Like women’s struggles to assert their rights and talents, which have long been underestimated, ridiculed, or simply ignored, feminist exhibitions have had difficulty finding a place at galleries, museums, and festivals. That is, until recently. By featuring the exhibition “A Feminist Avant-Garde” in their 2022 program, the Rencontres d’Arles, in France, have chosen to break the mold and spotlight an artistic revolution in women’s art, which began with photography in the 1970s. The product of long-term research, begun in 2004 by the Viennese collection Verbund, the exhibition gives floor to women artists who have used the camera to speak out.
Deliberately provocative and radically non-conformist, the photographs gathered by the Verbund collection retrace an artistic movement which, some fifty years ago, shook up the conventions in an effort to change the image of women, make us smile, sometimes blush, but above all, to make us think. By ironically staging the housewife, her body captured using the simplest apparatus, her face twisted in a rude grimace or gagged, women denounced social injustices. Without worrying about the purely technical aspects of photography or what people might say, they mocked tradition and swept aside stereotypes in a natural, raw, and spontaneous way. And thus they claimed their place in society and in art.
Gabriele Schor has been exploring this feminist avant-garde, which marked the entry of women into modern art, for nearly two decades. Director of the dedicated collection at the Verbund Foundation and curator of the exhibition at the Arles festival, she is also the author of the eponymous book published in late June by Delpire & co (in French only). “During my research, I noticed that the works of many women artists of the 1970s were neglected by art historiography, absent from museum collections, especially when they included a feminist claim. I wanted to examine the issue and explore the topic further,” says the Austrian art critic who has become a specialist in the 1970s feminist avant-garde.
The 70s were a fascinating decade, both politically and artistically, with the beginnings of post-modernism, the aftermath of 1968, and the collective aspiration to change, the second feminist wave, but also the emergence of new forms of expression and media. “Many artists moved away from painting to video, performance, film, and photography,” explains Schor, who has been building, and publicizing, the collection for the past eighteen years. “What is exciting is that I am still discovering radical, critical, ironic works from those years that have remained anonymous. By including them in our project on the feminist avant-garde, we bring the public closer to the art historical context and give these works the place they deserve.”
In touch with the times
Covering the walls of the Mécanique Générale, the former railway workshop in Arles, the pictures and videos by seventy-one feminist artists testify to the artistic emancipation of women. On view until September 25, this groundbreaking exhibition, a first in France, echoes the exhibition “Pioneers”, recently featured at the Musée du Luxembourg. Schor takes this as a sign that things are changing. “I proposed this same exhibition to a Parisian museum five years ago and it was refused on the grounds that the exhibition was ‘too avant-garde.’ At the time, I was surprised to have that reaction in the birthplace of Surrealism.”
The fact that the theme is being explored this year, in Arles and elsewhere, signals a sea change, according to the art critic. “It shows a certain interest in what women specifically brought to art, in the 1920s and in the 1970s, two decades in which women artists produced progressive art. This critical engagement is reflected in the works of contemporary artists. It is gratifying that the art market is now honoring them and making their art accessible to collectors, curators, and critics, as well as to a wider audience. It is even more important today to remember the feminist art movement, because, politically and socially, we are witnessing the rise of conservative values that already sought to thwart the feminist movement in the 1970s. History doesn’t seem to be linear in the sense of progress in thought.” Released just days after the revocation of abortion rights in the United States, the book Une avant-garde féministe is timely. In addition to carrying on the struggle, relayed by the exhibition, the book further heighten feminist awareness, particularly with regard to the right to one’s own body.
« A Feminist Avant-Garde. Photographs and Performances of the 1970s from the Verbund Collection », at the Rencontres d’Arles at the Mécanique générale, until September 25, 2022.
Gabriele Schor, Une avant-garde féministe, Delpire & co, 496 pages, €62.