Evelyne Awell, Le retour de Tarzan, 1972. Email sur plexiglass, 196 132 cm, Centre Pompidou

Evelyne Axell, Le retour de Tarzan, 1972. Email sur plexiglass, 196 132 cm, Centre Pompidou

 

The Belgian artist Evelyne Axell (1935-1972) was hardly a stranger to the sixties Parisian world of performing and visual arts. Leaving her husband and child in Brussels, in 1959 she temporarily moved to Paris to further her drama studies, and it is in Paris where she began her brief but promising acting career by performing on stage (as a member of the Julien Bertheau team) and on TV. As a painter living and working in Brussels, however, she overcame the short distance between the two capitals through her affiliation with Pierre Restany and her familiarity with his Nouveau Realist protégés, both in real life and through her husband’s televised art documentaries. In 1969 she had an important show at the then left-bank Galerie Templon, curated by Restany himself, while Gerald Gassiot-Talabot, another influential critic of the Parisian art scene of the time and Restany’s antagonist in many respects, introduced her work in one of her last exhibitions at Brussels’ Palais de Beaux Arts in 1971. An early and tragic death in a car accident cut short the development of her art, and her posthumous reputation remained largely within national borders until rekindled interest in her work in the past decade-especially due to the concentrated efforts of her widow-brought her work many times to the vicinity of the Centre Pompidou.[1] It took, however, another ten years for Axell’s work to gain a place in the Centre’s collection, with its recent acquisition of Le Retour de Tarzan, 1972. Concluding her rediscovery as a feminist Pop artist in Europe and the US,[2] its display at the exhibition Elles@CentrePompidou signals the end of dogmatic feminist views toward women’s attempts to represent the female body in light of a “third-wave” feminist reconciliation of the plurality of feminist politics in art-if not the end of what Axell has called “the fair sex’s allergy” to the nude, which predicted the invisibility of her work in Paris, though many of the radical feminist ideas presaged by her nudes were given birth there.  

Axell turned to painting in 1963, and in her short life as artist left an incredible body of collages, paintings, painting collages, plastic painting reliefs and painted objects, two unrealized projects (a film and an installation) and the documentation of a radical happening. Though she experimented with many art influences, including Magritte’s short tutelage, her work remains remarkable for its radical proto-feminist dialogue with Pop art: her development of a proto-feminist Pop erotica. With an obsessive devotion-a strategically proto-feminist “lesbian focus”[3]- to the female body, Axell indeed embraced Pop to celebrate female sexuality and desire: radically diversifying female erotic pleasures to include autoeroticism and homoeroticism in a pre-Irigarayan advocation of the “love of the same,” while also claiming the scopophilia of the female gaze, she bred a Wittigian clan of desiring Amazons that aided her in propagating a proto-feminist erotics for women.[4]  Imagistic references to the spectacle of postwar consumer culture as well as to the upheavals of sixties counterculture coexist in her work.  Her intersection with Pop art depends more on formal means and materials than subject matter, however.  With an idiosyncratic hybridization of collage and painting, Axell developed a simulacral Pop style whose changing “mediated semblance”[5]-unhinged from pop culture’s direct representation, simulation or appropriation and the ensuing tautology of subject and style-relies on the aggregate effects of color, stylization, industrial materials, and quasi-photographic effects, whose origins seem to interchangeably derive from both pop culture and Pop Art, that is, from their dynamic cross-fertilization in several forms of “high sixties”‘ visual culture. Pop style was pursued by Axell as the up-to-date, jubilant means through which the artist celebrated contemporary “woman,” her modernity relying on her body-on the pleasures derived from an active female sexuality. Solidifying her dialogue with Pop through her radical employment of the pin-up-pop culture’s misogynist staple of the sexual woman-in its most pornographic manifestations (in ecstatic poses of pleasure, of self-pleasuring, or engaged in scenes of homoerotic intimacy or sex) as an emblem of active female sexuality, she updated the nude for a Pop erotica for women to promulgate the autonomy, as well as the diversity, of female desire and pleasure. 

