by Melissa Budasz for ArtVerve, at Frieze London 2017
from left to right, Renate Bertlmann, Penny Slinger, Alison Gingeras (Chair), Marilyn Minter & Cosey Fanni Tutti
What a way to kick-start Frieze London – an hour and a half from opening, Alison Gingeras chairs a panel of feminist practitioners whose careers have spanned over 40 years – Renate Bertlmann, Penny Slinger, Marilyn Minter and Cosey Fanni Tutti. Their art initially had censorship restrictions, cut-off from mainstream feminism from the 1960s and has taken until this Millennium to re-present a critical appraisal and celebration of their practices. They discussed politics, repression, pornography and alternative histories.
Austrian artist, Renate Bertlmann (b 1943, Vienna) has often used her body as a medium which includes painting, sculpture, photography and performance to explore themes that confront social stereotypes assigned to the masculine/feminine, using fetishistic objects for props that include vibrators, condoms and dummies.
Renate Bertlmann Cactus (1999) & Tender Touchers (1978) courtesyRichard Saltoun, Stand 7, Frieze London
Like Bertlmann, Californian based author and artist Penny Slinger (b 1947, London) chooses to be her own muse using photography and casts of her body throughout her practice, investigating how a woman is seen and how she sees herself, often expressing states of consciousness that investigate psychological and sensual worlds of her awakening self.
Penny Slinger Read My Lips (1973) & Bride’s Book (1973) courtesyBlum & Poe, Stand 1, Frieze London
New York artist Marilyn Minter (b 1948, Shreveport) explores what she calls the ‘pathology of glamour’ in close-up and often cropped photos and paintings of sexual acts laced with cosmetics and food, subverting notions of desire within a popular culture with all its trappings of gender and representation. Minter uses pornography as her subject matter and in more recent work, her paintings reveal intimate moments from women’s private lives.
Marilyn Minter Ginger (2016) & Porn Grid 2 (1989) courtesyBaldwin Gallery, Regen Projects & Salon 94, Stand 6, Frieze London
UK artist, Cosey Fanni Tutti (b 1951, Hull) has worked by the ethos, ‘My life is my art, my art is my life’ in her pornographic modelling and in her role as a member of the band Throbbing Gristle. For two years she worked on the ‘Prostitution’ project in which she created a revealing exhibition about the porn and sex industry. At the ICA in London, Tutti used her used tampons and soiled nappies from Mary Kelly’s work which aroused hysterical reactions from the media. Tutti’s work questions the objectification of women, allowing a freedom of expression in her performances.
“I am independent. I am free. I am not a surrealist and beyond classification.“
Unconventional, free-thinking and experimental, Leonor Fini was once the ‘it-girl’ of Paris and was one of the most photographed women in the art world. Known more perhaps for her flamboyant nature and penchant for dressing-up and cross-dressing rather than her painting, she had an illustrious career in theatre and set design, illustration, product design and film too. However, it is her status as a painter that needs to be examined so we can appreciate her unique influence on 20th century art history.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1907) to mixed Argentine, Spanish, Italian and Slavic blood, Fini fled with her mother at two years old to Trieste, Italy, to escape her father. There are stories of her father’s plots to kidnap her, and Fini was disguised regularly as a boy. As a teenager, she spent months with her eyes bandaged whilst suffering an ocular ailment and when they were eventually removed, started expressing her inner thoughts and visions through painting. Her rebellious spirit led her to be expelled from several schools with no formal training in art. Much of her art was exhibited in surrealist art exhibitions in the 40s and 50s, but although her painting had elements of surrealism she refused to be labelled a surrealist or a feminist – she was too aware of the complex ways many of the surrealist male artists conceptualized and identified women. She once said of her painting process,
“I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms things I like.”
She arrived in Paris in 1932 and quickly broke into the avant-garde art scene, becoming like several other important woman artists of the time loosely associated with the Surrealist movement at a time of its ‘golden age’ when it was becoming more visible to the public at large.
Salvador Dalí was once quoted, in a blatantly misogynistic assessment of her work, that she was, “better than most, perhaps. But talent is in the balls.”
This was a stereotype of the time and creativity seemed to be a male attribute and right, therefore women were instantly excluded from the domain. This perhaps explains why Fini and many of her female contemporaries distanced themselves from the Surrealist movement so that they could relate their own ideas about female sexuality and the expressive representations of women by refusing to be the object of another’s desire. Fini subverts preconceived gender roles and social codes – the women in her paintings point to empowerment and liberation. She is (whether she admits it or not as she adamantly refused classification) a feminist, and her idea that woman is complex and ambiguous creates a fluid and more open identity for women to explore.
Fini knew and became friends with many of the early 20th century Surrealists – Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali.
She was said to have once brazenly asked Picasso why he kept doing “the same old shit.”
Cartier-Bresson, Lee Miller and Dora Maar were some of the photographers that captured Fini in print – portraits with masks on, in elaborate costumes and with her cats (she had up to 12 cats at one time and over 20 in her lifetime). She was the ultimate cat queen, the shape-shifter and erotic seductress who was thought to have been the influence for the conclusion of The Story of O, the erotic novel published (1954) by the French author Anne Desclos. Fini intoxicated those around her with her intelligence, fearless wit and creative energy.
“Have we not known for a long time that the riddle of the sphinx says much more than it seems to say?”
André Breton, View (1942)
In her paintings, she reversed the male gaze and reassessed power boundaries. Fini was possibly the first woman artist to paint an erotic male nude in her painting Sphinx Amalburga (Sphinx Amoureaux) (1942). She produced a series of paintings in which she would take the form of the sphinx watching over sleeping young men who had an androgynous beauty, emphasising the role reversals at play; her work challenged the patriarchal and focused on the matriarchal.
A predominant theme in Fini’s art is the complex relationship between the sexes, primarily the exchange between the dominant female and the passive, androgynous male – connecting her with other women artists that have focused on this shift of power and subversion of the male gaze, for example Sarah Lucas, Kiki Kogelnik, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger.
“I see my work as a series of attempts to ruin certain representations and to welcome a female spectator into the audience of men. If this work is considered incorrect, all the better, for my attempts aim to undermine that singular pontificating male voice-over which correctly instructs our pleasures and histories or lack of them.”
Fini also made a series of erotic drawings and lithographs with men and women and women with women as well as self-portraits as a sphinx. She was known to have had many lovers and found it hard to part with old loves. The interplay of her life and art was vital. She said,
“Marriage never appealed to me, I have never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – a big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.”
Her work connects women to the universe, to the land and to myth. She rejected the idea of being anyone’s muse. Her figures – the sphinxes, cats, nymphs, priestesses, nudes – are all bold declarations of a woman’s sexuality that convey a powerful feminine subconscious. The myth of the sphinx offered surrealism many narratives, from an exploration of desire to existential anxiety. In Fini’s work the sphinx questions gender stereotypes, from the muse to the maternal, and offers an iconography which goes beyond woman as the source of male creativity or as a source of procreativity alone. The sexual hybridity of the sphinx as half animal/half woman and the role of the sphinx as guardian/protector, reinforces Fini’s vision of a natural and erotic feminine force, in charge of her powers.
