She is yet to be recognised by art history's 'hall of fame’
Column published in Kunsten.nu. 3 February 2023. By Augusta Atla
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She is yet to be recognised by art history's 'hall of fame’
3 February 2023. By Augusta Atla @ Kunsten.nu
Rebecca Horn's work is a good example of how, if we neither know the work of an artist nor write into the big timeline, not only are we missing certain knowledge. There is also a risk that art history, education and theory will never be up to date. In terms of art history, there is an entire category - Female Artists - that has been neither fully traced nor properly archived, and barely researched.
We are facing a new era – an era in which we need to rethink, reformulate and rewrite the history of art. What I mean is, we need a new reference book on art history that totally reconstructs the timeline. I hope that this will happen in my own lifetime. Currently, art history textbooks are in a time of upheaval, while museum practice has not kept up with the times.
Both are rooted in obsolete ideas, which evolved in ancient Greece and extended to the heyday of the bourgeoisie with its class and gender divisions, all for the benefit of men. In other words, as a result of the patriarchy of art history and its method of exclusion, we now have a whole category of works, Women Artists - From 1500 to Today, which has been neither fully tracked down, properly archived nor barely researched. We still have not unearthed all the works in this category, while the works we do know about still need to be researched and written into the history books.
This extensive, incredibly fascinating academic project will expand the concept of art, art history and art theory in general, even changing and updating entire ‘-isms’ or artistic genres, and creating a brand new canon of art: a total rewrite of art history’s timeline of canonised artists.
There are examples of artistic practice, in which the themes and methods are crucial for scrutinising the theory of art and discussing a work as an extension of the artist’s body, gender and bodily awareness. Exponents include Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein and Marina Abramović. They all use/d their own body as a medium, method or instrument in the creation of their works.
Jackson Pollock discovered that, for him, painting was a dance between major elements of nature in the space: the causality of gravity and the (limited) movement of the body. Yves Klein created fables related to his own image as a magician, bridging the gap between the visible and the non-visible world. Marina Abramović does away entirely with the idea of art as material and invents an artist body as a kind of Pandora’s box.
One artist I believe should be given the same status and recognition in art history as the above-named artists is the German artist Rebecca Horn (b. 1944, Michelstadt, Germany). Unfortunately, despite her fame abroad, Rebecca Horn is still largely unknown in Scandinavia.
Both the Tate and many other major art institutions acquire her works. So, Rebecca Horn is a good example of how, if we neither know the work of an artist nor record it in the big timeline, not only are we missing certain knowledge; there is also a risk that art history, education and theory will not catch up with the geniuses of a particular period.
What is more, there is a risk of stagnation, of history repeating itself, of the same works being made again and again on the basis of the works of the original artist, because not enough information was recorded about that artist.
There are multiple layers in Rebecca Horn’s work. But the most important is the fact that she addresses the discussion of ‘patriarchy and gender in the methods of art’, and indirectly comments on the fact that colonisation and patriarchy are like wheels on the same coach - the one called The History of Art’.
Generally speaking, an artist’s conscious use of their gender in their work leads not only to a debate about, and insight into gender, but also to a debate about, and criticism of an entire political system: of a culture that combined binary and heterosexual, and gave precedence to a single gender (male) to unite an entire society. The gender debate in art is not only about sexuality and identity. It is also a very strong denunciation of society, and a pressing issue.
Weißer Körperfächer (White Body Fan) (1972) lambasts one of the cornerstones of classical European art history: Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490).
As Caroline Criado Perez writes in her investigative book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019): “Seeing men as the human default is fundamental to the structure of human society. It’s an old habit and it runs deep.” In the book’s introduction, ‘The Default Male’, she goes even further, quoting Aristotle: “The first departure from type [the norm] is indeed that the offspring should become female instead of male.”
The drawing of Da Vinci reflects the Renaissance vision that correct proportions and the very act of measuring amount to a concept of beauty, an approximation of how nature itself created ‘its’ beauty. Mathematics and geometry became ways of approaching the miracle of nature, and in his work Leonardo da Vinci immortalised man as a perfect manifesto for the gender politics of his day: ‘the default male’.
Performance II (Documentation of Nine Performances — Bleistiftmaske/Pencil Mask) (1972) is a video work, in which the artist wears a mask with pencils placed systematically in a grid over her face. This work too splinters another of the established pillars of art history – an invention of the Italian Renaissance: the concept of designo. It posited that compositional drawing was the underlying order (for painting, sculpture and architecture), leading to the notion of ‘fine art’, thereby elevating fine art far above craftsmanship.
Rebecca Horn’s video of her own face and body, her long eyelashes with mascara and the pencils, which are almost an extension of the long, black eyelashes are an excellent, unremitting image of the tactile delicacy of the body, the artist’s body as gender (mascara and the woman’s face).
For Rebecca Horn, her body and its sensorial perceptions become an instrument for drawing, and the work can be understood as critique of (Italian) designo. In contrast to the Renaissance concept, this drawing has nothing to do with a logical overview or mathematical abstraction. Here, the drawing is created using the immediate sensory and tactile experiences of the body - just as a bird finds its nest by registering sound and thermo, and with an acute sense of space and touch.
In Adler im Halbmond (2002) feathers are fitted to a small brass instrument, which has a mechanism that makes the feathers move. As Surrealism did, the work mixes the mechanical with the symbols of nature, using a row of natural feathers that open and close. Is it a fan, an indigenous headdress or the presence of history in the mechanical spin of the clockmaker? Is it a meditation or a prescient vision of how today’s activists such as Juma Xipaia are fighting for the preservation of the rainforest and its rights, and for respect for indigenous cultures? The work brings us full circle to the issue of how colonisation, patriarchy and also the climate crisis are inextricably linked.
Rebecca Horn's works constitute a wonderful image of the time of upheaval in which we live. They lambast the age-old anthropocentric view of the environment and culture, which places (white) man at the centre, and which has by now probably run its course.
We now live in a post-anthropocentric era, in which we need to take into account the balance of the entire planet: not only in terms of gender, ethnicity and equality in the human world, but also when it comes to the natural world with its land, and flora and fauna.
Furthermore, and most importantly, the work of Rebecca Horn is a fine example of how we need to reassess the artists who form the canon in art history, and how we must revise the timeline. We need a new version of the overview of art history.