What Austrian feminist artists have in common is the great way in which they radically, ironically and subversively questioned the cultural construction of femininity with their works.
16 women artistsRenate Bertlmann (*1943, Vienna), Linda Christanell (*1939, Vienna), Veronika Dreier (*1954, Voitsberg/ Styria), VALIE EXPORT (*1940, Linz), Gerda Fassel (*1941, Vienna), Birgit Jürgenssen (1949–2003, Vienna), Auguste Kronheim (*1937, Amsterdam), Brigitte Lang (*1953, Feldbach/Styria), Karin Mack (*1940, Vienna), Florentina Pakosta (*1933, Vienna), Anita Münz (*1957, Basel), Friederike Pezold (*1945, Vienna), Margot Pilz (*1936, Haarlem/Netherlands), Ingeborg G. Pluhar (*1944, Vienna), Lotte Profohs (1934–2012, Vienna), Brigitte Aloise Roth (1951–2018, Vienna)
The eight artists whose names are written in italics have been added since the exhibition of the VERBUND COLLECTION at the mumok in 2017.
Actionistic, provocative to poetic
“The exhibition highlights how the Austrian artists covered a bandwidth from actionistic to provocative to poetic feminism. The latter was apparently too ‘quiet’ at the time to be perceived. Today, we can appreciate the poetic quality of Austrian feminism,” says the curator Gabriele Schor, founding director of the VERBUND COLLECTION, Vienna.
VERBUND takes social responsibility and promotes projects in social, sporting and cultural areas. In the area of art, the Executive Board decided to act not through ‘sponsoring’ but through actual ‘cultural work’ within the company. “VERBUND understands its commitment to contemporary art as being a part of its corporate culture,” says Michael Strugl, Vice Chairman of the Board of VERBUND. “The claim of SAMMLUNG VERBUND is to discover individual artistic items that were previously hidden, to bring them to light and to leave a mark on our cultural memory.”
The personal is political
Against the background of the 1968 student movement, the efforts to overturn the traditional values of the war generation, as well as the ‘sexual revolution’, a second wave of the women’s movement arose in western countries. Women recognised that their problems came about due to the prevailing relationships of power and dominance in society and were not merely of a ‘personal’ nature. As the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir declared in 1949 in her groundbreaking book ‘The Second Sex’: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Against institutional discrimination, whereby the man was the head of the family and was alone able to decide, for example, which school the children attended, whether they were allowed to travel abroad, where the family lived and whether the wife should be economically active outside the family. Women in all western countries increasingly rebelled against these and other inequalities. The demand to discuss so-called “private” affairs in public – such as family law, marriage, unpaid procreation work, pregnancy, abortion, divorce, violence against women – culminated in the cry: “The personal is political”.
Female artists organised themselves
Female artists were often told by gallery owners: “Why should I exhibit you, you’re married, aren’t you?” Or the well intended, “Oh, Miss Jürgenssen, why are you dragging those heavy lithographic stones around, you’ll be getting married soon.” As women were not taken seriously as artists, they began to organise themselves. In 1972, Christa Hauer establishes the ‘Galerie im Griechenbeisl’ in Vienna, where exclusively female artists showed their works from 1975 onwards. The same year sees the creation of the women’s group Platform of Independent Women (Aktion Unabhängiger Frauen - AUF), for which Renate Bertlmann and others author their pamphlet ‘Warum malt sie keine Blumen?’ (Why doesn’t she paint flowers?) in 1973. In 1975, the exhibition Frauen-Kunst-Kreation (Women-Art-Creation) is held at Galerie Krinzinger in Innsbruck. In 1975, VALIE EXPORT curates the legendary exhibition MAGNA. Feminism: Art and creativity at Galerie nächst St. Stephan, in which international female artists participated, including Birgit Jürgenssen and Renate Bertlmann. In International Women’s Year in 1975, a major exhibition of Austrian female artists was planned at the Völkerkundemuseum Wien/Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art. The jury was made up entirely of men. Some of the female artists protested, the demand for equal representation on the art advisory board was rejected. In response, 46 female artists cancelled their participation in the exhibition. Proposals aimed at improving the social situation of the female artists were not pursued any further, with the Ministry being accused of incompetence; a promised research assignment turned into a minor grant. This unacceptable situation was what brought about the founding of the network International Action Community of Women Artists (IntAkt) in 1977, which still exists today. The zenith of the feminist art movement continued in Austria until the middle of the 1980s. In 1981, a group of women students at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna organised an exhibition exclusively for women for the very first time. Out of 400 enrolled students, 100 female artists agreed to participate and the show FEMINALE was realised in 1983. In 1982, a number of female artists in Graz founded the feminist culture magazine Eva & Co., in which Veronika Dreier, Anita Münz and others published their works for the first time.