Fini was also renowned for her theatrical set-design, costumes and posters which she often did not get credit for. She designed costumes for ballets and famously fell out with Dame Margot Fonteyn who refused to wear the cat mask Fini had designed for the ballet in Paris (1948), “Les Demoiselles de la nuit.“ Even though the set collapsed whilst Fonteyn danced, the two women made up and remained friends for years. She also designed the costumes for Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954), was one of the costume designers for Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 ½ (1963), and designed the costumes for John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1968) staring Anjelica Huston. Fini’s design for the bottle of perfume Shocking by Schiaparelli (1937) later influenced Jean Paul Gaultier’s design for his own perfume (1995), a bust-shaped bottle etched with a corset. The shoe designer Christian Louboutin has also designed and named a pair of shoes in homage to Fini.
In 1965 Fini was given a retrospective in Belgium, then Japan (1972) and in Paris (1986). Since her death, she has had retrospectives in Trieste (2009), New York (2010) and in Sweden (2014). Despite the mark Fini left on those around her she has often been relegated to the footnotes of articles and books on Surrealism along with many of her female contemporaries. There are too many examples of important women artists that have had to be unearthed again and their names put back into the history books – Artemisia Gentileschi, Ana Mendieta, Camille Claudel, Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis, to name just a few that have been rescued from obscurity. It seems that a woman who, through the strength of her personality and her art, succeeds against the odds, is then erased from view as soon as she dies.
Fini’s work is included in three shows currently – a solo show at Galerie Minsky in Paris, and her work is included in a group show at White Cube Bermondsey, Dreamers Awake, works of up to 50 women artists from the 1930s to today exploring the influence of Surrealism. The perfume bottle Shocking she designed for Elsa Schiaparelli is currently on view at Somerset House’s exhibition, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.
Leonor Fini’s legacy is immense as she did so much in her lifetime personally, professionally and artistically. She is an inspiration and beacon to young women artists and her work must be evaluated, celebrated and enjoyed.
LEONOR FINI: Artist, Libertine, Provocateur (30 August 1907 to 18 January 1996)
I was reading what Louise Bourgeois said about her abstract v her realistic drawings and I understood immediately,
“… The abstract drawings come from a real need to achieve peace, rest, sleep. They relate to unconscious memories … In contrast, the realistic drawings represent the overcoming negative memory, the need to erase and to get rid of it”.
I spent several years painting large (2m x 1m) abstract canvases, they formed the Memories & Whispers series from 2005-2011. Horizontal lines were repetitively painted and built up under a palette of mainly red, gold and blue. They visually have a very calm, soothing quality to them compared to my Myth of Danae series where I photograph, draw and paint directly my own body and hair. This work delves deep into the depths of unhappy memories that I want to dig up. These are the ones that disturb me.
This duality of surface and depth, reason and chaos, peace and turbulence is echoed in the subject matter and the way in which I treat it. In my abstract work, whenever hand-drawn lines and marks leapt out from this order I would immediately get the ruler and tape and mask out more orderly geometric lines and cover them up. I cannot do this in my figurative work, everything is laid bare and I work in a frenetic and slightly awkward way. I now realise that these are the two sides of the same coin – without the struggle there would be no need to ease the tension and if I didn’t have the ability to be calm I would not be able to delve into the depths of despair and unhappiness.
“When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy, Do you think anyone has? I think you can be peaceful for a long time, When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes.”
I think a lot about this quote from Jean Rhys and the parallels I have with my relationship to painting. In the happiest periods of time, I have no desire to paint – I might sketch, draw, make photos – it feels more important to live in the moment, enjoy and soak in experiences. They feed you and make you feel full, contented. During sad times, like Rhys, I have total absorption in my work and the desire to transform the hurt through painting.
I have learnt that experience and the flux of emotions that come with it feed the work, it is both a visceral and cerebral response – the visceral comes from the emotional reaction and occurs immediately and almost spontaneously while the cerebral response arises from an intellectual reaction involving conscious thought and this takes me a long while to process and develop.
Like a novel, for me painting has to have shape and structure, and this is something Rhys had said about her work too – she’s a very pictorial writer,
“I like shape very much. A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any … all of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
I have just finished reading Rhy’s critically acclaimed Wide Sargasso Sea – having read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre several times since a schoolgirl; I am surprised it’s taken me so long to read this hauntingly sad novel of the fictive early life of the first Mrs Rochester. Rhys draws on her own experiences from a child living in the Caribbean to that of Antoinette Rochester.
Rhys explores the female psyche in a time and place that had seen 300 years of savagery, slavery, prosperity, and racial prejudice from white to black, black to white, white to mixed race (Creole) and back again … full of whispers, secrets, deceit, sadness and lies all attributed to Antoinette’s decent into what everyone perceived was madness.
“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.”
There is a negative acceptance to Rhys’ sad heroine that led to her ultimate fate of being deemed a mad woman by the myth and history that suffocated her and ultimately let her down, echoed by the men in her life, her step father that effectively sold her dowry to Rochester, the ‘brother’ that betrayed her and the husband that eventually incarcerated her. Her life was too dependent on the ‘expected’ happiness and financial management of the men that surrounded her life. I wanted her to gather the strength to walk away from it all; but knowing the end of her fate before the story had begun was reading the short life of a doomed character. But boy did Rhys do it justice – amidst the treachery, I yearned for the brief moments of illicit passion and desire set against a potent mix of beautiful and varying light, vivid colours and heady scents that took my breath away.
“Only the magic and the dream are true — all the rest’s a lie.”
Melissa Budasz review, originally posted 8 February 2014
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, ca. (1975) Ink and graphite on paper, Sikander & Hydari Collection
Nasreen Mohamedi is given a worthy retrospective that inaugurated The Met Breuer in New York this year, an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to modern and contemporary works. Melissa Budasz discovers her work for the first time and reflects on her visit.
“I feel the need to simplify” 1
Nasreen Mohamedi Diary entry
Entering the Met Breuer and the galleries that display the work of Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-90) is a rich mix of photos, drawings, diary pages and paintings. This is a beautifully curated show with a large body of work from an artist that created a richly introspective and meditative abstract art. This is the first museum retrospectiveof Mohamedi’s work in the USA,formerly it was at The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (2015), at the Tate Liverpool (2014) and began at the Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi (2013).
Born in Karachi (formerly India, now Pakistan) into a Muslim family that encouraged education for women, her family later moved to Bombay (now Mumbai).Mohamedi studied fine art at 16 years old at St Martin’s (now Central St Martin’s UAL) and lived in Paris for 2 years before returning back to Mumbai, finally settling in Baroda. This exposure to European art and artists had an impact on her work, especially Minimalism, but it is her relationships with two successful Indian artists that had a greater influence on her development – M.F. Husain (1915-2011) who was a founding member of The Progressive Artists Group of Bombay and V.S. Gaitonde (1924-2001)regarded as one of India’s foremost abstract painters and also a member of the Bombay Group.
