May 6: Unsettling

Date #6May 6: While The Unsettled Lens at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art continues to receive rather disproportionate media attention for what is a stock-standard airing of a collection of mostly American chestnuts, MUMOK, the museum moderner kunstMuseumsplatz 1, A-1070 Vienna, Austria, also opens a collection, but it results in a much more lively show, Woman: Feminist Avantgarde of the 1970s from the Sammlung Verbund Collection, today until 3 September.

Feminist art, and particularly photography, swept Western society of the 1970s into the postmodern era. Australia was not excluded (unlike the Modernist movements, there was no epicentre). Though no Australian artists are in this show, most prominently we fondly remember Carol Jerrems in particular who inspired others during her too-short life when she worked for various periods in Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart. Amongst her sisterhood were Micky Allan, Pat Brassington, Virginia Coventry, Sandy Edwards, Anne Ferran, Sue Ford, Christine Godden, Janina Green, Fiona Hall, Ponch Hawkes, Merryle Johnson, Ruth Maddison, Julie Rrap, and Robyn Stacey.

I cannot hope to discuss all of the 48 artists from Europe and North and South America, nor all of the artworks in this show so I will restrict the discussion to one, despite the temptation to write long and in detail on Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, ORLAN, Renate Bertlmann, Linda Christanell, VALIE EXPORT, Birgit Jürgenssen, Brigitte Lang, Karin Mack, Friederike Pezold, and Margot Pilz.

Since the work is now forty-plus years old and in a collection, one can expect to have seen at least some of it at some time, but don’t be certain of that. Despite the fact that this show has been rolled out before at Kunsthalle, Hamburg (2015), and recently at The Photographers Gallery, London 7 Oct 2016 – 29 Jan 2017 (such is the habit of the curators of collections), its effect is electrifying and still new.

There have been many women photographers throughout the history of the medium and they form a much larger proportion of practitioners than women painters, about whom Germaine Greer wrote in her challenging The Obstacle Race : the fortunes of women painters and their work in 1979. Even in painting, the first tremors of impact appeared in the 60s; it took Helen Frankenthaler to reduce painting to the staining of fabric, for example, but her discovery had still to be given birth by obstetrician Clement Greenberg.

Many women have prised themselves away from male photographers, for whom they were muse and nude, to forge their own careers (most were feminist de facto, given the nature of the male-dominated commercial photography industry). However it took artists like Ulrike Rosenbach (*1943, Germany) to make their liberation, and the means to achieve it, explicit.

Ulrike Rosenbach (1975–1976) Weiblicher Energieaustausch, Venus, b/w photograph on PE paper from a 3-part series

Here in this montage, Rosenbach presents herself as Venus. Acknowledging the performative nature of the self-portrait she stands squarely with hand on hip and legs, limbs still sufficiently discernible to be seen to be planted assertively apart, allowing Rosenbach’s body to merge into the figure (or, the figuration) of Venus.

Hers is a rough-and-ready montage; note the thumb-print on the upper portion of the image that clearly declares the intention that this not be taken for fine art. Rosenbach prefers it to look like a poster, more like a manifesto, than anything genteel; it turns Venus’ chaste concealment of her pubis with her long hair into the rude gesture of a middle finger. This is made clear because of a small but highly significant detail. Botticelli’s Venus looks demurely and abstractedly away. Rosenbach however, fixes the camera with a defiant noli me tangere stare. She calls the image, as it translates into English, ‘Female Energy Exchange, Venus’;  that makes it clear her argument is not with the demure Venus, but with her male portrayer.

The achievements of these women artists in a mere decade were world-changing; Ulrike Rosenbach’s Weiblicher Energieaustausch, Venus critically uproots the Western canon of art, challenges the male gaze, sexual objectification and identity.

Had photography dealt with such issues of power and powerlessness before? Yes, certainly in the political sphere, but that took decades and the severe prompts of world wars before photographers shook off the pictorialist shackles of painting to assert the qualities of their own medium.

Ulrike Rosenbach Art is a Criminal Action No 4, 1969 S:W-Fotografie auf Barytpapier : b:w photography on barit paper
Ulrike Rosenbach (1969) Art is a Criminal Action No 4, b+w photography on baryta paper

As early as 1969, Rosenbach’s Art is a Criminal Action No 4  shifted Andy Warhol’s nascent appropriation in Pop, which was merely a habit of graphic design, into a new domain in which it is used to reference the original more consciously, more critically. You have only to ask yourself whether Warhol’s electric chairs and car crashes condemned or critiqued anything to see how transformative is Rosenbach’s gesture.

Whatever you might say about postmodernism, feminism was responsible for returning art to meaning during an otherwise nihilistic period.


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