In 1979 at a University of Kansas conference, a remarkably contemporary thesis about the Venus of Willendorf and other similar Upper Paleolithic “goddess” figurines was presented. Rather than fertility fetish objects, art historian LeRoy McDermott proposed them as the first acts of human, and more specifically female, self-representation. Later, in a text for Current Anthropology, he tested his thesis by way of an in-depth comparison of the foreshortened view of the body, as seen when looking down, with the proportions of various figurines. The overlaps are convincing and the idea is compelling: the earliest artists were women who, as they tended to campfires, took the first steps into artistic and scientific self-observation. In doing so they developed, McDermott writes, “self-conscious control over the material conditions of their reproductive lives.”
That 30,000 years later this mode of self-observation feels fresh is either impressive or discouraging. Taken optimistically, it could be a tool offering a new perspective on contemporary art. This is especially true in the case of Anna Oppermann (1940-1993), a German artist who died of cancer at the age of 53, but whose oeuvre remains vitally relevant today. The Picture on the Windowsill at Berlin’s Galerie Barbara Thumm features a selection of early drawings and three of the artist’s first installations, two of which are shown posthumously for the first time. Their juxtaposition makes clear that Oppermann’s tableaus grew out of a practice of self-observation similar to the one informing the Upper Paleolithic statuettes. By the time Oppermann was making art, though, the female image was already burdened by centuries of dogma, effectively splintering attempts at self-knowledge into a fractal, multi-perspectival activity. Nevertheless, in Oppermann’s world, as in the world of the early female sculptors, these perspectives all fall under the umbrella of the downward glance.
The aim of the show is to re-evaluate Oppermann as, above all, a draftswoman. The exhibition text quotes art historian Friedrich Meschede, who writes, “Everything here is drawing, which is to say that it arises from meticulous observation of her surroundings.” The drawings hold the key to Oppermann’s multi-perspectival looking, though they do not provide too heavy an anchor. If anything, they serve as legends to the larger works and more firmly position her as an installation artist. The pictures stitch together disjointed snapshots of the world literally just under her nose – a tabletop, her lap, her feet, sheets of paper scattered across the floor – but in doing so they exhibit the irresistible urge to break free of their two-dimensional surface and the downward glance itself. This urge finds its culmination in what Oppermann called “Ensembles” – tableaus of pictures and objects that seem to frantically crawl across floors and walls in a pattern of spreading mold. The individual images, as well as the Ensemble compositions, remain bound to the gesture of looking down. Even in their largest, most expansive, forms, such as in Künstler Sein, first shown in 1977 at documenta 6, the installations start in a corner and strain toward an expanded field.
Ensembles are a feedback loop of everyday objects: toys, notes, drawings, snapshots of drawings, drawings of snapshots, photos of varying installations of the Ensemble itself, all mirroring each other from slightly different angles, like a French New Wave film. The predominantly downward perspective in the works might not be apparent if it wasn’t for the orienting presence of the drawings. A small untitled picture from 1967, for example, repeats a familiar art-historical theme, the nude descending a staircase. This time we inhabit the subject’s perspective: we see the descent of stairs under tiny feet, narrowing thighs, and a broad torso. In place of her head is a red circle in which the nude figure reappears from behind, whose head, in turn, is occupied by third-person frontal view – a testament to the multiple gazes to which women are subject. Hausfrau Lydia (1970) positions the viewer behind a woman seated at a table, thus forcing them to look down on her, as she in turn looks down, presumably exhausted after a long day’s work. The majority of the works are more abstract, even kaleidoscopic, but they too are structured by the downward glance. Their focal point is almost always the lap, which composes the viewer’s gaze through the symmetry of seated thighs.
Perspectives multiply naturally in Oppermann’s Ensembles. Because of the concentration at a central point, often in the form of a table, critics have frequently likened them to altars. Oppermann has suggested that they might be compared to something more mundane: a chaotic desktop, a pantry, or the untidy floor of a child’s room. One must bend, lean in, so as to compare the subtle shifts of visual and textual perspectives. Included in each Ensemble are handwritten notes, from diary pages to – as in Hausfrau sein (1968/1973) – a quote from Freud on the intellectual inferiority of women. The physical act of looking down merges with its unpleasant rhetorical implication, reflected in the narrow range of feminine roles that constantly reappear in Oppermann’s work. They are testaments to her struggle for acknowledgment as a woman, a wife, a mother, and an artist. The upward crawl of the images may be read as a repeated effort to look straight ahead under the weight of an oppressive cultural viewpoint.
