CR Muse: Birgit Jürgenssen, Champion of Women

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Unlike many of her 20th-century predecessors, Birgit Jürgenssen never rejected the label of “feminist.” The Austrian artist began her career during the height of second-wave feminism in the in the ’70s, producing works that challenged the traditional gender tropes women were confined to. “I wanted to show the common prejudices against women, the role models that society ascribed to them, the ones with which I was always confronted,” she once said. “I wanted to depict everyday misunderstandings.”

Some of Jürgenssen’s best-known pieces are overt in their politics. For example, her shoe series takes an object often used to critique stereotypes of womanhood—the high heel—and turns it in to an avenue for comedy. Using photography, sculpture, and drawings, Jürgenssen envisioned Surrealist depictions of heels that tied the object to notions of femininity. “Porcelain Shoe,” 1976 sees a high heel created out of porcelain and white lace—both delicate materials emblematic of purity. In “Support,” 1976, a drawing, Jürgenssen depicts a woman sleeping, her head supported by a heel. “Shoe Chair,” 1974 shows a wooden chair morphing into a shoe, which suggests a link to the home. When shown all together (there are many more in the series) the pieces draw attention to different ways women were socially defined.

Jürgenssen also featured herself in her work. “Housewives’ Kitchen Apron,” 1974-75 sees her quite literally merging herself with a kitchen appliance by wearing a stove. Meanwhile, in “I Want Out of Here!” 1976, she again takes on the role of a housewife, this time pushing back against her confinement to the home.

Jürgenssen not only questioned women’s roles in society through her art, but supported her fellow women in the arts community as well. In 1974, she wrote to DuMont, a German newspaper and publishing company, asking it to highlight female artists. “So often the woman is an art object, rarely and reluctantly she is able to speak or show (her work) up,” she said. “I for once would like to have the possibility to compare myself not just to my male, but also to my female colleagues.”

The female colleagues she was referring to include fellow CR Muses Meret Oppenheim and Louise Bourgeois. In examining Jürgenssen’s rich oeuvre, one can see how these two artists in particular had an effect on her career: Her shoe series draws clear connections to Oppenheim’s Surrealist work with objects related to women (especially Oppenheim’s shoe sculpture “My Nurse,” 1936). One can also draw intellectual parallels between Jürgenssen’s “I Want Out of Here!” 1976 with Bourgeois’ “Femme Maison,” 1946-47 paintings, both of which render the home as a prison for women.

Jürgenssen also put her career on the line to stand with other women, most notably in 1975, when she and 46 others dropped out of an exhibition at the Austrian Folklore Museum in protest of the museum’s all-male jury.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Jürgenssen pursued academia, teaching photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. At the same time, she continued to exhibit her own work, even taking part in the Cairo International Fine Art Biennale in 2001. Sadly, Jürgenssen’s life was cut short in 2003, when she died of pancreatic cancer at 54 years old.

It is unfortunate we can’t see what an outspoken feminist like Jürgenssen would have continued to produce. Would she have been as curious about internet culture as her contemporary, Cindy Sherman? Or would her interests lie in other aspects of modern womanhood? Regardless, Jürgenssen’s contributions to 20th-century art helped push the European art world to become less male-dominated. It is no wonder MoMA considers her an “instrumental” figure in the international feminist avant-garde.

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