Practice-Based: Beauty Cultures, Fragmentation & Collage

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

John Berger

“My work explores how the beauty/fashion and porn industries use imagery to sustain control over women by normalising body objectification and societal expectations of how women should present themselves. I use paint, collage and fabric work, to highlight the damaging effects these industries have on women’s mental and physical health. Within my work I explore the sinister and alluring nature of this imagery by creating new, monstrous characters…

I create my work directly from fashion/beauty magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue and pornographic magazines like Penthouse. Making collage allows the use of fragmentation which echoes the principle behind my work, the breaking down of patriarchal control these images have over women. It allows me to fragment then rebuild, turning widely seen pristine imagery into warped, nightmarish monsters. I prefer to use a tangible method of making; physically cutting and sticking my collages into a sketchbook before scanning them into the computer and photoshopping them to become more vibrant and visibly fake.

I go on to paint in acrylic from my collages, creating larger than life size, doll like characters in heightened detail. Painting enables me to change and augment aspects of the collages in a gestural manner. It also gives the images an alluring quality which contrasts with the sinister nature of the content. My use of acrylic means my characters remain flat on the canvas, emphasising their two dimensionality and referring back to their source material.

For my fabric works, I use a heat press to imprint my collages onto soft pink fabric. I proceed to fold and scrunch the fabric they are printed on, juxtaposing the sensual look of the fabric with the deformed nature of the collages. 

The play between the sinister and the alluring underpins my work, drawing attention to the motives of the imagery I use, which consciously or subconsciously is to maintain control over women. The power of this imagery is in it’s seduction; we long and are expected to be the unattainable woman and this failure to be her then manifests itself through a toxic self-deprecation”

Art by Izzie Beirne.

Beirne is a 22 year old Newcastle based artist who recently graduated from Leeds Arts University with a BA First Class Honours. She is currently making new work for an exhibition at The Bowery Gallery  in Leeds 7th December 2019- 24th of January 2020. 

You can find her on Instagram at @izziebeirneart

Spotlight: Designer Hala Kaiksow

Hala Kaiksow is a designer, an artist and a sculptor. Her intricate craft, design and construction of garments and pieces allows for profound and striking engagements between the natural world and human labour (hand-woven, naturally dyed fabrics, woven raw linen, silk and hemp are often embellished with fragments of latex and metal, as well as natural wood and mother of pearl). Her contemporary practice is infused with a sense of rich Islamic tradition and the past; Kaiksow’s inspiration draws from nomadic antique Bergers clothing to traditional Barhani uniforms. Last year, she was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize 5, an international prize for contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic tradition held by the Jameel Art Foundation.

Wandress Collection

“Hala Kaiksow’s journey as a designer begins with the human hand and its ability to imbue garments with a sense of soul.”

Hala Kaiksow, Artist’s Statement
Kaiksow’s practice, weaving on her loom
Nomas Collection
Turba Collection
Al-Qursan Collection

“It is a reflection of Hala’s artisanal approach to thoughtful luxury, one informed by her passion for transforming unexpected materials through age-old craft traditions.”

Hala Kaiksow, Artist’s Statement
Al-Kīmīya Collection
Al-Qursan Collection

Poetry: ‘A kind of fretful speech’ by Marianne MacRae

My interest in Marianne Moore began in 2011, when I was doing a Creative Writing MSc at the University of Edinburgh. I took a course called Poet Critics, and, on a list of nine modernist poets, Moore was, shamefully, the only woman. This, alongside the fact we share a first name, made me infinitely more attracted to her work than that of her much-lauded male compatriots. When I actually got stuck into her Collected Poems, I realised we also share a love of animals, the natural world and deep sense of irony about… pretty much everything.

I decided to pursue a PhD and placed Moore’s animal poetry the heart of the project. Initially I intended to investigate the role of talking animals in poetry (Moore’s ‘The Monkeys’ is a real favourite of mine), but as my research developed, I was drawn to the idea that poetry focussed on animal otherness can lead to a spiritual (not necessarily religious) connection with nature. By the end of my PhD, my work on Moore had shifted to concentrate on her poetic connections between visual art and art in nature as a means of reaching towards the sublime. 

It took me three years to secure funding for my project, and while the waiting and the initial rejections were difficult to navigate, I found deep comfort in Moore’s poetry. Her work holds an infinite source of wisdom, humour and intrigue, and even now, almost a decade after my first encounter with her, I take away something new with every reading. ‘“A kind fretful of speech”’ (I hope) pays homage to her style of syllabic verse, her penchant for quotes (all of which come from her poems) and the motif of the sea that appears in some of her most striking works (‘The Fish’ and ‘A Grave’, for example). But really, I wrote this poem as a tribute to a woman who, from beyond the grave, has enriched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined, for which I am eternally grateful. 

Words by Marianne MacRae 

Review: Helene Schjerfbeck Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-portrait, Black Background, 1915. Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 36 cm. Herman and Elisabeth Hallonblad Collection. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Yehia Eweis

The painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862—1946) is apparently ‘one of Finland’s best kept secrets’.[1] I must disagree: firstly, we Finns don’t really aim to keep national secrets (or, at the very least, we get very excited when anything Finnish, such as this exhibition, makes international news), and, secondly, Schjerfbeck is probably Finland’s most internationally acclaimed painter—that the curator of Helsinkian Ateneum Art Museum, Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, can describe London as ‘the final outpost’ not yet conquered by Schjerfbeck, tells more about the British isolationist tendency than about the painter’s international reputation. However, I think there’s grounds to get excited about the fact that British audiences are discovering her only now: a clean canvas means that, since there aren’t layers of old paint to be rubbed out first, the discussion we create around Schjerfbeck can be made fresh, strong and feminist.

Review: Helene Schjerfbeck Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

Interview: Curator Marit Paasche on Scandinavian textile artist Hannah Ryggen

Hannah Ryggen, 1958. Photograph: Klaus Forbregd/NTNU University Library

The Swedish-born Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) was responsible for some of the most daring, radical textile art created in the twentieth century. Ryggen’s life and work were strikingly atypical: a self-taught weaver and committed communist living on a remote, self-sufficient farm in Norway, Ryggen rejected the art market in order to create public art that critiqued the patriarchal, capitalist world order. Her tapestries offer radical responses to the trauma and chaos of modernity, whilst also exploring new ways of living in, and with, the world. Ryggen allows the brutality of the twentieth century to burst through her tapestries’ angular patterns and flat colour fields, raising questions about the politics of modernism and the purpose of art in a troubled world.

