Angels of Anarchy – Women Artists and Surrealism (NVA, 2009)
So many misconceptions about Surrealism are unquestioningly peddled as historical fact in the public domain that addressing the subject often feels like approaching a thicket of weeds with a machete. Reviews of the current exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, curated by Patricia Allmer, have offered a case in point, with broadsheet critics repeating various myths, starting with the notion that Surrealism is a historical movement, containable within the dates 1924 (the publication date of Andre Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism) and – according to choice – either 1945 (when the exiled Surrealists began returning to France at the end of World War Two) or 1966 (the date of Andre Breton’s death).
In fact, aside from a very brief interlude in the late 1960s when the Paris group dissolved itself, before reforming soon afterwards, the Surrealist movement has continued uninterrupted since 1924, with active groupings spread widely around the globe, from Chicago and Prague to Sao Paolo and elsewhere, a point made very strongly in Penelope Rosemont’s magisterial 1997 anthology Surrealist Women, a book that should be taken up as necessary further reading by any visitor to Angels of Anarchy interested in uncovering more of the background to the figures represented in this long overdue exhibition.
The fact of the movement’s continuing influence and vitality across a full spectrum of activity, from writing, painting and film to music and political action, is clearly reflected in Allmer’s selection, which places international works of the 1970s, 80s and 90s – including material by Penny Slinger, Josette Exandier, Eva Svankmajerova, Francesca Woodman and Mimi Parent – alongside the better-known Parisian figures of the 1930s and 40s, such as Meret Oppenheim, Valentine Hugo and Leonor Fini.
One myth perpetuated in many reviews is that the movement itself deliberately marginalised the work of these forgotten women, a point whose complexities were comprehensively addressed by Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement in 1985, and the conclusion of Chadwick’s study remains the best answer to that particular platitude, with its acknowledgment that: “the creative work of the men and women associated with Surrealism sometimes reveals conflicts between the theoretical and the practical, between a revolutionary demand for a fully integrated creative consciousness and an outer world still polarized in its attitudes toward male and female [but this] is not a mark of ideological failure. It is rather a testament to Surrealism’s pioneering exploration of creative waters previously left largely uncharted.”
The roles assigned to women during the movement’s early years – on the positive side, in Chadwick’s words, “extolled for their courage and daring, praised for their uninhibited behaviour and encouraged to create and exhibit their work” – resulted in an environment both supportive and limiting, as artists of both sexes grappled with their own cultural conditioning in artworks that drew deeply on the uncensored imagination and subconscious drives. As Chadwick also notes, this frequent gap between the theoretical and actual ensured that, all too often, “when it came to internalizing an image of woman, the femme-enfant [child-woman] and the erotic muse prevailed.”
What is also made clear – both by Chadwick and Angels of Anarchy – is that not only did Surrealism attract and nurture more independent-minded women artists than any other movement before feminism itself in the 1970s, its often contradictory interest in the ‘problem of woman’ and in open-ended exploration of the nature of identity and sexuality seems to have ensured that even the movement’s earliest phases offered a context where such questions could be addressed, by both male and female artists, with an honesty, complexity and unsettling imaginative license unparalleled elsewhere.
The 1920s photographs of Claude Cahun are a case in point, offering a series of still lives, landscapes and – most significantly – self-portraits that subvert rigid notions of gender and sexual identity in ways that do not properly occur again in art until the 1960s, when nascent second-wave feminism picked up Cahun’s by then largely forgotten baton. Yet Breton, as early as 1932, acknowledged Cahun as “one of the most curious spirits (among four of five) of our times” and insisted to her that “it is essential that you write and publish.”
It has all too often been not the Surrealists themselves, whatever their various flaws, but those art historians concerned with reducing Surrealism to a bite-sized historical field of study, who have been responsible for erasing many of the traces of its female practitioners. This is almost certainly due, at least in part, to the usual sexist prejudices, but given the maverick nature of the work of many of these women, their fate has been shared by many lesser-known (and less easily categorised) male Surrealists, too, a fact that suggests a broader simplification of the movement’s complex history and evolution.
The emphasis on the Paris group and its allies in the US after 1939, for example, by itself explains why British, Czech and other contributors have often been overlooked: the actual records that Surrealism left in its wake tell a far more complex story than that of the simple exclusion of women, and it’s noteworthy that the Surrealists’ own periodicals remain key sources of works and information on female artists and writers.
The degree of forgetting varies, too. Even in 1965, Patrick Waldberg’s Surrealism, a short study for the mass-market Thames and Hudson World of Art library, and by no means a comprehensive work, managed to include plates showing many of the artists here. Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup and saucer is reproduced, as expected, but that iconic image appears alongside a diverse range of works by Dora Maar, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, Marie-Laure, Toyen, Leonora Carrington and Valentine Hugo.
