Last Chance Art: Angels of Anarchy

Article published: Wednesday, January 6th 2010

Queues will snake through Manchester Art Gallery this week as visitors take a last look at Angels of Anarchy, the impressive exhibition of works by women surrealists which closes on Sunday 10 January.

Francesca Woodman, On Being an Angel # 1, 1977

The pieces are drawn from multiple collections and have been arranged specifically for the Gallery by Patricia Allmer of Manchester Metropolitan University. It is the first major exhibition of Surrealism by women artists to be held in Europe and there are no plans to re-house it elsewhere. This is a rare opportunity to see many works at all, not least together and in context.

Among the 32 artists featured the famous names stand out and not only in publicity materials. Frida Khalo cannot be dismissed as a crowd puller, however, and her self portrait Diego & I (1949), is as stunning as it is familiar. Her lesser known work Still Life with Parrot and Flag (1951) perhaps fits this collection better though, troubling a mundane scene with politically potent suggestion. In an extended selection of video and photography, mediums often overlooked in Surrealist retrospectives, Lee Miller and Francesca Woodman stand out. Lesser known and more recent works are also of note. Josette Exandier’s mixed media sculptures such as La Caresse (1999) are playful, sensual and uncanny. Overall, the selection is ambitious and in many places the display retains the radicalism and sense of shock that would have first surrounded these works. The lighting, layout and colours are all carefully chosen.

Faced with a wide selection of artists, eras and media, Allmer has divided the exhibition into five themes: Portrait / Self Portait; Landscape; Interior; Still Life and Landscape. Unsurprisingly, these bleed into and overlap each other, only emphasising the Surrealist urge to challenge categorisation and the traditionalist expectations of the art world, and beyond.

Notebooks, poems, sketches and letters between Surrealist artists – male and female – are also on display, finally dispelling any idea that these women artists have been token or peripheral to the movement. While other curators have overlooked some of the work shown here, Angels of Anarchy successfully gestures towards a more interesting history and development of the Surrealist movement in which these artists are intrinsic. Fittingly, in the pieces displayed under the banner “Women Artists and Surrealism”, gender, sex, bodies and identity are ever-present and always unstable themes. It suggests that this art has the power to challenges preconceptions, perhaps even of the organisers themselves.

Angels of Anarchy is at Manchester Art Gallery until Sunday 10 Jan.

Entry costs: £6 Adults, £4 Concessions, free to friends of the Gallery.

Siobhan McGuirk

More: Culture, Exhibition, Manchester


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