The Legacy of Art and Feminism in the 1970s

Katy Deepwell discusses the feminist art practices explored by herself and co-editor Agata Jakubowska in All-Women Art Spaces in Europe in the Long 1970s.

The book examines all-women art spaces in the long 1970s in Europe, can you explain how it came about?

Most of the contributors met at a panel, ‘All women art spaces as heterotopias’, that Agata Jakubowska had organised at the European Arts and Modernism’s Utopia conference in 2014 in Helsinki. She had the idea that it would be productive to consider the initiatives of women artists from the 1970s in the light of Foucault’s distinction between heterotopia as an actual realised space and utopia as a projected ideal or future vision. Heterotopias are spaces which are distinctive because of how they juxtapose (even in self-contradictory forms) in a single space many other spaces or facets of society, the art world and views of culture/sub-cultures. It is this relational sense of all-women’s art spaces that the book addresses by demonstrating the diversity of those spaces created for and by women in relation to their location within society and politics as well as in their attempts to build an alternative view of culture, a separatist cultural space, a temporary corrective measure for the art world, develop a new way of living and working amongst artists in relation to society, provide a support network, bring together a group of friends or make a radical demonstration of difference, dissent and possibility. The diversity of women’s initiatives is not only tackled in relation to the distinct politics within the twelve countries in Europe (which include liberal democracies, Socialist countries and dictatorships) covered by chapters, but also in relation to the feminist and non-feminist politics of collectives and co-operation which enabled them. The book encompasses “travelling views of feminism” across continents and countries and a wide variety of attitudes to political activism and political forms of art from strong engagement to pronounced hostility. It is necessary to state that feminism does not represent one kind of politics or approach and when this diversity of political views is discussed, it is a question of examining the art and politics in the sense of different tactics, strategy and effects.

Can you describe the content of the book?

The all-women spaces are highly varied in the activities they produced and the programmes they organised in both form and substance. They include analysis of the formation of groups of artists in different models of art organisation or arts association: from VBKO, SVBK, UFPS to Cooperativa Beato Angelico and the Erfurt Women Artists’ Group. It includes how women artists organised around a single exhibition (like Kvinnfolk or the Portuguese women artists exhibition at the National Society of Fine Arts or the activities of Resjning and Store at Charlottenborg or SVBK’s work for the Feministische Kunst International) as well as the formation of groups because of protests about an exhibition (even a UNESCO Year of Women exhibition and a state-sponsored show of women) for its exclusions (Intakt, Collectif Femmes/Art and Femmes en Lutte). In the book, there are several examples of the founding of galleries (by Intakt and Art et Regard des Femmes), an art school (Schule fur Kreativen Feminismus) and galleries/ libraries/ meeting places (LaSal). Many events, meetings or symposia (like Women’s Art in Poland or Intakt) are discussed as well as the making of collective artworks, films and projects (from Fenix, Hackney Flashers or Rejsning or Erfurt Women Artists). Many exhibitions and initiatives and people are referenced in the book as exemplified by the extensive index.
Even still, the book really presents only a few case studies and makes no claims for a comprehensive history of this timeframe or geography. Depending on how you count, there are 28 countries in the EU (including the UK) or 44-50 in Europe as a geographic area or continent and there remains plenty of scope for other analyses of All-Women Art Spaces which would look at other parts of Europe or other parts of the world in this timeframe which would highlight other types of projects or women’s art initiatives. The kind of co-operation between the European colleagues who wrote the chapters within the book is not new within feminism, but it forms a mirror of the collective activity which informed the all-women art spaces which are discussed.

Did you come across anything that you found particularly interesting or surprising?

Talking to colleagues, I realised that this book probably could not have been written until now, even though it is more than 40 years since most of the activities it addresses took place. The breadth of scholarship needed to contribute to a broader understanding of these initiatives has only really been undertaken in the last two decades across Europe and many of the contributors to this book have published the key books or articles in this field in their own languages. The overall book sets the stage for transnational comparisons between local sites in different countries and looking across the book what is demonstrated is the unevenness of developments and the clear differences in women’s politics and art practices in relation to the art scene and to the politics within their own country.

What does this book represent as a contribution to feminist art histories of the 1970s?