To put Angels of Anarchy into context, then, it needs to be seen as the culmination of a long process of historical correction rather than a truly groundbreaking show, though it’s certainly no diminishment of Allmer’s achievement to note that her exhibition is a belated consolidation: a show of this kind has been needed for at least twenty-five years, and the real surprise is that it has been overlooked by the combined curatorial might of Europe until a full decade into the twenty-first century.
The stream of monographs and exhibitions that followed Chadwick’s 1985 study – itself the culmination of a reassessment dating back to the renewed interest in women artists fermented within the feminist movement of the later 1960s – brought many of these artists to wider public attention years ago: Janet Kaplan’s very successful book on Remedios Varo appeared in 1988, Leonora Carrington had her first major British retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 1991, and Francesca Woodman was seen in strength at the Photographers’ Gallery in the mid-1990s.
In fact, most serious studies of Surrealism since Chadwick’s book appeared in 1985 have placed female artists back at the core of the movement’s history and influence. Michel Remy’s Surrealism in Britain a decade ago, to give just one example, put Ithell Colquhoun, Grace Pailthorpe, Emmy Bridgewater, Edith Rimmington, Eileen Agar and Lee Miller alongside Conroy Maddox and Roland Penrose at the heart of its narrative, while Whitney Chadwick’s Mirror Images (published in 1998) gathered a variety of contributors, whose essays traced female surrealist influences back and forth from Claude Cahun, Dorothea Tanning and associated spirits like Louise Bourgeois, Ana Mendeita and Yayoi Kusama to demonstrate live continuities with more recent works by Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and Michiko Kon.
All this background seems a necessary prelude to any assessment of Angels of Anarchy, a long-awaited and very welcome kaleidoscope, featuring around 150 works by 32 artists, some renowned, others being seen in public for the first time. It’s certainly encouraging to see such a comprehensive gathering staged in a regional UK gallery – and I use the word ‘staged’ advisedly. The curators reference, in passing, the conventions of Surrealist exhibition-making discussed at length in Lewis Kachur’s 2001 study Displaying the Marvelous, beginning with the device that viewers are obliged to enter the exhibition through a narrow zig-zagging passageway lined in red velvet, and later enter a room of small objects that creates the illusion of being lined floor to ceiling in tiles of black fur.
It’s also an exhibition whose own curatorial framing is free of the hackneyed clichés about Surrealism that have been perpetuated by several of the reviews it has received. If Allmer’s frame of reference is narrower than that of Chadwick’s Mirror Images, the show makes it very clear that Surrealism remains a live cultural force, with a longevity, geographic scope and exploratory nature that continues to influence artistic and political activity, whether acknowledged or not: some of the artists featured here were active Surrealists, directly affiliated with one or more of the international Surrealist groupings, among them Eva Svankmajerova, Kay Sage and Jacqueline Lamba, while others – notably Frida Kahlo and Leonor Fini – operated independently, but in the spirit of a wider Surrealist enterprise.
In some cases, it’s clear that artists far outside the orbit of Surrealism have at least some of their roots here. Meret Oppenheim’s 1969 object Eichhornchen (Squirrel) consists of a beer glass with a squirrel’s tail, and might easily have been made by Sarah Lucas at some point during the late 1990s, as might Penny Slinger’s Teeth Like Flocks of Doves (1992), which closely resembles (and may well have influenced) Lucas’s Where Does It All End? (1994). Mimi Parent’s 1995 object Maitresse, a suggestive whip of braided blonde hair, refers back – to the perverse quality of Eileen Agar’s iconic 1936 construction Angel of Anarchy, which stands sentry by the entrance to this show (the lesser known 1934 companion-piece Angel of Mercy guards the exit) – and simultaneously forward, to the fairy-tale theatricality of Annette Messager’s installations, as recently seen at the Hayward Gallery, or to Helen Chadwick’s seductive 1980s photographic images of plaited yellow hair and raw meat.
The stylistic disjunctions in Edith Rimmington’s collage-like paintings – Greek statuary and owls in Sisters of Anarchy (1940/1), a metal glove, vulture and butterflies in Relative Strength (1950) – suggest affinities with the similarly eclectic approaches of such current West Coast and Seattle ‘pop-surrealists’ as Mark Ryden, Isabel Samaras and Marion Peck, and it’s an approach that recurs with a deadpan, Magritte-like quality in Jane Graverol’s The School of Vanity (1967), with its copper pipe-work Sphinx, or The Holy Spirit (1965), her stylised landscape, in which twin rock-faces frame a female body with a bird at its crotch.
Most strikingly contemporary of all, perhaps, is the shock delivered by Lee Miller’s little-seen photographic diptych, Severed Breast from Radical Surgery in a Place Setting (Still Life With Amputated Breast on Plate), a work which dates from 1929 and still delivers an authentically queasy chill to viewers long thought immunized to images of sex and anatomy. All this is delivered over eighty years after Miller first arranged her carefully poised still life, reputedly during a highly unauthorised visit to the offices of Vogue magazine.
