Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, Art Gallery, Manchester

Skewing it for themselves

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.

To 10 January (0161 235 8888)

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss