Valie Export, 'Tapp und Tastkino', 1968. © Valie Export/ VG Bildkunst, Bonn 2015 Courtesy of Galerie Charim, Vienna / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna.
Karin Mack, 'Zerstor̈ ung einer Illusion', 1977. © Karin Mack / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna.
Francesca Woodman, 'Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy', 1978/1979. © Courtesy George and Betty Woodman, New York / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna.
It’s a big one, this new exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery: 200-plus works by 48 artists from 20 countries. It’s also got a big name that some people will find pretty off-putting. In some ways that’s fine: more space for the rest of us to admire some incredible works of feminist art from the decade of ‘The Female Eunuch’, Spare Rib and defiantly abundant body hair. But it’s also perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity.
Domesticity, sexuality, identity and the body are the broad themes, spilling into each other across two small, tightly packed floors. Photomontage and video art get a good showing alongside straight-up photography; there’s even a bit of sculpture. You won’t know all the names on the walls, but you’ll come away wanting to – don’t forget to take home the hefty, austere-looking exhibition guide.
There are also some fun bits. Check out Birgit Jürgenssen’s self-portrait in a housewife’s apron that redefines the phrase ‘bun in the oven’, and Penny Wilson (the only British artist here) dressed as a wedding cake. There’s some great dirty stuff too, such as Lynda Benglis’s famous Artforum centrefold (google it, but not at work) and Tee Corinne’s ‘Cunt Coloring Book’ (sadly not available in the gift shop). In fact, there are a whole lot of vulvas on display here, decontextualised and desexualised in a way that’s still refreshing and liberating 40 years on.
What the show lacks is a sense of history or continuity. I wanted to know how younger artists have picked up on and picked apart this work: it feels a bit odd to seal off the ’70s when there are still people using the word ‘feminazi’. There’s also little attempt to engage anyone who might skip the exhibition on its title alone. However, if the words ‘feminist’ and ‘avant-garde’ do get your juices flowing, here’s an eye-opening introduction to a generation of bona fide pioneers.