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Exhibition Review: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s

The Photographers Gallery
16-18 Ramillies St
London W1F 7LW

W: The Photographers Gallery 
T:   +44 (020) 7087 9300
Opening hours:  Mon – Sat 10.00 – 18.00, Thu 10.00 – 20.00 during exhibitions, Sun 11.00 – 18.00

Admission to Exhibitions:
Exhibition Day Pass £4 (£2.50 Concession)
Advance Online Booking £2.50
Free admission before 12.00 every day

Title of Exhibition: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s
Exhibition run:  from October the 7th 2016 until  15th January 2017
Website for the exhibition: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 70’s

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-12-23-32To get a clear idea of just what this exhibition is about you can watch an interview with Gabriele Schor, Director of the VERBUND Collection and Anna Dannemann, Curator, The Photographer’s Gallery here… 

In this interview, Schor talks about her thinking behind the collection. She makes it clear the Verbund chose the budget and she chose the art.

And Dannemann talks about how she curated the exhibition and her decision process related to the layout of the art in the galleries.

Dannemann says of the exhibition…

“Focusing on photographs, collage works, performances, films and videos produced throughout the 1970s, the exhibition reflects a moment during which practices of emancipation, gender equality and civil rights protest movements became part of public discourse.”

So, what was it like to experience the exhibition?

The works range from the beautiful work of Francesca Woodman to the aggressive feminism of the day illustrated by the, frankly shocking, image of a pudendum with a tampon being removed in Judy Chicago’s ‘Red Flag’. I have deliberately chosen what I see as the extremes of the exhibited works.

Woodman used herself as the main subject for her art. She often created ethereal images in black and white, using movement and long exposures to produce dreamlike exposures relating to time and space and the self as it passes through both. Elegant and compelling small images theme her work. The sadness is she took her own life aged just 22. Her last journal entry, January the 19th, 1981  read…

“I was inventing a Language for people to see…”

You can see some of her work collected by the TATE here…

If you wish to read more about Woodman see here…

And of her work “Red Flag” Chicago has said

“I wanted to validate overt female subject matter in the art community and chose to do so by making “Red Flag” as a handmade litho, which is a high art process, usually confined to much more neutralized subject matter. By using such overt content in the form, I was attempting to introduce a new level of permission for woman artists. It really worked.”

I can only evaluate the exhibition from my viewpoint. That is seeing it both as a man and viewing it outside of the time signature for the works here in 2016, some 40 years past the making of the images. Clearly, I’m not observing as a woman in the 70’s. Do the works hold up in the context of today?

Some, like the works of Woodman, are timeless. On the other extreme some, like the works of Chicago have little else to give them merit other than the zeitgeist of  when the images were made. I found them aggressive, unnecessarily so.

Curiously the picturing of the female form found often in this exhibition seems – not just to me but to women I have spoken to about the exhibition works – to be opposite to feminism.  Where are the pictures of Rosa Parkes, Maya Angelou  and their like?  And heaven forfend, even Margaret Thatcher? Feminists, activists, strong women. Perhaps that’s a too simplistic, male interpretation on my part.

This exhibition is likely to polarise opinion. And the dividing line may not be easy to forecast.

Should this put you off from going to the exhibition? No. On the contrary. These are important pictures of their age, just as those by Vivian Maier, and should be judged as such. And, as such, should be seen by all.

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