Museum Abteiberg


Le peintre en extase, 1971

AXELLERATION. Evelyne Axell 1964 – 1972

3. 3 July – 34 October 2011

Opening: Sunday, 3 July, 12:00 p.m.

The Museum Abteiberg’s exhibition AXELLERATION is the first comprehensive retrospective of the Belgian Pop Artist Evelyne Axell ((1935 – 1972) to be held in Germany. As the title suggests (the neologism is derived from “accélération”), hers was a high-speed life and a high-speed oeuvre. Like James Dean and Grace Kelly, she died prematurely in a car crash, as a passenger in a sports car on a country road near Ghent. It was 1972, and she was 37 years old. She died at a point in her career when she had made her name and become established as one of only a few women artists in the male-dominated art world. Only a few years earlier, in 1969, she had won the acclaimed Prix de la jeune peinture belge, the most prestigious art prize in Belgium. In 1971, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels had hosted her second individual exhibition.

Axell’s oeuvre represents the fruits of only eight years of work as an artist. Her biography began in theatre and television in the early 1960s. The niece of a prominent cinema owner in Brussels, she worked as an actress in Brussels and Paris and won her early fame and popularity as an attractive continuity announcer on Belgian television. Through the French documentary and art film director Jean Antoine, whom she married in 1956, she came into contact with the art world. She left the stage in 1963 and, making only a few more films, rented a studio in Brussels, where she had the opportunity of embarking on a private study course in the studio of René Magritte, who normally never taught. At the same time, film productions by Jean Antoine in London and New York (“Dieu est-il Pop?”, “L’Aventure de l’objet”, “L’Ecole de New York”, all made in 1964) introduced her to the then still largely unknown protagonists of British and American Pop Art, including Allen Jones, Peter Blake and Pauline Boty. Like Pauline Boty in London and Alina Szapocznikow, who was working in Poland during this period, Axell found her artistic voice in a combination of surrealist procedures and the artificial pop aesthetic. In the process, she developed an erotically and psychedelically charged visual language and a dimension of Pop Art with a feminine coding.

Her works are almost always nudes and frequently self-portraits. Evelyne Axell rebelled against social conventions and demanded the right to female libertinism. Taking her own fantasies and her own body as her point of departure, she demonstrated images of liberation, playing with the media representations of woman as an ideal of beauty, a pin-up, and a sex object. She adopted the strategies of the media and exploited the provocative subversion that results from such acts of appropriation: seductive poses, arousal and exhibitionism, erotic and pornographic impressions authored by a woman.

Against the background of the abstract art discourse of the postwar years, which dominated in Belgium and abroad during the early 1960s, Axell’s oeuvre represents a breach of taboo. Pop Art was still considered to be in “bad taste”, and there was a prejudice against women artists. Tellingly, she omit-ted her first name when signing her works, going by the single name of Axell as she had done in her previous career as an actress. The French critic Pierre Restany, the founder of Nouveau Réalisme, was an important sponsor (and model) of her work, which became increasingly political in content around the year 1968. As a friend of Marcel Broodthaers and other protagonists of the Belgian art world, Axell witnessed the intellectual revolts in Brussels, Broodthaers’ occupation of the Palais des Beaux Arts, and the meetings of the Brussels “Assemblées Libres” (“Free Assemblies”). The situation of historical upheaval was reflected in the series of works she produced. The turmoil of the struggle for social and sexual liberation became the subject of her pictures.

In 1969, Axell organised a striptease happening in the Richard Foncke Gallery, and this spectacle and the conflicts that accompanied it once again found their way into her paintings. Her magnum opus was to be the large, altar-like histori-cal picture “Joli Mois de Mai” (“Beautiful Month of May”), in which the activists and the hippie culture of the generation of 1968 are exalted almost to the point of caricature. During this period, her nude self-portraits, which had been one of her core subjects from the beginning, took on their iconic appear-ance, showing a naked painter demonstratively holding up her paintbrush. This nude is no longer an object, but a subject and an author (“Le Peintre (Autoportrait)”, 1970).

The exhibition in the Museum Abteiberg presents a psychedelic, surreal, visionary aesthetic from the time when plastic, Plexiglas and automotive paint became new artistic media. Axell used bold colours and a virtuosic, silkscreen-like, stylised technique to portray the human body.

In 1967 she stopped painting on canvas and instead began using enamel paint on Plexiglas and other synthetic materials (including Clartex). Many of these works have a relief-like structure consisting of sharply contoured, smooth, and sometimes translucent areas that are often sawn and shaped into figures and profiles that project beyond the edges of the picture.

Over sixty items from the collections of her husband Jean Antoine and her son Philippe Antoine as well as from museums and private collections have been brought together for this exhibition. They span the entire period of her oeuvre, starting with a programmatic collage painting reminiscent of Ma-gritte, “Machine érotique ou Conception du mec art” (mec art = mechanical and “men’s” or “boys’” art, from the French le mec) from 1964, and ending with the pictures of paradisiac longing from 1972, which symbolise a turning point and a dream of escape from the present and the modern world. In addition to series of paintings and object pictures, the exhibition also includes a few of the artist’s translucent screen pictures and small sculptures, a large number of paper collages and felt pen draw-ings, and a number of hitherto unpublished photographic self-portraits that were used as templates for her nude paintings.

There is also a special complex of works comprising the artist’s politically inspired pictures from 1968 to 1970, which were previously seen in this compilation in an exhibition by Dirk Snauwaert for WIELS in Brussels (images contestataires, WIELS, Brussels, also shown in spring 2011 in the Kunstverein Hamburg). Additionally, Axell’s drawings for a never-realised project, “Projèt pour une Musée Archéologique du XXme siècle. Department: Age du Plastique” (Project for an Archaeo-logical Museum of the 20th Century. Department: Plastic Age) will be on display. These works are sketches, created in 1972, in which Axell treated her own time as belonging in the past and presented it as a museum exhibition on the “Plastic Age”.

These works arguably contain reminiscences of Marcel Broodthaers and unquestionably show the reflective viewpoint that characterised Axell’s overall atti-tude as an artist and as a child of her time.

The exhibition is accompanied by a new presentation of the Pop Art collection in two of the museum’s rooms. The exhibits on display there include objects and graphical works by Richard Hamilton, Yayoi Kusama, Martiall Raysse, Niki de Saint Phalle and others.

A catalogue of the Evelyne Axell exhibition in the Museum Abteiberg has been published by Lannoo Publishers. The catalogue, edited by Katharina Hohenhörst and Susanne Titz, is in English and German and consists of 112 pages featuring approximately 100 illustrations, an essay by Liesbeth Deutsch, a biography by Jean Antoine and an introduction by Susanne Titz. The exhibition and the catalogue were generously sponsored by the Hans Fries Foundation and the Ministry for Family, Children, Youth, Culture and Sport of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.