Angels of Anarchy, Women Artists and Surrealism

26 September - 10 January

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Gallery posts: Food for the soul (E.P. Niblock)

6 November 2009

I confess to an enduring affinity for antiquity, for the craggy, gnarly and careworn that encompasses not just the carbuncled nooks and crannies of our cityscapes but extends to its citizens. In a world that worships the new and pristine, which courts eternal youth and fetishises perfection, this predilection for the wisdom and eccentricity that often only comes with age is inevitably regarded as peculiar bordering on perverse.

As a 148-year-old bewildered bluestocking unexpectedly liberated into the present day, it’s only natural that I would seek out other aged crones – spirited, intrepid and unapologetically unconventional females whose lives and adventures feed the soul. But where to find them amongst the airbrushed, celebrity-endorsed lives of today’s prominent women, whose escapades seem limited to spending sprees and endless cosmetic surgery? There is precious little to feed the soul in these limited visions of female aspiration.

But delve back in time and a multitude of extraordinary women hover in the shadows, expunged from mainstream narratives, eager to be rediscovered, aired, emancipated.

Angels of Anarchy at Manchester Art Gallery takes as its fundamental premise this unspoken invisibility of women in the history books. This is an exhibition which, by investigating the careers of female artists in surrealism, completely reinvigorates its tired image, challenging preconceptions of the movement as a predominately male endeavour with a backdrop of vaguely quirky wives and muses.

Initially my personal admiration for the fantastical life and writings of Leonora Carrington was the draw; a local girl like myself, raised a strict Catholic like myself, she has survived to a magnificent age. Indeed last I heard she is still very active, skipping daily up and down several flights of stairs with her laundry aged just 98!

Angels of Anarchy was therefore a rare opportunity to uncover more than just her relationship with Max Ernst and bring to light the creative mind behind her deliciously subversive fairy tale, The Hearing Trumpet, a celebration of female nonconformity where the heroines are not passive sleeping beauties but lively octogenarians complete with wrinkles, warts and beards; where the adventures are set not in some mythical far off world, but more prosaically in an old people’s home, with heroines who nevertheless transform into wolves and ride off triumphantly to the Arctic Circle.

Lured by the promise of an entire exhibition dedicated to the forgotten radical history of the women associated with this movement, women ‘who took surrealism beyond itself’ and provided inspiration to generations of feminists, in I went to be transformed. And transformed I was. Transformation, the possibility of transcending the restrictions, expectations and limitations of prevailing conventions, revealed itself to be a recurring theme. If the surrealist movement with its search for ‘the marvelous in the everyday’ was scandalous, even radical in its time, its obsession with fantasy, dream analysis and melting clock faces can seem mere whimsy today.

But from the moment you enter the exhibition’s flushed cerise confines those grand ambitions, harnessed by women surrealists, become charged with passion, its recurring motifs – fantasy and mythical beasts, angels and butterflies, fur and feathers, birds caged, in flight or skulls picked dry, and eyes, everywhere eyes – reanimated with the possibility of metamorphosis, articulating concerns around identity, gender and sexuality; less artistic indulgence than social and political necessity. Let loose in this playground of intoxicating ideas, experiments and rampant creativity, it’s initially hard to concentrate – the experience is heady, playful, thrilling, dangerous. It should come with a health warning.

My curiosity about one artist led me to a multitude of revolutionary, subversive and dazzling women, like the androgynous Claude Cahun, who adopted a series of ambiguous pseudonyms, survived arrest and a death sentence by the Nazis and whose published writings include Heroine, a series of monologues based on female fairy tale characters intertwined with witty comparisons to the contemporary image of women. Food for the soul indeed.

E.P. Niblock writes the blog Diary of a Bluestocking.



  1. Oh Euphemia, how you make my heart sing with joy. A witty clever( and non - patriarchally )penetrating article. Full of information and pointers for further reading for the curious. It is just brilliant my dear. regards adele x

    adele on 8 November 2009

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