The act of looking down on women serves to trivialize their struggle; it is, in fact, the sticky residue of triviality that marks the very being of women in a patriarchal world. How does one do it without an ironic, self-deprecating smile? Anna Oppermann refers to this implicit insignificance in the language she employs in her notes and titles: Frauen wie Ängel (1968/1973) (“women like angels”) is but one example on show at Barbara Thumm. Her installations are always filled with biting snippets from an internal monologue: “A woman must smile nicely, gaze lovingly, chat cheerfully, above all be charming. She must always be nice and well-kempt.” The frivolity of these demands encourages dismissiveness: at best, amusement at her plight, and at worst, contempt. From a woman’s perspective it is a double-bind that pushes gnawing frustration behind the stiff composure of a smile, lest one be dismissed as hysterical.
Oppermann’s repetition of the term “Sein” highlights the fractured feminine psyche and echoes the Hegelian concept of “Dasein.” Various, often competing states of being appear as notes scattered in the Ensembles or in the titles themselves: Frau sein, Künstler sein, sexy sein, normal sein, and perhaps most interestingly, Disein (a play between Dasein and Design). For Hegel, Dasein was a moment in the act of becoming, where Being “sublates” with non-Being. This typically opaque Hegelian terminology describes the dialectical process of self-actualization where two opposing principles combine to create something new. In Oppermann’s case, this happens in the Ensemble. In Antidesign (1970/1972), written as Antidisein in the installation itself, the artist contemplates how the self is made. The usual motif of the lap reappears, among other things, as an ashtray “penetrated” by a cigarette, which then morphs into a sketch for “anti-sitting-trousers.” The result: design that impedes rather than fosters the development of Being. Antidesign emphasizes that all the “Seins” in Oppermann’s works are designs for different selves, which, in their frenetic repetition, shift our perspective between expected, enforced, and desired roles in order to present a non-unified vision of the world, evocative of Joyce’s Ulysses, where the tiniest details threaten to swallow the bigger picture.
Hegel’s dialectics provide a sense of unity to a contradictory and constantly changing world. This unity is present in Oppermann’s work despite the manic visual self-fracturing. It manifests through the overarching framework of the downward glance: a “sublation” of the condescending physicality of looking down with the lens proposed for the paleolithic figurines – looking down as a mode of embodiment that builds self-awareness. In the early drawings it is evidenced by scenes depicted through glasses, implied eyeballs, a frame of thighs, and perspectives veiled by twigs or falling hair.
The embodied views were, according to the artist, initially intended to implicate the viewer and blur the line between subject and object. Over time, this came to serve as a way of blurring the subject-object divide in her own head. In the Ensemble the struggle with self-objectification crystallizes in the formation of a first-person perspective digging itself out from under the weight of externally imposed (gender) roles. The downward gaze, literally and metaphorically, is repeated with a complexity that subverts its usual negative connotations. It becomes, like the sculptures of millennia earlier, a means of self-actualization.
This is where McDermott’s interpretation of the Venus figurines proposes a haptic way of looking at Anna Oppermann’s work. Instead of understanding them as symbols, they might be evidence of an embodied, feminine being in the world. That is, rather than representations, they are processes of self-investigation removed from the image of womanhood in favor of centering on the experience thereof.
The world Anna Oppermann observed was so close as to touch her, as to become a part of the gaze itself. Like the earliest female artists, she revealed not what is seen, but what is felt. In her drawings, as in the Venus figurines, this translates into a panoply of fragmented parts – disappearing limbs, veiling strands of vines, disproportionate folds, the lack of a face. The fragmentation reaches its full richness in the Ensembles, where the repetition of perspectives are nevertheless structured by the downward, embodying gaze. A paraphrasing of McDermott’s simple assertion neatly summarizes the process: Oppermann’s drawings and Ensembles serve to develop “self-conscious control over the material conditions of [her] reproductive [life].” In this sense, reproduction is not only biological, though it is that as well, but visual; through repeated perspectives on the mundane, a fantastically new sense of being emerges.