Exhibitionism is a group of three medium-scale mixed media assemblages made by the artist Renate Bertlmann in 1973. Painted with tempera on wood, each work is housed in an acrylic glass box with two egg-shaped objects made from Styrofoam affixed to the surface. Executed in a restricted monochromatic palette, strokes of red contrast vividly against the white background, delineating round-edged, organic shapes. These shapes, in combination with the egg-objects, could be read as bodies, specifically the outline of a pair of male buttocks and testicles viewed from a range of angles. The work’s title supports such a reading.
Bertlmann trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna between 1964 and 1970. She has remained in the city ever since building up a diverse practice that includes painting, sculpture, drawing and photography. In the 1960s Bertlmann was involved in the Viennese actionist movement, which was characterised by performances that staged the body, along with blood and animal entrails in extreme scenarios. Her exploration of violence, love, eroticism and sexuality was also related to the politics of second-wave feminism and Bertlmann was active in the feminist scene that developed around the performance artist VALIE EXPORT in Vienna in the 1970s. Her depiction of the body and her performances often centre on touch and she frequently uses latex teats, condoms and knives to explore sexuality and violence through materials. The tactile quality of her work is also an important part of her investigation of sexuality, and this, along with interrogations of gender stereotypes and socially-prescribed roles, evidences the influence of feminism on her work.
In 1975 Exhibitionism was selected for MAGNA FEMINISMUS, the first feminist exhibition in Vienna, organised by VALIE EXPORT at the Galerie St Stephan. However, the series was removed by Oswald Oberhuber, professor at the Academy of Applied Arts and artistic director of the gallery, because he considered it too contentious for public view. It was only as a result of this experience that Bertlmann gave the works the title Exhibitionism; a pun on the exposure of the male body in art – which more frequently depicted the female nude – as well as the failure to exhibit the series. Exhibitionism was displayed in the Tate Modern exhibition The World Goes Pop in 2015.
In order to question societal conventions and outdated gender relations, Bertlmann consistently employs irony as a conceptual tool in her work. This approach enables her to grapple with difficult and controversial subjects. It is both a means of distancing herself from harm and fighting back with cynicism of her own. The artist has said, ‘everywhere where I am subject to dangers and painful realisations, irony is both weapon and shield’ (Renate Bertlmann, ‘Irony’, undated statement, artist’s website, http://www.bertlmann.com/index.php?page=texte&lang=en&id=3, paragraph 8, accessed 7 January 2013). However, she goes on to note that irony is often a double-edged sword:
Making use of IRONY correctly is, however, no easy matter, since it has many faces … It is Wordplay (‘An-Spielen’ – allusion, insinuation), Foreplay (‘Vor-Spielen’ – also meaning performance), Downplay (‘Unter-Spielen’) and Playing the Game (‘Mit-Spielen’ – going along with something). It is attack and defence, self assertion (‘Selbst-Behauptung’) and self beheading (‘Selbst-Enthauptung’): carrying my own head in front of me by the hair, I can observe the world from the necessary distance and from varied viewpoints. The traces of blood show me the way, and with a painful, wistful smile on my pale lips I convince myself that IRONY just is a dangerous game with extremes, and a dialectic act which ultimately joins together what has been separated.
(Bertlmann, undated, paragraph 9.)
This series could also be seen as Bertlmann’s refusal of pornographic stereotypes or traditional sexual puns in which the female is presented for lusty consumption. Instead Bertlmann challenges established gender roles and, by extension, the structures of power that sustain them. Exposing the male and his sexual organs in a powerful act of stripping, these ‘anti-pornographic objects’ – the artist’s first – function as an attack on male virility (Renate Bertlmann, email correspondence with Tate curator Jessica Morgan, 3 August 2012). She absents the penis and reduces the site of male reproductivity – the testicle – to a comical Styrofoam egg. They are, as art historian Peter Gorsen has argued, ‘a double declaration of war against the pornographic violence of men and the male privilege of lust in patriarchal society’ (Peter Gorsen, ‘Remaining Serious is Successful Repression’, undated, http://www.bertlmann.com/index.php?page=texte&lang=en&id=2, paragraph 4, accessed 7 January 2013). Furthermore, in Exhibitionism Bertlmann’s association of the naked male body with eggs, a biological term usually related to female procreation, might be thought of as blurring the genders of male and female.
Renate Bertlmann, Amo Ergo Sum: Eine Trilogie, Klagenfurt 1989.
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