BERN, Switzerland — Bold. That’s one of the words that immediately come to mind upon encountering the Swiss contemporary artist Miriam Cahn’s remarkable pictures in person for the first time; so do “audacious,” “unsettling,” “urgent,” and “uncompromisingly honest.”
At the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland’s small but culturally rich capital — the Paul Klee Center, the renowned Kunsthalle Bern, and an array of small theaters are found here, too — Ich als Mensch (I as Human), a career-spanning survey of Cahn’s art, is now on view through June 16, and the works it features pack a soul-rattling punch. (From Bern, it will travel to the Haus der Kunst in Munich and then to the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.)
Cahn creates images that grab viewers by the shoulders, shake them vigorously, and do not allow them to easily turn away. With a mix of ferocious draftsmanship, deeply probing investigations into human mindsets and behavior, and keen observations about the forces that shape and control the world today, Cahn’s art does not shout or polemicize as much as it seduces with the potency of its unusually expressed humanism.
At this time of political chicanery, corruption, hostility, and a general sense of hopelessness, this aspect of Cahn’s work comes as an invigorating, in-your-face tonic. The reactions of some viewers to her pictures may well be visceral. Apparently, so, too, is the creative energy from which they are born.
Cahn, the daughter of Jewish parents who escaped persecution by the Nazis by fleeing to Switzerland, was born in Basel in 1949. Her father was a dealer in art and antiques, and young Miriam grew up in a well-to-do family, in which her mother introduced her to music and drawing. Later, Cahn studied graphic arts at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel, a school specializing in design and technical fields, and then went on to become a drawing teacher. In 1976, following the suicide of her sister, who was a drug addict, Cahn launched her career as an independent artist.
Cahn rarely gives interviews, but earlier this year she spoke with a reporter from the magazine of the German newspaper Die Zeit and recalled that her mother had wrestled with depression, as had her sister. She noted, “When, as a child, you grow up with depressive people around you, everything you say — it’s no good. If you’re nice, that’s no good. If you’re angry, that’s even worse. So, by the age of 12 or 13, I completely distanced myself from all that. […] Culture was my salvation.”
Cahn became involved with the feminist and anti-nuclear movements and, in December 1979 and January 1980, regularly went out at night to paint murals at the construction site of a highway bridge that was being built in the northern part of the city of Basel, a protest action that landed her in serious trouble with law-enforcement authorities.
Already by the late 1970s, she had begun exhibiting her work at STAMPA, a Basel gallery known for showcasing cutting-edge contemporary art from Europe and overseas, and in 1983 she presented her first institutional solo exhibition, das klassische lieben (or “classic loving”; the artist favors titles spelled in lower-case letters) at the Kunsthalle Basel. She has shown her work regularly since then.
Channeling the frustration, irritation, anger, and maybe even disgust she felt about aspects of her home life and the traditional social roles she had watched her parents play, in that 1983 solo show she examined the dynamics and trappings of the male-female relationship. In big chalk drawings, she represented the conventionally male and manly through depictions of warships, computers, and skyscrapers, while her evocation of a woman’s sphere of activity and influence included images of a bed, a house, a table, and — as the current exhibition’s curator, Kathleen Bühler, recalls in the Bern show’s accompanying brochure — “female figures (heads, torsos), with missing or gaping, vomiting mouths.”
Over the years, in various paintings and other works, Cahn has flipped the traditional, mostly heterosexual, so-called male gaze and, as Bühler also observes, she has sometimes abandoned gender-specific depictions of human figures. While their sexual identity may seem uncertain or ambiguous, they may also appear ghastly or even monstrous.
Bühler notes that Cahn has referred to some of her creations as her “ovulation works” or “menstrual works,” unabashedly alluding to what the curator cites as “her female energies.” In a deliberate and provocative way, Cahn literally plays with the notion of the gaze when, as Bühler points out, she makes sure “that the figures in her pictures always hang [at] eye level with [her] viewers.”
Cahn, whose work was shown last year at Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel, Germany, told Die Zeit’s interviewer that, “as a woman,” one “cannot always smile and find everything to be okay.” She observed that “[t]here is no society without aggression,” just as, in the past, in various writings, she has stated matter-of-factly that violence exists everywhere and that, just as matter-of-factly, she makes what she witnesses in the world the subject matter of her art. Thus, her large-scale, aerial-view landscapes are images seen from the perspective of the pilot of a military bomber aircraft, and her big, Pop-flavored abstractions resembling candy-colored jellyfish are actually Cahn’s versions of atomic-bomb mushroom clouds.
