Artist interview: Renate Bertlmann

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 70s?

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s there existed an Austrian variant of pop art. Works by Christian Ludwig Attersee and Kiki Kogelnik were significant here, as well as the critical realism of the ‘Wirklichkeiten’ [‘Realities’] group.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

Admittedly, I have been inspired repeatedly by advertising brochures and I have displaced and satirised objects of mass consumption, including commodities from sex-shops. But I never considered myself a pop artist. However, perhaps I could still be called a pop artist, since Andy Warhol’s statement ‘I love to do the same thing over and over again’ equally applies to me. I was and still am fixated by our phallocracy.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

At the start of the 1970s I got engaged in Women’s Lib movements. I worked with women’s groups on implementing cultural-political demands and on creative projects. The engagement with female creativity, the analyses of patriarchal mechanisms of repression, and all the personal experiences connected with this during this time greatly influenced my artistic practice; they marked both form and content.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

Experiencing the lack of female power had made me angry even when I was still a student. My main interest became the phenomenon of male abuse of power; power as disinhibiting aphrodisiac, especially within the realm of sexuality. I did not resolve my anxiety about male sexual violence by joining the call by militant feminists to ‘cut off their balls’. I thought it was more directional and also more subversive to look ironically and in a cartoonish manner – akin to a guided laser – at the phallus in order to disarm it. The Exhibitionism series of objects thus became my first (but not last) body of work of art that rendered the male an object of sexual disrobement and denudation.

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

I developed a particular interest in the commodities acquired from sex shops because they mirror so obviously sexual desires, anxieties and aggression. I have bought many different objects from sex shops and they became again and again readymade parts of my artistic practice. Also, I am always looking out for curious objects and found in an art supply store white Styrofoam eggs, which to me were suggestive of testicles. Thus the working title for this, originally five-part, series was Hodenbewegung [Testicle Movement, a pun on ‘Frauenbewegung’ meaning Women’s Lib]. At first I didn’t care much for this title but a couple of years later my existence as a female artist allowed for a very fitting title indeed. In 1975 Valie Export organised the first women’s exhibition in the Viennese Galerie Nächst St Stephan, entitled Magna Feminismus: Art and Creativity. The erstwhile artistic director of the gallery, Oswald Oberhuber, rejected my series Hodenbewegung, which had been selected by Export, and wanted to cancel the show, arguing that he felt ‘exhibitioniert’ [exposed, put on display]. Thus, finally, I found a fitting title for my series of objects, namely Exhibitionism. Another work selected by Export was the object-collage with the title Le Charme indiscret de la bourgeoisie, which showed hairy female genitalia. This work did appeal to Oberhuber and thus found its way into the exhibition.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

I was aware of the American and British pop art of the period but because of them being male-dominated, they did not hold a lot of interest for me.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

I have used a diverse range of advertising prospectuses and shopping catalogues as major sources of inspiration – both in terms of their contents and for their layout. Their reduced formal language, their signalling effect of colours have often been very inspirational. Advertising texts have entered my work and I have varied the names of commodities or brands for the titles of my work.

Was there a feeling at the time that you doing something important and new, making a change…? 

I have always thought of my artistic practice as serious, but important …? In retrospect it was obviously very important for myself to discover the creative potential of aggression within me. Not only men resented this but women, too. My radical and uncompromising artistic work embarrassed and appeared strange to both sexes. Perhaps it was novel for me to focus from the very start on investigating and developing a new image of the male by the female and did not restrict myself to developing a new image of the female by the female.

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

Valie Export had discovered two-year-old collages in my studio and she took to them in a big way. But she could not show them in her Magna Feminismus exhibition due to the incident described above. Because of that incident I lost any desire to offer these collages to anyone else. I sensed they were too forward, too provocative. Thus I stopped showing them to anybody or suggesting them for exhibitions, since my dogged interest in the male, phallic structure not only lead to repeated irritation and rejection by males but equally by feminist artists and critics. The latter two accused me of being fixated on the phallus, of being obscene and lacking engagement with femininity.

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now?

Pornographic jokes have always been a male domain, made at the exclusive expense of women. I consider my series of objects an accomplished example of an obscene female joke. This joke has hit home; it targets the deadly serious, male sexual arrogance. My works could be created only because I was obviously able, despite my anxieties, to discuss sexuality and sexual repression simultaneously through desire and ironic distance.

September 2015