Mohamedi predominantly focused ondrawing as a means to investigate what mattered to her – in her repetitive use of grids, fluctuating lines and obsession with light and shade. Herphotography is the tool for her visual diary which feeds directly into her drawings.
More than 130 of Mohamedi’s paintings, drawings, and photographs, as well as rarely seen diaries, are brought together from collections around the world in order to trace the evolution of her aesthetic approach and the shifts in her artistic practice 2
Thescale is not large, this modest approach adds to the intimacy when you view and read the work which is executed with precision – lines, not marks and no colour, only black on white. She rarely signed and dated her work, (nor exhibited it) and refused to theorise her art, leaving it open-ended and mainly untitled. It’s a remarkable feat that this collection (that has been collated and gathered from scholars from international and private collections) has been put together to bring back to life her art career. She is known as a major voice in post-independent India (1947) and is the first wave ofIndian artists to gain recognition on the international scene. Mohamedi suffered from Huntington disease – a neuromuscular impairment that progressively diminished her physically and which took her life early (at 53).
Her roots are in Islamic traditions of abstraction 3
Michael Fitzgerald, Wall Street Journal
Mohamedi’s diaries reveal references to Nietzsche and Camus, Klee and Kandinsky, and they lean to Sufi and Zen traditions,
“They reveal a thoughtful and intense process. They have a quality of a Haiku or a Rumi saying”4
She was widely read and travelled and although it may never have been her intention to exhibit the photos she took, they become a rich source of reference for her pencil and graphite drawings and in the later pen and ink drawings.
With such little guidance from her – in a title, date, self-publication – this absence allows the viewer to contemplate her work as it is; the spatial relationships, the inner dialogue and the contours of her imagination. A fine mind.
Melissa Budasz review for
ArtVerve – on women’s art | An SLWA Publication | Issue 6 | Oct 2016
“I seem to be hunting for something of myself out there … something in myself that will give me a symbol for all this – a symbol for the sense of life I get out here” 1
It has been 23 years since I saw the first retrospective held in London at the Hayward Gallery of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. Tate Modern’s current retrospective is a much bigger and broader survey covering 60 years from the 1910s up to the late 1960s. Set chronologically over 13 rooms, it’s impossible to absorb the detail and the sheer volume in one visit – these 100 works certainly shows the breadth of O’Keeffe’s creativity. The catalogue itself is rich with articles from Susan Hiller, Griselda Pollock, Georgiana Uhlyarik and curator Tanya Barson, covering diverse aspects of O’Keeffe’s art and life from her artistic dialogue with Stieglitz (Sarah Greenough, senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, Washington), Location and Dislocation (Cody Hartley, Director of the Georgia O’Keefee Museum) to The Abstract Landscapes (Heike Eipeldauer and Florian Steininger).
There is no denying the freshness and vibrancy that O’Keeffe’s paintings convey, they are at once knowing and seductive combined with discovery and innocence. Her obsession with painting the same image over again heightens this. O’Keeffe was a painter of the elements in nature – flowers, rocks, skulls, skies that are deliciously delivered with a keen eye and strong contours, colour and plane. They are primal and sexual because of the elemental subject matter by way of association – I enjoy this synesthetic transformation from the real to the magical.
Known as the ‘mother of American Modernism’, O’Keeffe’s work matters, at the time she was painting and now. She remained true to her own vision, which was based on finding the essential, abstract forms in nature. We are fortunate that we have access to her writing, interviews and documentaries where we can see and hear her voice. Her work, to give it value, has to be pitched against her contemporaries too, although not fetching nearly as high value in the art market as male painters. Selling for over $44m in 2014, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) was the most expensive painting sold by a woman – this sets a precedent in a world where women art-historically have been written out, ignored and uncelebrated. O’Keeffe marks the change not just in the art market, but also in our consciousness as a painter of value. In 1946 she became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and in 1970 a Whitney Museum retrospective.
So what’s not to like? I didn’t enjoy the skull paintings as much as I would have liked to, the definition and tone wasn’t to my palette. I would have preferred to see the skulls as pencil or charcoal studies. I found some of her urban cityscapes of New York stark and claustrophobic; you sense how detached she is from her subject matter compared to her later works in the desert. Flat vertical lines, often in silhouette; her painting years in New York left me flat – the daring and vibrancy in her nature works is where she really takes flight and she comes into her own. Resentful of any typecasting, taking on the New York skyscrapers as her principle subject from 1925-1930, she said of this time she wanted to be,
“… so magnificently vulgar that all the people who have liked what I have been doing would stop speaking to me” 2
Known predominantly for her flower paintings, it’s easy to see why, they have a vibrancy and life force and you sense the joy she had in painting them. They fill the frame mainly in singular form, cropped and magnified. Her flower paintings have had much over-exposure and analysis compared to other themes in her work. The artist and carer for the last two years of her life, Christine Taylor Patten, tell us of her simplicity and ‘oneness’ with what she felt.
“… She felt the sensuousness in those forms … it was around her and this gave her power in her life to be conscious of those forms and colours … it comes from inside first”3
O’Keeffe was a woman who did her own thing and defied the norm of the time – had an affair and then later married her mentor and lover the photographer and gallerist, Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz wanted O’Keeffe to be the ‘modernist woman’ and becoming the object of his vision and photography, he sexualised O’Keeffe.
“O’Keeffe also played a role in this great awareness of female eroticism through her participation in the creation of Stieglitz’s nude photographs of her and through her non-objective charcoals and paintings of flowers that embody her feelings about specific relationships”4
Stieglitz’s images of O’Keeffe sit in the gallery next to O’Keeffe’s artwork, revealing her nudity in cropped forms – torsos, hands, face, which heightens the intimacy, these are moments that feel very private. We see the artist as subject and lover – how do we read and relate to these images next to her paintings? That she was bold, independent, and thoroughly modern?
Stieglitz exhibited these images of her and her paintings in his gallery and they celebrate her form as much as the forms on her canvases. There is no denying the open and bold way she looks into Stieglitz’s lens, these photos are not about adornment, and they are beautiful in their simplicity and openness – much like her artwork.
In Griselda Pollock’s essay in the catalogue, Seeing O’Keeffe Seeing, she talks of what happens when we ask the question what is the artist trying to see? As opposed to asking ‘what kind of artist is she?’ And, ‘where does she fit art historically as a movement or style?’
“O’Keeffe’s life and work intersected with a new consciousness amongst women – artists and art historians alike – that was articulated through artistic practices and that demanded a new kind of art history after 1970.”5
Pollock goes on to say that the dominant theme of the reception of O’Keeffe’s work is that she is a ‘woman artist’ rather than an artist that is a woman. O’Keeffe is famously quoted as saying,
“Men put me down as the best woman painter … I think I’m one of the best painters”
How O’Keeffe saw herself, demonstrates the shift in consciousness and how we perceive her art. Fiercely independent, living remotely, driving endless miles in search of new rocks, bones and views in the landscape, she often camped out in the desert and adapted the back seat of her car to paint, shielded from the harsh sun. Pollock goes on to say,
“… if Modernity can be characterised as giving rise to a profound challenge to this concept of ‘Woman’, the making of modern art by modernist women is a remaking of both what woman can be and how to exist beyond its definitions but not outside of one’s gender, in theworld”6
It is O’Keeffe’s later work and shift further into abstraction that places her high up with her contemporaries – Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnet Newman, Josef Albers, Agnes Martin.
