The Wende Museum’s new exhibition showcases radical women artists of the Cold War
Local institutions spoiled L.A.’s museum-goers with groundbreaking exhibitions devoted to radical women artists in recent years. The Hammer Museum at UCLA celebrated radical Latin American women artists, and the California African American Museum reveled in the radical spirit of black women artists. The Medea Insurrection – Radical Women Artists Behind the Iron Curtain at the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City, now runs with this theme.
Many of the more than 200 pieces by 34 women artists assembled share a common emotional denominator like trust, instead of merely following categories such as painting, textiles or sculpture. Curated by independent German art historian and curator Susanne Altmann for the Albertinum Museum in Dresden, the show features women artists who expressed themselves in spite of political repression in Socialist countries during the Cold War.
Or was it perhaps because of those adverse conditions? Altmann, who, at the age of 25 was a night nurse at the hospital on November 9, 1989, and celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall a day late, thinks so.
“What I really wanted to show in this exhibit is how, in their artistic and aesthetic decisions [the artists] responded to the scenario of restraint and oppression,” she said. “It’s about how the economy of scarcity, the shortage of consumer goods, led to a lot of improvisation and inventive measures.”
Folding blinds hanging from the ceiling of the former armory exemplify both scarcity and inventiveness. Painter Christine Schlegel used them as canvases. They came in handy when she decided to emigrate to the West. Classified as consumer goods instead of art, they weren’t taxed.
Although many of Schlegel’s works are figurative, she doesn’t depict the vigor and heroism of working class people the way Socialist Realism, the dominant art form in the former Eastern Bloc countries, demanded. Instead, she painted a former friend who turned out to be a spy for the government and Penthesilea, a Greek archetype of female strength like Medea, the exhibition’s eponym.
Textile art plays a prominent role in the lofty exhibition space. Christa Jeitner’s three panels of fabric, created for a concert in honor of the victims of Stalin’s persecution in 1989, dominate the Taschen Family wall left of the entrance.
“In the ’60s and ’70s and even today, textile and needle work was connected to female domestic activity,” Altmann said. “Jeitner re-appropriated the textile and turned it into autonomous art.”
The 84-year old artist traveled to Los Angeles for the exhibition’s opening. She echoed Altmann’s diagnosis about art and its conditions. “While the wall stood, there was a hunger for intellectual exchange, for guidance, for art not dictated by the government,” she said. “After the wall came down there was no more need for art to carry a message.”
Behind a group of life-sized costumes and bordering punk inspired prints, Romanian artist Ana Lupaș’ “Identity Shirts 1-7 1970-1980” allude to the hardships of life behind the Iron Curtain. Seams drawn with a sewing machine spread across the reliefs like scars. Resembling T-shirts, they imply the presence or absence of a human body.
Altmann and the museum’s curators devote a lot of space to photography. From famous fashion photographer Sybille Bergemann to photographers depicting women at work, criticizing the expectation that everyone had to live a working class existence, these women artists rejected both bourgeoisie and Socialist stereotypes alike.
Gabriele Stötzer documented the last days of an acquaintance’s mother in the series “Conversations.” As a young woman, the East German writer, performance artist and photographer spent one year incarcerated for signing and disseminating a petition critical of the government. In prison, she met a fellow artist who wasn’t allowed to return to her hometown upon release to be with her dying mother. Stötzer went in her place.
To show a topical connection between the Cold War past and the here and now in the US, the Wende Museum invited artists currently creating works in Los Angeles to contribute.
Like many of her featured colleagues, Chinese-born artist Sichong Xie works with textiles. For the series “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” from 2016 that shows her jumping, she devised herself a Mao-esque suit and stamped it with the Louis Vuitton logo.
“I was wondering how do I draw this connection and couldn’t see it at first,” said African American surrealist Chelle Barbour. After some research and a tour through the Wende’s archive and collection, she incorporated images of spy paraphernalia into her collages that pay tribute to black women spies during the Cold War.
The Medea Insurrection – Radical Women Artists Behind the Iron Curtain is on display at the Wende Museum of the Cold War until April 5, 2020.