Thematizing the erotic reunion of Tarzan and Jane in a paradise jungle,  Le Retour de Tarzan is a spectacular example of Axell’s proto-feminist Pop plastic painting reliefs, though an atypical sample both of the “popness” and the proto-feminism of her Pop erotica, due to her direct reference to a pop source and inclusion of the male body. It indeed represents a rare combination of canonic pop iconography with Axell’s signature late Pop style. With the exception of actual loans-excerpts from women’s magazines-in Axell’s early painted collages, and a few references to heroines and victims emblematic of the sixties, Axell rarely drew her subjects so explicitly from mass culture. Even her engagement with advertising imagery in her coupling of the female body with automobile parts and ice creams, which radicalized Pop scenarios of consumption by concocting fantasies of female desire-as in her series of Erotomobiles-was oblique. By contrast, Axell’s Le Retour de Tarzan foregrounds its pop topic with its title and protagonists, though its composition is only inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ celebrated novel The Return of Tarzan, rather than copied from its numerous transmutations in the mass media. Yet the media face of the topic is reinforced by the evocations of the colors and the manner of its execution, not to mention the connotations of its layered plastic supports.[6]

If Le Retour de Tarzan’s popness is undoubted, so it is, to me, the feminist underpinnings of Axell’s dual focus on desiring Jane’s and Tarzan’s nude bodies. Targeting Jane’s lap, Tarzan is jumping onto his colorful jungle stage from the upper left corner of the painting with his unrealistic naked body licked by various hues of shiny blue enamel in a gesture of feminist inversion of the objectification of the female body. Tarzan had disappeared from the comics of the Francophone world when Axell was growing up, due to French censorship of the immoral violence of his behavior and the sexuality of his near-nudity. Redeeming the pleasures of pop culture’s consumption of male bodies, Axell, however, drastically undresses him more than comic book artists and film directors ever did, yet for women’s pleasure-both bodily and scopic. For her Jane, although she has denounced the artifice of civilization with her nudity, [7] is featured still wearing her glasses, perhaps to take a better look at the object of her desire. With her legs spread in a pose of erotic excitement and anticipation, Jane shamelessly flashes her vulva to the audience, aiding Axell’s celebration of female sexuality as did many of the Amazons of her proto-feminist erotica, with their exhibitionist poses of erotic, autoerotic and homoerotic pleasure.  

Inasmuch as Le Retour de Tarzan reclaims the right of women to look at the male body, and in effect the scopophilia of the female gaze, it remains an atypical example of the main proto-feminist strategies Axell devised to make her Pop erotica for women. Due to its exceptional depiction of a male nude, it captures neither her radical reclaiming of women’s right to look at and imag(in)e the female body and its pleasures, including the eroticization of the female gaze, nor her radical diversification of their pleasures: the embrace of auto- and homo-erotic pleasure manifested by Axell’s numerous depictions of  solitary or mirrored nudes in pornographic scenarios of pleasure. Anchoring her desire on the male body, the female pleasure that her Jane promulgates is still dependent on male sexuality, firmly grounded within the frame of normal heterosexuality in Western phallocentric society, something that perhaps has made this work acceptable for the belated embrace of Axell by Centre Pompidou. As an adult comic, however, it suffices to prove Axell’s employment of Pop for a proto-feminist erotica. And, added to Axell’s numerous erotic pin-ups, as a debatably “for-women-only” adult comic it also captures the problem Axell’s Pop erotics present to feminism, having caused her prolonged invisibility in feminist art’s histories. For it indeed raises important feminist questions that have bifurcated intragenerational camps of feminists, such as whether pornography can be appropriated for feminist ends in a patriarchal society. In effect, it also captures aspects of the problematic nature of the female Pop artist per se.

