Marion Wagschal's new show at Canada House is her first ever show in the UK. Relatively unknown outside of North America, the latest exhibition at Canada house is of paintings created between 1980 and 2015. Hopefully this fantastic show will bring her to the attention of a wider audience.
Wagschal has been painting for five decades and as the work here shows, she is no follower of fashion. Early on in her career at a time when abstract art was dominating the art scene, Wagshal was painting figurative work, at a time when the female form was still about objectification: garish high-heeled figures with bulging breasts. As Berger says in Ways of Seeing (1973): "Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at". But Wagschal eschewed passivity and was taking control of the male gaze by painting an extraordinary self portrait, Cyclops (pictured here but not on show at Canada Gallery), in which Wagschal defiantly bared all. 'Objectify away' she seems to say.
There is nothing romantic about Wagschal's work. These images are of sagging, aged, fleshy bodies. The passing of time is the first thing I think when I enter the gallery. These are people who really have lived. And inevitably died. The portrait of her dead mother, a holocaust survivor, is painfully blunt.
Death hangs around a few of the paintings, in the guise of a memento mori in Woman with Still Life (1998), a dead coyote in Song for a Dead Coyote (2015) which was reminiscent of Angela Carter's fairy tales, and what looks like a suicide attempt in Portrait With Shattered Glass (1990).
Wagschal re-writes art history again and again in these works with her female forms: Cyclops itself references Goya of course, and the disturbing Baal is a Sherman-esque self portrait whereas in Caryatid from 1998, instead of a historical caryatid, quite literally a statuesque woman who bears the weight of the temple, Wagschall here casts the Caryatid as the monumental temple itself, defiantly blocking our view with a voluminous mass of material. Like many of her canvases, the figure is having trouble fitting in the canvas, flowing like a river of flesh into our viewing space. The scale of these works invokes the frigidity of a large-scale history painting, but the subject matter and her distinct framing allows us to drift back into the canvas and thus empathise with the subject matter.
Like many of the feminist pioneers of the time like Margaret Harrison and Nancy Spero to name just two, Wagschal's work focuses on themes involving women and their representation in western culture. Wagschal takes the female figure, a central object of Western art since time immemorial, and reclaims it through a wholly personal approach. As this exhibition demonstrates, her first ever showing in the UK, rarely have women's representations of themselves been given a showcase.
By far the most powerful work is the cinematic Tales from the Schwarzwald as told by my Mother. This work, which took 33 years to complete, tells the tale of Wagschal's mother (here seen as an icon from which the narrative spreads out from) and the family possessions which vanished in the Holocaust. The heap of innocent children's dolls, disturbingly remind us of the innocents lost in the concentration camps that her family luckily escaped (they left Germany in 1938). Once again death or the prospect of death haunts the canvas.
The paintings are astonishing. Having not known her work, I was not expecting to see work so profoundly moving. These immense canvasses draw you into the lives of these ordinary women who have largely been forgotten in a predominantly male version of art history. The work is as intimate as it is monumental, as much about the way we look as what we are looking at.
Don't miss it! This is an extraordinary show and hopefully Wagschal will get a wider audience in this country.