Angels Of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism

by Debbie Stoller

In her 1949 book, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir famously singled out Surrealism’s founder Andre Breton for criticism, revealing the backhanded compliment that the then-contemporary movement paid womanhood in its art and literature: “Truth, Beauty, Poetry-she is All,” she wrote. “All-except herself.”

Yet, as editor Patricia Allmer writes in this book that accompanied the 2009 Manchester Art Gallery exhibition of the same name, the contributors to Angels of Anarchy articulate “the ways in which women surrealists challenge patriarchy and how, through this, they allow surrealism to overcome its own blindness.”

The book’s essays and accompanying images not only delve into the work of famous Surrealist pioneers from everyone’s college art-history textbooks-Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington, and Meret Oppenheim-but they also explore the lesser-known women on the movement’s fringes, like Remedios Varo and Toyen, as well as the partners and “muses” of better-known, male Surrealists, such as Nusch Eluard and Dora Maar. Among the standouts are essays by Mary Ann Caws-without a doubt, one of the most renowned living scholars of Surrealism-who offers a touching and personal essay on the “genius” of Surrealist women photographers; Katharine Conley and Alyce Mahon, who contribute sparkling, succinct meditations upon the relevance of domestic interior and still-life traditions on the movement’s women; and Donna Roberts, whose research on Czech women Surrealists is truly revelatory. Although occasionally oversimplified, these scholarly but brief pieces are an excellent primer on art history’s growing recognition of the legacy of this movement’s women artists.

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