The work of pioneering American feminist artist Judy Chicago is not for the prudish. Her current exhibition at Ben Uri The London Jewish Museum of Art displays graphic imagery of the male and female form alongside pieces addressing the notion of female subjugation and masculine power. Yet nestled next to artworks that can challenge and shock are collaborative needlework gems of absolute beauty.
Approximately 170 examples of Chicago’s works are on display in her first U.K. exhibit since 1984. Selected from both her personal archive and from public collections in the U.S., they range from her early feminist images to unseen recent pieces, such as a seven print series, “Retrospective in a Box.” Exploring themes including autobiography, erotica, feminism, pregnancy and birth, the exhibition is contexualized with pieces from artists Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick and Tracey Emin, whose work has tackled similar issues. Two smaller shows are also being held at galleries in Soho and Liverpool.
Chicago’s work has been at the forefront of the women’s art agenda since the 1960s, though she is most renowned for her 1979 installation, “The Dinner Party.” An icon of 1970s feminist art, the work features a huge triangular table and place settings for 39 significant women from history. Along with other works in The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where it is permanently housed, the installation helps account for almost a third of visitors at the museum. “People come from all over the world‘to see [it] which attests to its ongoing relevance to both women and men,” Chicago told the Forward by email.
The Polish Jewish painter Josef Herman, who settled in the UK as a refugee, is best known for his monumentally blocky paintings of Welsh miners whom he depicted empathetically while living for over a decade in a Welsh mining town, starting in 1944. Now a centenary exhibit, “Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-1944” traces the artist’s trajectory before he reached Wales. It’s on view at the Ben Uri Gallery: The London Jewish Museum of Art until January 12, and has already produced an eye-opening catalog.
Unlike the voluminous stasis of his Welsh miners, Herman, who died in 2000 at age 89, saw his Jewish forebears as a society in full motion, dynamic and vivid with a baroque or rococo sensibility. In the 1940 painting “Jews Dancing,” figures hurl themselves around in ecstatic abandon with defiantly macabre vigor as if aware that for European Jews, any dance then was a dance of death. Unlike Chagall’s shtetl denizens, Herman’s are too dynamic to care about being winsomely charming. Herman’s figures move energetically even when sitting still, as in “The Explainer,” a drawing from c. 1940-43, in which a bearded man makes a dramatic hand gesture to better drive home an argument.