By Jackie Wullschlager
FT’s chief visual arts critic and author of the acclaimed biography: Chagall, Love and Exile
March 7, 2009

Is women’s art different from men’s? At the 1845 Salon, Baudelaire praised Eugénie Gautier because “her painting has nothing to do with woman’s painting”. A century later, critics applauded Georgia O’Keeffe because “she paints like a man”. Then came the feminist revolution. Annette Messager, born in 1943, came of age in the 1970s in France when “it was so difficult for a woman to be an artist. I wanted to say all the time, ‘I am an artist and I am a woman. I will not do male work.’ “

Isa Genzken, born in Germany in 1948, made a similar decision; so did Gitl Braun, born in 1950 in Jerusalem, Berlinde de Bruyckere (Ghent, 1964), and Rebecca Warren (London, 1965). All are sculptors, all deconstruct the human figure. Messager’s and Genzken’s drooping, mutilated fabric creatures and the puppets reconfigured and manipulated by Messager and Braun subvert the female medium of textiles; de Bruyckere’s elongated Gothic parodies and Warren’s shape-shifting clay grotesqueries pull traditional figuration awry. All have solo shows in London this month; taken together, their work argues that women are evolving a language and materiality that is original, oppositional, malleable, and fascinatingly contrasts with work by men.

Messager’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery charts this rise in scope, scale and confidence with panache. Until the early 1990s, Messager’s work was so shy and tentative that it looks surprised even to find itself in a museum. Opening the show are “How My Friends Would Do My Portrait”, small ink sketches overlapping black and white photographs, “My Collection of Castles”, child-like pencil drawings, and “Collection to Find My Best Signature”, a group of experimental scrawls. “The Secret Room” invites us to peer through peepholes at photographs of “The Men I Love, the Men I Don’t Love”, and stitched fabric drawings, “My Needlework”. All date from 1972, and echo – mock? – gestures towards self-definition you might encounter on the walls of a teenager’s bedroom.

Fleeting monochrome shots of (clothed) male crotches anticipate Messager’s 1980s photographs of fragmented body parts, often tattooed; “The Boarders”, a vitrine of stuffed birds connected to clockwork motors, plays on girlish sentimentality and the tension between confinement and movement, a key Messager theme. But, from this period, only the disturbing “Children with Their Eyes Scratched Out”, photographs inscribed with the infant’s age – “would have been four years old”; “would have been 11 months”, as if defacing the image has killed the child – heralds the dark humour, ambiguity and sublimated rage of Messager’s later work.

Messager originally glued these newspaper photographs into a notebook as a pretend-record of a child growing up. “But one day, disturbed by all these unknown gazes that were staring up at me and testifying to my lie, I took a pen and violently scratched out their eyes and ever since they have truly become my child.” This is more than a critique of a society expecting all women to bear children; it expresses the extreme psychological difficulty of combining creativity with motherhood. Messager is childless, and her affecting use of materials evoking childhood is surely connected with this. “Story of Little Effigies” huddles soft toys and collages of doll’s clothes into a despairing heap. “Mourning Game” shrouds toys and photographs in black fishing nets. “Fables and Tales” is a tower of stuffed animals and children’s books.

None of these scrap assemblages prepares you for the complex narratives of absurdity and resilience that have made Messager’s reputation in the past decade. In “Dependence-Independence”, black strands of wool course down like rain to form a dark forest half-concealing photographs of children torturing their own faces, lost toy animals stuck in nets, mirrors, lights; from above the installation is shaped like a (bleeding) heart. “Casino”, a tripartite installation of automated black/red billowing cloths, nets and trampolines retelling the Pinocchio story, won Messager the Golden Lion at the 2005 Venice biennale; part two, detailing the lying puppet’s fate when swallowed by a whale, and full of allusions to wombs and fire, is recreated here. “Articulated-Disarticulated” casts computerised fabric automatons as hybrid beasts and wayward dolls; suspended by strings, some twist and writhe in the air, while pulleys drag others across the floor. Do these nursery ballets mécaniques signify anything? “They’re like us,” says Messager, “poor pathetic human animals, trying to survive all our adventures.”

Like Messager, Gitl Braun uses domestic materials to free herself from male- dominated forms and create an art of female autobiographical experience. Her first solo show at Boundary Gallery introduces a technically sophisticated sculptor/photographer with a particular multimedia method: Braun makes sculptures, photographs them, then destroys them, leaving only the image of a memory, the memory of an image.

To begin, discarded 19th-century Sicilian puppets – painted heads, broken limbs, mere torsos – are draped in ornamental shawls and photographed against a velvet-black ground in the guise of women biblical characters. “Yael” in a luscious cloak is a resolute general. “Ruth” is a blackened bronze head filling the picture space, stark as primitive African statuary. “Rebecca”, deep red face and steely gaze enclosed in a white headscarf, is an unyielding matriarch and manipulator. With chiselled features, open lips, astonished eyes, expressive outstretched hands but a smashed body, “Shulamith” looks out with brave-new-world wonder at her reinvention; her emotional presence lights up the picture with an alarm and expectation reminiscent of Caravaggio.

A child of Holocaust survivors, Braun grew up in an orthodox orphanage and never played with dolls. She calls the puppets “my family . . . I love them for having consented to play with me, the heroes of my stifled childhood”. She became an artist in middle age, after her eight children had left home. She is now paring down her initial figurative language to make photographs of textile sculptures – “The Creation of Eve”, “Prayer”, “Introspection” – constructed by looping, folding and twisting small sheets of white silk, chiffon and cotton into abstract forms. Indebted to surrealism’s games of scale and defamiliarisation, formally satisfying for their textural contrasts, they suggest wombs, cradles, nests, caves, twin places of safety and entrapment, and also the sexually evocative layered interiors of flowers (“Homage to Georgia O’Keeffe”).

Related series are abstracted from prayer books, Hebrew print blocks, old, encrusted palettes; in each case, the sculptures are collapsed once photographed close-up, enlarged and cropped. Thus a feminised art – of voluptuous, vanishing folds, pages and pigments – encodes within the story of its making themes of loss, absence, instability and the power of remembrance. Braun gives new life, through the contemporary gloss of sharp, smooth, giclée prints on aluminium and optical acrylic, to images of ancient resonance.