Essays

Gender Warfare in Art, 1882 to 2012

by Stephanie Bailey on November 8, 2012

Max Klinger, “Entsetzen, Opus XIV” from €ž”Zelta€œ” (1915) (Image courtesy Museum Kunstpalast)

LONDON — Who knew Max Klinger’s late 19th-century prints exploring that tempestuous schism dividing man and woman could be so evocative of Francisco Goya’s early 19th-century print series, Disasters of War? Presented at the Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf, Germany, Klinger’s dark reveries are shown in two cycles of prints — Ein Handschuh (A Glove) (1882), 10 prints recounting a man’s bad dream after finding a woman’s glove, and Zelt (Tent), 46 prints executed in 1915 and divided into two sections exploring the manifestations of male and female relationships. These range from the sublime to the grotesque, with scenes that recall the same violence of Goya’s prints, which include a naked man held spread eagle, about to be cut in half from his genitals.

Like Goya, Klinger reflects on his subject — here, woman untangled and undone — in the spirit of his times. Dubbed the “demonic-ingenious Klinger,” he captures a social and political revolution in Europe. There’s a conflict between the common man, establishing himself as a political body, and women, who were demanding the same. Viewing Klinger’s prints today, a chilling question emerges from our position of historical hindsight, not unlike those raised by Goya’s bloody scenes: What has changed since those images came off the printing press those hundreds of years ago?

The question recalls a brush with gender politics at Goldsmiths College in London, when a group of young American artists looked at me as if I let the side down when explaining how I’ve never been entirely accustomed to the kind of feminism born out of the 1960s and 1970s. For me, it was too steely a brand, calling for a sameness of sex that might be counterproductive, even counterintuitive, to what it means to be a man or a woman today. But I found myself understanding this kind of radical position more after reading a text by Andrew Russeth for GalleristNY charting a turbo-masculine lineage of the readymade in contemporary art practices, using as his predicate two burritos presented by male artist Darren Bader at MoMA’s PS1 earlier in 2012.

Sarah Lucas “Two Eggs and a Kebab” (1992) (Image via Chalk)

Russeth writes about those burritos as if they were the product of the most original thinking to come out of contemporary art today, contrasting them with John Chamberlain’s “muscular, macho, hard-won objects” on show at the Guggenheim at the time of Bader’s PS1 outing. Responding to Bader’s work, he observes, “The readymade has returned in 21st-century Rococo clothes, Duchamp’s legacy used for sinister, hallucinogenic, and comical ends.” In what could only be described as a growling, feminist rage, I found myself thinking of Sarah Lucas’s 1992 sculpture “Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (seen above), stupefied as to how this work did not make its way into Russeth’s article and wondering if it had anything to do with the fact that many Americans don’t realize quite how close a kebab is to a burrito.

Darren Bader’s “French Horn With Guacamole” (2012) (Image via artnet)

Lucas’s work (seen above), is part readymade — it’s a slapdash composition of a portrait frame with a hacked-out face, two runny fried eggs, and a splayed-open pita bread filled with meat. But it’s also the suggestion of a human, female body, abject and available for consumption. Some are quite right to counter: Bader’s burritos are different. Compared to Lucas’s piece, the work is more a comment on sculpture than gender, and it’s non-figurative, to boot. This is true. A kebab is not exactly a burrito, just like a woman isn’t exactly a man, something that would be worth contemplating in our collective fight for gender parity on both sides of the divide.

Klinger once wrote to his long-time lover, confirmed misandrist, and woman’s rights activist Elsa Asenijeff, “Could you not imagine living together, where each has their time and will … and where one would give more and leave more to one another, respect one another more and yet love each another, you know, love with the heart and the mind. Each as a person … But to live, love and share, and yet remain two human beings. Wouldn’t this be beautiful?”

The answer to Klinger’s question is that, yes, it would, even in the 21st century. Perhaps the question — or the challenge — is whether this kind of parity has been truly achieved, or if it is possible at all.

The Weekend of Graphics will be hosted at the Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf, Germany November 10-11. 

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