Angels of Anarchy

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Manchester Art Gallery

Beyond the rational consciousness, the thinking mind, there are other dimensions to be discovered - secrets sometimes buried in the unconscious. The Surrealists saw art as a means to explore those hidden places, buried by convention and a fear of the unknown.

Like the Cubists and the Dadaists before them, the Surrealists were revolutionary artists, and not simply because of their sexual daring and flirtations with death and violence. André Breton, the founder of the movement, published the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, under the double impact of Freudian psychoanalysis and the Russian Revolution. Just as dreams reveal our unfulfilled possibilities, so revolution unveils the potential of human beings to find new, creative forms of living. Art, then, is an announcement of a future free of the restraints that society imposes.

Angels of Anarchy, Manchester Art Gallery's brilliant new exhibition, brings together the work of three generations of women artists who challenged not only bourgeois reason but also their partners and lovers. The images here are often strange and arresting - they gather elements of the world of women but with a strong sense of irony as well as startling creativity. Remedios Varo, a Spanish painter who worked in Mexico and knew Breton well, paints domestic interiors that are disturbing and disorienting.

They are not simply games with visual effects. They subvert the sense that the private world is insulated or safe. Dorothea Tanning's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) is a strange, dream-like scenario where two women with their hair on end seem under threat from a giant sunflower.

Frida Kahlo may be the best known artist here, her paintings are so often an encounter between pain and violence and the romantic imagery of love.

Most impressive, though, are the photographers: Lee Miller, Dora Maar and Francesca Woodman. Miller's subjects are often the surrealists themselves. Dora Maar, the lover of Georges Bataille as well as Picasso, transforms her own hands into a landscape of sensual light and shadow. Her untitled picture of a hand emerging from a seashell transforms both subjects in their meeting. Woodman, tragically dead at 23, turns her body into a space where different stories can be told.

There are images of entrapment and oppression here, but there is celebration too - in Frida Kahlo's erotic fruits and in Lee Miller's more tender portraits of her friends and comrades. How significant it is that photography, the most reality-bound of art forms, should have shown so powerfully how bonds can be broken and our way of seeing be undermined and transformed - just as the Surrealists had promised.

Angels of Anarchy is at Manchester Art Gallery until 10 January 2010.