to her paintings that came from some barely-hidden interconnectedness among all living things. Her artwork was like a doorway into what was possible ( a certain kind of magic), as opposed to being simply an amplification of what was already present (oppression and violence). AND, like dreams (which the surrealists claimed they were mining), her paintings unfolded a narrative, however strange and symbolic. Plus, they're amazing to look at...

    zoe on 19 November 2009

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