Feminist scholars have been looking back at the legacy of feminist art practices in the 1970s in many different initiatives since the 1980s and it should be noted here that there are several waves of scholarship especially in curatorial work in the USA and in Europe which have attempted this task. However, the emphasis has generally been on individual artworks and/or artists and most of this scholarship has been organised around discussion of how exhibitions were made. This retrospective reconstruction of “oeuvres” and tendencies in feminist art is also discussed within the book and several authors draw close attention to problematising any sense of history as offering any simple coherent linear narrative between past and present.
There have been remarkably few articles and books on the collective activities of the women’s art movement in many European countries documenting these histories, outside exhibition catalogues: notable exceptions include Griselda Pollock and Roszika Parker’s Framing Feminism (1987) or Women down the Pub’s anthology Udsight/View (2004) or articles and interviews within n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal (1998-2017). The last two decades have seen many of the older women artists involved pull together as well as open their personal archives to younger generations of scholars. This book would not have been possible without the close co-operation of individual authors with the artists who took part in these initiatives and provided access to this archival material. It is richer because of this dialogue. I think that this book opens the possibility for feminist scholarship to emerge from many other countries who also have similar initiatives which need to be documented and discussed in relation to women’s art collectives, not just exhibition histories, and in relation to ideas about feminist art practices and the politics of feminism.

Agata Jakubowska is Associate Professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland.
Katy Deepwell is Founder and Editor of n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal and Professor of Contemporary Art, Theory and Criticism at Middlesex University, London.

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The Crisis of History Painting in the 1850s – In Conversation with Gülru Çakmak

We caught up with author of Jean-Léon Gérôme and the Crisis of History Painting in the 1850s, Gülru Çakmak, to discuss the critical reception of the French painter’s work and his challenge of making history experiential.

Your new book addresses the crisis of history painting in the 1850s. Why did you choose to draw focus upon this period?

The earlier stages of my research focused on the critical reception of the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme’s work in France in the course of his entire career, from his earliest Salon exhibitions in the late 1840s until his death in 1904. This meant a thorough immersion in the art critical literature published in France spanning over half a century. At the end of about a year and a half of continuous reading of primary sources, I came to the realization that a decisive shift happened not only in Gérôme’s work but overall in the work of those artists aspiring to paint historical scenes in France in the 1850s. And all the arrows pointed, as the turning point, to the artistic and art critical activity that brewed during and immediately after the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris.

The book notes how the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855 reflected an indifference by the French public towards depictions of past heroes that had once held exceptional influence. What brought about this indifference?

As I explain in the book, this growing indifference—or let’s say a steadily diminishing conviction on the viewers’ side pertaining to the authenticity of a historical scene—did not happen overnight, but was the culmination of an epistemological shift relating to the definition of “history”: the combination of an increasing demand for empirical observation, coupled with a growing sense of an insurmountable distance separating the present from the past. As my book demonstrates through a close examination of the work of Paul Delaroche, Gérôme’s teacher and one of the key painters of the 1830s, a painter’s role in generating the viewer’s access to history would become progressively more problematic by the 1850s, and that artists had to invent increasingly intricate devices to guarantee that accessibility.

What was the role of Gérôme in changing attitudes towards history painting?

I present Gérôme’s work in the aftermath of the 1855 Universal Exhibition as tapping into growing anxieties about what was legitimately possible for an artist to paint, and my book narrates how, in the course of a couple of years, Gérôme’s experimentation with history painting would arrive at a point of explicit acknowledgement of the insuperable distance separating the modern viewer from the past. At the end of 1850s, Gérôme would invent a quintessentially modern history painting, one which had to come to terms with the fact that a modern viewer would always arrive at the scene of the historical incident already belatedly, and that she could never experience history the way an actual historical witness had done. Then what kind of an experience could the modern viewer have, how could a modern history painting convincingly and legitimately make history experiential? These were the critical questions Gérôme asked.

This study focuses on a small group of paintings. Why did you choose these and what was their impact?

My initial aim was to consider different moments from the artist’s career. However, once I immersed myself in research, I realized the programmatic and experimental nature of a handful of paintings he made in the immediate aftermath of the 1855 Universal Exhibition. The paintings themselves insist on a close, in-depth investigation. I’m glad it turned out this way: this is the first monograph on Gérôme that does not offer a sweeping and generalized account of his oeuvre, and instead hones in on a key period. The problems he had to acknowledge head on, and the strategies he would explore and mine in the coming decades of his career all trace their roots to this foundational period and to these handful of works.

How do you think Jean-Léon Gérôme and the Crisis of History Painting in the 1850s paves the way for further research into the history of art?

I hope my book will inspire others to look at Gérôme’s work, slowly and closely, for extended periods of time. Rather than reiterating received ideas and categories about what his work is supposed to do and be about, I would wish for my readers to be inspired to take the time to examine works by this artist with new eyes, and discover for themselves the different ways in which Gérôme’s most significant paintings and sculptures solicit the viewers to be highly active agents and not merely passive consumers. We’ll have a very different picture of nineteenth-century artistic modernity in European art once we begin to reconsider artists like Gérôme whose work has been insistently stereotyped and marginalized to play stock characters in our established art historical narratives.