Many of Ryggen’s tapestries represents the destruction wrought by fascism and war, but her materials and methods offer the hope of renewal and reconstruction. She dyed wool shorn from local sheep and, by creating every dye by hand, using flora and fauna gathered from around her home, Ryggen quite literally wove the Norwegian landscape into her tapestries. Her commitment to organic methods was such that she would even invite her houseguests to pee in a bucket, as one of her favourite colours, ‘pot blue’, was made using fermented urine! Her work anticipates eco-feminist arguments that urge us to, in Lori Gruen’s words, ‘revalue nature’ and deconstruct the hierarchical dualisms between nature and culture, men and women, human and non-human. Ryggen’s legacy is a modern, feminist art that eschews patriarchal capitalist structures and the masculine, destructive violence of fascism and chemical warfare; instead, she offers us a (much needed) alternative vision of life and creativity. 

As the curator of several exhibitions of Ryggen’s work and author of artist biography Hannah Ryggen: Threads of Defiance, which will be published by Thames and Hudson and University of Chicago Press next month, curator Marit Paasche is responsible for much of the revival of interest in Ryggen. I caught up with Marit to discuss Ryggen’s art, politics, and connection to the Norwegian landscape…

How did you first encounter Ryggen and what drew you to her work?

I grew up in Trondheim, a city in the middle of Norway which also possesses the biggest collection of Hannah Ryggen’s works ( at Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum). So, I saw her works there for the first time when I was around twelve. Many years later, in 2009, I was reminded of her tapestries by some students and a colleague of mine at the Art Academy in Oslo, and I went to see them again. This time, Ryggen’s tapestries nearly knocked the wind out of me. It was obvious that her work was distinctive, by both national and international standards and they had this rare quality of being both personal and political, in a very explicit, yet original way.  

Seven years later, I published, Hannah Ryggen. En fri, as it is titled in Norwegian (published as Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance in English in September). During this same period I also curated several exhibitions in which her work was represented alongside both contemporary and older art. These exhibitions, and the attention they received, proved to me that Ryggen’s art is relevant to our time and to contemporary art. But why have her works begun to breathe again? To answer this question, I believe it is important to understand the circumstances in which her art was made. That is why I set out to uncover and write about the origination of Ryggen’s artworks– how they related to their own age, to lived life and to the ideas and trends of their era. For Hannah Ryggen, life, art, work and politics were one, and her sensitivity to connections between people, places, politics and social conditions are manifested in her weaving and in the vast body of written material she left behind. 

Ryggen was such an unusual and unconventional figure, in terms of her life and her art. How do you think she understood her place in both the art world and the wider socio-political world?

This is a very interesting subject because she clearly understood herself as a citizen of the world, even if she lived on this remote coastal area in the middle of Norway, and she also had this enormous confidence in art; with art she was capable of saying anything. Her way of relating to art felt very liberating for me. She also strongly believed in the impact of raising one’s voice and when you think of it; politics is always focused on the future, where its consequences lay. When she made her tapestries in protest against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (1935); of Hitler’s increasingly inhumane way of governing (1936) or the role of USA in the Vietnam war (1966), it was as a statement to the future. Hannah Ryggen’s artistic legacy reminds us that art is a part of public life and inextricably bound to politics. 

6 October 1942/ 6. Oktober 1942 (detail; 1943), Hannah Ryggen. Photo: Anders S. Solberg/Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum. © Hannah Ryggen / DACS 2017. Courtesy Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum / Museene I Sør-Trøndelag.

Why was the Norwegian landscape so important to Ryggen?

Norway doesn’t have a long tradition of painting, but it does have a very long tradition of weaving. When Hannah Ryggen arrived in Norway in 1924, she had already decided to quit painting and start weaving instead. It took her a decade to master the medium, and when I say master, I mean composition (often with respect to an outsized scale), carding, spinning, weaving techniques and, not least, making dyes from plants. It is also worth mentioning that she didn’t use any sketches or cartoons, but wove guided solely by an “inner image” ––she treated the warp like a canvas.  

Extracting colors from the natural terrain that surrounded her and controlling the sophisticated chemical processes that rendered the colors stable over time was the result of laborious experimentation, and after a while Ryggen came to know the land by heart and also how to extract colors from it. So although we rarely find the Norwegian landscape depicted, it is present in the very material; the linen, the wool and the great variation of natural dyes. Once she had this knowledge at her fingertips, she felt free to express herself.   

You could say Hannah Ryggen brought all of her painter’s knowledge and political fervor to bear in her weaving, but also a pictorial language partly derived from folk art.Also, the other (male) artists of the 1930s and 1940s acknowledged her talent and treated her as an equal. This made it possible for her to establish herself as one of the most renowned artists of her time in Scandinavia. 

Ryggen’s communist beliefs and self-sufficient lifestyle are so interesting in the context of the crises we face today – the climate catastrophe, rising fascism, and a widening gap between the super-wealthy and the poor. What can her work teach a contemporary audience? 

Throughout her career as an artist, Hannah Ryggen actively used her works as statements to society. She never considered the task of responding to events occurring around her to be anyone else’s obligation; she shouldered this responsibility herself. She took stock of her own life, and questioned generally held views about the role of women in society, poverty, economic injustice and inequality, and international conflicts caused by the rise Fascism in Europe.

Together with Will Bradley, I curated an exhibition at Kunsthall Oslo in 2011, with six of Hannah Ryggen’s tapestries alongside works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Cahun and other more contemporary artists like Ann Cathrin November Høibo and Ruth Ewan. On the 22 July, just a few weeks after the show closed, the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, detonated a car bomb just in front of the Highrise building in the governmental quarter, killing eight people. He then drove to the island of Utøya, about an hour outside of Oslo, where, dressed as a policeman, he shot and killed sixty-nine people at the summer camp of the Labour Party’s youth organization, most of them teenagers. This was a traumatizing shock to all Norwegians. We were suddenly reminded of the consequences of normalizing racist thoughts and ideas in public. 

One of Hannah Ryggen’s most iconic works, We are Living on a Star (1958), hung in the main entrance hall the of the Highrise, close to the blast. But the tapestry withstood the explosion because it is so pliant and relatively light, it only received a gash in the lower right corner, which conservators have now repaired. That this tapestry, which so powerfully proclaims faith in love as a personal and political force, should be struck in the first major attack on Norwegian society since the Second World War is now manifested by a trace, a visible scar in the bottom right corner. The scar is a reminder that no political struggle is ever concluded; they must be fought again and again.

Hannah Ryggen, Vi lever på en stjerne (We Are Living on a Star), 1958, textiles, 4 × 3 m,  Courtesy: Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum / Museene I Sør-Trøndelag, Trondheim, Norway

There is a huge revival in women artists, and, particularly, textile art, at the moment – as well as Ryggen, I’m thinking of recent exhibitions of artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Anni Albers, Frida Kahlo, and Faith Ringgold – why do you think this is and how do we stop it being simply a passing trend?

