Five Photographs That Formed the Feminist Avant-Garde

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Karin Mack, Zerstörung einer Illusion, 1977© Karin Mack / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna

The 1970s saw a new subset of women artists rise up against the establishment. As a new exhibition launches to celebrate their groundbreaking work, we consider the female image-makers behind it

Any social or political movement creates its legacy not just through what's written and spoken, but through the images around it. The peace symbol, especially when rendered in hasty black paintbrush script, has become a visual shorthand for the CND protests, for example, while a yellow smiley is a crafty nod towards rave culture and its associated mischief. What about feminism? The lazy descriptor of yore was bra burning. Perhaps dungarees, or body hair. But as we've moved past these tired old stereotypes and into the modern age of #feminism (for better and for worse), what imagery have we now?

Our best bet is to look back to the 1970s, to a radical group of female artists who were creating their own visual documentation of what it meant to be a woman, and a feminist. The artists of the Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s (a modern descriptor) made work in multiple media, including photography, collage, performance and film. Now, a new exhibition at London’s Photographers' Gallery is set to celebrate the stunning body of work from the Vienna-based Verbund Collection, showcasing more than 150 works by 48 international female artists. Alongside established names like Lynda Benglis, Judy Chicago, Ana Mendieta and Cindy Sherman, the show also unearths some imagery by lesser-known artists like Sanja Iveković, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Katalin Ladik and Nil Yalter.

The 1970s was a decade of visceral protests and new modes of expression, with equality, civil rights and sexual politics suddenly propelled to centre stage. As such, the works created to further these ideas were naturally often provocative, but that’s not to say they weren’t smart and beautiful too. Here, we select our five most significant images from the collections.

1. Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, One of 36 playing cards from mastication box, 1975
Wilke’s powerful yet playful series of 50 starification self-portraits takes its name from a mixture of the glamorous world of celebrity and the less glittering processes of damage and scars. The poses see the artist satirically ape glamour models, yet her skin is blemished by globules of discarded gum – a hint of dirtiness, and hinting at ritual scarring practices. The ludicrous and surreal nature of her props, here a strange fancy-dress combo of cowboy hat and shades, highlight the ridiculousness of the female body as a celebrity object; the marks show the scarring it could cause. The photograph series formed part of her performances, in which she would stick chewed gum onto visitors, then take her top off, then fetch the gum back and mould it into tiny little vagina shapes. What’s not to love?

2. Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Lucy), 1975/2001
We’d be remiss to exclude art world queen of dress-up and self-portraiture Cindy Sherman from this list, so here she is taking on the role of Lucille Ball, the star of television show I Love Lucy. This is significant as Sherman’s first ever film still, and forms part of the series Cindy Sherman Lucille Ball. The play acting that went on to forms the basis of the artist’s career was a true case of life imitating (or more accurately, becoming) art: at university she often spent time dressed as different characters, describing it as a “therapeutic thing” in an interview with The New York Times.

3. Valie Export, Tapp und Tastkino, 1968
Tapp und Tastkino translates as “Tap and Touch Cinema,” and takes the ideas of expanded cinema – a movement beginning in the 1960s that made cinema into an interactive, participatory event – into a defiantly feminist sphere. VALIE EXPORT (yes, it’s always all caps) officially became the name of the former Waltraud Hollinger when she turned 28. The shouty styling of the moniker looked to become a loud, proud gesture to cut through the male-dominated performance art coterie of the Vienna Actionists at the time. By taking control of her own name, she avoided the subservient and phallocentric connotations of keeping her father’s surname or taking her husband’s. Instead she chose EXPORT as a provocative nod to a popular 60s cigarette brand. Tapp und Tastkino formed part of the artist’s wider actions against modern consumerism and technologies, using her body as cinema footage and forcing the public to engage with her as a fleshy live entity, rather than a disconnected female form on a screen.

4. Mary Beth Edelson, Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper, 1972
Edelson’s collage is seen as one of the most important works in feminist art, using Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper as a platform to highlight how culture and religion has consistently written women out of their narratives. The artist collaged the heads of women including American artists Nancy Graves and Georgia O’Keeffe over John the Baptist and Jesus Christ respectively. Since the 1970s, the poster and the others in the Death of the Patriarchy series have been exhibited at the Tate in London and at MoMA in New York.

5. Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Construction Chart #1, 1975
Like Sherman, Lynn Hershman Leeson often used herself as a canvas on which to explore identity and ideas of female roles in society. In her Roberta Breitmore series, which she worked on between 1974 and 1979, the artist took on a new role as a stereotypical, all-American “ideal” woman. Far from simply donning “Roberta’s” wig and makeup, Hershman Leeson went as far as creating her entire existence – verified with credit cards, a driving license, and even psychiatrist letters. The work feels powerfully resonant today, in a world where identities are never simply inherent, but constructed digitally, and these examinations of reality and authenticity of the self are needed more than ever.

Feminist Avant Garde From the 1970s runs from October 7, 2016 until January 15, 207 at The Photographers' Gallery, London.