Feminist avant-garde art practices

RELATED TERMS: Avant-garde movements; Feminism - Material feminism

While themes derived from avant-garde art practice may be of relevance to narrative environment design, of potentially more interest may be those practices of the feminist avant-garde. In confronting an oppressive and conformist patriarchal system prevalent in the in the immediate post-World War Two years, feminist artists developed work that challenged the cult of masculine artistic genius while reclaiming lost ground in the public sphere. They used the media of photography, film, video, and action/performance to explore the female body as a work of art that challenged the ascendancy of the male gaze.

They examined the personal as the political by undermining stereotypical roles as housewife, mother and wife, symbolically enacting the act of breaking free from oppressive confinement while re-articulating the iconography of female eroticism and sexuality, in the process critiquing the reification of the female body while engaging in role play. Through these experimental performances, feminist women artists analysed the dynamics of the perceiving/perceived gendered body considering how, as Schor (2015: 61) argues, women experience a split consciousness: as they internalise the male gaze, they simultaneously perceive themselves as subjects and as objects. A significant part of this perceptual domain involves the critique of the ideal of (feminine) beauty and its dictates as well as highlighting the violence inflicted on women.

Gabriele Schor (2015) argues that the historiography of modern art, in adhering too faithfully to the discursive paradigm of male artistic genius, does a serious disservice to the contribution made by women artists. Women artists played a significant part in the classical avant-gardes, whose protagonists sought to break free from tradition and win social acceptance for a new art. These avant-gardes produced their manifestos, pamphlets and art works during the first third of the 20th century, before and after the First World War, until they were suppressed by fascist and Stalinist forces in Europe.

Peter Burger (1974) adjudged that the avant-garde had failed, a contention that is disputed by Karin Hirdina. Hirdina thinks that the demise of the avant-garde was not a simple endogenous failure but owed more to the fact of their being suppressed. Nevertheless, those representatives of the historic avant-garde who survived exile and oppression could not simply pick up where they left off in the 1920s.

The sense of the term avant-garde changed after World War Two, a period in which it came to cover such art practices as action painting, abstract expressionism, minimalism, op art, pop art, Situationism, Fluxus, Happenings and conceptual art. One of the most striking tendencies in art at this time was the feminist art movement. However, such feminist art is generally not identified as being part of the neo-avant-garde.

This inability to perceive the proximity of ‘feminism’ and ‘avant-garde’ is a weakness of both art history and art criticism. Schor (2015) clearly delineates the feminist art movement’s historic and pioneering achievements, focusing on the art produced during the 1970s. The activities of these women artists manifest all the characteristics of the avant-garde, a concept too closely connected with male artists.


Burger, P. (1984). Theory of the avant-garde, translated by Michael Shaw. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Schor, G. et al. (2015). Feminist avant-garde: art of the 1970s, the Sammlung Verbund Collection, Vienna. München: Prestel

Video resources

Rebel Women: The Great Art Fight Back, 22:30 18/06/2018, BBC4, 60 mins. Available from [Accessed 10 Mar 2019]