I went to see this exhibition yesterday at Manchester City Art Gallery. Surrealism challenges the order and acceptance of everything. Logic is turned upside down, inside out, new meanings come into being from unlikely juxtapositions thereby making new art. Surrealism began in the 1920s led by Andre Breton and fellow writers and artists (including Dali).
As can be seen from the original surrealists – it was a man’s world. Women associated with the artists were usually, girlfriends, wives or muses and they still held submissive roles…. All that was set to change though as women tried to establish themselves as artists instead of models or props. Untapped and untried talent began to rise to the surface and given freedom of expression succeeded in transforming these former muses into artist’s in their own right.
A double portrait of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera was the first piece I looked at. This a painting in oil on wood set in an icon frame. The face is made up of half of each others face, painted in pinkish/coral and edged with shells. Though garish, there is something very sweet and romantic about it, like it was made with love.
The title of the exhibition ‘Angels of Anarchy’ was taken from a piece of work by Eileen Agar. Made between 1936 – 40, this head (one of four, but only two survive) is veiled or swathed in many different fabrics. It is a puzzling piece, both passive yet defiant. There is mystery between these layers. A sphinx with a secret. The piece is also very tactile, with the velvet, raised stitching and beads – intriguing.
Amongst the many themes are the photographs, which must take star place. Especially interesting are the photographs these women took of each other. They gaze frankly into the camera, they are not trying to be anything, they just are. The close friendship between the women shows through. They are all struggling towards the same cause, not competing with each other.
There are quite a number of Lee Miller’s photographs. Miller, former model and muse to Man Ray became famous as a photographer and produced many powerful pictures. Lots of Leonora Fini’s work too. Fini, a cat lover incorporated hybrids of these creatures in her paintings. This one, ‘Petit Sphinx Hermite’ 1948 includes a sphinx like creature. She believed that Sphinx’s provided a bridge from this world to the unconscious mind.
Claude Cahun’s photography is concerned with identity, gender and masks. Her material is absolutely fascinating and mostly auto biographical.