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‘Rebel Women: The Great Art Fightback’ - A Story not told Enough

‘Rebel Women: The Great Art Fightback’ - A Story not told Enough

by Yash Saboo July 25 2018, 5:50 pm Estimated Reading Time: 2 mins, 45 secs

In April 1971, the police closed down London's first overtly one-woman feminist art show after just one day, on the grounds of indecency. At first glance, British artist Margaret Harrison's drawings fitted into the imagery that fine art and popular culture were infatuated with at that time: comic-book superheroes and pneumatic Vargas-inspired pin-ups – think pop artist Tom Wesselmann's nudes and the 50s-style glamour girl sprawled, supine, on Roxy Music's debut album.

Margaret Harrison (Studio International)

Yet, unaware of their double standards, the police objected to the portrayal of men in Harrison's work as demeaning. There was Hugh Hefner squeezed into a bunny girl costume, a beefy but emasculated Captain America wearing false breasts and a stars 'n' stripes-patterned basque, and Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who tried to murder Andy Warhol, stamping on his Brillo box artwork.

Judy Chicago and the Dinner Party(Indiana University)

In another story, Judy Chicago, another feminist artist packed in the crowds to see The Dinner Party in 1979, her infamous triangular installation that paid tribute to women’s achievements throughout western civilization, but it was slated by (mostly male) critics and was unable to find a permanent home until 2007. When The Dinner Party was first shown in San Francisco, over 100,000 people came to see it in the three months it was on display. Chicago was feted in national magazines and interviewed on the radio. She received letters from women all over the country telling her how moved they were by the piece, how it had changed their lives. But a backlash was brewing. Colleagues whispered that it was not a work of art but a piece of clumsy political rhetoric. A Los Angeles Times art critic cruelly bashed it, calling it “a lumbering mishmash of sleaze and cheese.” The tour of the show was cancelled, with minimal explanation.

The stories of these exemplary women are showcased in the latest BBC documentary Rebel Women: The Great Art Fightback. Commissioned as part of the BBC’s Hear Her season, marking 100 years of women’s suffrage, this tells the story of women who decided not to play along with the established order. It isn’t often that an art documentary feels like a riot, but this is an exception. It manages to convey a real sense of anarchic joy. It offers an education in the explosion of feminist art in the 1970s, at a time when female artists produced boundary-busting work that still feels radical, and certainly revolutionary.

Carolee Schneemann (Flickr)

There is also a fascinating interview with Carolee Schneemann, whose performance piece Interior Scroll saw her pulling a long piece of paper out of her vagina and reading from it. “It caused so much trouble in my life and probably prevented me from having lots of nice teaching jobs,” she says, drolly. Having been rejected by the male art establishment, some female critics turned against her, too, for being “unnatural, obscene and confusing”.

Rebel Women tells a story that hasn’t been told enough or to enough people, and also inevitable, given the explicit nature of some of the work. But perhaps it’s a triumph of sorts that many of the artworks it shows have the capacity to provoke today.


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