REVIEW // Reaching for Radicality: Surrealist Women Sold Short at Whitechapel Gallery Phantoms of Surrealism

Rachel Kubrick

Claude Cahun, Sheila Legge in Trafalgar Square, London, 1936 i Claude Cahun, Sheila Legge in Trafalgar Square, London, 1936, black and white photograph, 14.5 x 19 cm. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections.

Phantoms of Surrealism
Whitechapel Gallery, London
19 May 2021-12 December 2021

In 1971, Linda Nochlin shook up the art world when she proposed the question, why had there been ‘no great women artists?’[1] On viewing Phantoms of Surrealism at Whitechapel Gallery fifty years later, I asked myself not why there had been no great Surrealist women artists, but why have these fascinating women been so rarely exhibited by Whitechapel Gallery and other museums? Although the exhibition provides the opportunity to learn about these artists, it does not match the radicality of its subjects, ranging from Sheila Legge, whose eccentric performance as the Surrealist ‘phantom’ acts as the entry point to the exhibition, to Claude Cahun, who not only documented Legge’s performance but also questioned gender and sexuality in images far ahead of their time.

Nevertheless, this archive exhibition includes an impressive array of Surrealist artworks by women and documentation of their involvement at major events in the history of British Surrealism, most notably the 1936 London International Surrealism Exhibition (LISE) and Whitechapel Gallery’s own 1939 Artists’ International Association (AIA) exhibition. It opened in May 2021 in conjunction with a major retrospective of the interdisciplinary British-Argentinian artist Eileen Agar, whose work is also included in Phantoms of Surrealism.

On entry, we are immediately confronted by photographs of Legge parading around Trafalgar Square for the LISE opening, with her face obscured by roses, dressed in a long white dress and gloves reaching her elbows. Legge’s performance reappears in three dimensions in a 2020-2021 work by Corella Hughes, an impressive scale model of LISE that acts effectively as the centrepiece of the show. On the surrounding walls and in display cases, documents from the 1936 exhibition are displayed, including Max Ernst’s poster and press cuttings conveying fascination with Legge’s mysterious performance, as well as further archives documenting the involvement of these women with Surrealism. One wall is dedicated to works on paper by Edith Rimmington, Grace Pailthorpe, Ithell Colquhoun, Stella Snead, and Agar; another features objects by Elizabeth Andrews, Elizabeth Raikes, and Ruth Adams. Diana Brinton Lee’s photographic self-portraits are also exhibited.

Like this review thus far, Phantoms of Surrealism presents a lot of information in a rather conventional fashion. This is to be expected for an exhibition introducing lesser-known aspects of art history, and it certainly fulfils its goal of offering women ‘centre stage’ in the history of British Surrealism. But my question as to why these women had not been centred previously by British institutions or the art historical academy goes unanswered. Why, for example, has it taken eighty-two years for Raikes and Andrews’ sculptures from the AIAexhibition to return to Whitechapel, and why were there only thirteen works by women in LISE, which Hughes’s diorama shows was brimming with artwork?

It is difficult to comprehend the ‘pivotal role’ that women held in the Surrealist movement in Britain when the exhibition does not address these discrepancies. And although it is appropriate for Whitechapel Gallery to highlight its own involvement in this history with the AIA exhibition (they note the ‘fairly even’ distribution of male and female artists in the Surrealist section of the 1939 show), we do not see any reflection on the gallery’s lack of representation of these women since. If we are to revise masculine-centred art histories, as Whitechapel Gallery aims to do with this exhibition, museums must begin with internal reflection and criticism as they have defined and continue to define which artists the public sees, and therefore which artists are accorded value. Whitechapel Gallery has certainly been a part of this institutional system in Britain for the last 120 years.

Fortunately, recent years have seen a trend in museums revisiting women overlooked in art history. In September 2020, Philomena Epps writing for Frieze noted the ‘slew’ of recent exhibitions showcasing Surrealist women and highlighted an upcoming 2022 retrospective of Meret Oppenheim, arguably the sole woman regularly included in the Surrealist canon.[2] Epps identified the 2009 show Angels of Anarchy at the Manchester Gallery of Art as the first comprehensive international exhibition of female Surrealist artists—more than seventy years after Surrealism’s height.[3]

Whitechapel Gallery may be contributing to this new phase in exhibition history with Phantoms of Surrealism, but the lack of context or critical perspective does a disservice to its invaluable but understudied content. Only prior knowledge of Surrealism would allow the visitor to appreciate the triumphs of these women considering the fervent sexism which dominated the movement, or that many women now categorised as Surrealists had no interest in the group and were sometimes actively against being associated with it.[4] One wonders why the gallery never addresses this; they have clearly shied away from confronting the sexism and misogyny rampant in both art movements and art institutions that had relegated the work of these women to the depths of the archives until the very recent present.

The conservatism of the exhibition may be best exemplified by an interview available for listening near the exit, from 1991 between the art historian Mel Gooding and Surrealist poet David Gascoyne. We, therefore, only hear these women discussed via a conversation between men, in which Gascoyne describes Legge as an ‘attractive woman’ and frames the performance as his idea and execution. According to Gascoyne’s account, Legge would be more accurately described as an actress than a performance artist. The exhibition provides no further information to contextualise Gascoyne’s vaguely misogynistic telling.

Finally, the exhibition never prompts the visitor to consider Surrealist women artists and their exclusion from the narrative from a feminist or other theoretical perspective. It is not enough to merely display their work to do these women justice; their art demands proper analysis and interpretation as well. Queerness also remains unexamined, which is especially surprising considering the inclusion of Cahun, who wrote in 1930, ‘Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.’[5] It was, therefore, a missed opportunity for the exhibition to communicate that it is not only Surrealist women who must be brought out of the archive and into the limelight but Surrealist non-binary people as well.

Claude Cahun, Sheila Legge in Trafalgar Square, London, 1936
Claude Cahun, Sheila Legge in Trafalgar Square, London, 1936, black and white photograph, 14.5 x 19 cm. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections.


  1. Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, ARTnews 69.9 (January 1971), 22-39.
  2. Philomena Epps, ’A Slew of Shows Celebrates Surrealist Women’, Frieze (17 September 2020, accessed 9 July 2021,
  3. Epps.
  4. For further reading on women and Surrealism, see Patricia Allmer, Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism [exhib. cat.] (Munich and New York: Prestel, 2009); Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985); and Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).
  5. ‘Neutre est le seul genre qui me convienne toujours.’ Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus (Paris: Editions du Carrefour: 1930), 236.