I think it is quite interesting to see that we have had a period of revitalized interest in ‘female’ artists.  Embracing the idea of the under-recognized female artist has become a popular international trend in recent years and I support this work because it is a correction of an extremely male-dominated account of modernism. I think we have just reached a period in history where it is no longer possible to ignore the work of so many extremely talented female artists. 

When I was working on Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance I came across a poem by the Irish poet Eavan Boland called ‘A Woman Painted on a Leaf’. It describes her longing for poems that have no beautiful young women in them. She writes: ‘I want a poem I can grow old in / I want a poem I can die in.’ Those lines hit me, and I think Hannah Ryggen’s work triggered in me a similar longing—for a different kind of art history. The sum of my research and work in diverse areas of contemporary art has taught me that there is so much great art that does not fit into an art history dominated by canons. So, to paraphrase Boland: I was longing for an art history I could live in: an art history with enough space to contain life and all the hard work, strange experiments and coincidences we know are the basis of all art. 

As to how we prevent the newly found interest in female artist from being merely a trend, I would respond: By looking closely at what public and private institutions acquire, and how female artists are represented in the collections. If they are not well represented, then it is our responsibility to make it heard, again and again. My other concern is how we write art history. This is of course closely connected to collections and to exhibition-practice, but we need to make art and art history an important issue for all citizens, not just leave it to the marginal field of academics. We need to find new ways of writing art history. This is what I have tried to do in Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance.

Ryggen doesn’t easily fit the ‘marginalised woman artist’ narrative, and, in her lifetime, she was reluctant to engage with the art market. In your opinion, how do we respect and do justice to the legacy of this sort of artist (I’m particularly thinking of the commercialisation and fetishisation of Kahlo, also a communist artist)?

No, the ‘marginalised woman artist narrative’ cannot be applied to Hannah Ryggen, and it is interesting to note how, in lifting female artists out of obscurity and focusing attention on their greatness, we almost automatically assume that these women – be it Carol Rama or Hilma af Klint – were marginalized or overlooked in their own time. In many ways, “forgotten” has come to mean “marginalized”. Initially, I made the same assumption myself about Hannah Ryggen. But when I sat down and went through the archival material, I was proven wrong. As opposed to many of her female artist-colleagues, Ryggen was proclaimed a genius by a number of art critics—mostly male—in the 1930s; she exhibited on a regular basis internationally, and her success was indisputable. 

Another very important aspect of her oeuvre was, as you mention, her reluctance to engage with the art market. When she first came toØrlandet, Hannah Ryggen made and sold craft items as a source of income, but she stopped doing so around 1933. Meanwhile, the large-scale weavings were extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive, and her art was for a long time an economic drain on the family. During the 14 years from 1926 to 1940 Ryggen earned merely 3000 Norwegian crowns from her tapestries, just a little more than the annual average salary. And yet, despite extremely difficult means, Ryggen never compromised: not only did she give up making and selling crafts, she also more or less refused to sell her monumental weavings to private buyers. She wanted her works to be public statements, and for that reason felt that they should be publicly owned and hang where all citizens had access to them. And because of this, most of her major works are in public collections in Norway and Sweden today, which makes the art works available on a completely different level than works owned by private collectors.  

When you try to make an artist known there is always an element of commercializing involved and it is difficult to balance the need for attention and the message presented. I have tried to make visible all the myth-making related to Hannah Ryggen ––she was responsible for some of it herself too–– and also to avoid all kinds of exotification, simplifications and attempts at heroic storytelling. 

Hannah Ryggen: Woven Manifestos is at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt from 26 September – 12 January 2020.

Interview by Lottie Whalen

Interview: Nnenna Okore on Fraying, Twisting, Teasing, Tying

Nnenna Okore is an artist, educator and environmentalist. She has received international acclaim for the ways in which she engages with the environment in her artistic practice. Her abstract sculptures are created using a range of methods; shredding, fraying, twisting, teasing, tying, weaving, stitching, and dyeing are all used to create rich, textured pieces. Her materials are all biodegradable and range from old newspapers, found paper, ropes, thread, yarn, fibres, burlap, dye, coffee, starch, clay and more. 

She is a Professor of Art at Chicago’s North Park University, and has had her work featured at venues including the Museum of Art and Design, New York; Peabody Essex Museum at Salem, Salem; Tang Museum of Art, Skidmore College, NY; Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Art, New York. 

In her artist’s statement, she writes that she is ‘astounded by natural phenomena that cause things to become weathered, dilapidated and lifeless – those events slowly triggered by aging, death, and decay – and subtly captured in the fluid and delicate nature of life’. 

Interview: Nnenna Okore on Fraying, Twisting, Teasing, Tying

Review: Women on Screens – Printmaking, photography and community activism

Print-it-Yourself, courtesy of Hackney Museum

One of Audre Lorde’s poems talks about the master’s tools will never dismantle a master’s house. I think there was a real conscious use of imagery to use not the master’s tools but women’s tools, which were traditionally the broom and the vacuum cleaner. It was about looking at power and agency differently, and using women’s ways to create change.’

  • Suzy Stiles, worker at the Lenthall Road Workshops.

If you stepped through the ordinary-looking front door of 81 Lenthall Road in the 1970s and 80s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled on a covert military operation. In this shabby townhouse down a quiet street in Hackney, East London, you’d find women kitted out in boiler suits, respirator masks, and thick gloves moving around chemicals and heavy-duty equipment. The artist Claudette Johnson, a member of the Lenthall Road Workshop, recalls feeling like ‘guerilla fighters’, ready to ‘change something in society’. The revolution they were planning, however, was a peaceful one: their weapons were cameras, screen-printing materials, and the power of a community united by desire for social change, and they were fighting to ‘change how women were viewed in society’. Posters and other printed material made by the group are currently on display in a small but inspiring exhibition at the Hackney Museum, which traces the history of the feminist Lenthall Road Workshop from its beginnings as a community silkscreen and photography service in 1975, to its collaborations with groups such as Women’s Aid, the Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, and Hackney Urban Studies Centre throughout the 1980s, and ending with its ultimate loss of funding in 1993. 

