The art establishment has not always paid much attention to the women who actively participated in the milieu of surrealism, as though their only roles were as the muses or spouses of male geniuses. This view denies the importance of a number of women artists whose own creative output merits much greater esteem in its own right, and whose work has only belatedly been brought to wider attention in recent years.
The Angels of Anarchy exhibition in Manchester is to be welcomed as perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition to date of women artists directly influenced by surrealism. It not only includes work from the height of surrealism's popularity in the 1930s but also from younger artists who have worked in a similar tradition (Penny Slinger, Francesca Woodman), and the notable contribution of women towards the Czech surrealist movement that flourished despite the authoritarian state.
How are we to account for these women's affinity with surrealism? Was it merely a convenient idiom that just happened to be on hand, to be used and discarded once they developed the courage to find a more 'personal' style of their own? Or had they discovered in surrealism the means to detonate a depth charge from the unconscious, capable of shattering the edifice of impoverished rationality, patriarchal hierarchies and repressive attitudes to sexuality?
The response we choose to give is inevitably political. If we choose to see surrealism as just the artistic fashion of the time, then all that really remains is to claim that women are as capable as men at 'playing the game' of creating marketable art-commodities, and perhaps to revalue the few who can successfully market their own eccentricities as desirable 'brands' for today's consumers. But what if these women are regarded as holding fast to surrealism's promise of liberation and emancipation, even as they disclaimed the label?
At every turn in this exhibition we see microcosmic worlds of fantasy, desire, and playful creativity pointing to a future beyond the social conventions of today. Confronting the buried thoughts and fantasies that haunt their own lives, these women have produced images and objects that are variously dark, fantastic, erotic, joyous and threatening.
Again and again, the works on display evoke but also contest the stereotypes and trappings of femininity as imposed by an oppressive social order. The emphasis society places on woman's responsibility to cultivate beauty and self-image is reflected in a fascination with self-portraiture, mirrors and mirroring. In particular, Claude Cahun's photographs evoke a playful fascination with dressing up in front of mirrors, with role play and performance that questions the extent to which our (fixed, gendered) sense of self is as rooted and fixed as it might at first appear.
Similarly, the exhibits often reproduce domestic spaces, but in estranged forms that unsettle the notion of the family home as a site of safety and security - which reminds us that 'uncanny' translates a Freudian term, the German unheimlich, which literally means 'un-homely'.
This is related to the social containment and domestication of women's sexuality. Dora Maar's hybrid velvet pin cushion/fetish object shockingly juxtaposes domestic needlecraft with erotic transgression. Similarly, Eva Svankmajerová's Bed reveals, beneath the crisp white linen that suggests domestic servitude, vivid red-pink labial lips that are intimately exposed, suggesting raw animal sensuality. Leonor Fini's self-portrait depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which she has been transformed into a plastic mannequin slowly sinking into a stagnant swamp populated only by the carcases of other creatures.
The synthetic vision of femininity reproduced through repression and denial of our creaturely nature is further implicated in a wider logic of destruction and ecological catastrophe.
At its best, surrealism takes to extremes the dictum that 'the personal is political' and produces results that have the power both to terrify and to electrify. As with psychoanalysis, it demonstrates that the more we explore the hidden recesses of our selves, the more we discover that we have at our core something ineluctably Other. To this extent it is a valuable provocation for us to reconsider the value of 'mere' fantasy and to appreciate our role in constructing 'reality', bringing into question the habitual way we see ourselves and our world.
Angels of Anarchy: women artists and surrealism is at Manchester City Art Gallery until 10 January 2010
Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.