Exhibition: The Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s at the Photographer’s Gallery

The Photographers' Gallery delivers work by both unknown artists and icons of second wave feminist art in this must-see exhibition

2 years agoText by

feminist avant garde of the 70s

The seventies were an era of change, evolution and transformation in multiple senses. The woman, once owned by man, ended her lethargy and woke up in order to claim herself as subject and not as object. As such, The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s show at The Photographers’ Gallery is more than a photographic exhibition: it is a portrait of liberation.

Belonging to the Sammlung Verbund collection, these works reflect the feminist movement of the 1970s, but also the artistic boom that this sexual revolution caused. We find a group of artists taking a complete U-turn on the perception of women, evolving the relationship between subject and object, to give back to the feminine identity that which belonged to her: its own personality.

Helena Almeida, Eleanor Antin, Alexis Hunter, Birgit Jürgenssen, Leslie Labowitz, Ana Mendieta, Martha Rosler, Hannah Wilke, Martha Wilson, Francesca Woodman and Nil Yalter are some of the names in a collection that is poetry, provocation and irony, but above all a revolution.

These 70s artists dared to introduce a new look into contemporary art, laying the necessary foundations for the innovations they introduced, both in a formal and conceptual way. The idea of being a woman is analysed in all its dimensions and spheres through photography, video art, drawing and sculpture. They used a critical eye in two directions, to look and to be looked at.

The body of the woman, used by men throughout history at his whim, is now used by women themselves to break established patterns. We see this in Mendieta’s Glass on Body Imprints, a series of pictures showing the artist’s features distorted and crushed, and also in Wilke’s S.O.S Starification Object Series, with Wilke herself topless and covered in vagina-shaped chewed-up gums. They fought the stereotypical views of women by creating their very own universes and boldly using their bodies as a means of expression, breaking taboos in the process. That was the second wave feminist spirit!

There is plenty of work by the ‘big names’ of the feminist movement, like Sanja Ivekovic’s series of pictures of the Tommasseo gallery inauguration as she receives visitors one by on,e her mouth taped, the beating of her heart playing through speakers, to denounce soft violence against women and Nil Yalter’s Headless Woman which brings in issues of intersectionality decades ahead of a debate that continues today.

But there are also pieces by less known artist such as the Americans Rita Meyers and Martha Wilson, the English radical feminist Alexis Hunter, the Italian Ketty La Rocca and the German Annegret Soltau. Finally, of course, the presence of the Austrian artists is very substantial: Renate Bertlmann, with the stupendous series of tender contacts, (rtliche Berührun), in which she uses latex and condoms with an anticipatory punk style; and Birgit Jürgenssen, with her ironic deconstruction of stereotypes.

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s shows a strong group of women that made a big contribution to what we know today as feminism, and how it’s up to us to follow in their footsteps.


Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s runs until January 29th at the Photographers’ Gallery.