Claudette Johnson at Lenthall Road Workshop, courtesy of Hackney Museum

The workshop was set up as a reaction against the invisibility of women, and, in particular, BAME and disabled women, in male-dominated, white, heteronormative representations of public life. From its inception, the Lenthall Road Workshop focussed on empowering, rather than speaking for, the community – Suzy Stiles notes that the group wanted to give women ‘access to the means to enable their voices to be heard’. To achieve this, the Workshop arranged skill-sharing sessions and offered affordable classes on screen-printing and photography. By learning these skills, ordinary women gained the tools they need to gain both a place for themselves in society and a platform to shout about issues affecting their lives and communities. One section of the exhibition is dedicated to the Hackney Girls Project, a youth initiative set up by the Lenthall Road Workshop to provide a safe space for girls to play sport and hang out with friends, but also to learn practical skills such as self-defence. Crucial to the Hackney Girls Project and the Lenthall Road Workshop’s wider mission was the sense that activism and revolution start at home. To empower women in their everyday lives, the group organised lessons from electricians and other tradespeople; members could gain the skills they needed to improve their own homes and also become more employable. In Eithne Nightingale’s memories of the workshop, she fondly recalls learning to make curtains to liven up her grotty flat. 

Reclaim the Night (1980), courtesy of Hackney Museum

Perhaps the most striking element of the exhibition is the Lenthall Road Workshop’s total commitment to accessibility and inclusion. Posters that the group created to promote the many feminist festivals, screenings, and workshops they helped organise throughout Hackney consistently proclaim that events support LGBT members, are accessible to wheelchair users, and include crèche facilities. The exhibition includes images publicising a vast range of causes and initiatives, from the Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights’ Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, to the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and photographer Gonul Zeki’s prints and t-shirts declaring slogans like ‘HETEROSEXUALITY IS NOT NORMAL, IT’S JUST COMMON’. Equal representation was something that the Workshop viewed as an ongoing process: by the mid-1980s, its core group of organisers were all black working-class women, in an effort to encourage more women from this section of the community to participate. In this way, a genuine concern with engaging and empowering local people was consistently at the heart of the Lenthall Road Workshop’s operations. Beyond offering practical skills, it also facilitated a supportive network for working-class women. The exhibition repeatedly reminds us that it functioned as a crucial space of communication and exchange in a pre-internet era, a place where women could share stories, discuss ideas, and build confidence together. One poster promoting Shintaido lessons features a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, which encapsulates a key part of the Workshop’s ethos: ‘all these are the powers and privileges of friendship’.

Rolling Sisters, courtesy of Hackney Museum

Stepping out from the museum back in to the Hackney of 2019, it’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration. The racist, sexist, and ableist society that the Lenthall Road Workshop challenged seems sadly all too familiar: rising hate crime against minority groups, the hollowing out of London’s youth services, and a racist, chauvinist egotist as our soon-to-be prime minister make it seem like little progress has been made. Conversely, Lenthall Road today feels like a completely different world – now a smart street with houses selling for well over a million pounds, it’s impossible to imagine that this could be the site of radical activism and community action. ‘Women on Screens’ ends on a call to harness digital technology and online platforms in the continued struggle for women’s empowerment and freedom of self-expression, yet it’s worth bearing in mind that in-person activism and print publications such as OOMK, Gal Dem, and Doll Hospital are still essential agents for change in our digital age. ‘Women on Screens’ is an important reminder that small acts can revolutionise our everyday lives, as well as the need – now as much as then – to build bonds in and across the community, share knowledge, and leave no one behind.

A is for ‘Ackney (c. 1970s), courtesy of Hackney Museum

Women on Screens: Printmaking, photography and community activism at Lenthall Road Workshop 1970s-1990s, at Hackney Museum, London, between 14 May – 31 August

Words: Lottie Whalen

Review: The Cutting Edge Women of British Modern Printmaking

Image of Dorrit Black's 'Music', made between 1927-1928. Colourful, abstract patterns in the background overlaid with stylised figures dancing.
Dorrit Black, Music, 1927-28. Elder Bequest Fund 1976, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. 

With bold colours, pulsating patterns and dynamic figures, the works of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art exude the great vitality and rhythm of modern life in 1930s Britain. This little known group of artists is the subject of the current exhibition Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Taking place 90 years after the first exhibition to showcase British linocuts in London, it celebrates the innovative work made by ten artists affiliated with the Grosvenor School during its short but intense period of activity between the world wars.

The Grosvenor School of Modern Art’s contribution to British modern art has largely been forgotten and under-researched. Yet, the over 120 prints, drawings and posters on display illustrate why these artists deserve to have their moment in the spotlight. Founded in Pimlico, London in 1925 by the Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab, the Grosvenor School of Modern Art was dedicated to the production of modern printmaking during the interwar period. At its heart was Claude Flight, the artist and teacher is credited as a champion of linocut printmaking and the force behind the school’s promotion of this modern technique as a serious art form. 

Developed in Germany in the early twentieth century, linoleum colour print (linocut) was a new art form that involved an accessible making-process and affordable materials (linoleum is a mixture of cork and linseed oil on a canvas backing that was invented in the 1860s as a cheap and easily cleaned floor surface). The democratic nature of this medium offered fresh opportunities for experimentation and expression. Flight promoted linocuts as ‘an art of the people’ since it allowed a great range of people to appreciate modern art and practice it themselves.

Students at the Grosvenor School 1930s.

The exhibition’s opening room thoughtfully introduces this unique school, displaying archival materials and prints by members of the British Avant garde such as Paul Nash and Christopher Nevinson – the latter whom Flight studied alongside at art school – to illustrate its contextual groundings and modernist approach. Displayed in dialogue on opposite walls, it is clear how Flight’s own work and that of his students were influenced by international Avant garde movements such as Vorticism, Futurism and Cubism: their use of stark contrast, harsh lines and abstracted forms to emphasize speed and mechanics when capturing the horrors of the modern world as witnessed during the First World War.

However, as evident in the following room and throughout the exhibitions, the Grosvenor School group draw upon these styles to present a more positive view of life in Britain during the interwar period. The progressive aims of the Grosvenor School artists – which included staff and students – is also seen in the subject matter their linocuts present. Gordon Samuel, the exhibitions curator, divides the works into themes across six rooms: labour and leisure, sporting life, the pastoral, London and transport. The works wonderfully capture the bustle of life in the 1920s and 1930s, turning every day scenes and relatable subjects into vibrant, captivating works of art. 

Sybil Andrews, Speedway, 1934. Photo Osborne Samuel, London/ © The Estate of Sybil Andrews.

