DRESDEN, Germany — On December 8 of last year an extraordinary exhibition was unveiled at the 19th century, glass-domed Lipsiusbau of Dresden’s famed Albertinum Museum. Curated by independent German curator Susanne Altmann, Medea Muckt Auf or The Medea Insurrection, as the curator herself translates it (though the German title more accurately translates as “Medea Kicks Back”) brings together 35 women artists working behind the iron curtain in the decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I walked past the intricately crocheted “Three-Winged Column” (1980) of former East Berlin’s Christa Jeitner in the foyer and entered the main exhibition area, it felt as if I was being swept off my feet by a massive ocean wave. Paintings and fabric pieces hung from the forty-foot-high ceiling, delicate vitrines stood next to walls covered with unsettling images of women performing acts of rebellion or routine everyday life, while staircases swirled up on either side to unconventionally categorized subsections.
It began softly. To the left stood Evelyn Richter’s quiet, photographic documentation of women caught in the drudgery of spinning mills and printing presses. These images deftly wove their way through Doris Ziegler’s veristic self-portraits of women at work in a factory in socialist GDR, to carry me to the simultaneously ephemeral yet materially explosive fabric works of Adriena Šimotová of the Czech Republic. Two people reduced to mere bulging silhouettes on a fabric surface perhaps says more about the erasure of individual identity behind the iron curtain (with the material itself providing a gendered lens) than any pamphlet possibly could.
This work segued into a nearby display of Romanian Ana Lupaș’s seven “Identity Shirts” (1970-80) that looked almost identical from a distance, offering only minor variations in threadwork and collar positions on closer inspection. The space opened out to Polish Magdalena Abakanowicz’s gigantic, sisal fiber tapestries that defy the conventions of pictorial, folklore depictions, instead unfurling into textured surfaces resonant of female genitalia. They led me back to a central display of punk costumes and performances.
Altmann’s main exhibition text offers:
All of the women artists presented here came to maturity on the socialist side of the Iron Curtain. Yet their interpretations of female figures — even if based on Medea, Cassandra or Penthesilea — were not exactly noble forms of encryption; on the contrary, many of their works were crucial in shaping contemporary images of women, and sometimes they were straight-up punk. Underneath the radar of the accepted artistic media, these women artists provoked, protested, played with fire and experimented, baring themselves and their rage whilst refusing socialist and bourgeois role models alike. This compounded degree of defiance and energy in their pictorial language makes itself felt still today: In the creations of the Berlin performance and fashion group Allerleihrauh (All-kinds-of-fur; after a Grimm fairy tale), rarely exhibited so far, we discover an unbridled, performative revolt.
The revolt continued with the Erfurt Women Artist Group in the 1980s, comprising Monika Andres and Verena Kyselka and extended to include artists like Gabriele Stötzer. Stötzer not only did the camera work for all the films and entered into photo-documentation collaborations with Cornelia Schleime, but continued working in subversive performances and photographic series of her own. The revolt spread across the exhibition walls in the paintings and lithographs of Christine Schlegel, Cornelia Schleime, Karla Woisnitza and Angela Hampel as they tackled contemporary interpretations of mythic amazons and Greek princesses.
The revolt surfaced in the subversion of media too. Small format works, like materially inscribed and manipulated picture postcards, photographs, linocuts and woodcuts, small run graphic art magazines could not only be displayed in pop up shows at short notice, but could also be packed up at a moment’s notice to avoid censorship and imprisonment. These evasive maneuvers women artists of the region had embraced with alacrity, and kept popping up throughout the exhibition.
Certain performative media, like dance, were sharpened with a subversive edge by Hanne Wandtke in Dresden; in Poland Zofia Kulik translated her sculptural work into photographic images that could only be viewed as slideshows while Budapest’s Dóra Maurer released photography from the narrative cage and let it play free in time lapse with elementary shapes and symbols. Katalin Ladik who belonged to the Hungarian minority in Yugoslavia, experimented both with language by breaking it down into abstract sounds, and social norms around the male gaze by doing performances in the nude as well as in lacy underwear worn over skin-hugging black clothing. Upstairs, the functions and restrictions of open expanses like rolling meadows and well-tended parks were both interrogated and subverted by Czechoslovakia’s Magdalena Jetelová and Zorka Ságlová as they reconfigured landscapes with wooden blocks or baby diapers.
What could easily have sunk under the weight of being a panoramic survey sidestepped this pitfall through deft grouping of artists and artworks on the basis of medium, emotional triggers and formal resonances. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the show fell into place as I meandered through its 250 plus artworks, through the simmering rage directed at state control, social injustices, and gender inequity. The exhibition was unified in a resounding whiplash in the cavernous basement, where six screens played six video works on loop. Created between 1971 and 1984, these pieces led me through the range of constrained reality experienced by a woman artist behind the iron curtain. Be it Ewa Partum’s “Active Poetry” (1971-73) that set the word free through alphabets strewn to the winds, or Romanian Geta Brătescu trying to reconstitute her identity through close-up footage of her hands alone, or Natalia LL physically charting out a diagram of points of support; or “the collaboration of Christine Schlegel with dance performer Fine Kwiatkowski …(that) emerges is a new, non-linear choreography,” as Altmann deftly explains.
Medea Muckt Auf comes across not as an apology but a cumulative roar against the curtain of silence and opacity that renders invisible the works and lives of women artists everywhere, be it behind or in front of the iron curtain.