Images of the Feminist avant-garde in the 1970s shine a light on an artistic movement too long overlooked

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Two phrases almost certain to send the average Daily Mail reader into a bout of apoplectic confusion are ‘Feminist’ and ‘avant-garde’.

All the more reason perhaps, that the Photographer’s Gallery is dedicating two floors to this area throughout the coming months. It’s a multimedia exploration taken from the Verbund Collection in Vienna – an arts foundation funded by the Austrian electricity giant, and will feature over 40 arts practitioners – from leading lights of the movement such as Valie Export, Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman, to less-known artists from as far afield as Serbia, Turkey and Peru.

I204-6/6, 11/30/05, 4:19 PM, 16G, 3036x2978 (1611+1089), 112%, Cruz 080205, 1/120 s, R67.3, G57.4, B71.7
Francesca Woodman Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, 1978/1979 © Courtesy George and Betty Woodman, New York / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Wien

Says curator Anna Dannemann: ‘I think a lot of the artists have been overlooked, such as Sanja Iveković. It’s really impressive work – She was part of the New Art Practice in Yugoslavia, [and] you wouldn’t necessarily think of Yugoslavia when you think of feminist art.

‘Her work looks at political systems and women’s rights, and she uses photo montage and video sculpture. [It’s] is definitely overlooked, often because of the focus on American or UK artists.’

 Ewa Partum, Change, 1974 © Ewa Partum Courtesy of Galerie M+R Fricke, Berlin / Bildrecht, Vienna, 2015 / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna

Ewa Partum, Change, 1974 © Ewa Partum Courtesy of Galerie M+R Fricke, Berlin / Bildrecht, Vienna, 2015 / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna

That previous focus may well be justified. As America gears up to elect its first female political leader, and Britain resides under its second, the possibility of three of the G8 states being led by women is surely a sign of progress – progress for which movements such as this can take credit?

Continues Dannemann: ‘It reflects on where we are at this point, but it’s a shame that there is still a discourse to be had in regard to the glass ceiling and equal pay and all that […] so there’s plenty to be getting on with.

‘Maybe what they [Clinton, May & Merkel] are depicting is more radical than naked bodies!’

Hannah Wilke S.O.S. Starification Object Series. One of 36 playing cards from mastication box, 1975 Post card Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles. © Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon, and Andrew Scharlatt  Bildrecht, Vienna, 2015 / SAMMLUNG VERBUND,Vienna

Gabriele Schor, who heads up the Verbund Collection in the Austrian capital agrees that much of the work has been neglected: ‘I called up Renate Eisenegger and asked if she still had the work, and she said “Oh, I have to look because for 40 years nobody has asked me about it – I don’t know!”

‘So I called the next day and she said “Everything is fine and wrapped”, so I made a studio visit. She didn’t know a price […] all the work is so underrated! It’s a little bit unfair because art historians need to look at this work.’

Cindy Sherman Untitled (Lucy), 1975/2001 © Cindy Sherman Courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna

Aside from photos, the exhibition focuses on collage works, performances, films and videos produced throughout the 1970s, and is intended to reflect ‘a moment during which practices of emancipation, gender equality and civil rights protest movements became part of public discourse.’

Schor considers this to be a central part of the Verbund Collection’s mission: ‘I wanted to find a special focus, so I went a step back to find something which was not yet published; They were shown in the 1970s, [but] the arts scene forgot them, and now we are ready to look at them in a fresh way.

‘For me, it was also important to call [the exhibition] avant-garde because the phrase indicates pioneers and these women were pioneers.’

Renate Eisenegger Hochhaus (Nr.1), 1974 © Renate Eisenegger / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna

It’s hard to understate the critical role of female artists in driving public discussion on gender roles. The work is often radical, poetic, ironic and provocative, but the purpose is undeniably one of engagement.

Bra-burning aside, this is a collection that seeks to drive a meaningful conversation beyond pure symbolism – questioning feminine identity and sexual politics through modes that must have been incredibly original to 1970s audiences.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Construction Chart #1, 1975 © Lynn Hershman Leeson / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna

It’s a collection that still attempts to challenge accepted social conventions, including the mechanisms and male dominance of the art industry thorough artists who sought to redefine the prevailing iconography of ‘woman’ as passive muse surrendering to the male gaze. In that regard, both curators consider the artists’ characteristics to be central to the works’ longevity.

Concludes Danemann: ‘[During the] 1970s it was also focused on personalities and personal style, and alternative movements of how to live and behave, so the personal became more political.’

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s is showing at The Photographer’s Gallery, 16 – 18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW from 7th October – 8th January 2017. For more info visit here.