Sister acts

The anarchic potential of Surrealism allowed women artists to explore the female experience, independent of the centuries-old imperative of pandering to the male gaze. Maeve Hosea previews an exhibition of their often disturbing work

Maitresse (Mistress, 1996) is a Y-shaped whip whose leather thongs are replaced by plaited human hair, playing around with the idea of soft and hard, crossing the boundaries between reality and fantasy. This piece, by Mimi Parent, forms part of a fetish room provocatively constructed in the middle of an exhibition of 100 works by 33 female Surrealist artists.

Best known for its world famous Pre-Raphaelite collection of paintings, Manchester Art Gallery is brandishing a totally different side of femininity to that depicted in John William Waterhouse’s paintings of long-tressed maidens and seductive nymphs among water lilies, and Arthur Hughes’ portrayal of a languid Ophelia on the edge of suicide.

These women, brandishing whips, severed breasts and angelic forms, are not only breaking with the established conventions of Western art, where the male gaze dominated depictions of women’s place in the world. They are also playing with the boundaries of sexuality, society and reality.

The winged mythical creature, which headlines this exhibition, is a symbol that frequently crops up in the work of these women artists. It is referenced explicitly in Eileen Agar’s most famous works shown here together: Angel of Anarchy (1936-40) and the counterpart Angel of Mercy (1936). It is an ethereal being that exists and does not exist. An angel can’t be pinned down and it shifts the notion of being one to becoming one. The angel is the symbol of flux, and it is central to the ultimate Surrealist desire to overcome hierarchical oppositions and boundaries.

Surrealism fuses reality and imagination, and alters the everyday by changing the way that objects look. With Salvador Dali’s iconic lobster telephone and Rene Magritte’s bowler-hatted man stamped upon the inner eye, we acknowledge that this artistic movement has never been left behind and continues to have a profound effect on contemporary design, from fashion to furniture.

Bringing dream and reality close together is the ultimate objective of all Surrealist artists, and Angels of Anarchy provides striking examples of this, from Francesca Woodman’s poignantly beautiful On Being An Angel to Meret Oppenheim’s quirkily disturbing Fur Gloves With Wooden Fingernails. ‘There have been some exhibitions on individual women Surrealist artists, and academic research, but it has stayed at the academic level,’ comments the exhibition’s curator Patricia Allmer. ‘This exhibition is terribly important because it shows what some of these women have achieved and that they are all serious influences on contemporary artists as well.’

Parent’s whip of blonde braids is not just a comment on the way that we see things, but also a critique on a society that didn’t allow women to be artists. The cutting of the hair is a symbol of independence. Five themes – landscape, portraiture, still life, the domestic interior, and fantasy – are explored within the Surrealist genre but from the artists’ experiences as women. Frida Kahlo is very well known for her self-portraits, but this exhibition gets away from the notion of her as the suffering woman by showing a number of her still lives. Works such as Still Life with Parrot and Flag (1951), which uses native Mexican birds and fruit as symbols of nationalism, are both serious feminist statements and political commentaries.

Angels of Anarchy not only includes some of the most important radical Surrealist works produced during the 20th century, but also brings others out into the light. Oppenheim is well known for her furry teacup – the transformation of a genteel object into sensuous, sexually referential tableware – but she was also a major 20th century photographer and was one of the first to record scenes at Nazi death camps. Little-known Belgian artist Josette Exandier produces assemblages out of found and discarded objects.

Andre Breton said in the second Surrealist Manifesto in 1929, ‘Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.’
These women artists astutely demonstrate this proposition.

Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism is at Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester, from 26 September to 10 January 2010

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