I have elsewhere described the role of feminist criticism and theory in rendering the woman Pop artist into a paradox, and feminist Pop an impossibility, resulting in the prolonged blindness of feminist art history to women Pop artists’ eclipse from Pop’s canon, and the lasting de-popping of those few whose proto-feminist politics were hesitantly appreciated (such as Marisol or Niki de Saint Phalle).[8] Indeed, the absence of women Pop artists-whether proto-feminist or not-is not solely a byproduct of societal gender biases and the masculinist foundations of art criticism. The specificities of their writing-out from Pop art histories are inextricable from the critical (mis)construction of Anglo-American Pop’s “hard-core” canon and its criteria (mechanical surfaces and consumer objects) in the sixties, as well as the poststructuralist fixation with the vacuity of its surfaces.  Feminism played its own conspicuous role in their marginalization however, though historically and discursively justifiable.  With its vehement exposure of the sexism of visual culture and representation itself, especially in light of the inextricability of pop culture’s and high art’s misogynist representations of women, Pop art was justly proven a masculine and often pornographic terrain of male fantasies that let no space for the articulation of female subjectivity, as Martha Rosler has memorably put it, even though at the expense of those who managed to articulate female subjectivity from the heart of Pop.[9]  Moreover, the critical subversion of pop culture’s misogyny was somewhat dogmatically embraced by second-wave feminist criticism and art history as the only possible feminist art position vis-à-vis popular culture, rendering other forms of dialogue with it further invisible, and the proto-feminist embraces of both low and high pop, as in the work of Axell and Pauline Boty, for instance, further inaudible.  Of all women Pop artists that I have studied and helped to resurface, Axell best illustrates the feminist conundrum, if not the oxymoron, of the proto-feminist Pop artist, since her radical devising of an erotics for women was predicated upon her Pop grafting of high and low traditions of the nude (both objects of feminist critique) marked by her embrace of pop culture’s image of the sexualized woman-the pin-up.  Jane is only a comic-book metamorphosis, if not downgrading, of it, compared to the Playboy underpinnings of the rest. Inevitably, her celebratory body politics stumble upon the intra-generationally and intra-geoculturally specific feminist disagreement about controversial issues for feminism, such as pop culture and the representation of women’s bodies, marked by the anti-essentialism and the somatophobia that distinguished the intersection of second-wave feminism with postmodernism and the feminist controversies that have surrounded the politicization of pleasure by/for women in art.

It is not coincidental neither that one of the two women who wrote on Axell prior to her rediscovery yet in the aftermath of the second feminist wave’s upheavals, the novelist Dominique Rolin, felt she had to defend Axell’s brains to absolve her of feminine narcissism, nor that fear of her complicity with the sexism of visual culture lurks in the critical welcoming of her sexual politics by contemporary feminist artists, as evidenced by the review of her recent show in NY by Carrie Moyer, who nonetheless celebrates Axell’s work.[10] Conversely, the radicality of Axell’s nudes went unnoticed for several decades by feminists, servicing instead male desires, or facilely attributed to the sexual politics of the sixties, even though irreducible to feminist politics. Pierre Restany, for instance, as a post-soixante-huitard zealot of the sexual revolution, acknowledged the popness of her nudes and celebrated their modernity as a confirmation of the glorious invasion of eroticism in life, pop culture and art. But for Restany, the sexual revolution in art was men’s revolution, with the female nude being the ultimate sign of liberated and liberating male desire.  In a long article on the topic in Plexus, he meticulously catalogued numerous “modern” nudes that proved such erotic revolution in art, connecting postwar female bodies as different as those of Kusama and Ramos, de Saint Phalle and Wesselmann.[11] In his essay for Axell’s show in Galerie Templon that reads almost as an addendum to his preachings in Plexus, with his usual verboseness further eroticized, Restany misappropriated Axell’s, and her nudes’, pleasures to unleash his own:

