Visible Women

The radical feminist exhibition exploring the meaning of the ‘female gaze’

A new London exhibition, Women Look at Women, highlights the work of groundbreaking feminist artists from the Seventies and Eighties.

After the suffragettes and suffragists won voting rights for women in 1918 and 1928, feminism in the UK petered out for several decades. It wasn’t until the Sixties and Seventies that the British women’s liberation movement began to pick up pace once more, this time with a new set of issues to tackle – from pay inequality to sexual objectification, reproductive rights to female power in the workplace, domestic violence to laws that privileged men over women. This was the era that saw radical women’s conferences, the birth of the pill, mass demonstrations outside beauty pageants, the first women’s refuges, feminist zines and community organisations, and the passing of the first laws designed to address gender inequality.

Influential feminist artists working in this turbulent period are the focus of a new exhibition at London’s Richard Saltoun Gallery. Titled Women Look at Women, the show draws heavily on the concept of the ‘female gaze’, featuring photography and sculpture exploring notions of femininity and women’s relationships with their own and other’s bodies. Despite the fact that all of the artworks featured were made between 1965 and 1986, the themes of sexuality, rage, bodily autonomy, reflection and self-preservation feel remarkably timely in 2018.

“I’m interested in what happens when women start having the camera in their hands, and start observing not only themselves or their bodies, but also other women’s bodies, faces and lives,” says Paola Ugolini, the exhibition’s curator. 

Pin Up by Friedl Kubelka (1973). Copyright the artist. 

To that end, Ugolini has selected a wide range of works by second-wave feminist artists to appear in the show. There are sculptures and photography by the influential Croydon-born artist Helen Chadwick, who became one of the first women artists to be nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987. There are photographs by the experimental German performance artist Annegret Soltau, showing her face bound painfully in black thread. There are young punks, middle-aged women and nude self-portraits.

Particularly striking is a wall of black and white self-portraits from 1969, titled Transformation, by the avant-garde Austrian feminist artist Renate Bertlmann. In the Seventies, Bertlmann’s work was considered so radical that it was frequently banned from museums: her most notorious pieces included a washing line hung with latex teats and condoms, and a performance called Pregnant Bride in a Wheelchair, in which she pretended to give birth in a Viennese gallery.

Yet the photographs in Transformation are wholesome, cheeky, funny and self-aware. Bertlmann is seen posing in sunglasses, pouting at the camera and making a fake moustache out of a lock of her dark hair. It’s a good rejoinder to the common perception of feminist art as dour, sour and dogmatic.

Transformation was one of the first works where a woman artist investigated herself through what today is called a selfie: the art of portraying oneself,” explains Ugolini.  

A selection of self-portraits from Renate Bertlmann’s Transformation (1969). Copyright the artist. 

Similarly thought-provoking and poignant is a self-portrait by Eleanor Antin, titled Portrait of the King, which shows the artist gazing soulfully into the camera wearing a fake beard. Born in the Bronx in 1935, Antin is a performance artist, sculptor and photographer who spent several days in 1974 wandering the streets of Solana Beach, California, in character as a male ‘king’, conversing with her ‘subjects’.

“This was a very important performance interrogating gender and sexuality,” says Ugolini. “What is interesting in these women’s work is that there is a lot of humour, and a lot of playing – with gender, with rules, and with stereotypes.”

Self II, 1-12 by Annegret Soltau (1975), left, and Portrait of the King by Eleanor Antin (1972), right. Copyright the artists. 

Some works in the exhibition seem rather less concerned with subverting feminine stereotypes. There’s nothing obviously political about Italian photographer Elisabetta Catalano’s glamorous portraits of iconic Sixties women: a former actress whose work appeared in Vogue, Catalano’s aesthetic was more Cecil Beaton than Annegret Soltau. 

But Ugolini, who sat for a portrait by Catalano in the early Nineties, says that the photographer was absolutely a feminist in the way that she worked.

“Feminists can also take pictures of beautiful, glamorous women,” she observes. “Catalano’s approach to photography – the way she worked and looked at a woman’s body – was very different to a man’s. From every single woman she photographed, she pulled out the best of her possibilities, and she did it in a very empathic way.”

Hanging opposite Catalano’s portraits is a series of raw self-portraits by the English feminist artist Jo Spence, showing various body parts at extreme close-up. “Spence used the camera as a tool to investigate beauty clichés,” says Ugolini. “So we have this juxtaposition of a glamorous eye on women, and also a very non-flattering, interrogating eye on the self. Both of those eyes are important.” 

Brazilian actress and model Florinda Bolkan, photographed by Elisabetta Catalano (1969). Copyright Archivio Elisabetta Catalano.

These works are significant not just for their inherent artistic value but also for what they tell us about the history of feminism and art, Ugolini says – not least because many of these artists were working at a time when women were routinely excluded from the mainstream art world.

“Of course, an artist is an artist, whether they are male or female. But art history taught us differently,” she says. “Women were cut out from the market, from exhibitions, and from art history itself.

“So women had to do something different: they had to show together, and perform together, and to do more work and move together. Feminism is one of the most important revolutionary movements in history, and women had to make their own space.”

Women Look At Women runs at the Richard Saltoun Gallery, London from February 15 – March 31, 2018. 

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: All courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery.