Angels of Anarchy, Women Artists and Surrealism

26 September - 10 January

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Gallery posts: Fighting to be seen (Natalie Bradbury)

6 November 2009

When the author Jeanette Winterson addressed the crowd at the opening of Angels of Anarchy, she praised the exhibition for addressing the historical imbalance between male and female artists. Women, she said, had all too often been ‘written out of the pages of the history books’, forced to occupy a ‘silent space’ in the world of art, defined in relation to the men around them.

Few artists in the exhibition exemplify, and transcend, this phenomenon better than Lee Miller. Vogue model and muse/lover of Man Ray turned photographer, her work is amongst the most eye-catching and unsettling in the exhibition, be it focused on the rubble of bomb sites or an uncomfortable image of severed, post-mastectomy breasts presented on a plate for consumption.

Just as the surrealist movement as a whole encouraged people to look again at the world, to find the extraordinary in the everyday, the women in the movement promoted a new way of seeing. But they went one step further than their male counterparts, finding new ways of looking at things that had all too often been filtered through a male gaze. From murky, dramatic landscapes to the playful, identity-shifting self-portraiture of Claude Cahun, and Frida Kahlo’s narrative still-lifes, they reclaimed as their own traditional art forms.

These women were fighting to be seen, and nowhere is this new way of looking/seeing better shown than in the photographic portraits the women took of their fellow artists. These women aren’t sitting meekly, like female portrait subjects throughout time; they pose with their artworks, defining themselves as creators rather than mere objects. This way of seeing not only looks at the world but meets it defiantly, engages with it, staring it proudly in the eyes.

Lee Miller’s self-portrait flanked by sphinxes, a symbol of female power, leaves no doubt about how women saw their rightful place in society; these women also typified a new way of being. And not only being, but being seen to exist, leading lives just as full and rich as the men who were at the forefront of the surrealist movement. They were preoccupied with establishing a presence in the world, leaving traces of themselves that would go down in history – literally, in the case of Lee Miller, whose plaster cast of her torso is engraved with a map that represents her cosmopolitan, globe-trotting lifestyle.

These artists are constantly trying to insert themselves, and each other, in the pages of history books. They force themselves into vision, cropping up in each other’s works, from Lee Miller’s collages of fellow artists to Leonor Fini’s painting of Leonora Carrington.

The most striking artist in the exhibition is Francesca Woodman. In her videos, Woodman flicks through pages of traditional male nudes before turning the notions of portraiture on their head by daubing her body with paint and turning herself into a painting. She also makes her mark by imprinting her body onto a layer of dust on the floor. Like many of the artists in the exhibition, she questions ideas of identity – tearing up representations of her body, slowly and carefully writing out her name and gradually unveiling herself from behind a screen. Her body of work is all the more extraordinary when you learn she killed herself at the age of 22.

Woodman’s photographic work is especially affecting because of its ordinariness, its setting of recognisable yet menacing interiors, which trap women with dark, oppressive corners and suggestions of domestic activity. It’s easy to project yourself into her scenes – it’s as if they speak for any woman or every woman, and her dreams of escape from fixed routines and conventions.

Natalie Bradbury writes the blog The Shrieking Violet, and edits the Manchester-based fanzine of the same name.


  1. Appreciated reading these important commentsâ¦the reminder is still needed to listen to the undertow and not be hypnotized by the glaze of convention and advertising expectations.

    Elizabeth Ostrander on 15 December 2009

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