Swiss painter Miriam Cahn's ethereal and ambiguous nude portraits comment on power and sexuality.Read More
Cahn was born in Basel, Switzerland, and grew up in an affluent and cultured household, with her father working in art and antiques dealing. She studied graphic arts at the Basel College of Applied Arts between 1968 and 1973. After graduating, she worked as a drawing teacher and draughtswoman.
Cahn was involved in political movements such as the anti-nuclear and women's movement. She participated as a delegate in the 1976 Warsaw Peace Conference through her involvement with the Organisation for Women's Issues. She has been an active advocate for women's rights and justice, withdrawing her work from documenta 7 (1982) in response to what she perceived as unfair treatment from the director Rudi Fuchs.
Much of Miriam Cahn's work involves ambiguous paintings of nude figures, with their genitalia highlighted and specifically outlined. Recurring in her works are themes of intimacy, interpersonal relationships, refuge, and violence.
Through Cahn's nude paintings, she challenges the homogenisation of society and the ways in which women are viewed and perceived.
Prior to 1994, Cahn worked strictly in black and white, greatly influenced by the images found on early television and in art history books. With a limited palette, Cahn's work took a more graphic approach, with each line being striking and strong. Works she created during this time were of abstracted and reduced depictions of bodies as well as various land and cityscapes, as seen in her large-scale works City and Mountains (both 1985).
Cahn's turn to colour was inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 film Il deserto rosso (Red Desert), which she has said exposed her to the hyper-reality of colour. Cahn works with a distinct palette that often employs muted shades of pinks, blues, and reds, and splashes of more vibrant tones to emphasise parts of bodies such as genitals, lips, and nipples. This palette coupled with her painting style has imbibed her intimate images with a ghostly and haunting quality.
She has painted a variety of nude figures, ranging from portraits of women only wearing Muslim headwear such as in überlebende (undarstellbar) (survivors [unrepresentable]) (1988) and burkazorn (2010); a portrait of an aging woman's body in decay (2017); and groups of people traversing different landscapes such as deserts and rivers in tapirschreiten/gezeichnet (drawn) (2015) and aus der wüste (from the desert) (2016).
A notable detail in Cahn's work is her attention towards the gaze in these portraits. Despite the ambiguous anatomical details in her work, she pays close attention to depicting the eyes of the women she is painting. When installing her work in galleries, she hangs her paintings at eye level, in which the figure's gaze matches that of the viewer. She has previously referenced L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) (1866), a painting by Gustave Courbet. This iconic painting depicts a woman's crotch as central to the image and concept, yet leaves out the head of the woman that he paints. In response to this, Cahn herself created le milieu du monde schaut zurück (the middle of the world looks back) in 2017, which reconstructs Courbet's image yet reveals the eyes of a veiled woman, actively looking at those who look at her.
Miriam Cahn has held solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Milan; the Power Plant, Toronto; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; and Wako Works of Art, Tokyo. Her work has been collected by major institutions such as the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou; and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
Arianna Mercado | Ocula | 2022