While some artists work in oil or watercolour, Renate Bertlmann tends towards dildos, latex penises and inflated condoms.
The Austrian artist pioneered the feminist Avant-Garde movement in the 1970s with her shocking and controversial work. She has examined women’s sexual repression and eroticism for decades with a blunt use of performance, painting, drawing, photography and sculpture.
In 1978, the artist dressed in a wedding gown and disfigured mask, sat in a wheelchair and pretended to give birth in Pregnant bride in wheelchair. During this performance, she challenged the way women are held back by societal conventions. She moaned, she invited audience participation. Then her labour ended, she stood up, and Bertlmann left her crying baby in the gallery behind her. The baby turned out to be a tape swaddled in bandages.
She often douses her work in kitsch and over-sexualizes passive objects as if mirroring the way men over-sexualize their own power and over-sexualize women. Such is the case when she covers dildos in rhinestones or sticks knives into molded latex. Her latex often takes the shape of breasts or women’s figures or penises. She entangles humor and powerful content.
Power differs from acceptance in the fine arts world, however. Bertlmann’s fame was often restricted to Vienna, and even there she faced marginalization.
The Centre Pompidou rejected her work in 1979, the Van Abbemuseum excluded her, people labeled her as “phallic obsessed.”
In 2017, though, Pompidou purchased one of her photographs, and her recognition is spreading beyond Vienna to the rest of the world. Notably, the public hasn’t started to accept Bertlmann until she has reached her 70s, a common dilemma woman artists face.
In 2019, Bertlmann will be the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Austrian Pavilion when she represents Austria at the 58th Venice Biennale this May. She also will display in the US for the first time as part of the Independent New York’s fair entirely filled with woman artists.
Bertlmann’s sexualized structures and phallic-infused symbolism catch audience eyes before immediately targeting audience’s ears. Bertlmann’s strong voice sends the audience messages about sexuality and gender. Her voice is important and sharp, as sharp as the knives sticking out of her breast-shaped latex sculptures.