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BAD WOMEN

The following is taken from the text by Susanne Jakob which accompanied the exhibition ‘Bad Women’ at Galerie Im Heppächer, Esslingen, Germany in 1995.

Over the centuries under the influence of patriarchal-clerical thinking, such as Thomas Aquinas, a whole range of specifically female vices has been catalogued and stereotyped. Accordingly women are vain, ostentatious and quarrelsome. Likewise they are held to be the very incarnation of seduction and depravity. Above all, a woman's visual effect, her seductive gaze and bodily attributes puts the blame fairly and squarely on her for leading the man astray. Written and pictorial proof of such accusations and prejudices against women are to be found in the moral code books of the late middle ages in which man is cautioned against female cunning.

These late medieval smear campaigns culminated in the nineteenth century in the myth of the enigmatic and dangerous woman. The so-called 'femme-fatale' was not only given shape and form through the fantasy of the writers Emile Zola, Huysmann and August Strindberg but was also a recurrent theme in the paintings of Gustave Moreau, Edvard Munch and Max Beckmann.

Christine Kowal Post takes up these preconceived roles, clichés and prejudices against women using the technique of woodcarving, a skill more traditionally executed by men. She responds to these themes with observations and counterparts that are partly critical and ironic, partly provocative and dramatic.

A central almost programmed motif in Kowal Post's most recent work is represented by 'Hierarchy' 1994. She has cut and carved a group of vertically arranged figures, reminiscent of a totem pole, out of an approximately three-metre long piece of limewood. In 'Hierarchy' she describes the common concept of evolution. The lowest position is occupied by the plant-like creature that is pushing upwards, striving to be on a footing with the higher classes. Above it rises the hierarchy of creatures following almost exactly the Linnean classification of the animal kingdom, the summit of which is occupied by Man, the mammal gifted with the faculty of reason. Kowal Post ironically points out, using symbols of male power (phallus, weapon) which sex within the western theory of evolution is clearly deemed to be the better, and because of its strength and aggression judged to be the biologically more successful. The system of classification of the animal kingdom serves Kowal Post as a metaphor for the order of precedence between man and woman and the other creatures. The sculpture 'Hierarchy' offers an explanation for the apparent subordination of woman.

In her search for counterparts Kowal Post explores the history of civilisation. Her interest is stimulated by the 'female gaze' which causes her to look for 'Strong Women' and investigate myths, prejudices and those 'Bad Women' throughout history, especially those from Christian teaching such as Judith, and Susanna bathing, but also goddesses of fertility, sirens, pariahs, images of female deception and the female nude of art history receive a new treatment and appreciation. Removed from its historical context the female figure becomes deserving of representation and through the positive re-evaluation of its femininity and of course sexuality, receives its own particular identity.

This rehabilitation of the' Bad Women' begins with the dramatic staging of 'Woman with a Goblet and Dagger' of 1994. She is not to be regarded as an inert, passive object but rather as the subject of (Art) history. She blatantly displays her feminine charms with self-confidence yet incriminates herself with her attributes; the goblet of wine long held to be a means of seduction and the concealed dagger. References to both Judith of the Old Testament and the historical figure Charlotte Corday are present with 'Woman with a Goblet' by nature of its props. However, it is rather intended as a universal confirmation of the toughness of the 'weaker sex'. Not only body language, but also the gaze of the figure reveals an expressive quality, a deeper significance. Depending on the spectator's viewpoint the gaze can be daring and fearless, deceptively harmless and indifferent, or cunning and deceitful. In 'Judith and Holofernes' the terrible contrast between the ashen, lifeless head of Holofernes and Judith's warm, living body becomes tangible through the use of colour. The differing treatment of full-face and profile views, underlined by the gesturing hands opens up further interpretations; Judith as tender and sensual or contrastingly as cruel and insensitive.

In a new series of woodcarvings Christine Kowal Post has taken as her theme not the toughness of the 'weaker sex' but the powerlessness of women in the face of male supremacy and violence. In 'Victim' 1995 she depicts the woman naked, taken by surprise and unable to loosen the grip of her male attacker. Physical inadequacy and helplessness is accentuated by the woman's nakedness set against the fully clothed figure of the man.

Christine Kowal Post's sculptures are neither obvious nor programmed. In questioning the cultural past she adopts neither post-modern strategies nor a clear-cut feminist stance. Ambiguity and a willingness to leave her options open are qualities not only of Kowal Post's sculpture but also her artistic method. But perhaps therein lies a way forward to identify and overcome antiquated concepts.

Susanne Jakob M.A.

Curator Kunst Im Schloss, Neuhausen , Germany

 

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