A Caged Bird Sings

Vienna-born Birgit Jürgenssen, the versatile pioneer of feminist art, receives her first posthumous retrospective

On The Town | Katrin Wolf | March 2011

A tigress rattles the bars of her cage. But her paws are just gloves, her tiger-face just a mask – below, she is an ordinary woman, wearing an orange apron over her dress and slippers. She looks furious, despite the idyllic scene behind her: Her husband is reading a newspaper, a little boy and girl are having a fight, as siblings do, and a baby plays in a playpen. We do not know what she might see in the distance, outside her caged window. The walls around it dissolve in a misty white, and seagulls emerge from the distance.

This drawing ("Housewife", 1974) impressively unites the decisive features of Birgit Jürgenssen’s oeuvre: Camouflage and masking, feminism and the play with (female) identities; all influenced by surrealism and often with an ironic touch. In the first-ever retrospective (posthumous) of the Vienna-born artist, the Bank Austria Kunstforum is presenting someone  who, most critics now agree, did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime as a pioneer of feminist art. Among the 250 drawings, graphics, photographs and objects are many hitherto unpublished pieces.

This is surprising, considering Jürgenssen’s impressive career: Only eight years old, she started to copy Picasso paintings in her school exercise books and signed with "Bicasso" ("Bi" was her nickname as a kid). Ten years later, after having finished Mittelschule, she traveled to France, where she encountered Surrealism, and started to develop an interest for the philosophy of structuralism and the ethnology of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Later that same year, she was admitted into Professor Herberth’s Master Class for graphic art at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, without having to do the foundation course. After one year as a lecturer there, from 1980 to 1981 (students protested, claiming she had been driven out) she taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna until 1997. Birgit Jürgenssen died in 2003, two years after she had been diagnosed with a pancreas tumor – on Sept. 11.

As in the fascinating Frida Kahlo Retrospective that immediately preceded it, the Bank Austria Kunstforum has chosen to present another feminist icon whose importance and influence for art were not fully recognized during their lifetime. Today, Jürgenssen is mentioned together with artists like Louise Bourgeois or Cindy Sherman. Like Kahlo, she was influenced by surrealism. However, Jürgenssen’s art contains more social references and political commitment, and she was also an activist: In 1975, the International Women’s Year, Austrian women artists were invited to take part in an exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology. But the jury that consisted only of men and when protests proved unsuccessful, 46 of the female artists withdrew, among them Jürgenssen.

Also similar to Kahlo, Jürgenssen is famous for self-portraits, but unlike Kahlo, who often conveyed her own suffering, Jürgenssen uses her own image as a projection screen: The title of the photo "Everyone has his own point of view" (1975 – "Jeder hat seine eigene Ansicht") is written on her naked back. Her face is not visible, and so Jürgenssen’s body becomes a mirror for fantasies, gender roles and the pressures of society. Or, in the artist’s own words: "A woman’s identity is made to disappear, apart from as a fetishist object, the focus of male wish-fulfillment."

Jürgenssen loves to play with these stereotypes and projections, and she breaks gender roles ironically. In "Breast Plate of Augustina" (1974), the famous cuirass bears household objects, little children and other things that women were occupied with throughout the centuries – or rather had to occupy themselves with, as they were not allowed to go out into the world and join the fight. In "Gladiatrix" (1980), she again presents her back to the viewer – naked, apart from the picture of a man who is strapped to it. In her hand, she holds a whip – more an object to flagellate oneself with than to engage in combat. Today, women fight different fights. In several works, Jürgenssen takes famous male characters from history – like Emperor Augustus – and ironically re-interprets them in a female way – alluding to the feminist paradigm that all history writing is male.

In some of the most original work, she portrays the subjugated housewife, who longs to break out of the private sphere she finds herself caged in. The photograph "Housewife Kitchen Apron" (1975) shows her wearing an apron attached to a baking oven – the original is also exhibited, a freshly backed bread loaf coming out of it. Apart from the obvious sexual connotations, the housewife is shown as fulfilling her role of nurturing the family, while at the same time, she is herself no more than a machine.

On the other hand, Jürgenssen’s works also allude to female power. "Gretchen from Faust" (1988) shows her clenched fist, a shoe heel reinforcing the biceps. Other drawings follow the same motif, but replace the shoe heel with a breast.

Shoes generally play a big role in the exhibition. Their role is also ambivalent: The force their owner into an unnatural and painful position, like a Stiefelknecht ("Bootjack", 1976, the one who helps you off with your boots, or is it to be a slave to the boots themselves?) or in "Cleaning Cloth Slippers (for Housewives)" (1976), or are fur shoes and leopard paws. A highlight of the exhibition is a collection of actual shoes (though not very comfortable to wear), like the "Nice Bird of Prey Shoe" (1974/75), a rusty version ("Rust Shoe - Model Mary Stuart", 1976) or a "Relic Shoe" (1976) – a simple leather sole with an animal skull on the front. The strings are intestines, ornamented with bird feathers. (The bones are real, the intestines, however, are painted wax).

All in all a well-mounted exhibition, revealing the interesting, humorous and – still – relevant work of Birgit Jürgenssen finally giving it the recognition it deserves, seven years after the artist’s death.


Bank Austria Kunstforum

Through Mar. 6

Opening Hours: Mon.-Sun.

10:00-19:00; Fri. 10:00-21:00

1., Freyung 8

(01) 537 33 26


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