Radical social questions
Using over 300 works from the VERBUND COLLECTION, Vienna, the exhibition shows how female artists in the 1970s collectively create their own “image of the woman” anew, for the first time in art history. It was finally possible for the female artists who were born during and after the war to study at the academies and to emancipate themselves from the role of muse and model. In their works, they radically ask new questions of society and the art establishment. Even if the female artists didn’t know it, their artworks exhibited parallels in terms of content and form.
The personal is political
Against the background of the civil rights and women’s movement, women’s concerns were discussed in public for the first time; the personal acquires political meaning. Within a very short time, women begin to make themselves heard in public, gather to take action, hold demonstrations and organise their own exhibitions. In their works, the female artists of the “Feminist Avant-Garde” look at the question of how the traditional “image of the woman” determines the perception of the woman and the constitution of her own identity in our society. The focus is on topics such as one-dimensional role assignments such as mother, housewife and wife, female sexuality, one’s own body, beauty, and violence towards women.
Role-play – clichés and stereotypes are questions
Many female artists are united by the rejection of stereotypical role models. Martha Rosler (*1943), for example, exaggerates the role of the woman responsible for hearth and home. Birgit Jürgenssen (*1949) hangs a stove around her like a kitchen apron. It is playing with the camera, the masquerade and the costume as a means of self-presentation with which the female artists question ideas of identity and femininity as a social construct. Cindy Sherman (*1954), Hannah Wilke (*1940) and Martha Wilson (*1947) adopt a wide range of roles for their photographs and examine everyday and historical clichés. Similarly Lynn Hershman Leeson (*1941), who creates a fictitious person, “Roberta Breitmore”, who she lives as for years and years. Rita Myers (*1947), Ewa Partum (*1945) and Suzy Lake (*1947), on the other hand, question ideals of beauty and flawlessness in their works.
Numerous female artists turn quite deliberately to the new, historically unencumbered media such as photography, film and video, using performance as a means of artistic expression. VALIE EXPORT (*1940), for example, invites passers-by to visit her tap-and-touch cinema on Karlsplatz (Stachus) in Munich. This meant that the passers-by could put their hands into a box which the artist was carrying in front of her naked upper body. It is often the artist’s own body that becomes the material of the art, with some female artists going to the limits of physical resilience, including Ana Mendieta (1948–1985) and Gina Pane (1939–1990). With humour and irony, subtlety and provocation, the female artists of the “Feminist Avant-Garde” deconstruct the traditional iconography of the female.
Against the diktat of beauty
Another topic of the Feminist Avant-Garde is the ironic approach to the ideal of female beauty and the attributes of flawlessness and purity assigned to women. In Performance Change (*1974), the Polish artist Ewa Partum (*1945) has make-up artists paint one half of her body to look old. She stages herself as an old lady and simultaneously questions the common ideal of feminine beauty. Eleanor Antin (*1935) shows in her video Representational Painting (*1971) how she makes up her face. The title refers to the application of make-up as a delegated act of painting. When the American artist Rita Myers (*1947) reflects the “better” half of her body in a photograph, she is creating the supposedly perfect female body and at the same time an irritating picture. While VALIE EXPORT, Cindy Sherman and Martha Rosler are known to a wider audience, the special thing about the exhibition is the possibility to discover other important yet lesser known representatives of the “Feminist Avant-Garde”.
Photos: © Kate Elliott / The Photographers’ Gallery, London