The female artists
VALIE EXPORT was considered to be a figurehead of the feminist art movement in Austria with her daring actions in the public domain, such as ‘Tapp und Tastkino’ (Tap and Touch Cinema - 1968) and ‘Genitalpanik’ (Genital Panic - 1969). They proactively debunk the male view and the objectification of the female body through the emerging mass media. Renate Bertlmann penetrates humorously into the psychoanalytical depths of a patriarchal society and tracks down the repression of eroticism and sexuality. Her recurring metaphor of the phallus exposes mechanisms of power and suppression. The oppressive performance ‘Die schwangere Braut im Rollstuhl’ (The pregnant bride in the wheelchair) at Galerie Grita Insam in 1978 caused consternation. Linda Christanell is known for being a maker of avant-garde films. In her experimental films, such as ‘Fingerfächer’ (Finger pockets - 1975), the artist proceeds primarily from formal moments and allows, a she herself says, “objects of a libidinous character” to encounter each other.
Florentina Pakosta, known for her large male heads, also created the less well-known pointed, explicitly feminist drawings early on. In ‘Der Ehering und seine Folgen’ (The Wedding Ring and its Consequences - 1970), Pakosta ironically stages marriage as a trap. Women fought back against the one-dimensional attribution of roles that perceived them as being a housewife, wife and mother. Thus, in her photo performance, Birgit Jürgenssen dresses as middle-class housewife, presses her face and hands against a glass door, on which she writes: I want out of here! (1975). Scrubbing the floor, the apron as a kitchen stove or the impossibility to break out of the cage as an out-sized lioness become ironic scenarios of everyday horror. Karin Mack dresses in black for her photo series ‘Bügeltraum’ (Ironing Dream - 1975), as if she were going to a funeral, lies on the ironing board, closes her eyes, lets her arms drops and proclaims the death of the housewife. Brigitte Lang creates uncomfortable pieces of jewellery; objects of metal which, draped across her woman’s body, act as defensive reactions and keep the other person at a distance. Friederike Pezold creates a bodily sign language of the female gender with the fragmentation of her body Mundwerk (Mouth) or Schamwerk (Genitals) (1975). Margot Pilz is known for being a pioneer of media art and performative photography. ‘Das letzte Abendmahl – Hommage à Kremser-Schmidt’ (The last supper – a tribute to Kremser-Schmidt) takes up Christian iconography and populates the motif with women. In the socially critical ‘Arbeiterinnenaltar’ (Workers’ Altar), Pilz analyses unfair pay in a coffee roastery. For the same work, women are paid much less than their male colleagues.
Stays in Paris and Berlin from 1966 to 1970 were for Ingeborg Pluhar a liberation from the rigours of the Wiener Akademie under Wotruba, Boeckl and Kokoschka. She had the feeling of discovering something personal. Pluhar’s collages remain almost unknown to this day. Using advertisements and emerging glossy magazines, she creates countless collages at the beginning of the 1970s in which she cleaves, fragments and deconstructs the female face as a contribution to the criticism of beauty-related dogmas. The collage ‘Illuster für Ro’ of 1973 shows a woman buried in the sand, stretching her hands upwards in vain to reach the ashlar in the primary colours red, yellow and blue. A subtle reference to her husband, the sculptor Roland Goeschl.
The power-packed female figures of the sculptor Gerda Fassel previously attracted far too little attention. In her drawings, such as ‘Die drei Grazien’ (The three graces - 1978) and bronze sculptures ‘Gwen’ (Queren Kong) of 1978 or ‘Titti de la Mancha’ (1979), she does not design fragile women’s bodies but bodily experiences that have to do with strength. They are compact bodies with broad shoulders, bulging breasts and a proudly displayed vulva. Fassel wanted to present women’s figures differently from normal, not as “these Barbie dolls”. Auguste Kronheim denounces the bleak outlook of the housewife’s existence as a threat in her highly expressive and to date neglected woodcuts ‘Frau und Mutter’ (Woman and Mother - 1970) and ‘Morgen bist du Hausfrau’ (You’ll be a housewife tomorrow - 1978–79). ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’ (Red and Black - 1982) encompasses a series of devices, defensive weapons and chastity belts. The pictures of Kornheim dismantle, as Franz Schuh explains it, “the semblance of standards. This illusory world is saturated with sexuality, it is ‘sexualised’, but within it, lust is only a form of violence”.
Lotte Profohs, commonly known as the muse of her husband, the Fantasy Realist Helmut Leherb, created noteworthy, highly expressive ink drawings that have been completely forgotten. In reaction to the mostly erotic-sexist images of women at the time, Profohs devoted herself to her sociocritical cycle ‘Erbarmt euch der Frauen’ (Have mercy on women). She draws lonely old women, prostitutes and taboo subjects such and abortion and lesbian love. Friederike Pezold, who lives in Salzburg, dedicates herself to the fragmented female body in black and white, with eyes, mouth and vulva becoming a sign. And Veronika Dreier, who lives in Graz, overstitches her photography portrait in four phases, each more intensive than the last, in order for the overstitching to finally result in an action of face painting. Her red shoe with nails ironically contradicts sexist perceptions. Unknown are the colourfully impulsive liberation pictures by Anitz Münz, which lend the female desire a self-aware expression. In 1981, her drawings in an exhibition at the Ateliertheater were censored and have not been shown again since her participation in FEMINALE 83. In her photographic series ‘Hampelfrau’ (Jumping Jane), Brigitte Aloise Roth designed a pendant based on the Hampelmann (Jumping Jack), a slightly mocking look at how women were seen as easily influenced people in the patriarchy of the 1970s. At the same time, she warns against not allowing oneself to be turned into a ‘Jumping Jane’.