I love the luminous abstract paintings looking at skies and the landscape through the contours and holes of rocks and skulls burnished by the wind and bleached by the sun. Her palette is pared down and the line is simple. Her mastery comes to light, similar to her earlier minimal abstractions in charcoal in the 1910s. She returns from abstraction to figuration back to abstraction again with a unity and growth that has evolved in the way she had. In these later works there is a balance with nature and abstraction, the organic and geometric.
The abstract landscapes and various doors and windows she painted again and again – minimal and inventive in their simplistic form, especially in My Last Door (1952-4) which,
“… opened up O’Keeffe’s view into infinity – a compelling totality of meaning and existence”7
The paintings in the last three rooms keep my attention the longest – the canvases are bigger, the lines fewer and her palette is restrained and this is where the flatness of her style works, especially in White Patio with Red Door (1960) and Sky With Flat White Cloud (1962) and Sky Above the Clouds III / Above the Clouds III (1963).
O’Keeffe shares her vast knowledge, her extensive travels, her nomadic existence and she gives it back to us. What is important to her becomes important to us. She defined a way to live that was intrinsic to her art; with a free independent spirit she immersed herself in this sparse landscape and dedicated her life to painting it, searching for the purest form and line. It is the feeling of expansiveness and endless horizons that are the closest she gets to taking the viewer to infinity.
Melissa Budasz review for
ArtVerve – on women’s art | An SLWA Publication | Issue 6 | Oct 2016
1 O’Keeffe’s Century by Tanya Barson, Georgia O’Keeffe Tate Modern catalogue, 2016 Publisher: Tate Enterprises Ltd 2016ISBN 978 1 84976 371 4 (hb) ISBN 978 1 84976 403 2 (pb)
2 Art: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cityscapes by Phoebe Hillemann, The Arts Section theartsection.com (2009)
3 Summer 2016: Seeing through Georgia’s Eyes: Christine Taylor Patten, BBC Art Series edited and presented by Alan Yentob
4 Art and the crisis of Marriage: Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe, by Vivien Green Fryd, Chicago (2003)
Stardust Ruins, Ruins of Kasch 2008. Photo credit: Liliane Lijn
Born in New York in 1939, Liliane Lijn is an internationally acclaimed artist who has had a prolific career spanning 50 years. After studying archaeology and history of art in Paris, she began experimenting with pictures based on jigsaw puzzles, and shadow paintings made by drawing in the air with molten plastic and then began in 1961 to inject drops of polymer onto the surface of Perspex blocks ‘to trap photons’. Her first kinetic light works called Echo-Lights and her Poem Machines, which are motor or hand-turned cones or drums printed with words, letters and signs, were shown in her first one-woman exhibition at La Librairie Anglaise, Paris, 1963. She has since worked continuously with light, using all materials, which are conducive to transference, reflection and refraction of light: glass, perspex, water, copper, nickel, neon, etc. Lijn lived in Athens between 1964-66, and since 1966 mainly in London. In 2005, Lijn was ACE NASA, Leonardo Network artist in residence at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Public commissions include Solar Beacon, a solar installation in collaboration with astrophysicist, John Vallerga on the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Light Pyramid, a beacon for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in Milton Keynes.
Liliane, Robbert Dijkgraaf said at Tate Modern’s recent panel discussion, The Power of Light, that light is a metaphor for science, and how matter and light interact is the way we understand the world. Would you say this is true of your practice?
Robbert Dijkgraaf spoke of light as a metaphor in science that shows us what is not there, making manifest the invisible. I like to think that my work looks at the relationship between matter and light. As Robbert said, their interaction describes the world, the universe. Light is anything that travels at the speed of light. Light and matter are interchangeable according to Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 . My work is multi – layered, examining light from a feminine perspective.
But what is a feminine perspective? I see it as receptive, complex, refined, personal and interconnecting.
I have been fascinated by reflections, since I was a small child, staring at flickering reflections of light on the wall of my room on the fourth floor of a tall building, where sunlight entered only rarely and for short intervals. Reflections, light and shadow.
You have said you are interested in the behaviour of materials and how the end piece is not perfect in form. Would you say a lot of the discoveries in your work happen as happy accidents or is the process more controlled?
Some of the discoveries I have made as an artist occur accidentally, others, probably the majority, derive from observation, often of quite small details in the world around me. Even when one discovers something by chance, one has to be prepared to embrace that chance.
An openness to random events goes hand and hand with precision and control in my practice. Perfection carries with it the seed of death.
In some ancient cultures, possibly Japanese, a small imperfection was purposely made on the most perfectly crafted art object. I do not aim for perfection. I want to encourage both awareness and contemplation. So, for example, my Koans need to be perfectly white to allow the viewer to focus on the thin luminous lines that appear to oscillate on that surface. These lines, are, in fact, planes of Perspex that have been sandwiched between the elliptical sections of the cone, the latter having been cut into a number of sections. Once, the cone is bonded together, the perspex planes appear on its surface as lines. When the cone spins, these lines appear to rock up and down.
Observing their interaction somehow melts the volume of the cone, the lines becoming dominant, more and more as daylight recedes, and describing with their motion the conical form. The cone must be white, without any marks, like a blank page, to enable the viewer to enter into a contemplative state in which they will actually see matter dissolved by light.
Language and thought interact in a number of ways in your art – for example in Poem Machines (1962–63) and in your Poemcons between 1964-68 when you collaborate with the poets Nazli Nour and Leonard D. Marshall. You have said that it was your intention to explode both prose and poetry, remembering their origin in vibration. Can you expand on this?
I wrote continuously, poems and prose, from the age of eleven or twelve and imagined that I would become a writer. When, at the age of fourteen, my parents moved to Switzerland and my main language became Italian, although I continued writing, I became more interested in expressing myself visually with imagery. In the early 1960s, I became interested in Science, principally in optics and light. Visiting the Palais de La Découverte in Paris, I was mesmerized by Fresnel’s experiment with the diffraction and polarization of light. I created an experiment using parallel lines in motion on two spinning cylinders to create interference patterns and was very excited to see colours emanate from the vibrating black lines. It then occurred to me that words were formed using letters of the alphabet and letters from lines.