Cahn does not ramble or self-aggrandize in question-and-answer sessions, nor does she issue tedious artist’s statements about the meaning of her work, her creative vision, or herself. Instead, she tends to insist on letting her creations speak for themselves (as she did in declining, through Bühler, an interview for this article).
Consequently, viewers who know little or nothing about her background and interests, or about her work’s themes and preoccupations, may find themselves taking a necessarily formalist approach to apprehending her art — that is, they may find themselves having to look closely at each work’s form, composition, color, and style for clues to its intentions, moods, and meanings.
Taking such an approach into consideration, what, then, are the emotional temperatures of her portrayals of haunting faces and bodies, with their spooky or lugubrious forms lumbering through richly colored, otherworldly landscapes or psychological no-man’s-lands?
What to make of her naked woman in profile in “ohne titel, januar 1995” (“untitled, january 1995,” 1995, oil on canvas) with a yellow face, acid-green eye sockets, and big, bulbous breasts with nipples the size of small teacups? Or in “herumliegen/fremdkörper, 12.5.+13./16.6.2016” (“lying around/foreign body, 12.5.+13./16.6.2016,” oil on canvas, 2016), of the beached, reddish growth resembling a gigantic, multi-branched aorta, or part of a bizarre, outsized skeleton, or maybe a section of a tree frightfully mutated by nuclear radiation?
In a free-associative, free-form text from 2013, Cahn wrote:
seeing with one’s eyes
thinking with one’s hands
walking on one’s arms and legs and feet
my brain is my body
everything is stored inside it
everything everything everything
the whole world
my entire life
Cahn’s political consciousness informs many of the works on view in I as Human, sometimes in an oblique or nuanced manner, and sometimes not, touching on such topics as war, Europe’s refugee crisis, racism and bigotry, or sexually motivated violence, explicitly that against women. In “ohne titel, 11.5.17” (“untitled, 11.5.17,” 2017, watercolor and pastel on paper) an emaciated figure raises its arms to hold a spectral infant high above its head. In “gebet, 30.11.+1.12.03” (“prayer, 30.11.+1.12.03,” 2003, oil on canvas), a naked figure in repose — or is it dead? — covers its crotch with clenched hands, and in “BLAU, 21.07.17” (“BLUE, 21.07.17,” 2017, oil on canvas), a group of phantom-like figures fall like unmoored bodies in a blue, glowing, dream-like cascade.
One room of the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bern features some of Cahn’s most sexually charged images, including one showing a dark, bear-like figure and its light-skinned partner leaning over a gray, rectangular form, their red-lipped faces delirious as they pound away in an intimate act. Another shows a standing couple in a tight embrace, their faces unidentifiable, and their body parts — a drooping breast here, an erect penis there — possibly in the wrong places. On the right, a male figure’s position offers no clue to his physical orientation, since his torso is topped by little more than the vaporous hint of a head.
One of Cahn’s most bracing images reworks the 19th-century realist painter Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde” (“The Origin of the World,” 1866), a provocative picture that shows a reposing woman’s naked genitals and spread-open legs; her robe or nightgown is pulled up, exposing her stomach and the lower part of her breasts.
Cahn’s version of this peculiar icon of Western art history gives her subject a visible clitoris and shows more of her reclining body, including her head, but her pulled-up garment turns out to be a Muslim burka, which covers her head and all of her face, leaving only a slit for her eyes, which look out directly at a viewer. In Cahn’s picture, it is impossible to tell if her subject has been forced into a position of submission or if she has chosen to present herself in such an intimately revealing pose. Whatever the woman’s eyes might be expressing remains indecipherable.
If some of Cahn’s images are unexpected or unsettling, it is because, quite simply, they are the expressions of a very self-aware woman’s unapologetic point of view; their freshness is their calling card, and their curiousness, along with their honesty, a large part of their allure.
In her 2013 text, Cahn also wrote:
to be a woman artist
is the great privilege
to forget everyone and everything
to invent working at art anew
learn by forgetting
and forget continuously what i do
There is another word to describe Cahn’s unfettered, candid, nothing-is-sacred art. Considering its approach to her subjects, rendering the private political and exposing the darker regions of the human heart, and its maker’s genuine commitment to keepin’ it real — her modest way of life in a tiny village in southeastern Switzerland, her spontaneous working methods, her focus on producing her work instead of hyping it — that word just might be brave.
Ich als Mensch (I as Human) continues at the Kunstmuseum Bern (Hodlerstrasse 8-12, CH-3011 Bern, Switzerland) through June 16. The exhibition, which is curated by Kathleen Bühler, will be presented at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, from July 12 through October 27, and at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland, from November 29, 2019, through February 23, 2020.