The exhibition conveys strongly a sense of the struggle for emancipation experienced by the generation of women artists that this selection from Ursula Hauser’s personal collection features. The first gallery contains three ‘Cell’ sculptures by Louise Bourgeois beside paintings by Maria Lassnig, a grouping that celebrates art making as a challenge to the social expectations of the period. Both artists created imagery of the monstrous and abject, Lassnig’s deformed self-portraits and the robot-like ‘The Racing Grandmother ‘(1963) mirror the trapped figures and armour casings of Bourgeois’ work.
Hauser’s biography is an important reference for the show as it clearly informs her choice of works. In the exhibition it is presented by a video of her being interviewed by her daughter Manuela, co-curator of the show. As a child from a hardworking middle-class family Hauser learnt sewing and clothes making from her mother as a means to supplement the household income. An appreciation of craft and textiles marks the selection. There is also an appreciation of self-reliance that comes across from the interview. Though she had been buying art since she was a teenager it was seeing Bourgeois’ US pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale that gave a purposeful direction to the collection as the works gave expressions to the inner emotional narrative specific to her generation. Important works by Bourgeois provide some of the highlights of the show. A massive spider sculpture looms over one gallery and there is a large grid of drawings. The elongated rubber ‘Legs’ (1986) from the Venice exhibition provides a summation of Hauser’s personal investment in the works. Bourgeois constantly linked back to the domestic as the key generative space for her work and there are obvious parallels between the artist customising and recycling family clothes and items to make art with the younger Hauser making her homespun textiles.
Sylvia Sleigh has a room of her own with paintings that evoke the intimate interweaving of practice and domestic life. Through the artist’s social circle the selection provides a window into the New York artworld of the sixties. In the portrait of Suzi Gablik from 1964 the art critic epitomises cool style. With her modish striped jumper she looks set for a Barnet Newman opening night. Posed at an awkward angle though, Gablik seems confined by the domestic space in which she sits. In her 1966 triple portrait, the model and patron Sylvia Castro Cid, placed in an interior that reveals the paraphernalia of the artworld socialite and sitting on a Robin Day chair, also appears uncomfortable with Sleigh’s gaze with her arms folded defensively across her body. The continuum of family with the space of the artist and the nexus of artworld relationships is illustrated by ‘Working at Home’ (1969) a self-portrait where Sleigh’s husband the critic and curator Lawrence Alloway can be seen as a shadowy figure writing in the distance of their live-work space. Laura Bechter, the curator of the collection, tells me that following Sleigh’s death Hauser brought the house and ‘Working at Home’ is usually displayed in the place it was painted.
Autobiographical readings are also dominant in the selection of three untitled paintings by Eva Hesse from 1960. A wedding portrait depicting Hesse’s ill-fated marriage to Tom Doyle is made even more ominous by being shown next to Bourgeois’ looming spider. The groom is depicted as a phallic totemic figure on the left while Hesse’s bride is already a ghostly outline of a cloud of veil and dress, as ethereal as her later sculpture. It is a study of a domestic and creative union the antithesis of Sleigh’s scene. Alina Szapocznikow’s ‘Stele’ (1968) stands nearby, another work full of sinister foreboding due to the artist’s biography – like Hesse she died young – and the unnerving use of resin and fabric creating uncanny simulations of flesh. It is very rewarding to see Hesse and Szapocznikow’s work located together in a context that actually presents them less as tragic outsiders but artists who common themes with their generation have only recently been realised.
In her interviews Hauser admits to having been partisan in some of her choices. Meret Oppenheim was important for her to support as one of a few Swiss women artists to breakthrough and her ‘Pelzhandschuhe (Fur Gloves With Wooden Fingers)’ (1936) is a key work for the collection. Oppenheim’s fusion of organic and handcrafted forms and her intuitively uncanny synthesis of functionality with symbols of gendered display anticipate much of the work by the 10 other women artists in the show. If it was being staged in a publicly funded gallery ‘Unconscious Landscape’ would be getting rave reviews as a major survey of feminist art practices. Let’s hope that students of the subject will make the pilgrimage to appreciate Hauser’s singular contribution to the shape of the artworld we now inhabit.