Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: ANGELS OF ANARCHY: Women Artists and Surrealism

Angels of Anarchy
Manchester Art Gallery
until 10 January 2010.

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

For one moment, standing in the (suggestively) red velvet-lined gallery on the top floor of Manchester Art Gallery, it was like WWII had never happened. Not, perhaps, in any vastly significant way: it’s that, by exhibiting the work of women artists from the ‘teens to the 1970s together, Angels of Anarchy suggests a continuity uninterrupted by the scattering and decimation of European artists, or by the re-domestication of women in the US and UK in the 1950s. Instead, it places side-by-side the work of artists who, after the London-Paris heyday of Modernism, often worked in isolation from each other and from the mainstream art world. Sisterhood is powerful, and here the women interact through their strange and vibrantly erotic works.

The story of Surrealism, Cubism and all the other fun –isms of the 1920s has been told many times, but until the groundbreaking work of Bonnie Kime Scott, it was most often told as an Exquisite Corpse composed of famous men, with women as little more than the objects they passed between them. While Paris Was a Woman and Women of the Left Bank definitively marked the lesbian desire circulating in literary expat circles, the world of the visual arts – overshadowed by the overpowering figure (and sex drive) of Pablo Picasso – has remained far more straight and macho, with women artists often downgraded to helper or muse.
It’s certainly true that many of the artists in this exhibition were married to, or lovers of, male artists or writers such as Man Ray, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, often to more than one. It’s also true that they spent a great deal of time in each others’ company, as witnessed by Lee Miller’s extraordinary portraits of artists Dorothea Tanning, Nusch Éluard, Léonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Valentine Penrose, Dora Maar, Eileen Agar and Meret Oppenheim. Miller, once Man Ray’s shadow, has been rehabilitated by Carolyn Burke’s biography and last year’s exhibition at the V&A – which didn’t include these photographs, significant both for their incredibly 21st century styling (Dora Maar’s alice band could be in this month’s Vogue, for whom Miller worked in the 1940s) and for the world of female friendship and aesthetic endeavour they suggest. There’s nothing overtly lesbian in the gazes or poses – unlike the work of Claude Cahun, which also feature extensively in the exhibition – but there is an intensity, a bodiliness, that suggests just how liberated these women were through another woman’s gaze.

Cahun, the radical genderqueer photographer whose story is beautifully told in Barbara Hammer’s documentary Lover Other, is not the only queer artist in the show; Frida Kahlo is represented rather beautifully by work that encompasses her bisexuality. There’s Diego y Frida 1929-1944, in which the two artists’ faces form a bi-gendered composite, but also by a short film shot by photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo (who also shot a number of powerful portraits of Kahlo that feature in the exhibition). Kahlo emerges from a dark room into daylight, where she kisses a young blonde woman (Tina Misrachi) on the ear, then follows her back into the room before shutting the French windows with an expression of desire and defiance. Once in the room, the two women engage in an eye-to-eye wordless conversation of extraordinary intimacy. One critic suggests that Misrachi represents Kahlo’s death but I think that’s over-reaching: there’s no need to assert a symbolic layer of meaning when the gestures and expressions speak so powerfully for themselves.
Elsewhere, symbolic meaning opens up the work to queer possibilities (Mimi Parent’s Maitresse, a whip made of two blonde braids! Francesca Woodman’s three kinds of melons! Léonor Fini’s painting of Leonora Carrington in a dark bedroom, wearing a black leather cuirass and scarlet boots! all those magnificently mixed-up Exquisite Corpse bodies!), not least in what’s probably my favourite objet of the show: Dorothea Tanning’s Pincushion to Serve as Fetish. In the catalogue photograph, it looks a lot like Free Willy, but there’s more than one organ pulsating amongst the black velvet and peach satin. For a start, the piece morphs as you walk around its glass case, flashing an orifice here and some cryptic chalk marks there. Silver pins glint like piercings against the velvet. It’s a brilliantly deadpan reworking of a domestic, feminised object, an unravelling of the double meaning of fetish (ritual object, like a voodoo doll, and Freudian sexual tic), a well-constructed craft object, and the single most lickable, strokable piece of art I’ve seen this year (well, since Roni Horn’s big pink sweetie/heart/cunt at Tate Modern).

No stroking allowed, of course, but the rich erotic energy of this show does make you wonder who might have been stroking who (or wanted to), and how that flow of desire might have lent its charge to the vivid and riveting display of female sexuality. Enter between the walls of red velvet and see for yourselves.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at

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