I decided to try using words instead of lines, beginning with the alphabet. Then a poet friend of mine, Nazli Nour, asked me to make her poems move. Using Letraset that at the time could be obtained in varied fonts, colours and sizes, I rubbed abridged versions of Nazli’s poems onto metal drums that I then made to rotate at quite high speeds. At speeds of 60 to 70 rpm the words blurred into visual vibrations. I felt I had created a confluence of logos (word) and light, where written language dissolves into the visual equivalent of sound. I called these works Poem Machines, introducing the machine as a conscious statement of opposition to what I felt was the elitism and effeteness of much contemporary mainly male poetry, in which language, meaning and rhythm seemed to lose contact with the real world.
I wanted to explode language to return it to its original intensity.
In the 1980s you made the series Cosmic Dramas – in particular, Lady of the Wild Things and Woman of War. These are two mixed media performing sculptures that enact a computer controlled 6-minute drama, which includes movement, song, and the transformation of sound to light. Can you tell us the history of how these works evolved, as I know they took many years to make?
These works were initially conceived in Paris in 1959, when I saw in a sky illuminated by a vivid sunset reflecting off small clouds, a very clear image of a towering goddess figure. I immediately tried to paint what I saw that evening. I now only have a very poor transparency of the ensuing painting but it shows a massive triangular form, part figure, part architectural structure. I wrote about the rediscovery of this tranny in the catalogue for my exhibition at Fischer Fine Art in 1986, in which I exhibited the Conjunction of Opposites (the title for the combined works Lady of the Wild Things and Woman of War).
‘I was amazed to see a prismatic bird Goddess gigantic against a turbulent sky. She rises central, grounded and formal, surrounded by chaos in the form of flying creatures. I realized that the imagery of the painting was so complex and emotionally laden that I had been unable to deal with it as a whole. I had, over the years, to dismantle it, unconsciously to analyze it and, bit by bit, to reconstruct, clarify and make real that chimera, which had appeared to me on the 6th floor balcony of my apartment in Convention, a Polish quarter in Paris.’
In Feathered Lady, the soft stacked palm-like feather dusters represent the female body as tree (1). There is an ancient connection between certain trees and the female body. The palm is the Tree of Life in both the Sumerian and Babylonian Garden of Eden stories. In ancient Sumerian epigraphy tree is drawn as a mesh or net, and the idea of the net has been used in contemporary physics as a metaphor of life. The coincidence between these associations and my constant use of net and mesh is striking. My fascination and use of the net in numerous materials – steel mesh, crocheted copper wire, aluminium and paint began in the early 1960s. In 1966 I invented and patented a way of using open weave (net) fabrics to create kinetic clothing. The hard tank prism, used as periscopes in 2nd World War tanks, was a representation of the head but in this sculpture I softened the precision of the prism with a headdress of tremulous piano wire and glass beads. Whereas before the feminine had entered my work elliptically in archaic symbols such as the cone or in sinuous movement, in this sculpture I began to move towards a more conscious representation and also began to use materials that were associated with the feminine such as glass beads and feathers. Feather dusters, in particular, represent her body somewhat ironically as a housewife. I was particularly pleased that I could combine that association with the archaic image of the birth-tree since they are so clearly related.
Heshe, made immediately after the Feathered Lady in 1980, is an ambiguous bisexual figure, 6′ high with a tank prism for a head and a body of purple and orange synthetic fibres used industrially for brushes, in particular, car wash machines. The car is an extension of the body. I have often experienced it as a symbol of my own body in dreams, but on the other hand, it is generally thought of as a male object, but that way of thinking is open to discussion and change.
In Heshe, I attempt to unite contradictory feelings and messages. Jung’s basic male female archetypes, the anima in the man and the animus in the female are not so much complimentary as an attempt to reconcile opposites.
This has entered very often into the thought processes underlying my work. As a girl I had been brought up to believe that both mind and spirit were male qualities, whereas body and emotions were distinctly feminine. On the other hand, I experienced my mind as acutely present and felt distinctly uncomfortable thinking of it as a male attribute, or to use Jungian terms the animus side of me. My interest in Buddhism led me to understand that this was mainly due to Western Christian man’s inability to accept the integration and interchangeability of opposites both in the world and within his own psyche. Jung is very much a man of his generation in that he considers the animus or male figure in women to be pejorative and the anima in men as a beneficial influence. I did not feel the need to look for an image of the masculine, I focused my attention on the female or the shape shifting essence, She. In our culture, most icons of authority, energy and vitality are male (2) Part of me felt connected to the purity of thought present in the contemplation of light, but, on the other hand I needed to find icons for the disturbing feelings and powerful drives that I experienced and that caused me to feel divided between my prismatic male mind and my un-representable female body.
I made Lady of the Wild Things in 1983. As a result of recent performances I had given from my book Crossing Map, I had the idea to make the figure responsive to the human voice (3). I designed a system that would allow the sculpture to transform sound into light emitted by 250 LEDs. The LEDs were inserted into the perforations of the steel wings in patterns corresponding to 6 channels that related to both volume and different sound frequencies. Therefore, the larger the vocal range expressed, the greater the spread of light across the sculpture. In addition, an increase in volume increases the speed of change of the lights. The wings are covered with a fine plumage of red and green fibres. The head, a tank prism, is encased in a headdress of very fine black aluminium mesh. The double mesh creates moire patterns that pulsate as one moves around the sculpture. I took my title from Robert Graves who mentions the Lady of the Wild Things in The White Goddess. (4) In reinventing the archetype of the Goddess, I wanted to reinvest the feminine with spiritual power. Lady of the Wild Things is patterned on the lunar archetype. Her light side, which is woven in red and green fibres, opposite and complimentary colours, remains passive until activated by sound, but is warm and engaging, even seductive. Her dark side is all embracing and, as death is in our society, unacknowledged. As the archetype from which she takes her name, she represents life in death and death in life. As if her reaction to sound begged for a singer as a complimentary figure, the inspiration for my next work came from a song I wrote that spoke with a violence and anger that I did not know was mine. I felt as if the earth was singing through me, although the lyrics are complex and hold more than one meaning. These lyrics described the Woman of War. It then became apparent that the Woman of War would sing to Lady of the Wild Things, who would respond to her song with light. I called the ritual enacted by the two sculptures a Conjunction of Opposites, a dialogue between two female figures, the one reflective, transforming, sensual and the other a fierce warrior, part bird, part insect, part machine.
I’ve been armoured by your love
I’ve been blasted in your furnaces
And poured into your moulds
To fit the Image the Image I’m the Image of Woman The Image of She A Woman of War…
The 2014 S/HE series of works explores the relationship between language and gender and demonstrates the interlocking of opposites. Can you tell us more about this project?
I conceived moonmeme in 1992, in the continuing development of my work with language that began with Poem Machines in 1962.
Most of my text works use revolution or spinning to detach words from their context and return them to their original vibrations.
