The Photographer’s Gallery in London is currently host to this exhibition of 200 major works of art by 48 international artists. In her promotional interview curator Gabriele Schor is very assertive and 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 the deep conviction to ensure that this Feminist Art movement of the 1970s is genuinely recognised and accepted for what it is by the wider history of Art.
This was a fantastic day for many different reasons but what I found perhaps most fascinating if not enlightening was to observe and interpret the exhibition as a total working and moving concept within society and I have n’t necessarily had the opportunity or I have been unable to see an artistic concept/body of work/movement in this way – but on this occasion many components fall into place and this experience provided a genuine insight into how our art and society functions from the artist’s first touch to it’s impact and interpretation fifty years on.
Background to the movement
The post-modernism of the late 1960s and 1970s reflected times of great political and social change and the feminist movement joined the civil rights movement, Parisian student riots and the Vietnam War protestors in campaigning for a better world.
This exhibition clearly reflects this period of protest and change and the tone of the art is aggressive, confrontational, frustrated and angry and I could see straight away that the artists were fighting for basic human rights. Any thoughts that an artwork can lose the authentic meaning once it is hung on a gallery wall were certainly dispelled in this exhibition.
The works were loaded with intelligence and cold brutal rationality delivered in a provocative, powerful and violent manner. Deconstructing then tossing back the conventional image and stereotype 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. Part of me felt deflated that 50% of the world’s population were born into this position but the relentless anger at this deeply embedded oppression was also inspiring. I was left wondering why feminism appears so marginalised by mainstream culture as a movement although I think I already know the answer and I will return to this point later.
The exhibition is organised into four broad themes relating to the direction of the art and these are the domestic agenda, sexual objectification, normative beauty and Alter ego/self-representation.
Specific exhibits I particularly enjoyed were:
Image 1: The Housewife, taken from Martha Wilson’s A Portfolio of Models (1974)
The image was part of a collection of self-portraits by Martha Wilson depicting six categories of womanhood featuring the artist made up in appearance and character of each of the particular roles. Each of the specific images, of the Goddess, the Housewife, the Working Girl, the Professional, the earth Mother and the Lesbian were accompanied by a short text profiling the model. Signing off the six images was a final paragraph reading as follows:
“These are the models society holds out to me: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother, Lesbian. At one time or another, I have tried them all on for size, and none has fit. All that’s left to do is be an artist and point the finger at my own predicament. The artist operates out of the vacuum left when all other values are rejected.”
Martha Wilson, August 1974
This work serves as a genuinely excellent example of how the combination of imagery and text can serve to provide an extremely powerful message.
Image 2: Taken from Karin Mack’s Destruction of an Illusion (1977)
Mack’s work is a photographic series working in a straight linear order with the first image of the contented housewife. The second image reveals that the first image is actually an image of a photograph (an illusion) and so the series continues with this deconstruction until the image has been aggressively attacked and destroyed and the final image shows the final shreds of photographic paper.
This process of active destruction of the photograph serving as a perfect metaphor for a deep anger and frustration, as the destruction of a photograph in such an aggressive manner would be reserved only for such circumstances which could generate a real sense of hate and anger. The metaphorical deconstruction of the image in physical terms another excellent example of how effective the use of metaphors can be if chosen and balanced with the required outcome correctly.
Image 3:Martha Rosler Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975)
Martha Rosler’s video (above) Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) is one of the most famous pieces of feminist art where Rosler demonstrates the use of various kitchen utensils in the order of their place in the alphabet according to the first letter and so A for Apron comes first. Although Rosler calmly ties the apron around herself her actions and expressions gain in intensity and eventually towards their aggressiveness.
The aesthetics of the film parodies the everyday TV cookery programmes based around the female housewife stereotype and their need to be a good cook. Also by using the ‘classroom education‘ style format of these productions the artist essentially gives her audience an education in the place of a woman and a lesson in feminism. The gestures adopted by the artist are strange and tense communicating an underlying frustration and anger which eventually develop into a disturbing but again extremely powerful presentation. A intelligent and rational message communicated in a creative format served with an intertextuality which intensifies and deepens it’s message.
Valie Export, Tapp and Touch Cinema (1968)
Valie Export’s Tapp and Touch Cinema (1968) was a perfect illustration of a performance art produced in the late 60s and 1970s. In this work the artist invites male passers-by to physically reach their hands into a cardboard box (theatre) that Valie Export is wearing over her bare chest. Due to the proximity of the act the artist essentially looks straight ahead at the man as he engages with the performance; “which confronted the pleasure derived from the anonymous act of viewing images of women and demonstrated the violating aspect of the cinematic experience.” I really enjoyed the deep-rooted intelligence of the idea and it’s simple effective execution.
Whilst I have selected only four artists the quality was consistently high and coherent throughout the exhibition and viewing these artworks within the context of the gallery became the perfect platform for revisiting the beliefs and feelings communicated by these artists nearly fifty years ago.
Earlier I mentioned that curator Gabriele Schor spoke of the canonisation of this Feminist Avant Garde art and the importance of this movement being taken seriously and not being subject to marginalisation. Whilst I have reflected on this visit I also searched to see how the exhibition had been reviewed with Schor’s objectives in mind.
The Guardian newspaper actually covered the exhibition over two separate articles; the first titled 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 difference in the language used by the different reporters is noticeable and makes a significant difference to the narrative. Perhaps influenced by the context of where the article appears (Arts and Culture section) 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 – by her refusal to take the exhibition seriously. Another noticeable difference in the two articles underlining this view is the number of references made to the word vagina – of course there is a fair degree of nudity in the art works fundamentally due to the feminist protest against the objectification of the female body. In the first article the word vagina isn’t actually used as the term genitalia is used instead, once. However,in R Cosslett’s second article the word vagina is used three times in the first paragraph.
Perhaps I have been a little overly absorbed in the wider perspective but it’s just where I seemed to move with the day and subsequent reflections but there was such a volume of work handling the detail almost became an unachievable task. Anyhow I enjoyed the exhibition so much I’m planning to re-visit before it moves on.
One line of questioning that I still have is, “What does feminist Art by men look like, and is there such a thing, is it possible?” I will look more into this concept.
A final word of thanks go to Dawn Woolley in hosting this study visit in such a enthusiastic, knowledgeable but also friendly manner and to my fellow students for participating in what was a really fantastic day and a great opportunity to meet, discuss and debate ideas and just generally gain some valuable social interaction with likeminded people.
Berger, J (1972)Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin
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)
Schor, G (2016) Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s work from the Verbund Collection. London: The Photographer’s Gallery. For more information see:
List of images
Image 1 Martha Wilson The Housewife taken from The Portfolio of Models (1974) accessed (2/11/16) online AT:
Image 2: Karin Mack taken from The Deconstruction of an Illusion (1977) accessed (2/11/16) online AT:
Image 3: Martha Rosler Semiotics of the Kitchen (1977) accessed (2/11/16) online AT: