The evocative title was enough of a hook for me to go and see the photo exhibition WOMAN. The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s. Works from the SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna at BOZAR Expo.
It is a quite large exhibition presenting 450 works by 29 female artists.
„Art history shows that the “image of woman” is actually the product of male projections. In the 1970s female artists, for the first time in art history, created the “image of woman” themselves. They studied their own bodies and created the prospect of determined feminine identities in a provocative, radical, poetic, and ironic manner. The curator Gabriele Schor calls this art movement the “Feminist Avant-Garde” to emphasise “the pioneering and collective role that these artists played for the last four decades” and believes that “many Feminist Avant-Garde artists – and their works – have yet to be discovered“, says the exhibition announcement.
The photos of these women send indeed strong messages about gender equality, freedom, women’s rights, violence against women and women experiencing and sharing their sexuality. For the 70s they must have been very original and progressive. Yet I could hear some echo of vanity and narcissism in them (i.e. the nude autoportraits were, in the majority of cases, of beautiful female bodies) which would not undermine the message but still was there.
I was not able to look at every single work and read all the explanatory texts. But there was one American artist whose photos struck me immediately. Francesca Woodman.
They radiated sincerity, pain, authentic internal dramatism, mysticism and tenderness. She was posing in many of them, and often nude, but this was very different from the visual noise produced by some of the other female artists. Her nudity was an enigmatic confession of vulnerability.
Death is very much present in her work with her body shot in unnatural positions or in a ghostly blurred manner. Only after seeing the photos I read that this beautiful and incredibly gifted woman committed suicide at the age of 22. She did not gain real recognition during her short lifetime and this was one of the triggers for her depression.
“And yet the photographer still tells her story, in a way. The trick is to let the work speak. In Woodman’s case, though, it’s tough to take the work as it is and let it stand for itself. It just…brings up so much. There are certainly echoes in it of numberless high school girls’ photography class self-portrait experiments, and some critics have run with that, casting her as an apotheosis of the romantic juvenile. Robert Boyd says, “…another thing many might feel looking at her work is jealousy. She was producing brilliant photos when she was still in high school”(…) The work is engrossing, but it’s a riddle. It is enigmatic, eloquent but not clear. Maybe immutably so., says an article on The Online Photographer.
Seeing her work was a revelation. Visiting the exhibition was worth it at the least for this discovery. I was there for Francesca Woodman.