The latest show to take over the Sotheby’s private sales gallery in London brings two remarkable female Austrian artists centre stage: Maria Lassnig and Renate Bertlmann. While Lassnig has been enjoying a renaissance moment thanks to the attentions of Hauser & Wirth earlier this year, Bertlmann is a name only slowly coming into the land of mainstream popularity.
An avant-garde feminist artist best known for her wildly sexual and explicit work that challenges the feminine role, Bertlmann has always been a controversial figure. Since studying at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Bertlmann has become fixture of the Austrian contemporary art scene as both a teacher and extraordinary creator.
Walking into the upstairs space of the S|2 gallery Bertlmann instantly confronts visitors with a series of remarkable photographs that show the artist in countless different guises – from coquettish revelry to timid flower. Phallic and feminine are interlaced in this exhibition as Bertlmann toys with latex teats and inflated condoms lining the walls. These unsettling motifs are a recognisable theme running through Bertlmann’s work as she challenges representations of the female body and identity from the distinctly male perspective.
Some of the most famous Bertlmann performances have shocked and awed audiences, including the famous ‘Breast Incubator’ when people were asked to reach into a perspex container and touch a fake pair of breasts tipped with knife-blades. In fact, Bertlmann first made a scandalous name for herself in 1978 when she sat in a wheelchair in a Viennese gallery seemingly pregnant, dressed in a wedding dress and wearing a terrifying mask. When the audience pushed her chair about the space a lullaby would play until the music stopped and Bertlman appeared to give birth before strolling out of the gallery.
There is humour and there is dark reality in her work that is both playful and disconcerting. For that, Bertlmann has often faced repercussions, with pieces ridiculed and removed from display. And perhaps that is what makes Bertlmann such a curious figure – she has also been on the wrong side of the feminist group that she shared motivations with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all female artists of the era agreed with Bertlmann’s prolific use of male sexual organs in her visual vocabulary, preferring to focus instead on the female body.
In the recent past Bertlmann has been growing in popularity in the UK with her work appearing at the Tate Modern’s ‘The World Goes Pop’ exhibition and just last year at The Photographers’ Gallery. Following the S|2 incarnation of Bertlmann’s oeuvre, it seems the market is in for an overhaul and the works that were on display in Mayfair have likely all disappeared into the vaults of private collectors near and far. As commercial exhibitions go though, this was a truly remarkable moment to see Bertlmann in all her glory as the major 20th century feminist artist that she has come to be known.