The documentation of public appearances, from Sheila Legge’s apparition as a Surrealist Phantom in Trafalgar Square to mark the London International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 to Meret Oppenheim’s self portrait with abstracted Maori-style facial tattoos, sit alongside a large selection of photographic and painted portraits, made by artists of themselves, or by one artist of others within the wider circle. Lee Miller’s striking images of Carrington, Fini, Agar, Maar and others are particularly notable, as are Lola Alvarez Bravo’s photographs of Frida Kahlo, and all suggest a peculiarly current sense of self-presentation as an extension of the work.
Less straightforwardly, artists offer enigmatic constructions in lieu of such figurative representations, as with Eva Svankmajerová’s faceless statue standing in for Jiří Koubek, a former Prague Surrealist who ‘lost face’ through involvement in a corruption scandal while working in television in the years after 1989, or Dora Maar’s still extraordinary apparition of an armadillo-like figure, named after Alfred Jarry’s monstrous proto-Surrealist creation Pere Ubu (1936): both contain a haunting and unsettling power born of our uncertainty about what, exactly, we’re looking at.
This deliberate confusion of received categories operates as a strategy throughout Angels of Anarchy, with Leonor Fini’s old-masterly detail in works like The Angel of Anatomy (1949), with its flayed Versailles-era courtier, or The Parasol (1947), with its concealed but unsettling observing subject, achieve much of what is often claimed for, but not often seen, in the more theatrical post-Surrealist work of Dali.
Eva Svankmajerová’s bold subversion of folk art convention is also fascinating, and doubly subversive in the post-1968 Czech context, where sanitised versions of peasant art were widely promoted as an inspiration by Party bureaucrats. The vaginal shape and colouring of the turned blanket on her 1976 painting Bed or the betrayal, murder and suicide found in a Czech folk song and given beautifully explicit form in her 1971 animated film collaboration with Jiří Brdečka, Jsouc na řece mlynář jeden (There Was a Miller on a River) seem intent on retrieving the unruly, disruptive qualities of folk culture, by force if necessary.
In line with this presence of images and objects that refuse strict definition, the exhibition’s layout casts aside chronology in favour of shared interests, connecting 1920s activity with works made in the 1960s and 1990s, and spreading single artists’ contributions throughout the display, helping to underscore the collaborative nature of the Surrealist project. We follow threads of portraiture, fantasy, landscape, objects and interiors, the conventional academic categories applied knowingly to groups of works whose intent is always to undermine them in some way. And although it’s the more iconic and romanticised figures – such as Woodman, Miller and Kahlo – who will doubtless draw this show’s biggest audiences, I found that the images seared into my mind most forcefully had taken root from unexpected sources.
The photographs of Emilia Medková are one example. Exemplary in their capacity to disturb, Medková’s inventive psychological realism is seen at its most uncanny in the junk portrait of Archimboldo I (1978) or the nightmarish ‘shadow games’ of Haarwasserfall (1949), with its Eraserhead-like atmosphere. The emotional precision of aligned stone burial mounds covered by butterflies in Toyen’s Early Spring (1945), the destabilised logic of a series of collages by Valentine Penrose and the memorably scrambled totemic face of Emmy Bridgwater’s Transplanted (1947) all return persistently to the mind long after leaving the exhibition.
Further jolts are received from Elisa Breton’s inexplicable wreath of jewel-like dead birds and Ithell Colquhoun’s ingenious late use of automatic painting techniques to extend her fascination with folklore and myth into a cosmic dimension – Gorgon (1946) is the equal of many better-known works by Matta, Kurt Seligmann and Max Ernst. If flaws need mentioning, then Remedios Varo isn’t particularly well represented (almost certainly an issue of the availability of work for loan – and Insomnia, the small 1947 gouache that is here, is an intriguing early vignette) while the two later Leonora Carringtons on show aren’t her best, but that’s a sum total of two nits picked from a very fine pelt indeed.
Perhaps the result we might best hope for in the aftermath of Angels of Anarchy is that it will open the way for further explorations of this under-exhibited field. Just as the time was ripe for this exhibition, so it also seems that a detailed overview of international Surrealist currents in the aftermath of Breton’s death and the events of 1968 might be productively attempted. Patricia Allmer has performed a great service in bringing together this considered and fascinating selection of female Surrealists; but who is now prepared to do the same for those Surrealists of both sexes still working and agitating in the Caribbean, Latin America, the former Eastern Bloc countries of Europe, the United States, among expatriate Arabs in Paris, and even – perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not – in the city of Leeds?
Angels of Anarchy: Manchester City Art Gallery (26 Sept 2009 to Jan 10 2010)