It is the women of the Grosvenor School artists who steal the show. Outnumbering their male counterparts on display, these innovate women illustrate a full mastery of the art forum with seemingly great ease and flair. Central to the group was Sybil Andrews, an artist recruited by Macnab to be the secretary of the Grosvenor School. Her works feature in each room, but two that especially highlight her extraordinary skill were Speedway from 1934 (pictured above) and Straphangers from 1929 (pictured below). Considered to be her most successful print, Speedway depicts motorcyclists racing along the bend of the road as they make their turn around the speedway. Andrews used multiple blocks to craft her composition by building up the layers of colours to form her figures and give texture to the landscape, seen in the top left corner, as well as brilliantly utilising curved lines to illustrate the drivers great speed. Whereas in Straphangers, the curved lines of the block mimic the swaying of passengers as they hold on to the straps from above whilst riding the tube. It is almost as if one is looking through the window from another train carriage to where Andrews has paused the unique moment in which the commuters are suspended to one side as the train hurtles down its track. Erase the top hats and it could a contemporary view of the District line today.

Sybil Andrews, Straphangers, 1929. Linocut, 25.3 x 33 cm. Private Collection.

Inspired by Flight’s teaching and books on linocuts that were printed globally, international students came to study at the Grosvenor School. A majority of these students were middle class women traveling throughout Europe studying art, although the wall labels give no distinct explanation for this particular trend. Three Australian artists – Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme and Ethel Spowers – and Lill Tschudi, the Swiss student who first came to Grosvenor at the age of 17, feature prominently in the show and exhibit their great command of linocuts. For example, Dorrit Black’s Dance from 1927-28 (pictured at top) is inspired by a night out at a jazz evening in London. Black translates the energy and joy of jazz music through her use of bold colours segmented by black lines across the flat surface, resembling stained glass. With no differentiation between the floor and ceiling, her figures dance across the page seemingly with the rhythm flowing through their limbs, one can almost hear the hiss and tap of the drums with the crooning of a saxophone.

Lill Tschudi, Gymnastic Exercises, 1931. Photo Bonhams/ © The Estate of Lill Tschudi, courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery New York. 

The work of female artists within the Grosvenor School group show the full range of possibilities and potential of linocuts by taking everyday subjects and turning them into masterpieces of modern art. Their innovative use of colour, form and composition present a positive and celebratory view of daily life in Britain in the 1930s.

The exhibition concludes with a large display of the posters Andrews and Cyril Power – an artist and Grosvenor teacher of architecture – created together under the name ‘Andrews-Power’ for the London Underground, highlighting the mass appeal of the Grosvenor style at the time. It further emphasises how peculiar that these artists have remained largely unknown for so long given the high number of women artists, the group’s progressive aims and success in advertising. It is rare to come across a modern art group and more generally art school from this time that involved many women, and the lack of information specifically acknowledging this was clearly lacking. What were the motivations of international and middle class women being drawn to the Grosvenor School to pursue linocut printmaking as their chosen craft?

Regardless, it was refreshing to see modern women artists prominently featured in both the group’s activities and the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The work of Andrews, Tschudi, Black and their fellow female artists demonstrate the innovative ways in which they utilised linocuts to craft unique yet accessible and exciting reflections of work, play and modern life around them in abstracted form. Their images seem so familiar and simultaneously completely new. Their work and their stories illustrate why this exhibition on the Grosvenor School of Modern Art is relevant and important to people, and especially artists, today. Hopefully, as this thoughtful and elegant exhibition at Dulwich Gallery successfully argues, people are inspired further research and delve into the work of the cutting edge women and their contributions to modern art and design in Britain and beyond.

Suzanna Petot is a curator and writer based in London.

Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, open until 8 September 2019 (Book tickets here). All images courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Editorial #1: Craft Power!

Welcome to the first issue of ‘Decorating Dissidence’, an online magazine dedicated to exploring the political, aesthetic, and conceptual qualities of craft and the decorative arts, from the early twentieth century to the contemporary moment. Casting a spotlight on overlooked artists, who work in experimental or non-traditional modes of making, it will explore the legacy of craft’s hidden histories and the alternative practices of contemporary artists. It asks questions such as: how can craft disrupt the spaces of ‘high’ art and culture? Can the decorative be political? What might a feminist genealogy of decorative art and craft look like?

In this issue, we are delighted to introduce you to the work of three exciting contemporary artists whose work utilises craft and traditional modes of making to confront socio-political issues. Jade French interviews multimedia digital sculptor, writer, and curator Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark, who combines styles ‘[borrowed] from the decorative traditions of Renaissance sculpture’ with digital technology to create striking works that challenge the commodification of race and gender. Similarly, artist Pinkie Macclure draws on traditional methods of making to explore modern day stereotypes: ‘Beauty Tricks’ reworks styles typical of medieval stained-glass narratives to critique the beauty industry’s harmful effects on women and the environment. Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė also disrupts decorative notions of femininity with her unique embroidered metal objects. Mixing domestic and industrial textures, her work highlights the labour-intensive nature of embroidery and challenges the distinction between public and private space. Her work is in dialogue with the post-Soviet landscape of her native Lithuania and the craft of her mother and grandmother.

Lottie Whalen’s article on Geta Brătescu (1926-2018) highlights the work of a wonderfully innovative multidisciplinary artist, who created tactile, colourful worlds that explore the interconnected relationship between art, the body, and everyday life. The staggering length of her career (which lasted right up until her death aged 92) and its combination of modernist influences with conceptual techniques sets up an interesting link with Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012); like Brătescu, Tanning continued to create innovative, timely work that encompassed both twentieth-century avant-garde practices and early twenty-first-century innovation. Working across mediums, both artists decentre notions of modern art and invite us to contemplate alternative genealogies of feminist art. Polly Hember’s review of Tate Modern’s thrilling Tanning retrospective explores the artist’s representation of ‘unknown but knowable states’ across her diverse body of work. Finally, Suzanna Petot’s review of Lee Minora’s recent show ‘White Feminism’ looks at the ways that the actor’s portrayal of tone-deaf stereotypical pop-feminist Becky Harlowe shines a spotlight on how we are all guilty of crafting woke personas. As we work to construct new feminist cultural genealogies, Petot reminds us that is vital to reflect on our own practices and to be mindful of ‘how can we be better allies to our fellow feminists of all backgrounds.’

We also chatted to the brains behind modernist digital humanities project ‘Navigating the Avant-Garde‘ who are bringing Mina Loy’s archive to a whole host of new researchers and unpacking the many strands to her life as an artist.

We warmly encourage submissions from all disciplines – art practitioners, curators, makers, activists, academics, writers – as we strive to break down disciplinary boundaries and find new ways to intervene in feminist art history. Take a look at our Call for Submissions and get in touch:

Review: Breaking Down Doors with Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202)’, 1970-73. Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls 133 7/8 x 122 1/8 x 185 in.

