Book Review: Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism

Angels of Anarchy book cover.jpg

Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism. Patricia Allmer (author/editor) and contributors: Mary Ann Caws, Roger Cardinal, Katharine Conley, Georgiana M.M. Colvile, Alyce Mahon, and Donna Roberts. Prestel Publishing. September 15, 2009. ISBN 978-3-791-34365-5

Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism is a beautiful accompaniment to the 2009 Angels of Anarchy art exhibit held at the Manchester Art Gallery. As exhibit curator Patricia Allmer explains in the opening essay, Of Fallen Angels and Angels of Anarchy:

In a non-chronological manner, and without pretending to present a complete canon of women surrealist artists, the exhibition traces the multiplicity of ways in which women surrealists disrupt binaries, hierarchies, the linear, the fixed and the motionless. Its five sections--Portrait and Self-Portrait, Landscape, Interior, Still Life, Fantasy--are not there to confirm the status quo of traditional generic categories. On the contrary, the artworks in these sections explode these categories from within, demonstrating how the subversion of generic and gender categories, and of the traditions of art, lies at the core of these artistic productions (pp. 14-15).
 Left: Jacqueline Lambo (1939) by Claude Cahun; Right: Self-Portrait (c. 1937-38) by Leonora Carrington

Left: Jacqueline Lambo (1939) by Claude Cahun; Right: Self-Portrait (c. 1937-38) by Leonora Carrington

The book provides readers with an historical overview of how women artists (spanning three decades) used painting, photography, sculpture, collage to explore and define the internal and external realms of femininity: political, domestic, sexual or erotic, material, ethereal, realistic, imaginary, conscious and subconscious. Seven essays provide the reader with a deeper understanding of what may first appear confusing or unreachable to those used to traditional (and largely patriarchal) art forms: Of Fallen Angels and Angels of Anarchy, Imagining of Magic, Safe as Houses: Anamorphic Bodies in Ordinary Space: Miller, Varo, Tanning, Woodman, These Photographing Women: The Scandal of Genius, Women Surrealists and the Still Life, Women Artists, Surrealism and Animal Representation, 'Neither Wings Nor Stories': The Psychological Realismof Czech Women Surrealists.

 Left: Angel of Anarchy (1936-40) by Eileen Agar; Right: Angel of Mercy (1934) by Eileen Agar

Left: Angel of Anarchy (1936-40) by Eileen Agar; Right: Angel of Mercy (1934) by Eileen Agar

Primed by the essays with a more intimate knowledge of the symbolism, lyricism and mythos of these women artists' work, readers can enjoy with fresh eyes the full page color images of the artwork included in the Angels of Anarchy exhibit. No doubt some of the works were meant to shock, to push boundaries, to challenge authority. That was part of the reason surrealism came into being: a hope to change world views. But, as I've read in individual artists' biographies, I think many of the women were just trying to somehow capture what life was like for them in the times they lived in. They weren't necessarily setting out to be surrealists, but to put onto canvas or film or into clay what it meant for them to live a feminine existence. That they adopted some of the tenets of surrealism in their artwork only made their efforts more powerfully rendered.

 Left: The child's Mother & the Kidnapper Argue (1935) by Remedios Varos; Right: Insomnia (1947) by Remedios Varos

Left: The child's Mother & the Kidnapper Argue (1935) by Remedios Varos; Right: Insomnia (1947) by Remedios Varos

If you read this book, please let me know what you think!

Cheers!--Janyce