Figure 1: Karin Mack, from the series Destruction of an illusion (1977).
We are required to write a 1,000 word essay which offers a critique of a photographic image of our choice.
I have chosen a photographic image by Karin Mack from the series Destruction of an Illusion (1977). My interest in this work originally comes from viewing the image whilst visiting the Feminist Avante Garde of the 1970s exhibition held at The Photographer’s Gallery, London (2016).
My personal interest in this image
I see this work by Karin Mack as an intelligent, visually clear yet complex image founded on strong beliefs and purpose, calmly composed in a violent, confrontational manner. It is part of an art movement that was significant not only in artistic terms but also in it’s contribution to a movement of major social and political change.
In a mass media dominated society where we search for the meaning in a photographic world of ubiquitous imagery this is a photograph of substantial significance with a voice that needed to be heard and that continues to have an impact on our cultural development.
In essence the image is of a photograph of a photograph; the original or inner image is of a woman smiling contentedly as she leans against a floral covered interior wall whilst she holds lovingly what appears to be a jar of home-made jam. This inner picture is a photograph, as clearly indicated by the edges of the image, and is fixed to the wall and aggressively violated through piercings made with heavy meat skewers and long nails.
The woman’s appearance comprising of hairstyle, facial expression, dress, cosmetics make-up and location all signify the stereotype of the model happy and contented housewife consistently seen in advertising campaigns, TV, magazines and film throughout the 20th century and a central proposition in the post-war image of the American dream and the prosperity of the western world.
The artist’s intentions
By revealing that the first image is actually a photograph of a photograph Karin Mack uses photography’s inherent sense of artifice to create a metaphor illustrating that the image of the happy and contented housewife is nothing more than an illusion.
Within Destruction of an Illusion (1977) the artist uses this six-image series to complete an aggressive destruction of the photograph. This act of destruction reflects a deep protest and violence and by destroying the photograph the artist destroys the image and illusion of the happy contented housewife.
The wider context of the photograph
Post-modernism was influential in the great political and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s and the feminist movement joined the civil rights movement, Parisian student riots and the Vietnam War protestors as they campaigned for a better and more equal world.
In the art world John Berger (1972) in his seminal work Ways of Seeing described in detail how the male gaze had effectively positioned women as the surveyed whilst casting men as the surveyor since the beginning of art history and challenged us to, “Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.” (Berger, J. 1972:64)
As part of the subversion of the male dominated history of painting the Feminist Avant Garde movement used photography and film to question female identities, gender roles and sexual politics and their art reflected this period of protest. Artists such as Karin Mack, Martha Rosler, Valie Export, Martha Wilson, Hannah Wilke, Brigitte Lang and many other female artists used aggression, violence and destruction and reclaimed power in their art as they fought for basic human rights and independence for women.
The artist Karin Mack (born in 1940 in Vienna, Austria) had originally been a documentary photographer observing art events in the 1960s but during the 1970s she began to follow more of a personal exploration of her world and through this she became a prominent figure of the Feminist Avant Garde movement of that decade.
Current day context
I first saw this photograph at the Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s exhibition, The Photographer’s gallery (2016) and in the promotional interview for the exhibition curator Gabriele Schor was clear that this exhibition delivers exactly what is stated in the title of the show, Feminist Avant Garde art produced in the 1970s. This interview demonstrates a deep conviction that the artworks and their artists that make up this movement be genuinely recognised and accepted as a very significant period in the wider history of Art.
In viewing this photograph by Karin Mack we are given the perfect opportunity to revisit and experience the feelings and beliefs of these artists and any thoughts that an artwork could lose it’s authentic meaning once it enters the gallery were quickly dispelled as I viewed the exhibition.
Alongside the work of Karin Mack were artworks loaded with the same intelligence and cold brutal rationality delivered in a provocative, powerful and violent manner. Aggressively deconstructing the conventional images and stereotypes of the housewife, pornstar, fashion model, wedding cakes, ovens, ironing boards, pornstars – literally the kitchen sink – to an audience and society no doubt in shock at the sight.
Whilst at times I felt a deep sense of injustice and poignancy at the exhibition but the relentless anger at this deeply embedded oppression was also inspiring and I began to wonder how the feminist position even to this day so often is conveniently silenced and ignored by mainstream media and culture and society in general.
To illustrate this point we can take the following example; The Guardian newspaper covered the exhibition in two separate articles; Feminist Art of the 1970s: knives, nudity and terrified men. The subtitle read, “A new exhibition of Avant Garde works from the 1970s is a fascinating window into the anger that drove the movement – and a reminder of it’s continuing relevance.” (Guner, F. 3/10/16). This article featured in the Woman’s section.
The second titled Weddings, ovens and Jesus in heels: The savage wit of the Avant Garde feminists. The subtitle read, “From the wearable oven to the all female last supper, this hard hitting and hilarious collection of feminist Avant Garde photographs still packs a punch.” (Cosslett, R. 7/10/16) The second article was featured in the Arts and Culture section.
The clear difference in the language used by the two reporters makes a significant impact upon the narrative and reading of the two respective articles. R Cosslett by her selective, frivolous and light use of words serves only to undermine the artworks, the artists, the exhibition and on a wider level feminism and women in general by her refusal to take the exhibition seriously.
This final point raised (above) perhaps confirms that there is still much at stake and significant work to be done across society in order to progress towards full and unequivocal equality but this cannot detract from the creativity, intelligence, power and importance of this Karin Mack photograph from Destruction of an Illusion and especially from that of the Feminist Avant Garde movement of the 1970s.
Barthes, R (1984) Camera Lucinda. London: Fontana Press.
Bate, D (2009) Photography The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.
Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing. (re-issued 2008) London: Penguin.
Bull, S (2010) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.
Cosslett, R. (2016) ‘Weddings, ovens and Jesus in heels: The savage wit of the avant garde feminists.’ The Guardian (online) 7/10/16 (accessed 2/11/16)
Gunur, F. (2016) ‘Feminist art of the 1970s: knives, nudity and terrified men.’ The Guardian (online) 3/10/16 (accessed 2/11/16)
Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s exhibition, Schor, G. Photographer’s Gallery, London (2016)
Figure 1: Taken by Allan O’Neill at the Feminist Avant-Garde of the 19070s exhibition mentioned above: Karin Mack, taken from the series Destruction of an illusion (1977).