Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman and Marian Goodman Gallery, pills New York
When I hear the word Surrealism, for sale instantly the likes of Salvador Dali, approved André Breton, André Masson and Max Ernst come to my mind. Well I can now add Frida Khalo, Leonora Carrington, Eileen Agar and many more female Surrealist artists to that male dominated list, thanks to Manchester’s Art Gallery! Their current exhibition, Angels of Anarchy, sets out to not only celebrate the works of female artists but to educate and inform those who know little (people like me) or nothing at all about the important role females played in the Surrealist movement. How about that?
The exhibition covers five main categories within Surrealism – Portrait/Self-Portrait, Landscape, Interior, Still Life and Fantasy; the medium used ranges from sculpture to photography to film and the more traditional oil on canvas. Thanks to Salma Hayek’s performance in the eponymous film, Frida Khalo -who features in both Portrait/Self Portrait and Interior – is probably the name most will recognise but you will not be disappointed with the other lesser-known artists on display.
Courtesy ADAGP Paris, Musée National d’Art Modern – Centre Georges Pompidou. Courtesy Photo CNAC / MNAM, Dis. RMN / courtesy Jacques Faujour
The most interesting piece comes in the form of film by photographer/filmmaker Lola Alvarez Bravo -who incidentally went to school with Frida and was one of her closest friends. The 30 seconds (approx) of rare footage is left untitled but is captivating from start to end, not least thanks to the presence of Frida herself; the artist is more stunning on film that I had imagined. There is no audio in this eerie film and it’s quite foretelling that Frida is welcoming death into her home in the shape of an innocent looking girl; this was shot when Frida was in ill health and I thought this was one of many nice surprises within the exhibition. Bravo documented much of Frida’s life and she went on documenting even after her death; there is a poignant shot of Frida’s room after her death (Frida’s Room 1954), where her wheelchair, paintbrushes, a self-portrait and a picture of her husband are strategically placed in order to sum up her life. This particular scene left a lump in your throat!
Another big name featured in the exhibition is Eileen Agar – whose Angel of Anarchy (1936-1940) mixed media head dress is featured alongside its opposite number Angels of Mercy (1936-1940) – only two surviving pieces of four, are portraits of Joseph Bard (her husband) and to see them both is quite magical. Angel of Anarchy is wrapped in rich African bark cloth decorated in Chinese silk, beads and osprey and ostrich feathers and has a decadent aura about it. Angel of Mercy is quite the opposite but none less impressive to its corresponding part, using only her skills to sculpt the piece and her hand to paint it.
Whist big names like Kahlo, Agar, Oppenheim and Cahun are used to encourage people to visit the exhibition the lesser known artists really do shine and in some cases surpass their well known counterparts. Kay Sage’s beautiful black and white, landscape photography will lead you into the word of the extra-ordinary within the ordinary – her vision of seeing something interesting within what seems to be an ordinary landscape impressed me a great deal! Leonora Carrington’s self portrait (1937-1938) will immediately grab your attention as it did mine; I faced this one particular piece for a good10 minutes and I must admit I was truly transfixed and consumed in my trail of thought! This, in my opinion, is by far was the best self portrait (oil on canvas) in the entire show. I felt deep sympathy for Carrington and I was left wondering and wanting to know more about this wonderful talent.
Courtesy Banco de Mexico Deigo Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF / DACS 2009
The exhibition is over teeming with beautiful oils on canvas and sculptures that include a rarely seen Lee Miller torso cast that has only even been exhibited once before. Surrealist literature is present in the form of Leonora Carrington’s En Bas ( Down Below 1945) a memoir of her emotional journey after Max Ernst is arrested by the Nazis which leads her to being institutionalized in a mental hospital in Spain. There are video instillations by Francesca Woodman documenting herself exploring the female form and a beautiful interpretation of ‘There was a Miller on a River’ (1971), by Eva Svankmajerova. This old folk song tells the story of a young soldier returning home after 20 years. His parents do not recognise him, rob and murder him; once they realise it was their son they take their own lives. Such a brutal act is given a beautiful lease of life in Svankmajerova’s gorgeous illustrations.
Another nice surprise is the room ‘Teenangels’ in which the Manchester Art gallery has teamed up with art students from Levenshulme High School who have came up with their own Surrealist inspired artwork. I would have happily been left to think they were part of the Angels of Anarchy exhibition had I not seen the sign! Seeing interaction between a prestigious art gallery like Manchester’s and GCSE art students topped the exhibition off perfectly.
All in all this was a good exhibition which ran from the 26th of December 2009 to the 10th of January 2010. Penny Slinger describes her work as ‘a protest against females being seen as mere objects at a male’s disposal’. This exhibition sets out to break the notion that Surrealism is a male dominated movement and it does so successfully. Without the likes of Frida Kahlo, Claude Cahun, Edith Rimmington, Meret Oppenheim and the rest of the female Surrealist featured in the exhibition I doubt very much that women in art would be where they are today. They helped the female cause for decades to come and paved the way for equality in Art. They proved that chicks can do what guys do… and dare I say in some cases even better? If you were one of the lucky few who visited the show then you surely came away enlightened, informed and inspired by those surrealist amazons…just like I did.
Visit www.manchesterartgalleries.org/angelsofanarchy for more information.
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