The overall purpose of this project is to cause the meaning of an essential word to be transformed and renewed by the relative motions of the moon, earth and sun, the cosmic movements that control day, night and the tides. This is a project that has occupied me for many years and because of this and the inherent technical difficulties, it has evolved through numerous different approaches. Originally I had the idea of projecting a word onto the surface of the moon. I envisaged the letters large enough so that they could be plainly seen and read by a person standing on the surface of the earth. Since the moon presents itself to us in a repeating cycle of phases, the letters composing the chosen word would only slowly emerge and then eventually disappear with the waning of the moon. The choice of the word was instantaneous. SHE came to mind as another epithet for MOON since the lunar cycle has since time immemorial been connected to the feminine principle. Working with John Brown, Astronomer Royal of Scotland, I considered using laser technology to project the letters and discovered that most of this technology was comparable to that of star wars. I also investigated the idea of ‘earthworks’ on the moon, which led me to imagine the eventuality of these moonworks having already occurred and how a viewer on earth could experience moonworks. Another imagined solution is the construction of huge composite ‘kites’, lightweight structures that would orbit the moon and cast shadows on its surface. These shadows would be seen on earth as letters appearing across the lunar surface, as the new crescent moon waxes to become a full moon. Since actual lunar projection is so challenging technically, I began to explore virtual projection. With the assistance of a post- graduate astronomer, Tom Ruen, I developed a basic real-time website anima on that tracks the movements of the moon with the word SHE projected onto its surface. This animation can be viewed on my website. It is interactive allowing the viewer to enter any date, both in the past or in the future, to see how moonmeme would appear on that given date. moonmeme, both online and as an installation is accompanied by a sound work and by quotations from Pliny, the Talmud and the Orphics (5) to illustrate the profound connections between the moon and the feminine, as well as human conjectures and fantasies about it throughout the ages. Interweaving science, myth, art and language, this project is homage to the feminine principal of transformation and renewal, which for millennia was held sacred in the form of the full moon and its recurring monthly cycle.
The cone (or the pyramid) is an important symbol in your work – can you tell us why?
My interest in geometry led me to the cone. I started using the cone as a development of both the circle and the triangle. These two geometric forms, conjoined in one of my earliest drawings, are both related to and wonderfully merged in the form of the cone. The cone is a feminine form, since ancient times a symbol of the Goddess. In Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, he describes how the fire was kept alive in early tribal times by allowing a mound of ash to cover it. This white hot conical mound sacred to the Goddess was guarded by a woman who became the priestess of the hearth. In a footnote in The White Goddess, Graves writes of the pythagorean pyramid drawn with ten dots, the holy tetractys, that was the most ancient emblem of the triple goddess. The top dot represented position, the next two dots, extension, the next three dots, surface and the four dots at the bottom, 3-dimensional space.
My own observations lead me to believe that the cone is the shape of emission. Both light and sound radiate as a cone, originating in a virtual point spreading outward over 360 ̊.
The cone form is ubiquitous and appears almost everywhere from the natural forms of mountains, repeated universally in sacred architecture, to the colour capturing cones in our eyes; the elliptical sections of cones are the form of the trajectories of comets and planets. My fascination with cones actually began with forms such as the striped traffic cones on roads, marking the endless roads of adventure.
Throughout your career you have had many artist residencies, including NASA in 2005. Can you say how this has helped develop your ideas and practice?
Artists residencies are both ancient practice (see Leonardo da Vinci) and a relatively new feature of the contemporary art world. When I lived in New York as a young artist in the very early 1960s, I was given a kind of residency by the owner of a plastic warehouse. He gave me a corner of one of his floors and allowed me to make use of his machines and materials in exchange for a few works that I might produce. His generosity allowed me to experiment with plastics in a way I could not have done on my own. When in 2005, I became the first artist in residence at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, I thought I might be able to explore possible ways of implementing my moonmeme project. There were about 150 scientists working at the laboratory and I began my residency by having conversations with a few of them. In the first two weeks, I was asked to present my work in the form of a seminar that was not only open to scientists at the lab but also to the general public. Many of the scientists at the seminar expressed an interest in my work and asked me to continue a dialogue with them. I became involved in three projects. Solar Hills developed from my meeting with the astronomer John Vallerga, who, having seen images of my work with prisms and spectra (rainbows), thought I might be interested in an idea he had for tracking the sun across the sky and directing sunlight to determined positions. We began working together and this project is now ready to be installed.
I also met Andrew Westphal, who was the principle scientist on the Stardust At Home (6) project, in which dust gathered beyond Mars from comets and stars, was collected using a material called Aerogel and brought back to earth. He encouraged me to investigate this extraordinary material and to work with it. Aerogel is only 2% matter arranged in a three- dimensional lattice or web. It looks a bit like a fragment of sky. I managed to have a few forms moulded for me; cones and rings or cylindrical sec ons. Some of these broke into fragments while I worked with them and I became more interested in the fragments than the integral forms. They seemed to reflect the light in a more interesting way. I also made a film of my interviews with scientists, Inner Space Outer Space. I am very interested in the way they attempt to communicate their findings to someone who is not familiar with the particular area of their research and does not communicate in the language of mathematics.
Science and technology have played a significant role in the development of your work. In your 2008 series Stardust Ruins, there lays at the heart a kind of mythical quality – about lost civilizations and evokes a feeling of memory and shared experience; it’s what Jung called the Collective Unconscious and later Campbell called Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths – the cycling between dreams and reality and how stories are also part of a living culture and can develop and change with knowledge (science). How much does mythology and psychology influence your work?
Both mythology and psychology have an important place in my work. Myths are oral histories and there is more flux, more layers in myths than in written history. The title of one of my works with aerogel, The Ruins of Kaschrefers to the title of Roberto Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch, in which he quotes Frobenius as saying that the legend of the ruin of Kasch is a recollection of a state of things long vanished. It’s the story of the passage from one world to another – a period of transition and the ruin of both worlds. He writes that the idea of what is historical comes into being in this legend. I felt the importance of fragmentation, the complexity of it and its inevitability. Thinking of Earth as a planet, I considered myself already in outer space and I projected video of different places on earth that I had visited onto the surface of the aerogel ruins. Since what we see are reflections of different substances, aerogel, being almost immaterial, did not resolve the perfectly focused images projected onto it. One saw continually changing colours and vision of the world, as a cosmologist recently pointed out to me. Perhaps the same view as seen by the newly born, before they have mapped out and named what they see. Myths are also coded or encrypted histories, as in the Irish Tree Alphabet and Robert Grave’s The Greek Myths. I was very impressed to read in his abundant end notes that many of the myths revealed/concealed the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal power. In Sumerian mythology I discovered the dynamic feminine archetype Inanna, who descends to the underworld out of interest, to find out, her ear opened to the underworld, since hearing was then more important than seeing. Both mythology and psychology are a looking inward in search of an identity both cultural and individual. Identity is inextricably connected to memory and in the 1990s much of my work was focused on that relationship.
What are your current concerns?
At present, I want very much to create a large solar installation, Solar Hills, Solar Cites, in which I can project huge rainbows across the countryside or across a city. Stars in brilliant constantly changing colours are seen defining the horizon connecting the earth with the sky. In a collaboration with scientists in Berkeley, California, I have been working on this project now for ten years and I hope that this year we will be able to find the funding to create this intensely moving installation in which thousands of people might discover a new awareness of the sun as a brilliant star and their own place in the cosmos.
