Hannah Hoch, Indian Dancer: From an Ethnographic Museum

Gender and the Avant-Garde (In-Person)

Instructor: Isi Litke
BISR Central
68 Jay Street, #425
Brooklyn, NY 11201

The early 20th century avant-gardes—from Futurism to Dada, Constructivism to Surrealism—hailed and aimed to generate, via new aesthetic experience, new forms of social and political consciousness. Gender norms and sexual hierarchies, as relics of a past imaginary no longer apropos of the present, came under fire by an eclectic, international generation of artists. Hannah Höch dissected and montaged the aspirational image of the era’s vaunted “New Woman”; Claude Cahun experimented with new personas and gender-fluid guises through self-portraiture, variously appearing as a dandy, doll, bodybuilder, vamp, androgyne, nymph; Leonora Carrington filled her paintings and novels with grotesque human-animal hybrids that invited reflection on gendered embodiment and its mutability. And yet, even among the (predominantly male) luminaries of these avant-garde movements, there still persisted normative conceptions of gender and sexuality against which Höch, Cahun, Carrington, and others agitated. These norms reiterated themselves at every conceivable level in the field of aesthetic production: in visual culture and representational systems, in the division of labor within and across artistic mediums, and in the character of political engagement and critique. What can a focus on the historical avant-garde’s complex and contradictory relationship to gender and sexuality teach us about the aesthetics, social organization, internal tensions, and emancipatory aspirations of such movements? How have gender and sexuality inflected the reception and canonization of the avant-garde?

In this course, we will consider the writings, cultural objects, and aesthetic strategies of early 20th century avant-gardes through the prisms of gender and sexuality, touching on issues ranging from the Futurist fixation on masculine virility to Dada and drag, the fragmented female body in the Surrealist imagination, and the Russian avant-garde’s attempts to create a material culture suited to more egalitarian gender relations under socialism. We will pay particular attention to how gender and sexuality intersect with reception, canon-formation, and aesthetic interpretation, in conversation with works by Susan Suleiman, Rosalind Krauss, Clement Greenberg, Peter Bürger, Hal Foster, Whitney Chadwick, among others. What can the historical avant-garde’s relationship to gender and sexuality illuminate about our own evolving understanding of them?

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
September 12 — October 03, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Open

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