Gülru Çakmak is Associate Professor in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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Individuals Against Individualism – In Conversation with Jacopo Galimberti

To celebrate the US release of Individuals Against Individualism we caught up with author Jacopo Galimberti to discuss geopolitical influences on art and the role of ‘minor’ art centres in heightening interest in collaborative art practices.

 In the UK? Purchase your copy of Individuals Against Individualism here.

Individuals Against Individualism examines the phenomenon of collective art practice in the continental Western Europe of the late 1950s and of the 1960s. What drew you to focus on this phenomenon and this period?

Over the past twenty years scholars and curators have concentrated on art collectives. The literature on this topic is engaging, but few publications have developed analytical tools to distinguish between collaborations that are sometimes informed by antithetical principles. The concept of “collective art practice” serves this purpose. When I pinned down this notion I began to discern the contours of a neglected cultural and artistic phenomenon. I came to realise that the worldwide protests of 1967-1969 marked only the beginning of a third phase in the temporality that I was exploring. The origin of collective art practice can be traced to 1956-1957, and is located far from the main centres of the western art world. This discovery was fascinating, because it pushed me to look at the political turmoil of 1956, which is an unusual year to begin an art-historical narrative. In hindsight, I believe my search for alternative timeframes owed a lot to the conjecture that Europe was experiencing at the time of my research. The main ideas of the book were developed between 2009 and 2012, in the midst of a political, economic and humanitarian crisis that has radically changed how we see the world and the Left.

How did you go about your research for this book? Did you come across anything that you found particularly interesting or surprising?

I wanted my research to be based on primary sources and to be truly transnational, so I had to become more transnational myself. I started learning German, for example. In terms of methodology, I did my best to combine “theory” with social history. Sarah Wilson had a profound impact on my approach, which involved dozens of interviews with artists. I was particularly surprised by what I have called “the myth of the invisible artist”, which is a counterpart to what Hans Belting has described as “the invisible masterpiece”. I discuss this in Chapter 4, but it is a leitmotif of the entire book.

In what ways did political ideas and geopolitical conflicts affect the cultural history of art in this period?

During the first two decades after World War II, art was often considered politics by other means. This was implemented through cultural diplomacy (for example, Malraux bringing Mona Lisa to J. F. Kennedy in 1963), blockbuster shows and high-profile exhibitions such as Documenta and biennials. But there were also less straightforward ways to exert “soft power”. In my book, I focused on the idea of the individual artist, which had unprecedented geopolitical overtones in the 1950s. The figure of the individual and individualist artist became part and parcel of the cultural confrontations of the Cold War, which is a misleading term as many proxy wars actually took place. Some leftist artists did not want to be treated as “useful idiots”, and put in place authorial policies that contradicted the mainstream views of the artist.

What was the role of ‘minor’ art centres in heightening interest in collaborative art practices?

In the 1960s, the dichotomic frameworks of the post-War years began being challenged on a geopolitical level, think of the “Third World”, a term that had nothing derogatory connotations, in fact it was quite the opposite. The western art world saw a similar shift, with “minor” art centres like Düsseldorf, Milan, Nice and Turin quickly developing a thriving art scene. “Minor” centres were the cradle of collective art practice; two Spanish cities, Cordoba and Valencia, proved crucial, but so were also Munich, Padua and Zagreb. This having been said, Paris and New York still catalysed artists and money

How do you think Individuals Against Individualism paves the way for further research in this area?

The book addresses myriad themes that deserve further investigation, such as the cultural diplomacy of the Francoist regime and the geopolitical agenda of the Paris Biennale. The issue of “minor centres” is another engaging topic. I hope my research will contribute to the emancipation of the discipline from its discriminations, illuminating, for instance, how the “margins” were also in the heart of Europe and cleaved Western art canons. My research could also pave the way for studies of contemporary collectives. The work and theoretical discourse on authorship of Claire Fontaine (a duo) has conspicuous precedents in the 1960s. Some governments and cultural institutions still treat artists as “useful idiots”, but the goals have changed. It is no longer covert anti-communist campaigns that enlist their “personality” and “freedom”, but rather property developers and authoritarian states opening world-class museums. There is nothing nostalgic in my book, I hope; the 1960s are a toolbox to understand, and act in, the present time.


Dr Jacopo Galimberti is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Social Sciences of the University of Manchester.

In the US? Purchase your copy of Individuals Against Individualism here.

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