Melissa Budasz in conversation with Liliane Lijn for ArtVerve – on women’s art | An SLWA Publication | Issue 5 | Mar 2016
(1) The first tree in the Druidic Tree Alphabet is the Ailm, a silver fir, a female tree sacred in Greece to Artemis the Moon-Goddess who presided over childbirth, and the prime birth-tree of Northern Europe. Ailm also stood for the palm, the birth-tree of Eygpt and Babylonia. It’s poetic connection with birth is that the sea is the Universal Mother and that the palm thrives close barely perceptible forms. A nearly quantum to the sea.
(2) “The supremacy of appearance begins with Zeus, and from it begin the tensions that galvanise Greek culture…No other ancient language had such a rich vocabulary for referring to different kinds of images as Greek. And this markedly visual vocabulary contrasted sharply with that of the Greeks’s enemies par excellence: the Persians.”  They neither made statues nor built temples but made sacrifices to Zeus from the top of the highest mountains, thinking of Zeus as the whole sky, unlike the Egyptians for whom the sky was both feminine and concrete, personified by the protective Goddess Nut. My own background was Judaism, social, moral and patriarchal. Moses had broken the images of the gods and goddesses to which the people of Judea made sacrifice. But his one God Iahu took his name Ievoa or Jehovah from the five-letter name of the Goddess and was able to do so only by virtue of his birth, marriage and death under female auspices.
(3) Crossing Map, which was published by Thames and Hudson in 1983, is an interior monologue part science-fiction, part social commentary, in which I look at how our Greco-Judeo-Chris an analytical culture has blocked the flow of energy. Robert Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony refers to this blockage already occurring in Classical Greece.” Forms would become manifest as long as they underwent metamorphosis … But as generation followed generation, metamorphosis became more difficult, and the fatal nature of reality, its irreversibility, all the more evident…Humans could no longer gain access to other forms and return from them. The veil of epiphany was rent and tattered now. If the power of metamorphosis was to be maintained, there was no alternative but to invent objects and generate monsters.”
(4) “In Crete she was the supreme nymph Goddess of archaic totem societies…Originally, the poet was the leader of a totem- society of religious dancers. His verses were danced around an altar or in a sacred enclosure. All the totem societies in ancient Europe were under the dominion of the Great Goddess, the Lady of the Wild Things.” Originally, Lady of the Wild Things was a lunar archetype, Artemis, whose name was the name of the Triple Goddess herself. Later she was represented as the Goddess of the Hunt, sister of Apollo and daughter of the Thundergod, the virgin maiden Goddess who presided over childbirth. Eventually Artemis ceased to be an equal partner with Apollo. He was credited with cures while she became a poisoner. The Apollo priesthood weakened the power of the Goddess by departmentalization. With Apollo, who from a minor mouse-demon became the God of Reason with the mo o “Nothing in Excess”, poetry and art as magical prac se was already in decline; from The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
(5 )Pliny, the Talmud and the Orphics – Orphic Tablet from Thuru 6 a quote by Roberto Caasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony
The Musée Marmottan Monet sits on a quiet, leafy corner of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine in the sixteenth arrondissement. Boasting a large collection of works by Claude Monet and other French Impressionists, it is in their recent exhibition The Invention of Privacy that highlights art historically and culturally the evolution of corporeal rituals where largely women are observed and represented in either groups or on their own.
These selected works depict sexuality and beauty, erotica and fetishism. The exhibition brings together works by major artists of the fifteenth century to the present day, about the rites of cleanliness, their spaces and their gestures. This is the first time such a subject is presented in the form of exposure that reflect everyday practices that might seem mundane. Some of the works have never been shown since their creation as the museum has brought many international collections together. Works on display are by Durer, Boucher, Manet, Degas, Lautrec, Picasso to Bettina Rheims and Gloria Friedmann.
The exhibition is hung chronologically and starts with a Sixteenth Century tapestry depicting a woman bathing surrounded by nature with elevated scenes of servants playing musical instruments, perfumes, adornment and food with vibrant colours suggesting sensory alertness. A lithe, slender, young body is celebrated as an ideal, giving visual form to beauty. The frame is the site of meaning, where vital distinctions between inside and outside, between proper and improper concerns are made. These threads connect the works throughout this tightly hung and intimately spaced show, as well as documenting the socio political environment of the time.
In artworks after this period the nude took on a new realism as maids were often the models, isolated from the rest of the world and there was the absence of water. Washing is often limited to few body parts – feet, hands and hair and some were still dressed or partially dressed as they are seen adorning themselves in front of a mirror, the sensual context often highlighted by an image of a lover in a frame, or a statue of lovers embracing. Through the act of painting, women can become culture – she is framed, she becomes an image and the wanton matter of the female body and female sexuality is regulated and contained. Etchings, paintings and tapestries are all displayed depicting the toilette. From the Renaissance to the 18th Century we glimpse at the public toilet and then move on to a new kind of privacy – one woman making herself up in mirror. This has been a social rite in the past and now made more intimate in Francois Boucher’s 1738 La mouche une dame à sa toilette, an oval canvas that enacts a keyhole into a private world. Here a woman applies a beauty spot which highlights her pale complexion, she is lost in her own thoughts and absorbed by her reflection as she makes herself up for the man she holds in the pocket medallion.
Bathing has been replaced by an intimate and secretive ritual about skill and accessories and here it is given approval and celebrated – we are invited to watch the private pamperingof a woman as an erotic spectacle. There are two divided moments – social bathing in groups and the private ritual of intimate grooming where we the audience, become the voyeur.
Francois Boucher will often have a before and after painting of a woman in her parlour fully clothed going about her daily routines, and then in another she is voyeuristically depicted in the same setting and clothes, but this time in a state of undress adjusting a stocking or going to the toilet with her animals present who bear witness to her private grooming as inhis c. 1742 painting The Raised Skirt. Boucher’s paintings bring gender identities to the fore and the inherent differences between the sexes.
Late 19th Century saw more nude women at their mirrors, the bodies were sometimes heavy, less elegant and in less traditionally elegant poses, adopting a more natural and animalistic quality as painted by Manet and Lautrec. In Degas 1883 Femme dans son bain s’épongeant la jambe the representation of the toilette as gestures of washing the body and hygiene are brought into painting. We are a voyeur into a private world whilst a woman bathes in her bedroom.
Soft pastels evoke the sensations of loving flesh and soft hair; the face is averted as the limb she is washing captures our attention, there is no romantic idealisation, this is a modern feature and highly sensual – a wet sponge on skin, the viewer often can’t see the breasts or full body, they are obscured but still erotic. A new relationship emerged of someone forgetting and finding oneself. The bathroom became a refuge from the world, a moment where time no longer existed.
