The first major international exhibition of surrealist art by women in more than 60 years opens in Manchester. It was worth the waitby Hermione Eyre / September 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism
26th September to 10th January 2010, Manchester Art Gallery
Women are often the subjects of surrealist art: dismembered, deliquescent, with doors in their stomachs, breasts for eyes and so forth. More elusive, however, are women as proponents of surrealist art. Lee Miller and Frida Kahlo are the star names; general surveys of the movement also tend to include a few individual works by women–Meret Oppenheim’s Object (a teacup, saucer and spoon covered in fur, 1936), Leonora Carrington’s shock-haired Self-Portrait (1938) with rocking horse and Eileen Agar’s sculpture of a scarf-shrouded head, Angel of Anarchy (1936-40). But, as a new exhibition in Manchester shows, there are many more heroines of surrealism who have been sidelined from the canon.
The alpha males of surrealism are among the best-known names in 20th-century art: André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Joan Miró. So why haven’t we heard of Emmy Bridgewater, whose influence on the British movement was—according to the French critic Michel Remy—as powerful as Dalí’s in France? Search for her name in the British Library and there is only one return, a flimsy exhibition catalogue. And why haven’t we heard of the devoted lesbian stepsisters of Jersey, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore? They fought the Nazi occupation of the island with a campaign of subversive propaganda, some of it in rhyme. Yet instead of getting the Hollywood biopic they clearly deserve, they tend to be discussed only in journals of gender studies.
The 33 women artists in this exhibition remain in relative obscurity for many reasons. Lack of original talent is not one of them. Critical carping is. To research women Surrealists is to encounter either silence or polite derision from the art establishment. The last major international show to group these contemporaries together was in 1943, at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery in New York. It proved, according to one critic, that women were better at surrealism than men. Really? Be still, my beating heart. “This is logical now one comes to think of it,” the critic continues, “since surrealism is about 70 per cent hysterics…”
Critics love to patronise a safe target, and what could be safer than a half-forgotten dead lady artist? Even this Manchester show includes in its catalogue an essay in which a critic looks down his nose at some of the work. The critic, Roger Cardinal,…