Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, from the Verbund Collection at The Photographers’ Gallery, 7 October to 15 January 2017
The day after the American election that put Donald J. Trump in the White House and the morning I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death, I went to the exhibition of 1970s feminist avant-garde photography at the Photographers’ Gallery. What a difference forty-odd years makes. In the 1970s issues concerning gender equality, female sexuality and civil rights became part of the mainstream public discourse. We believed that with education and the breakdown of patriarchy the future would be equal and free. That women would be able to reach for the stars. Now more than forty years on we are to have an American president who boasts of grabbing women by the ‘pussy’ and surrounds himself with advisors intent on refusing abortion rights and dictating, once again, what women can and can’t do with their bodies And there’s to be a new FLOTUS in the White House; not the gracious first lady who fought for civil rights and encouraged poor communities to grow vegetables in order to beat childhood obesity, but a former glamour model more used to the accomplishments of the courtesan than to burning her bra in political protest over women’s civil liberties. History, it seems, is not always linear.
The ground-breaking work in this exhibition by artists such as Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago and Martha Rosler (who found a platform alongside the writing of Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and other second- wave feminists) illustrates how they extended the late twentieth century debate beyond issues raised by the first wave of feminists around voting and property rights, to focus on matters of identity, domestic violence and rape. The photographs, collages, videos and performances produced during the 1970s show female artists galvanised into political engagement. A 1961 report from the American Presidential Commission on the Status of Women had found discrimination against women in every aspect of American life.
The exhibition starts with a series of photographs by Helena Almeida, born in Portugal in 1934. Hands, many decked with wedding rings, reach from behind metal railings and locked gates, through grills and half-open windows, emphasising the sense of isolation felt, particularly, by creative women, during Salazar’s political dictatorship but, also, by many women trapped in suffocating or unhappy marriages. Over and over again the same questions are raised though out the exhibition: what does it mean to be a woman, what are the limits of that role within society? Are these roles dictated by nature or nurture? Can a woman be an artist and a mother and have a sex life without being a sex object? Many artists such as Cindy Sherman and the Italian, Marcella Campagnano, play with multiple identities, swapping from bride to prostitute, from cleaning lady to professional, from pregnant mother to female geek like children trying out various disguises from the dressing up box. The overriding question at the time seemed to be: could women have it ‘all’ and what, in fact, did that ‘all’ actually mean? And were these perceived freedoms just for white college- educated women and if not, how would they be achieved by women of colour and those living in poverty in the developing world?
Many of the artists included, here, such as Teresa Burga, born in 1935, are themselves from developing countries (in her case Peru). Her practice revolves around themes of representation and mass culture that explore the construction of a superimposed feminine ideal. Her drawing Sin Titulo (Untitled 1979) borrows from an advertisement for Cotelga toothpaste that features an attractive model and critiques the flawless beauty unobtainable by so many women (particularly those with very little money) that is being promoted. A sense of not being heard, of not having a voice, of being repressed – something that Tillie Oulson so graphically expressed in her wonderful collage of voices Silences, published in 1978 – is given visual form by the German artist Renate Eisenegger in her eight-part photo series Isolamento (1972). Here she’s seen sticking cotton wool and tape over her mouth, her nose, her ears and eyes before covering her head completely.
Housework is shown to be a vexed political arena. In 1957 Betty Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their fifteenth anniversary reunion. What she found was, that despite comfortable financial circumstances, many were deeply unhappy, a situation she would describe in The Feminine Mystic, as ‘the problem that has no name.’ Freidan described the typical 1950s suburban family as a ‘comfortable concentration camp’ in which suburban housewives were encouraged to become ‘dependent, passive, [and] childlike’. One of her solutions was that women should be paid for housework. In Martha Rosler’s celebrated grainy grey video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) the artist challenges the prevailing attitude that a woman’s place was primarily in the home. Wearing an apron in front of a table full of kitchen utensils, the artist stands like a primary school teacher before her class re-defining each object in alphabetical order – from apron to tenderiser – though a lexicon of feminist anger and despair. Elsewhere Letícia Parente, born in 1930 in Salvador, introduces a racial as well as gender perspective in her 1982 video Tarefa (Task) where the black hands of a faceless maid iron the body of a white woman lying passively in a cotton dress on an ironing board. While Karin Mack, an Austrian artist born in 1940, presents Destruction of an illusion (1977), a series of photos that underline the drudgery of domestic work. In the first image we are shown a neatly coiffed woman cradling a jar of bottled fruit next to her face, against a backdrop of floral wall paper – the perfect homemaker. Yet as the series progresses her image is stabbed with an array of roasting skewers and is gradually destroyed, so that by the last one she’s been completely obliterated and there is nothing left except torn paper and bent needles.
Perhaps the most important site of debate during the Seventies was the body as exemplified by the publication in 1973 of Our Bodies Ourselves. Originally put together before mainstream publication by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, it went on to become a bestseller and a how- to manual for women trying to understand the mechanics of their bodies and emotions. Judy Chicago’s Red Flag (1971), a close up of a bloody tampon protruding from a luxuriant bush of pubic hair (hair was a political statement, no self-respecting feminist would go for a Brazilian, let alone shave their legs) seems to align feminism and self-determinism with the red flag of Marxism. While the Cuban Ana Mendieta and the Serbian artist Katalin Ladi both broke with traditional modes of representation by pressing rectangular panes of glass against their faces in order to distort them. Not only did these performances question ideals of western female beauty but they suggested – by their use of the frame – a critique of the normal presentations of the feminine within western painting. Aging is tackled in the work of Ewa Partum. In Change (1974), which took place in front of a gallery audience, she had a makeup artist transform one half of her body into her older alter ego, declaring that her body was now an art work. This prefigured the more extreme surgical interventions on her own body in the 1980s by the French artist Orlan.
‘One is not born but rather becomes a woman’, Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, but the questions remain: are women physically autonomous or constrained by the rules laid down by religion and patriarchy? Masquerade, parody, and many forms of self-representation are employed, here, to deconstruct preconceived notions about identity, to discuss whether it is constructed by social convention or imbibed with our mother’s milk. What so many of these artists illustrate is that identity is multi-faceted and multi-layered and that the roles assigned by society do not have to leave us in a state of conflict. Their work shows that we have choices, that we can be what we want to be. Yet looking back, now, over forty years, what seems to have been lost is a sense of common cause. That collective spirit has dissolved. Individualism has become more blatant and identity just as likely to be constructed through surgical intervention and Botox as sought through shared political goals.
So will Clinton’s failure to shatter that glass ceiling, despite the hopes and expectations of many, be the end of the feminist dream? Will we be forced back into the role of Hausfrau, mindful only of the demands of Kinder, Kuche, Kircher? Now Trump is to be president there’s a danger that his misogyny will give permission for a more general abuse and hatred of women. Suddenly this exhibition looks very pertinent indeed.
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. The Poetry Society’s only ever official Public Art Poet, she has published three collections of poetry: Everything Begins with the Skin (Enitharmon), Ghost Station and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt), a book of short stories, Rothko’s Red (Salt) and two novels, Depth of Field (Dewi Lewis) and Girl in White (Cinnamon Press). Her third novel will be published by Cinnamon in 2017. Art critic for many years on The Independent and The New Statesman, her Adventures in Art, a compendium of essays on art, is published by Other Criteria. She was recently invited to record her poems for the National Poetry Archive.