Eroticism is everywhere…The diffusion of eroticism in reality has something that renders us optimistic:  it corresponds to a new humanistic interpretation of the universe…The female nude, which is a majestic incarnation of erotic desire, has become the currency of taste.  Confronted with the ideal nude, symbol of eternal beauty…the modern nude is totally objectified, and affirmed as a means of communication.  The Opalines of Axell are more modern than the Suppliciées of Bourges or the Aphrodite of Syracuse because they resemble those women whom I, Pierre Restany, I desire to love in 1969.[12]

 Such desirous critical appreciation, past and more recent, of Axell’s nudes by male critics, however, diminishes her art’s radicality-the radicalization of female spectatorship and desire-and reduces its proto-feminist conviction to an innocuous  symptom of the sixties’ mythic sexual liberation, in line with the unquestioned portrayal of Axell by her sole biographer, her husband, as a sexual radical of the sixties and in a stereotypical conflation of the hedonism of the artist with that of her work.  Insofar as such critical appreciation speaks volumes about the seeming indistinguishableness of Axell’s nudes from Pop’s unabashedly misogynist ones resulting from the inevitable subjection of women’s representations of women’s bodies to the servicing of male desires, it also accounts for the unpalatability of Axell’s bodies of female desire to feminists-and Centre Pompidou itself, perhaps-as opposed to the earlier endorsement of de Saint Phalle’s Nanas’ critical obscenity, while pointing to the feminist lack of consensus about women’s representations of women’s bodies in feminist art. For even though both artists’ body politics converge in the celebration of the female body, Axell’s was realized through the controversial embrace of an existing, both low- and high-art language of the nude rather than its subversion, making her radical message difficult to be endorsed.

At first glance, it is indeed hard to distinguish the radicality of an Axell nude flashing its vulva to the audience from the sexism of an equally pornographic one by, for instance, Tom Wesselmann, especially when both are framed by the “male gaze.” And Le Retour de Tarzan repeats pop cliché views of gender roles and female sexuality-marked by Jane’s passivity and association with nature[13]-that seemingly don’t differ from Roy Lichtenstein’s reinforcement of the gender prejudices that underlie the comic-book romances he copied.

The regrettably rare comments Axell left us about her work, in combination with her work and the performative practices that underlie the self-portraying quality of her nudes as a form of radical narcissism, allow us, however, to speculate that the artist was intuitively aware of the threat of the “male gaze” toward the female body, as well as that she programmatically tried to exorcize it with her “lesbian focus” on the female body and her radical redemption of the female (erotic) gaze at the female body, redeeming in effect the pleasure both of painting and looking at the female body, long stolen from women/artists.[14]  It is not coincidental that, with the exception of Tarzan, the few males that Axell invited into her all-women gallery of sirens of desire are portraits of important male critics who supported her work. Portrayed vis-à-vis her nudes, their not-at-all disinterested look seems to collapse the radicality of her nudes of erotic desire, literalizing the menace that masculine criticism entailed for her nudes and jeopardizing the politics of their “for-women” erotics.  Moreover, by grafting her embodied subjectivity as an artist to the pornographic pin-ups she depicted, Axell strengthened her strategic usurping of pop culture’s misogynist staple of the sexual woman as an empowering sign of active, and autonomous, female sexuality.  After all, even in the heteroerotic scenario of Tarzan’s and Jane’s sexual encounter, Jane wears the signature round glasses of Axell.

