by Catriona Mitchell

 

Earlier this month, the BBC aired a one-hour documentary called Rebel Women: The Great Art Fight Back – about the women who pioneered feminist art in the US and UK in the 1970s.

In a sudden and explosive reaction against centuries of male-dominated art, these women – many of whom are interviewed retrospectively for the purposes of the documentary – decided to use their bodies to make provocative new art: with bold experimentation, biting satire, shock-value live performances, and contentious political statement.

All of it was unabashedly female.

The intention was to openly question the ways women were represented in mainstream culture, and to introduce the concept of the female gaze. The artists challenged not only the art establishment, but blatant objectification of women in sex, labour, the media – in the Miss World contest, as “page 3 girls,” in Playboy magazine – as well as in advertising.

Rebel Women interviews feminist art icon Margaret Harrison about her experiences at the forefront of that revolution. Harrison was the artist behind a landmark moment in feminist art: hers is said to have been the very first overtly feminist solo show in the world, held in 1971.

It was not without controversy.

In fact, immediately after the opening, Harrison’s entire show was removed from the walls. The police warned the gallery that if they didn’t take down the work, legal action would follow. The show was closed on the grounds of obscenity.

And yet, it seemed it wasn’t the images of women that offended the police. It was the representations of men in the work.

“I guess they thought they didn’t want to be seen as objects. I guess I objectified them in the same way that they had objectified women…” says Harrison. “I’d been drawing these things for ages, for a whole year. My partner had taken on this awful job to support me… and then it gets closed down!”

Harrison put the censored works into a drawer after the police raid, and didn’t show them again for over two decades.

She recently had a retrospective show in Bilbao, Spain.

Margaret Harrison’s depiction of Hugh Hefner as a bunny girl was one of the works that caused outrage, and resulted in her exhibition being shut down by the police in London, 1971.

 

Across the Atlantic at around the time of Harrison’s show closure, Los Angeles-based artist Judy Chicago was founding the first feminist art course.

According to Chicago, “I knew that what I was experiencing in the LA art scene was sexism, but you couldn’t talk about it. There was no language for it. Nobody talked about gender discrimination, nobody talked about sexual harassment… being an artist was a tough career choice.”

She encouraged her students to study artwork by women only for an entire year, by way of counterbalance. Black-and-white footage of those classes shows the fresh-faced students’ responses, as the glaring gap in gender representation starts to dawn on them.

Chicago is best known for an installation called The Dinner Party (1974-79), hailed as both a milestone in twentieth century art and the first epic feminist artwork. The Dinner Party celebrates the richness of women’s cultural heritage: it constitutes a banquet laid out on a large triangular table, with a total of thirty-nine place settings – each one individually designed for an important historical female figure. Created from ceramic, porcelain and textile to human scale, The Dinner Party was executed by a group of artists working in collaborative process. It has now been viewed by well over a million people, and sits on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

The Dinner Party (detail). Theodora place setting, 1979. [Theodora was a powerful and influential empress of the Eastern Roman Empire]

 

A third key artist featured in Rebel Women is Carolee Schneemann, who dedicated her work to healing the split, as she perceived it, between women’s experiences of their bodies, and the historical and cultural representations of those bodies. She wanted to help return women’s bodies back to themselves.

The documentary recounts the story of Schneemann’s Internal Scroll, which she performed for the first time in New York in 1975. Schneeman stood on a table, naked, in front of a live audience; she painted her body in a dark colour, then pulled a long strip of (folded) paper from her vagina, and proceeded to read aloud what was written on it – a conversation she’d had with an unnamed film critic who refused to watch her films. In this way she asserted that the vagina is not limited to reproductive purposes only, but is also a power source in the body that births thought and creativity. Internal Scroll was (and is) considered to be one of the truly iconic moments of feminist performance.

Frances Morris, current director of the Tate Modern, speaks intermittently throughout Rebel Women, to contextualize these women and their works, highlighting their role within the broader framework of the history of Western art. She says, “I think it’s very difficult now to understand just how pioneering this generation was, in breaking through all kinds of conventions and hierarchies that absolutely governed the visual arts for centuries.”

Huge appreciation goes to those women whose shoulders we stand upon, and whose courage we no longer even give much of a thought to. They used their grit, their wit, their determination, their convictions, risking legal action and financial ruin to go where no one had gone before…. All so that we may be freer to express ourselves now. BRAVA!

 

About the Writer

Author

CATRIONA MITCHELL is the creator of BRAVA, and the editor of Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India, and Hardie Grant Books Australia & UK, 2016), a non-fiction anthology exploring what it means to be a woman in India today. She has an M Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin (Ireland).

 

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