The war years saw a shift from soft forms and luxurious time spent in the tub to sharper angles and colours, with form presiding over content and we enter a place where maybe we should not be, like in Kupka’s The Lipstick and Leger’s Women at their dressing table. Cubist ideas that emphasize the fragmentation of planes moves away from imitation and only allude to the figurative, Picasso’s 1906 Femme se coiffant, Josef Capek’s 1920 Toilette, Wilfredo Lam’s 1942 Femme à sa coiffure all highlight geometrical forms in either primary colours or grey tones and black and white with uncertain depths: there is no sentimentality seen in the ancient study of the nude as in previous times, these works are painted in the tragic context of war where care for the self has become tense; the movements are sharp and joyless.
As the exhibition is brought up to current time we see a displacement of the gaze. For centuries women at their toilette were watched without their knowing it. Bettina Rheims’ work pushes the boundaries of how sexual identities are depicted. Both celebrities and unknowns have posed for her in various staging of glamour and fame, of fashion, beauty, sex and seduction. Her subject is the visualization of female eroticism in its sensual, emotional and disquieting varieties. She has a sensitive and delicate, yet provocative approach to the subject.
In her Karen Mulder portant Un tres petit sout- ien-gorge Chanel Janvier 1996, the portrait of model Karen Mulder is of her wearing a face mask and her beauty routine revealed as she knowingly stares at the camera. It is an ironic game of a woman being photographed by a woman, her nipples covered (only just), she could even be post-surgery. Rheims interrogates sexuality from the view-point of gender, emphasizing both the way women perceive their own body, and male fantasies about what goes on in the bathroom.
Interestingly, a portrait that is not in the exhibition but displayed in the back of the publication, is of Simone de Beauvoir, standing naked with her back to the camera in front of a washbasin.
‘the intellectual woman knows she is offering herself, she knows she is a consciousness, a subject; one cannot wilfully kill one’s gaze and change one’s eyes into empty pools’
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Not circulated till years after her death in 2008, de Beauvoir knowingly allows a photo to be taken of her nudity, whilst an intellectual and feminist, she is also a young, amorous and free body, ‘a body that reaches out to the world cannot be thwarted and metamorphosed into a statue animated by hidden vibrations’.
The lesson of the bathroom has become the lesson that women wish to dictate: they will no longer allow the male gaze to govern their image, but play on their revealed or marked nudity, and on the arousal or frustration of desire. Women artists are using images of the female body in order to make visible a range of feminist identities. It is a fight for visibility on one’s own terms. For feminists to reclaim the female body, this means to challenge the authority of boundaries – of gender and identity, between art and obscenity, the permissible and forbidden.
written by Melissa Budasz
ArtVerve – on women’s art | An SLWA Publication | Issue 4 | Sep 2015
For the past few months my thoughts have focused on destruction, death and renewal as I have been looking at William Blake’s work in connection to the theme Death and Transition and also for the special event I am organising in The Crypt at St John’s Church, Waterloo on Saturday 25 April 2015, co-hosted by Southbank Mosaics ‘William Blake’s Lambeth’ – Blake resided in Hercules Road in the 1790s which is located close to the church.
The mosaic project pays homage to his genius and some of his greatest work. Southbank Mosaics artists worked with 300 volunteers over a period of seven years to research, design, plan, make and install 70 mosaics based on the words and paintings of William Blake into the railway tunnels of Waterloo Station, turning them from dark unwelcoming places into street galleries bright with opulent and durable works of art. This coincides with the group show I am co-curating and exhibiting with Ilinca Cantacuzino and Yolanta Gawlik at Gabriel Fine Art Gallery in Waterloo. Over 30 South London Women Artists come together to challenge the notion of death and transition by harnessing the force of life, rather than death, through the art process, and question through our work the finality of death.
I recently read In The Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection by the activist, playwright and feminist, Eve Ensler. As Ensler was confronted with the possibility of death we experience connections to both her personal denial and our collective denial of global warming, the destruction of species and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Ensler is the founder of the centre ‘City of Joy’ a refuge for the survivors of mass rape in the Eastern Congo.
I think of William Blake as I paint and his insistence on the universality of creativity and as a starting point I have referenced his Hecate of Enitharmon’s Joy. I use myths in a personal and political way as I perceive and process complex ideas and emotions. I have made a series of drawings about my feelings of anger and sorrow, specifically for the Congolese women and children who have been raped and/or murdered – the tragic victims of war. Eastern Congo is known as the rape capital of the world and the worst place on earth to be a woman – confirmed facts by the United Nations.
The Greek Goddess Hecate – the Goddess of magic, sorcery and necromancy has always intrigued me. Typically known as the moon goddess who protected the earth, sea and sky – she is often depicted holding torches and had the ability to see in several directions at once – she is accompanied by an owl and dogs. In these works I draw on her power and imagine her use of sorcery to magically protect and nurture the female body; denying penetration and assault. Through this transformation a transitional and liminal state is perceived which leads ultimately to healing and renewal.
“I cannot stop taking photographs of scars because they are so much like a photograph. They are visible events, recorded in the past. Both the scars and the photographs are the manifestation of sorrow for the many things which cannot be retrieved and for love of life as a remembered present.”
Ishiuchi’s provocative and unsentimental bodies of work explore the ideas around identity, memory and death, finding the beauty in traces of wounds. In her photography the subject matter is straightforward – images of scars, skin defects on naked bodies, garments and objects that belonged to her mother and revisiting the town she grew up in Japan. She says her works are not archival documents but a created reality of lost moments and articles from the past. I think that a story or memory is more powerful than that of loss, but the abilty to frame loss in more ways than sorrow and anger is poetical.
Thoughts of lost moments and fragments from the past and present are at the forefront of my mind as I am currently making a series of drawings, photographs and assemblages of dead matter – human hair, milkweed, physalis, orchids and pussy willow. It is the links made between each object and their resonant energy that intrigues me – the silky, fragile, golden strands of hair that form strong, hardy plaits to the fibrous cluster seeds of the dried milkweed on delicate branches, the fragile and vibrant lanterns of the physalis plant, the phallus in the orchid and the furry soft textured buds of the pussy willow branches.
I am fascinated and intrigued by the myths that surround each object as they each become a symbol for something else – the orchid is a testament to the male reproductive organ of the savaged Orchis who was killed by beasts in his attempt to harm and rape a woman. The myth of Circe, who had willow trees dedicated to the goddess Hecate surround a cemetry where male corpses were left exposed in the tops of the trees for the elements to claim and birds to eat and the mythical story behind the milkweed plant (Asclepias) derives from the Greek God of healing, Asclepius, who was such a skilled healer that legend said he could raise the dead.
It is in the narratives that develop by placing them together, that new stories and re-defined myths can be made. They are also fragments of objects that have an intriguing beauty to me. I find this process to be conceptual, physical and psychological. In Ishiuchi’s work scars and pieces of clothing and worn shoes are mementos of life experiences, intimate ornaments of sadness and sorrow that are normally only revealed in the most private of circumstances. We know nothing of the pain or narrative that lies behind each image. I enjoy this ambiguity and openess I link with her work. By objectifying her subject matter by not revealing the whole and magnifying the part, it is this attention to detail that allows connections to be made.