In light of both Axell’s Pop depictions of pro-sex “bad girls” and their enactment through the bad-girl performativity of her “radical narcissism” in art and life,[15] the importance of Centre Pompidou’s belated embrace of Le Retour de Tarzan, as a contribution to Pop by a female Pop artist that complements its collection of early works by de Saint Phalle, pales in comparison with its inclusion in the section Genital Panic at the exhibition Elles@CentrePompidou. The latter returns Axell, and her proto-feminist Pop erotics, to radical feminist art as one of the overlooked “bad girls” of its recent prehistory firmly put in the company of Hannah Wilke-one of the many mavericks of the feminist art she presaged. Monica Wittig’s aphorism on pornography, in the entrance to the aforementioned section, rightly reveals its ideological attack on women, but Axell seemed to have consciously expressed the counter-voice that always existed in feminism-that of anti-censorship and pro-sex feminism. In contrast to her Catholic upbringing and status as a married woman and mother in sixties Brussels, late sixties permissiveness and the radical embrace of pornography definitely enabled Axell’s radical appropriations from pop culture.  But her deliberate defense of women’s right to look at women’s bodies with her intuitive grasp of the feminist potential of pornography, and above all the feminist language of diversified desire and pleasure which she strategically devised to sabotage and undermine the phallocentric logic of the male gaze, were still to be theorized by radical feminists, though systematically contested by other equally radical ones. 

 Kalliopi Minioudaki, Ph.D.  © All Rights Reserved

For use of excerpts and further information contact the author at Minioudaki@aol.com

Note about the author

Axell’s Le Retour de Tarzan Returns a Neglected Artist of Francophone Pop to Paris and the Repressed Proto-Feminist Pop to Feminist Art History,” as explained in the eponymous contribution to the blog of Elles@CentrePompidou by Kalliopi Minioudaki, a feminist art historian and postwar art specialist who has extensively written and spoken about Axell’s work as Proto-Feminist Pop Erotica.

Author of the first collective feminist study of the work of three women Pop artists (“Pop’s Ladies and Bad Girls: Axell, Pauline Boty and Rosalyn Drexler,” Oxford Art Journal, Winter 2007), Minioudaki has thoroughly studied the reasons why women Pop artists have been neglected, while claiming both the popness and proto-feminism of the work of Axell, Boty, Drexler, Jann Haworth, Marisol and Niki de Saint Phalle for her doctoral dissertation Women in Pop: Difference and Marginality, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, 2009. 

Minioudaki has also been research and curatorial associate, as well as co-editor and contributor of the catalogue of the first exhibition to survey the work of a series of neglected female Pop artists, Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968. Curated by Sid Sachs, the exhibition first opened at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, in January 2010, and reopens in expanded form at the Brooklyn Museum on October 14. Minioudaki is also contributor to the catalogue of Power Up: Female Pop Art, an exhibition curated by Angela Stief for the Vienna Kunsthalle, and which focuses on the critical empowerment through Pop of a smaller number of women Pop artists.

 Works by Axell are featured in both exhibitions and, while the shows differ in scope, both mark a critical shift in the stereotypical perception of Pop as an Anglo-American art of surface and a male preserve. In both of her essays, Minioudaki analyzes the role of feminism in the historical neglect of women Pop artists; she maps out the radically proto-feminist strategies and inassimilable heterogeneity of feminist politics of a great number of women Pop artists—including Axell—from a contemporary pluralist-feminist point of view that enables the reconciliation of conflicting feminist attitudes manifested in diverse bodies of work such as those of Jann Haworth and Pauline Boty, or Axell and Niki de Saint Phalle, for instance.

 In her most recent essay Minioudaki also explores “other” sides of Pop as revealed by the work of women who intersected with Pop, such as abstract Pop and political Pop, in defiance of any monolithic (re)definition of Pop, while also expanding on artists not included in either show, such as Chryssa Romanos or Beatriz Gonzalez. For, as she insists, instead of an additive revision of Pop, both exhibitions should reinforce that not all of the women artists who intersected with Pop were feminists, nor was their Pop homogeneous as a product of “women” in any essentialist sense. Instead, their work proves the constitutive variety of Pop itself in its international scope, as much as the proto-feminism seen in several of these artists illustrates the constitutive heterogeneity of feminist politics, while illuminating important neglected precedents of feminist art.

