Surrealist art seldom fails to disappoint. Why should this be so? Because, like so much political poetry, it always seems to know what it is doing even before it begins; it feels programmatic – in spite, somewhat paradoxically, of the fact that it is wedded to ideas of the aleatory (chance). Its aim is to shock and disturb us out of our bourgeois conventions, our armchair-like complacency, to show us all those nasty writhing worms beneath that milkily pale skin. It all gets to feel so wearisomely predictable, and so superficial, after a while.
Fortunately, this show in Manchester has a refreshingly different perspective on the movement. It looks at the role that women have played in the development of surrealism, over three generations. What is more, it gives the lie to the old assumption that Surrealism was essentially a French movement (with a little help from the Spaniards) which flourished during the 1920s and 1930s. Although it undoubtedly began in Paris in the 1920s, with the manifestoes of André Breton, it was not fundamentally limited to those decades. The women in this show come from Argentina, Mexico, Sweden, Germany, the US and elsewhere. There is work here from the 1970s. Francesca Woodman's striking group of surrealist photographs – eerie self-portraits, often shot in abandoned rooms – were taken in the second half of that decade. She herself came from Denver, Colorado. Although the imperious Breton may have regarded himself as the pulsing centre of the surrealist universe, many others, throughout the world, begged to differ.
What does this show tell us about how the surrealism of women differs from the surrealism of men? Female surrealism feels like more of a co-operative endeavour. These women photograph and paint each other, repeatedly. They also work together. They are profoundly interested in the idea of gender, and how slippery a thing it is. Could Surrealism, from the evidence of this show, be construed as proto-feminist? The evidence here suggests that it could. Female surrealists seem to construe the unconscious as a social leveller. In our dreams, those discrete boundaries between the male and the female begin to break down, and even to merge into each other. So the unconscious can be used as a weapon against stereotyping. Objects too no longer remain neutral things. The world is full of objects that help to imprison us within social conventions – look at the the way that a corset is represented, as a kind of shapely skeleton, in Rachel Baes' The Polka.
But a verdict on any show finally comes down to this. No matter how interesting the ideas that it is exploring may be, is the art in it really any good? Yes, there is at least one little known masterpiece here, and for this work alone the show would be worth seeing. Léonor Fini – part French, part Argentinian – is the painter, and several of her works in this show are important and arresting – The Parasol of 1947, for example, in which a once gloriously dashing parasol appears to be shrivelling, dying, decomposing before our very eyes like any other organic thing. But it is another painting by the same artist, entitled The Alcove: An Interior with Three Women (1939) which holds our attention longest.
A statuesque, warrior-like female seems to be wearing a gleaming breastplate. The breastplate reminds us of those leathery dragons in Hieronymous Bosch's nastiest nightmares. The image is deeply disturbing, but it has a tremendous poise and a quite chilly assurance too. Its assurance puts us in mind of Van Eyck's painting in the National Gallery of the Arnolfini Family. This is very much a painting about woman's situation in the world, and it is a work of sly humour and dark subtlety.
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