The Feminist Pop Art Pioneer You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

She was a proto-feminist painter, a fierce pop innovator and René Magritte's only student. But Evelyne Axell is likely a name you've never encountered.

L: Evelyne Axell, Ice Cream 1, 1964. R: Evelyne Axell, L’égocentrique 2, 1968.

“If you think of pop art you immediately think of very famous male artists, but not the female ones,” says Angela Stief, curator of König Galerie’s latest exhibition, “Evelyne Axell: Venus, Leda & Mona Lisa”. Of course, she’s right: pop brings to mind big names like Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton and, it goes without saying, Andy Warhol. But Evelyne Axell? Not so much. As with so many art movements, women artists have been overshadowed, or omitted entirely from the history of pop art.

An exceptionally inventive pioneer of Belgian pop art, Axell’s work appears in major collections around the world, including that of Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and yet she is nowhere near as widely recognised as her male counterparts. “I think that for me her work is so extraordinarily good that I cannot understand why it has been overlooked for such a long time,” Stief posits.

Evelyne Axell, Axell-ération, 1965.

Though König’s “Happy Ending” themed Gallery Weekend party may have landed the gallery in hot water, their new showcase of Axell’s work — currently occupying its chapel space at St. Agnes as well as its second site on Dessauer Strasse — proved a resounding success. The latter space displays the artist’s early work, from 1965 to 1970, which enters into a confident dialogue with the pop art movement. The former platforms her later, more psychedelic offerings, from 1970 up until her untimely death in 1972 in a car accident, at the age of 37. Both selections reveal an extremely dynamic and innovative artist, who was not content to follow the crowd. 

Axell was born in 1935 in Namur, Belgium, and worked as an actress, TV moderator and screen writer, before becoming an artist. Through her filmmaker husband, Axell met surrealist master René Magritte, and in 1964 studied with him for one year as his only ever student. Magritte recognised a significant talent in Axell, Stief says, and proclaimed her a “painter”. Although not featured in this exhibition — Stief is currently working on a comprehensive retrospective of her work — Axell initially made collages, before experimenting with a range of mediums and producing lush, vivid paintings towards the end of her short career. Her work is an intoxicating mix of art historical- and self-reference, formal originality, and a playful sense of political awareness.

Evelyne Axell, Rétrovision, 1964.

Although Axell was relatively well known during her lifetime, Stief only came across her work while curating an exhibition of largely forgotten female pop artists at Kunsthalle Vienna in 2010. She was struck, in particular, by Axell’s use of the female body. Womanly forms dominate the artist’s corpus, appearing in the guise of barely-there pencil and ink drawings, or as bold silhouettes against luminous, neon backgrounds. According to Stief, the body in Axell’s work is undoubtedly a symbol of “female empowerment”.

Stief goes further and refers to Axell — who later in her career opted to go by her gender-neutral last name in order to render her sex ambiguous — as a “protofeminist” artist. “She was definitely aware of the discrimination of women at this time, and she was mocking about certain things. She knew that she had to do something about the imbalance in society between male and female,” Stief tells us. “Her art is so interesting because she was working before the peak of feminist art in the 1970s, but putting these ideas forward as her subject matter. Women have always been the muses, the passive ones, the ones who are depicted. They have not been the ones to depict themselves or others. Axell was intentionally changing the roles.”

L: Evelyne Axell, Poupette 1969. R: Evelyne Axell, Cheese One, 1969.

Axell’s own self-image is also an important component of her oeuvre. A number of her works — like the monumental “Marine” from 1972, a layered, plexiglass illusion depicting a blue-haired, mermaid-like female — feature transparent cerulean-blue circles deposited over the figures’ eyes. This is not an innocuous, decorative motif on Axell’s part, Stief clarifies, but a tongue-in-cheek reference to herself, as Axell often wore spherical blue sunglasses. These sunglasses crop up in several other works on display, notably in “La Vénus de Milo mise à nu”, which cites two famous works from art history, “Venus di Milo” and Gustav Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde”. In these examples, Stief notes,“Axell merges herself with the figures she is depicting”.

Axell’s awareness of art history is most obvious in her depiction of the Mona Lisa, a gleaming layer of enamelled plexiglass and aluminium mounted on canvas. Stief agrees that this work, and others, represent Axell’s attempt to reclaim the female figures of art history for herself. Other pieces represent an effort to showcase the multiplicity of female roles, such as “La  religieuse — Portrait de Francois Mercks”, a double-sided ink drawing depicting a Madonna-whore dichotomy.

La Vénus de Milo mise à nu, 1972.

However, Stief is quick to point out that it’s not just the pioneering feminist quality of her work that makes Axell’s art so important. Instead, it’s the “outstanding quality” of it: her striking use of fresh, contemporary colours; her notable application of unusual materials such as Clartex, a mottled plastic-like substance normally used in furniture design; her surprising use of jutting layers to build highly original works that evade clear definition; and lastly, her refusal to be pinned in by art movements, be it pop or nouveau réalism, or even the surrealism of her one-time teacher Magritte, whose influence is apparent in her early work.

“I don’t know another artist who was working in a similar way,  it’s very innovative,”  Stief concludes. “Axell and her fellow female artists — like Marisol or Sister Corita, who were working in a similar style at this time — were more subversive, more political, more experimental and maybe even more innovative than their male counterparts.” Let’s just hope, with the help of exhibitions such as this, that one day their names will be as widely celebrated.

“Evelyne Axell: Venus, Leda and Mona Lisa” curated by Angela Stief runs through to May 27 at König Galerie, Berlin.

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