 



[1]Before Natalie Seroussie began systematically exhibiting Axell’s work in Paris, the retrospective Axell: L’Amazone du Pop Art opened in the Centre Wallonie, Paris, in 2000 just opposite the Centre Pompidou, and in 2001 she was included in La Vie en Pop in Galerie Seine 51.

[2]The beginning of Axell’s feminist rediscovery is marked by Sarah Wilson’s writings (”Axell: Erotomobiles,” in Evelyne Axell: Erotomobiles, London, The Mayor Art Gallery, 2003 and “One + One,” in Evelyne Axell: From Pop Art To Paradise, Paris, Somogy Editions d’Art, 2004) and my article “Pop’s Ladies and Bad Girls: Axell, Pauline Boty and Rosalyn Drexler,” Oxford Art Journal,  vol. 30, no. 3, Winter 2007-8, 402-31, which was first introduced at an art history conference in 2004 at Northwestern University.

[3] Erica Rand, “Women and Other Women: One Feminist Focus for Art History,” Art Journal, Summer 1991, 23-34.

[4] For a thorough analysis of my view of the feminism of Axell’s art’s erotics, including the strategic lesbianism of her iconography and diversification of female desire, see the last chapter of my doctoral dissertation “Axell: Pop as Proto-Feminist Erotica,” Women in Pop: Difference and Marginality, Ph.D. Dissertation, IFA, NYU, May 2009, 356-475.

[5] Hal Foster, “Survey,” in Mark Francis, ed., Pop, London, Phaidon, 2005, 18.

[6] For a discussion of the role of plastic in Axell’s popness as well as the intricate way in which she combined paint and plastic surfaces in her painted plastic reliefs see Minoudaki, Women in Pop.

[7] See note n. 14.

[8] In addition to my dissertation see Minioudaki, “Pop Proto-Feminisms: Beyond the Paradox of the Woman Pop Artist,” in Sid Sachs and Kalliopi Minioudaki, eds, Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968, Philadelphia, University of the Arts-Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, 2010 and New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2010, 92-146; “Other(s’) Pop: The Return of the Repressed of Two Discourses,” in Angela Stief, Power UP: Female Pop Art, Vienna, Kunsthalle, 2010.

[9] Martha Rosler, “The Figure of the Artist, The Figure of the Woman,” in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001, New York, MIT Press in association with the ICP, 2004, 99-100. 

[10]  Dominique Rolin, in Evelyne Axell, Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 1978, unpaginated. See also Carrie Moyer’s view of Axell’s early work as still-immature “straightforward iterations of the male gaze” in Pop manner, “So Different, So Appealing: Carrie Moyer on the Women of Pop,” Artforum, April 2010, 84.

[11] Pierre Restany, “L’Art Contemporaine et le language de la Revolution Sexuelle,” Plexus, December 1969, 89-105.

[12] Restany, “Pierre et les Opalines,” in Axell, Paris, Galerie Templon, 1969.

[13] For the role of nature in Axell’s late work and the radical, both body and ecological, politics that underpin its seemingly retrograde essentialism see the discussion of Le Retour de Tarzan in the section “Give Earth a Chance: Axell’s ‘Sexual Ecology,’ in Minioudaki, Women in Pop, 427-431.

[14] See my discussion of Axell’s Deux Dames dans une prairie, 1970 as feminist answer to Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe in light of her comments about the nude in Women in Pop, 440-444.

[15] I first identified Axell’s bad-girl performativity, manifested in both her portraits and the self-portraying element of her pin ups, as a form of “radical narcissism,” in light of Amelia Jones’ (”The Rhetoric of the Pose: Hannah Wilke and the Radical Narcissism of Feminist Body Art,” Body Art: Performing the Subject, Minneapolis, University of Minessota Press, 1998, 151-197) superb theorization of it in “Pop’s Ladies and Bad Girls.”  For a discussion also of Boty’s and Marisol’s radical narcissism see “Axell’s Radical Narcissism and the Bad Girls of Pop,” in Women in Pop, 454-74.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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