Mysteries of the Iconographies

For the past 50 years, Carolee Schneemann has shocked, provoked and inspired audiences with her multidisciplinary, taboo-shattering artwork.

And yet, even now, she remains a footnote in art history, having faced censorship from both the mainstream establishment who found her ahead of her time, and from supposedly more radical edges of the art world. Even some feminist critics, who one would expect to embrace her radical discourses on sexuality and the body, have dismissed her as ‘narcissistic’ and ‘exhibitionist’.

Her performance lecture, Mysteries of the Iconographies, which she recently performed as part of the Tate Liverpool’s Abandon Normal Devices Festival, is a timely reminder that Schneemann may be one of the most influential, yet overlooked, artists of her generation.

Wielding a large staff like a thyrsus, she strode onstage, looking ever inch the goddess a colleague once described her as.

Schneemann is best known for her exploration of what she terms ‘feminist erotic iconography’

The lecture drew links between her later works and her early childhood scribbles, in which her familiar motifs of the staff with its phallic, mystical connotations, the winding staircase and the cat – the preferred familiar for this witch. It was a concise overview of a lengthy and varied career that has suffered from misinterpretation and dismissal.

As well as her provocative sexual work, Schneeman is also powerfully involved in depicting victims of war and oppression – her photographs of the victims of the Vietnam War and the haunting falling bodies in ‘Mortal Coil’, her depiction of the September 11 bombings, are powerful and yet have not received the recognition they deserve.

It is her exploration of what she terms “feminist erotic iconography” that she is best known for. Her piece ‘Interior Scroll’ involved her reading her polemic about the marginalised position of the female artist, in which she exhorts her peers to

“Be prepared: to have your brain picked

To have the pickings misunderstood

To be mistreated whether your success increases or decreases”

It is a lesson Schneemann would come to learn well – her success has not been as large as she or her devotees might have hoped. “Was this the painting that lost me my scholarship?” she asked dryly at one point. Later on, she wondered aloud whether anyone present had ever refused her for a grant – and her enthralled audience echoed the disappointment that clearly still rankles.

Feminist art group the Guerilla Girls claim that one of the ‘advantages’ of being a woman artist is “knowing your career will pick up after you are 80”. We, along with 70-year old Schneemann, should hope that it doesn’t take that long.

Kaite Welsh is an author, activist and freelance journalist. She lives in Liverpool and refuses to accept that she has too many books