The Tate’s first large-scale exhibition of artist Dorothea Tanning for twenty-five years offers one hundred works from her incredible seven-decade career and leads the viewer from room to room. This is rather apt, as Tanning’s paintings hinge on the transitory. Doors are often left ajar, hanging open with light peeking through in ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, or leading to a mise en abyme of other doorways in ‘Birthday’, or literally protruding from the canvas in ‘Door 84’ as two female figures push against the frame. As the gallery-goer wanders from room to room, through doorway after doorway, they transverse deeper into the unsettling, disturbing and brilliant wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser, the eight rooms vaguely follow the chronological trajectory of Illinois-born Tanning, from her early engagement with gothic oil-paint tableau that saw realism collide with fantasy, to flamboyant costume designs for the ballet and theatre, to her later paintings which are looser, more abstract and gestural, where body parts merge into unintelligible, uncanny dioramas of colour and affect. Throughout the later rooms soft, fabric, textile and oddly tactile material sculptures (created on Tanning’s sewing machine and stuffed with wool) burst through wallpaper and protrude from stands; a disembodied pregnant bulge here (‘Emma’), a curved leg there.

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Deux mots (Two Words)’, 1963. Oil on canvas 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.

Tanning first encountered surrealism in the 1930s, having moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist. She described and embraced surrealism as a ‘limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY’, with a profound ‘effort to plumb our deepest subconscious to find out about ourselves’. This impulse to engage with the deepest and often darkest parts of human nature can be seen across her phenomenal oeuvre. Walking into the first room, her famous ‘Endgame’ stands to the right of the entrance, denoting a surreal chessboard and a stamping glass slipper. This playful piece, the curators state, ‘represents intellectual and artistic interplay with members of the surrealist circle, as well as her romantic link with Ernst.’ The vague story of Tanning and the surrealist painter Max Ernst’s meeting has been told many times; he would name her self-portrait ‘Birthday’ (many critics have cited this as the ‘birth’ of her as a surrealist painter) , play a game of chess after the exhibition they met at, and then would marry in 1946. Ernst and his influence is often discussed in conflation with Tanning’s artistic practice; but, walking through the many rooms in this brilliant exhibition, thoughts of Ernst barely make it through the first door.

What overwhelms the exhibition is Tanning’s engagement with the female body and desire. Bodies are often depicted in movement, flux or transition. Whether it’s a liminal lingering on the precipice of a doorway (‘Birthday’), dancing (‘Tango Lives’), or caught in a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of oil paint where you can just about make out the shape of a torso or an arm (‘Deux Mot’); the paintings are sensual, sinister and evasive in their depiction of space, movement and embodiment.

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Tango Lives’, 1977. Oil on canvas 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.

Perhaps this fixation with movement or motion within her painting is a means of resistance,  flight and freedom. These paintings move away from or outside of the hegemonic, patriarchal constraints of convention, gender stereotypes, tradition, marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Tanning’s soft sculpture of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is ‘Emma’ is a stark and startling commentary on motherhood and tradition; a huge cushiony pregnant stomach that protrudes from dirty, tea-stained Victorian frills and lace. Tanning’s ‘Maternity’ is set in a harsh, overwhelming and infinite desert where a despondent mother cradles her child and a small, Pekingese dog looks out to the viewer with a human child’s face amid the fluffy dangling dog ears. Tanning’s depiction of maternity is odd, affronting and ominous. Room Three shows Tanning’s many depictions of a sinister ‘Family Table’. She subverts traditional notions of a family dinner table, stating these paintings are ‘generally a comment on the hierarchy within the sacrosanct family’. A huge, towering and authoritarian father figure looms in the background in ‘Portrait de Famille’, and ‘Some Roses and Their Phantoms’ scatters wilted, decrepit petals over dinner plates.

The most striking is the installation piece that awaits around a corner in Room Seven: ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202’. A dusty french hotel room with soft fabric limbs, bellies and shapes that capture a startling yet sensual sense of the uncanny valley as bulges of stuffed fabric are contorted in what might be pain or pleasure. Whether it’s an episode of Stranger Things with demogorgons bursting through walls, or perhaps a line from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper: ‘I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?’, or the song that Tanning named the installation sculpture after; this piece is hugely evocative and haunting. The odd material limbs extend out of the walls, merge with the furniture and encroach on one’s very own sense of materiality. Caught in motion between object and subject, alive or inanimate, Tanning reflects that she wanted the dingy hotel room to look as if ‘the wallpaper will further tear with screams’.  

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Emma’, 1970. Fabric, wool, and lace 11 11/16 x 25 3/8 x 21 5/8 in. (body: 11 1/4 x 22 x 12 1/2 in.)

Through these eight rooms, through the doorways in and protruding out of Tanning’s work, and through this collection spanning her seven-decade career, this exhibition demonstrates and celebrates her profound contribution to surrealism as a movement, and explores the ways her subversive approach to craft, practice and feminism dismantled the reductive tyranny of the patriarchal family portrait, motherhood and allowed the female form to launch itself chaotically and gloriously through new doorways to explore, as Tanning desires, ‘unknown but knowable states’.

Dorothea Tanning is at the Tate Modern, London, until 9 June 2019. Book tickets here.

Words: Polly Hember, a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London.

All artwork by Dorothea Tanning, images courtesy of

“Who’s ready for Becky’s Time!”: How Lee Minora’s ‘White Feminist’ Crafts and Deconstructs Identity

Lee Minora. © Kate Raines. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Middle fingers up and pink pussy-hat on – Becky Harlowe (Lee Minora) makes her entrance into the room. She stands tall and smiles with a wide grin as she coos “Don’t be afraid, I mean well…” like a horror movie villain who has just broken into your house. Sporting a perfectly styled blonde wig, hot pink lipstick and three-inch high heels, she tells us to sit back, relax and “watch her make progress”.

Lee Minora is an American theatre-maker, solo-performer, comedian and commentator who “dissects red hot political and feminist issues with scalpel sharp humour and stealthy smarts.”[1] Presented as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in April 2019, Minora’s incredibly witty and uncomfortable show White Feminist does exactly that. First developed during Minora’s residency at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, PA, the show has also toured to San Francisco’s Fury Factory and the Edinburgh Fringe. It is no wonder, then, why Minora was asked to bring the show for its London debut as part of a festival that sought to showcase some of the most exciting voices looking at how the body is in dialogue with a world in pain, societal injustice and systems of oppression

Through her character Becky Harlowe, a well-intentioned but vain talk-show host, Minora beautifully crafts and embodies the quintessential “white-feminist”. To be brief, white feminism is the label given to feminist efforts and actions that uplift white women but that exclude and fail to address issues faced by minority groups, especially women of colour and LGBTQ+ women.[2] Over the course of the hour-long show, Minora simultaneously dissects this identity before our eyes, using audience participation to draw awareness to the problematic behaviours of white feminists. As Harlowe demands us to repeat with her upon returning to the stage, “we are all Beckys today.”

