Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s

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Mary Beth Edelson's take on the Last Supper

This is a timely exhibition of art from second wave feminism, which emerged in the 1960s. By the 1970s artists were using photography, performance and installations as tools for activism. Women’s emancipation and gender equality became a visible part of a wider movement for liberation. Famously the personal became the political.

This is very much in evidence at the exhibition which takes an unflinchingly intimate view of female representation in art and society. Over 200 works by 48 international artists are shown on two levels of the gallery.

The exhibition is divided into four sections under the headings The Seductive Body, Domestic Agenda, In My Skin and Alter Ego. A recurring theme running through the show is an intense questioning and re-evaluation of gender roles, often riffing on iconic images. So you get Ulrike Rosenbach superimposing herself on Andy Warhol’s screen prints of Elvis Presley with a gun with the inscription “Art is a Criminal Action”. Later the same artist uses video to play with images of Bottecelli’s Venus and the martyred Saint Sebastian.

Mary Beth Edelson’s “Some Living American Women Artists”, is a reworking of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with Georgia O’Keeffe in the centre surrounded by, among others, Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono and Lee Krasner. What is noticeable about this image is that only three out of the 60 artists pictured are women of colour. This illustrates a critique of second wave feminism that it was mainly the preserve of white middle class women.

From challenging stereotypes the artists move on to expose established ideas of female beauty by using their own bodies in very explicit ways. Using themselves as the very material for their art forcefully restates the message that a woman’s body is her own, even before the final image is achieved.

The collection holds some very interesting images from the early work of Cindy Sherman, featuring famous metamorphic representations of herself. In “The Boxing Ring”, an image by another feminist heavyweight, Judy Chicago, channels and challenges world champion Jake LaMotta. Another fantastic Chicago image, “Red Flag”, is a close up of a woman removing her tampon. Both the Catholic church with its abhorrence of female genitalia and Cold War era Marxism receive a feminist left hook.

For all the truly revolutionary images on display, the exhibition hides an irony. The works come from the art collection of Austrian energy giant Verbund. After Austria joined the EU, the company fired over 50 percent of its staff. It was only after this that it established its art collection. Another neat example of art being used as corporate whitewash.