Tag Archives: Martha Rosler

Study visit to the Feminist Avante Garde of the 1970s exhibition


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.

The exhibition

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:




The manipulated image – further research: Photomontage and Martha Rosler and John Heartfield at the Tate Modern


John Heartfield Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes deaf and blind (1930)

As part of my growing interest in the manipulated image in general I visited the collection of John Heartfield photomontages held at the Tate Modern in London.

John Heartfield was one of the early masters of photomontage the process of manipulating, cutting and putting photographs together. Photomontage incorporates the German term ‘Monteur’ for mechanic giving the connotation of an industrialised production process far removed from the artisan’s studio.


John Heartfield, Fritz Thyssen Pulls the Strings (1930)

A member of the Berlin Dada group Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to the more English sounding John Heartfield as a protest against the rise in wartime nationalism in Germany during WWI. From 1920 he joined the German Communist Party and focussed his work on producing satirical photomontage images for the communist weekly AIZ often targeting Nazism, Hitler himself and Capitalism.

Given the political climate of the day within Germany and Europe Heartfield’s work is not only brave and bold but intelligent, raw and uncompromising.

Martha Rosler As part of a continued study into the work of Martha Rosler I have also researched her work with the photomontage and specifically looked at her work House Beautiful: Bringing the War home which became the vehicle for her response to the intense and graphic media and TV coverage of the Vietnam War. Rosler saw how the constant news depiction of Vietnam had effectively brought the War into the living room lounges and therefore daily lives of the American public and the impact of this in terms of desensitisation and creating a spectacle of the violence of war.

An image which typifies Rosler’s style in this series is Cleaning the Drapes from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

This image can be seen at http://www.moma.org/collection/works/150123?locale=en

Her images juxtapose images taken from Life magazine of the perfect American lifestyle alongside the true horror and reality of war creating an extremely powerful body of work, revisited through the creation of a second series as Rosler’s protest against the Iraq War.

I found it difficult to download any decent images but you can see more of Rosler’s work at her own website at
http://www.martharosler.net – and and by visiting the Museum of Modern Art website at http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/6832

Power of Montage

My interest in photomontage lies in it’s ability to create a powerful sense of reality from what is clearly a manipulated environment, through piecing together part images taken from real life representation, previously known as the real photographic image. In other words, we know the final composition isn’t real but it could be and what does this newly created reality mean in relationship to our perceived reality.

The methodology of photomontage lends itself perfectly to thematic subjects which question, protest or subvert a convention through it’s ability to counter everyday surface image and reality.

Reference list
John Heartfield Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes deaf and blind (1930).

Taken from http://fineartkingston.co.uk/amyeckleben/2014/03/13/john-heartfield/ (accessed 07/03/16)

John Heartfield, Fritz Thyssen Pulls the Strings (1930)

Taken from http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWheartfield.htm

(accessed 07/03/16)

More information can be found on Martha Rosler at http://www.martharosler.net and by visiting the Museum of Modern Art website at





Martha Rosler, In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) and The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

In developing an awareness and understanding of photography as a document I have reflected upon Matha Rosler’s essay In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) in which she is critical of current documentary work. The essay is a thought provoking text raising many valid if not controversial points such as, “documentary fuelled by the dedication to reform has shaded over into combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting and careerism.”(Rosler, M. 1981).

On many levels I agree with the overall direction of the essay but I believe that if there is a weakness in her criticism it is in her treatment of the individual, “The liberal documentary assuages any stirring of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch and simultaneously reassures them about their relative wealth and social position specially the latter, now that even the veneer of social concern has dropped away from the upwardly mobile and comfortable social sectors.”(Rosler, M.1981).

I believe that although there is a sense of ‘well at least it’s not me’, in people’s minds and even a voyeuristic sense of superiority over the other may at times be it’s expression there is also a subconscious element of survival as well as perhaps a lack of individual and collective understanding, education and awareness and this to a greater or lesser extent makes us all victims of convention and system. I would therefore balance this criticism with an emphasis on the shortcomings of a society based on a capitalist and political system in creating and perpetuating how society is structured and how reality is represented and ultimately how human behaviour is shaped.

Either way it is a really and important essay to read certainly at this stage in my photography which is well summarised in Ashley La Grange’s, A Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (2005).

As part of this exercise I have also looked at Martha Rosler’s own representation of the problems of The Bowery in her work, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems where she depicts the area in an alternative manner to the traditional format of documentary photography. Rosler’s work combines views with text but omits the people of The Bowery and in doing so avoids their personal exploitation. She describes her work in the following way, “a work of refusal. It is not defiant anti-humanism. It is mean’t as an act of criticism….there are no stolen images,”. (Rosler, M. 1981).

How effective is this work? By omitting the expected drunk and vagrant subjects from the images the viewer is forced to question their own reaction to what is missing from the image and this is magnified by the range of words used to describe drunkenness and through their implied meanings have the effect of lightening and darkening the atmosphere of the project. I think that the work is much more successful than a traditional range of street based people getting drunk images could ever be.

There is a sense that the artist is approaching the subject on a far deeper basis and asking many more questions than would ordinarily be achieved by simply highlighting the situation and plight of the residents of the Bowery. Rosler is clearly a talented and experienced photographer and artist who is able to translate her thoughts and views into a simple yet complex artistic representation without having to resort to straight forward basic voyeurism. It was difficult to download any images of the collection but they are easily accessible via internet searching from various gallery and photography art websites and of course the artist’s own website.

Reference List

La Grange, A Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (2005) Abingdon: Focal Press

Rosler, M In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) copy of the original essay can be seen following the link: http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf (accessed 30/03/16)

More information can be found on Martha Rosler the artist and her collection The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems at http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (accessed 02/04/16)