Becky Harlowe’s persona draws direct characteristics from former American daytime talk-show hosts Megyn Kelly and Kathie Lee Gifford, such as her sleek blonde hairdo, constant references to her family and white wine drinking habit. The entire talk-show setting and “live audience” environment was crafty way to hold this critique of mainstream feminism and capitalist liberalism. Minora skilfully incorporates elements of the female talk-show to construct Becky’s character and identity. The “Becky’s Time” set has all she needs: a high table for where she can comment on the important topics, flowers to keep it feminine, a low side table for those more intimate side-segment moments, and a big “B” to remind us all who is the star of the show.  

Throughout the performance Becky speaks in slogans, pulling out all the right words and phrases from the stereotypical, liberal non-intersectional feminist playbook, such as promising that she is always “100% real” on her show and referring to the audience as her fellow “citizen heroes”. She makes an apology for promoting a non-inclusive makeup brand and is devastated to find out viewers did not find it convincing. Becky asks us “Who participated in a march? Who signed an online petition? Who is tired of Brexit?”. No matter our answer, Minora’s skilfully improvised remarks ensures our eyes, and judgement, remain on Becky. Becky took up space at the Women’s March, Becky too suffers from outrage fatigue. Through her performance, she holds up a mirror to contemporary activism and its shortcomings, from the trendiness of protesting and ubiquitous well-meaning online acts to how racism and sexism fall on both sides of the aisle.

These crafted segments of the show continue to weave together the deplorable yet seemingly well-meaning image of Becky in front of us. Does Becky really feel this way or is she a feminist only when convenient?

Lee Minora in White Feminist © John C Hawthorne. Courtesy of Lee Minora.

Then we begin to see something of the ‘real’ Becky behind her TV persona.  She moves to a segment for reading the live twitter feed and we begin to see her distress at the escalating language used by the commenters, starting with honest criticisms tagged with #boycottbecky to increasingly startling remarks promoting violence against women. This prompts Becky into the finest part of her character’s development where we see her inevitably start to break down over her confusion about what she has done wrong – “What do I do? I’m sorry white women voted for Trump! I’m sorry we stole yoga, but I don’t know how to give it back!

We are all laughing at Becky: her narcissism, her ignorance and then ­– silence. In a true moment of weakness Becky discloses her own #metoo trauma. Minora uses this moment to gather our sympathy for Becky and demonstrate her character as both the oppressor and oppressed.

It works brilliantly. We start to feel sorry for Becky, for the traumatic experience she has gone through. Have we been to too harsh in our judgement of Becky? Perhaps this confession is the beginning of her journey towards change and real intersectional feminism. But then Becky goes back to reading the live twitter feed with a returning smile from all the tweeting supporters who commend her bravery and pledge their allegiance to “#Becky’sArmy”. Wearing her pink pussy hat like a crown, Becky announces that she is proud to lead the “#metoo” movement and stands defiantly towards the camera as if ready to “save” the world. That moment of potential enlightenment for Becky is gone.

Minora presents a wonderfully crafted and very convincing embodiment of the problematic and harmful “white feminist.” Her excellent in-character improvisation from audience interaction makes it clear that each performance is its own tailored experience creates a sense of intimacy within the audience and comfortability with Minora, especially as she covers some pretty uncomfortable topics. Minora’s success in White Feminist comes from her ability to both present and dissect a completely believable and recognizable character, who embodies the toxic ignorance inherent in white feminism.

However, there is a danger the show is merely preaching to the choir: a performance with a title such as this is likely to attract those already conscious of the limpness of white feminism. Another criticism is the lack of women of colour directly in the show, other perspectives to this weighty topic. That is something I had wished there was more of, and who knows – perhaps in the future “Becky’s Time” will have some well-needed guests to the conversation about race, gender and privilege.

The importance of this performance is how it acts a reminder that no matter how liberal or feminist or “woke” you think you are – especially white women – there needs to be a constant awareness and rechecking of our privilege: where can we improve and how can we be better allies to our fellow feminists of all backgrounds.

White Feminist was as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in London on 6 -7 April 2019. For more information about the performance and Lee Minora, click here.

Words: Suzanna Petot, a freelance curator and writer based in London.

[1] “Lee Minora: White Feminist – The Sick of the Fringe London 2019”. The Sick of the Accessed 15 April 2019.

[2] “White Feminism” Definition. Accessed 13 May 2019.

Spotlight: Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė

OBJECTS TO COMPARE. 2009. Iron details, cotton. Cross stitch, drilling

The embroidery works of Lithuanian artist Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė takes texture to a new level. She takes metal as her starting point – buckets, spades, even cars – and stitches into them. Challenging the domestic association with embroidery, these found objects are placed into the public realm. The kitsch cosiness that Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė associates with cross-stitching is given a twist as she pokes through metal gives new life to discarded objects. She draws on a post-Soviet landscape in Lithuania in her work, as she writes on her website “in the postwar years, our grandmothers stitched tablecloths in the villages, and the paths were so decorated, and in the Soviet era, our mothers made crossed cushions and napkins through household lessons”. This intergenerational skill-sharing is then developed in her practice, to question sentimentality and access to embroidery practices. She doesn’t want to make “private kitsch for private interiors” but rather expose the work, patience and mindfulness that goes into the cross-stitch practice. Taking the floral designs from hobby magazines, these “popular culture citations” make us look back at the origins of the techniques. These established traditions recontextualise the objects they adorn – whether that’s on broken gun shells or metal spoons. Imbued with new use, these forgotten objects might tap into a nostalgic aesthetic but actually point us towards history in a new way.

WITH LOVE FROM…”. 2018. WWII FlaK anti-aircraft gun shell. Cross stitch embroidery, drilling.
WITH LOVE FROM…”. 2018. Detail

Every Stick Has Two Ends, 2012. Shovel parts, wood, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
MORNING TRIO. 2014. Metal pan, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
MORNING TRIO. 2014. Detail
Greed, 2012. Metal spoon, cotton, Cross stitch, drilling.
After Party, 2013. Tin can, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
Between City and Country, 2009. Metal bucket, watering can, milk can. Cross-stitch, drilling. 

Words: Jade French

All photos: Modestas Ežerskis.

Pinkie McClure Makes Stained Glass Sing

Pinkie McClure is an artist using the allegorical power of medieval stained glass as a vehicle for contemporary expression. Stained glass was invented in the 12th century to communicate to a largely illiterate population, its vivid colours having a seductive quality that’s hard to resist. However, its narrative role has been largely abandoned in recent years, which is something she hopes to change by making work that reflects the world around us today.

