Angels of Anarchy, Women Artists and Surrealism

26 September - 10 January

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Gallery posts: Intruding on an intimacy (Kate Feld)

6 November 2009

Angels of Anarchy is an evocative name for an exhibition of women surrealists. Though it’s drawn from one of the works in the show, Eileen Agar’s disturbing feathered head sculpture, the name might draw a few pointed questions: With its play on these artists’ femininity and traditional role as inspirational ship’s figureheads for the dominant male artists, does it not marginalise them all over again? For that matter, should they be ghettoised in their own exhibition? We’ll leave the gender studies professor and the revisionist feminist arguing the toss at the door and proceed into the galleries, for there’s a lot to see here.

Really, if you’re going, be sure to leave plenty of time to get round. The sheer volume of work is impressive and the art wildly varied in tone; much of utterly arresting. Though surrealism is broadly associated with Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the curators have employed a generous approach in assembling the works, culled from all over the 20th century. So there are artists you’d expect (Méret Oppenheim) alongside people you might not (Francesca Woodman). I think it works well. Woodman, whose nude self portrait was used as the main image for the exhibition, was a real stand out for me. Her ghostly black and white photographs draw incredible force from their simplicity and spareness.

I also enjoyed Leonor Fini’s sad and luminous paintings, Valentine Penrose’s dreamlike collages, and Frida Kahlo’s many appearances as both subject and artist, especially a sweet little seashell-framed painting of herself and lover Diego Rivera as one person, made to celebrate their anniversary. Whether fantastic or realistic, most of the work here seems especially personal. Some has its origin so deep within one woman’s subconscious as to be kind of frighening to look at; Kay Sage’s imaginary landscapes, for example, I found weirdly threatening.

Entering the portrait room you feel as though you are intruding on an intimacy between these dead women, as subjects and artists, as friends and as fellow travellers even though in some cases they lived decades apart. I envied especially the women of the thirties, who all painted and photographed each other, and whose intense fellowship really comes through in these portraits. They were outsiders together at a time when living as a female surrealist artist meant bucking convention and living so far outside of normal society as to seem like another species.

Where this exhibition goes the extra mile is in assembling an intriguing assortment of books, papers and objets d’art to complete the picture. Ithell Colquhoun’s Taro cards with their abstract depictions of temperaments associated with the major arcana; Leonora Carrington’s curious handmade books and publications, tantilisingly displayed under glass; a series of group drawings from sessions of the surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse; personal letters. For these artists, even an act as quotidian as writing a letter became an outlet for creative expression.

The freedom and lightness of this double-fisted approach to making art is to be envied at a time when many artists work strictly within a single medium, and so much importance is placed on the success of the final product (and the price it will fetch.) Though often rough and ready, these objects still contain a strong whiff of creative force, a heady excitement and appetite for life and art. Let’s hope it’s catching.

Kate Feld is a Manchester-based writer and editor who blogs at The Manchizzle.


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