Critics Back

Woman’s Art, Barbara Baworowska, 1978

We can speak about women’s art since 1969, i.e. since the moment when a group called “Woman Artist in Revolution” was founded, a group which demanded from the Whitney Museum that their art be included in annual art shows. Not long after that the Los Angeles Council of Woman Artists begins its activity, and the Californian Institute of Art attempts to create the programme of feminist art.

The activity of American woman artists influenced creative initiatives of many European women. At the beginning of the 1970s in England, Austria, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Switzerland and Italy countless galleries, magazines and women organizations come into being. International women meetings are also organized, for example in 1975 two such conventions took place, in Belgrade and Innsbruck. This extensive activity introduced a new problem for the art world, a problem called the movement of women and feminist art. Some specialist magazines took interest in it. For example articles about women’s art were published in Kunst magazine: 4/1975, 1/1976, 2/1977. Moreover, special editions of Heute Kunst 9/1975 and Studio International 3/1977 came out, devoted entirely to this problem.

Exceptional expansion and activity of contemporary women is undoubtedly a continuation of the history of their emancipation. However, never before in history was the commitment of women professionally connected with art so widesprad. The factor which determines their attitude is the social condition in which a man always has a privileged position. The approval of such a situation is obsolete today. Women claim that men should become aware of this fact and join the struggle for dispensing with all such inequalities because then one of the demands of progress in its contemporary measure would be met.

However, women artists are most of all concerned with professional and material independence they could gain by selling their works to museums, by receiving artistic grants and scholarships and by more numerous participation in exhibitions. We should also mention all propositions concerning women’s art here, put forward in specialist literature, and the introduction of women’s art to school curricula. Woman artists do not hide that they want to take men’s patent for genius and inventiveness away from them. One should add, by the way, that woman artists do not limit their activity merely to the protection of their own interests. Many times at the cost of their creative work they join the struggle of women who represent other professions and social classes. When they return to art, they successfully use the observations made there and the experience they gained. Nowadays feminist art includes all creative achievements of women which express their social situation. Feminist art was also divided into four basic thematic spheres. In the first one a woman is usually presented as a mother and housewife, that is in her hitherto traditional life roles. Such a proposition is supposed to convince our society that this is a conventional image of a woman. In the second sphere women artists move away from the traditional ideal of women; they destroy the myth of the Amazon, of a Madonna, of unsurpassed beauty. In the third sphere women artists attack and fight those attributes of masculinity which they find problematic, like agression, vanity, roughness and so on. Finally in the fourth sphere a new image of a woman is presented in terms of the search for another kind of expression of her personality.

From the formal point of view the feminist tendency does not suggest any propositions important for art as a whole. Beside painting it is mainly photographic and film documentation, as well as verbal registration. Actions such as performance also seem interesting. Such unswerving faithfulness to the accepted means of expression becomes a powerful weapon in the hands of women, since it turns out that they use them no less skillfully than men.

We only had one exhibition of feminist art in Poland so far. It took place in April in Wrocław, at the Galeria PSP Jatki, and its initiator was Natalia LL. Among her own propositions the artist presented the works of Suzy Lacke (Canada), Noemi Maidan (Switzerland) and Carolee Schneemann (United States). This set of names itself proves how geographically broad the feminist movement is – and it marks the rank of the exhibition in Wrocław.

Carolee Schneemann presented her authorial publication from 1975 entitled Cezanne She Was a Great Painter. The graphic arrangement of this selection of notes, essays and letters determined their expositional value while those viewers who were more in the know were relieved by the title from the obligation to read the contents. That is because ideological foundations of Schneemann’s art are well known and valued for their sincerity and consistency in the process of breaking those cultural habits that hurt women and do them wrong. The falsity of the title Cezanne She Was a Great Painter is at the same time the discovery of a new truth. Cezanne, if he had been a woman, would not have been famous. Therefore the artist arbitrarily changes his sex which to some extent helps her perceive his prominence while it makes others observe the criteria the rule in the art world more closely. The illustrations “faked” in the publication refer to her earlier artistic actions, including the famous Meta Joy from 1964. The documentation preserved from this action informs us about the actors’ fascination with eroticism. They were called upon by Schneemann to express boundless sensuality which they did in a way that does not raise any doubts that what they had in mind was the abolition of superstitions.

Other interests determine the art of Suzy Lacke, illustrated at the exhibition by a photograph of a naked woman, tied up with a rope. In an authorial comment the artist claims that she is interested in the search for her own self, remarking that it is not an easy task in contemporary reality. From this perspective she conducts experiments, among them an experiment with her own face which is called Suzy Lacke as Andrea Standart. It was based on combining the features of her own face with the facial features of many of her friends and as a result a series of photographs came into being, photographs in which the image of the authoress changes according to the appearance of the people invited to take part in the experiment. As if by the way the artist discovered numerous defects in her own beauty. Because she had not been aware of them earlier, after the experiment she came to the conclusion that it was a step that brought her closer to self-knowledge.

On the other hand the propositions of Noemi Maidan are classic examples of art which does away with the deeply rooted opinions that a woman is made to be a mother or a housewife. However, the artist does not exaggerate this problem, limiting herself solely to the interpretation of her personal experience connected with motherhood. Her compositions are organized by photographs, letters and notes of her dreams about the future of her child. A curious element of these collages are curtains made of diapers. They appear here as a new symbol of motherhood. In the artist’s opinion motherhood should not obscure the real capabilities of a woman, just like diapers should not be an obstacle on the road to the essence of the presented works. Among Polish artists only the art of Natalia LL met with the admiration of supporters and advocates of feminist art. Her first show under the auspices of the feminist movement took place in 1975 when Ursula Krinziger instigated a symposium and exhibition in Innsbruck entitled Women – Art – New Tendencies. It was then that Natalia LL proposed the concept of “consumer art” which had been known in Poland earlier, explaining that she was interested in the dependences lying on the border between art and reality, and in working on the precise visual registration of these dependences. She also turned her attention to the specificity of the visual language whose understanding is possible only within the limits of the image, without the need to refer to associations with reality. In this situation the ideal would be the ability to move within the sphere of meanings existing beyond the threshold of the visibility of things.

However, the viewer finds it difficult to get used to such contact with a work of art. He is interested primarily in the anecdote. Therefore Natalia LL’s consumer art was understood as the illustration of the masculine fear of the contemporary “vampire” woman and the threat of losing the highest attribute of masculinity in spite of the fact that the banana in the girl’s mouth is just a banana and nothing more.

At the feminist art show in Wrocław Natalia LL to a large extent expanded her earlier investigations. Most of all she proved that one can register the crossing of the threshold of the visibility of things. She demonstrated it on the example of a series of pictures in which no anecdote could be taken into account because only the duplicity of the presented things and situations was recognizable. At this stage of her career she set up the programme of “post-consumer art” in which she claims, for example, that this kind of art “…is based on producing visual and mental formulas which, in themselves not contrary, are possibly the most «artificial» and form a model of complicated intellectual and intuitive processes”. These, however, are questions that go beyond the problems of feminist art – because we must remember that Natalia LL is only occasionally connected with this movement and that she works out the theory she applies in her practice on the basis of more universal ideas of scientific and scholarly reflection.

Barbara Baworowska

Published in Sztuka, 1978, vol. 4/5, pp. 69-70

Tłumaczył: Wiesław Maciejewski