Artist Statement: On ‘Beauty Tricks’

My goal is to seduce the eye, but crucially, to deal with contemporary subject matter, telling darkly humorous stories from modern life.  When I started work on ‘Beauty Tricks’ I wanted to make something beautiful. This led me to question interpretations of beauty and immediately a multitude of thorny contradictions popped up.

I decided to explore the way the beauty industry affects us and our environment. The central figure is based around a classic madonna, but she has liposuction lines on her torso and  hypodermic needles and scalpels adorning her halo. Her nipples have been censored. Two little girls gaze up at her beautiful pink frock from a grey world of abandoned plastic containers. Above her, medieval scales traditionally used to symbolise the ‘weighing of souls’ refer to  the long-running L’Oreal ad ‘worth it, not worth it’. A woman fires a gun at a mirror, smashing it to smithereens. To her left, a ‘kindly’ grandmother knits a web of Barbie dolls and to her right is a bulimic Rapunzel. The palm trees refer to the palm oil industry, the roses symbolise feminine beauty. At the top, Satan is hopping across the towers of Oxbridge with a pile of books heaped on his back, stealing all the knowledge while the women are distracted.

Other work:

‘Landfill Tantrum’ (2013)
Self-portrait Dreaming of Portavadie (2019)
‘The Storm’ (2017)
‘Stop Go.’ (2015)
Rewilding at the Clootie Tree (2016)

Geta Brătescu: The Dance of Form

Geta Bratescu – The Line, 2014 from Stefan Sava on Vimeo.

At the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Romanian Pavilion, Geta Brătescu’s exhibition ‘Apparitions’ cemented her status as a rising star on the international art scene. Aged ninety-one, Brâtescu was something of an unusual art world darling, yet she was well-known in her native Romania for a rich, multidisciplinary body of work that she would develop up until her death in September 2018.  Subsequent exhibitions of her late work have emphasised the surprising ways that Brătescu continued to add depth to her innovative oeuvre. The drawings and collage pieces on display at Hauser and Wirth London’s exhibition The Power of the Line offer a vibrant display of bright shapes, jazzy geometric patterns, and lines that romp across the paper making manifest the physical ‘gestures of the [artist’s] body’. Her collages recall the energy of Matisse’s late cut-outs and the colourful verve of Miro; yet they express a kinetic and performative zest that is uniquely Brătescu’s and that threads, in various guises, throughout her seven-decade-long career.  

Geta Brătescu Courtesy the artist, Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and Hauser & Wirth

 ‘Armstrong’, the first piece that greets visitors to Hauser and Wirth’s The Power of the Line, is a joyous introduction to Brătescu’s musical, mercurial form. A collaged photograph of musician Louis Armstrong is followed by a concertina sequence of colour and pattern that bursts from his trumpet. Vibrant yellow and red tones evoke an ecstatic explosion of music; jagged, rhythmic lines of thick crayon dance through each section, occasionally merging to form flailing Keith Haring-esque figures. Brătescu drew ‘Armstrong’ with her eyes closed, channelling her own inner visions in a manner that recalls Surrealist automatic drawing. This method demonstrates Brătescu’s absolute faith in the line’s expressive physicality; like singing and dancing, the act of drawing lines on the page communicates the rhythms of the physical world around us. She worked across many mediums, but the line remained a fundamental part of her artistic vision and practice:

“The spider’s thread borne away on the wind is a flying line. Drawing owes a huge amount to the energy with which the hand traces lines and the character of this energy is determined by the character, the mood, the culture, the vision of the artist. In fact, it is a mysterious phenomenon. To trace a line, a simple line, with the feeling and awareness that you are producing expression; that line is necessary to you beyond reason.”

Although her work has a clear relationship with non-objective abstract art, Brătescu creates an embodied art that is in dialogue with the material, ephemeral everyday world. Works assembled from discarded objects, such as crumpled paper, coffee sticks, matchboxes, netting, nod to Kurt Schwitters; in her journal, Brătescu described Schwitters’ Merz as the epitome of the conflict ‘between the ideal of the gesture and the perishability of the matter caught up in the gesture’ – an impression that gains a particular resonance when viewing pieces created by a housebound artist at the end of her life. Like Brătescu’s earlier performance art and work with fragile textiles, the drawings and collages on display at Hauser and Wirth express a sense of the finite. Many bear the traces of the artist’s labour: faded lines where the marker pen begins to fail, patches of glue, the trace of pencil marks. This also speaks of the spontaneity of Brătescu’s approach, which is evident in Gestul, desunul (‘The gesture, the drawing’), a wonderfully engaging film of Brătescu working and reflecting on her process with fellow Romanian artist Stefan Sava. She is shown seated at her desk, utterly absorbed by the paper she works on; her hands shake and, at times, struggle with the pen. As she inks in blocks of colour, she jokingly acknowledges the painstaking effort, asking first Sava and then the pen in her hand if they ‘have the patience’ for her process. This hands-on, slow method is essential for an artist who understood drawing as a gesture of the body; a physical act, like a dance, through which she explored and captured the world around her. Brătescu’s reading of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu offers an insight into her own perspective: she describes Proust’s world as one of ‘absolute tactility…full of forms and colors, not so much seen as traversed’, words that could easily be applied to her own creations.

Geta Brătescu, Medea’s 10 Hypostases, 1980, Collection of Adam & Mariana Clayton, London. Photo: Stefan Sava

Brătescu shied away from politics: she dismissed feminism as ‘a uniform’, played down the experience of life under Romania’s repressive communist regime, and declared her studio to be an ‘apolitical’ space. Yet, the centrality of the body throughout her oeuvre hints at a certain political intent. For a series of works inspired by Medea (the Medeic Forms of the late 1970s), Brătescu used her mother’s old clothes and created a method she called ‘drawing on textile with sewing machine’. These unsettling abstract textile works suggest the violence and conflicted desires of womanhood, as well as the stifling strictures society places on them. Aesop, another mythological figure, featured prominently in Brătescu’s work as a joker; her fondness for him and for the more modern fool Charlie Chaplin suggests a similarly disruptive design behind her ludic lines. In the late drawings, they impishly morph into smiling faces and shapes that evoke breasts, ova, and sperm, evoking a defiant joi de vivre that mocks autocrats and old age alike. Following Brătescu’s lines lead us into a space both playful and profound, where our expectations of avant-garde culture, age, and gender are upended and a joyous chaos of form reigns.

Geta Brătescu: The Power of the Line was on display at Hauser and Wirth London, 27 Feb – 27 Apr 2019.

Words: Lottie Whalen