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Rakhee Balaram’s Counterpractice: Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Art of French Feminism is a resolute rejoinder to an assumption within art history that radical feminism’s agitations of May 1968 are no longer relevant in a post #MeToo world. Despite the relatively short period covered by Counterpractice (ca. 1970–81), Balaram presents an extraordinary breadth of visual, literary, and historical material accompanied by a depth of research, significantly expanding current understanding of the myriad artists, movements, and practices in the decade after 1968 in France, with special attention to how artists were catalyzed by the philosophy of French feminist vanguards Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. In turn, the literature and ideas of these writers is also seen in a new light. The book is so detailed and the approach so interdisciplinary and wide-ranging that it could easily stand alone as a core text on post-’68 feminism.
Beyond the meticulous archival research that brings new names, factions, and relationships to light, the main strength of Balaram’s text is her ability to dexterously weave the formerly overlooked realities of this historical moment and its visual culture through an active application of current feminist theory. The excellent foreword by Griselda Pollock helps to foreground Balaram’s approach within the larger context of Anglo-French poststructuralist feminist discourses, as does the author’s preface and dense introduction, and it is recommended to read all three before tackling the minutiae of the book. Indeed, if there is one area where Counterpractice might be critiqued, it is for its very strength: the unrelenting profusion of detail throughout each chapter can at times overwhelm and threaten to overshadow larger themes.
In post-Roe v. Wade 2022, it is poignant that Balaram’s preface opens Counterpractice with the 1971 public statement of 343 women, from Simone de Beauvoir to Catherine Deneuve, attesting to having had illegal abortions. That statement propelled the initial mass demonstration by the women’s rights group Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF)—the main focus of the book. Just days after the public confrontation, artist Gina Pane undertook the work Le Feu, in which she stepped into a fire. The unstable French political environment engulfing the MLF and Pane’s action, Balaram argues, not only reflect that second wave maxim the personal is political but suggest another way of coming to terms with women’s art of the period: glissade (slide/slippage) over bumpy ground—an approach that we might do well to consider applying within current feminist art history—and a metaphorical thread throughout rest of the book.
Balaram acknowledges French artists’ uneven awareness of their American and European counterparts of the early 1970s, their shifting political allegiances, and the diversity in their artistic educations and practices, from Surrealism to body art. She highlights this heterogeneity throughout the book. Balaram’s willingness to work with the actual complexity and messiness of history, rather than generalize or organize it into a specific narrative is a much-needed approach within art history. It is also significant that Balaram aligns her work with Catherine de Zegher’s “elliptical traverse in of and from the feminine” (xxxvi), that is, an active dialogical framework that takes into account feminisms and women’s art and experiences across various periods. For Balaram, this includes the slippages between the 1930s and 1940s and the 1960s and 1970s, “to consider women from the greatest number of positions possible as a reflection of their own experiences within a given period” (xxvi). This transhistorical, dialogical, or “elliptical” approach is one that not only makes sense art historically, but also epitomizes the sisterhood, network exchanges, dialogue, and fluid awareness-building of feminists since the turn of the twentieth century.
The introduction firmly sets the écriture féminine (Cixous’s paradigmatic call to write the feminine in 1975’s “The Laugh of the Medusa”) as a main thematic corpus of Balaram’s study. Balaram explores the writing and reading of the female body not only through word and text, but also action and image, and how these relate in a multiplicity of ways. An overview of the historical events of the period is accompanied by brief but compelling insights, such as the MLF’s harnessing of antagonism as solidarity measure among women of diverse class and, as she puts in “in theory, racial” backgrounds (3). It is essential that the issue of immigration, race, and the realities of decolonialization be accounted for in any feminist art history of the twentieth century, and Balaram does so in the context of 1970s France, exploring images of and works by Algerian, Moroccan, African, Antillean, and other minority artists—although such illuminations are less frequent in the rest of the book. Importantly, Balaram also points out that despite the traditional narrative that French feminist art practices came after and were viewed as inferior to those in the United States, the reality was much more complex, with French artists exchanging ideas and practices through emerging global formats such as the biennial.
Of Counterpractice’s six chapters, the first three follow a generally chronological format providing the emergence, activities, and decline of the MLF, while the latter three chapters are more thematic and deal specifically with art, focusing on psychoanalysis, politics, and women’s art spaces (chapter four), women’s collective art practice and groups (chapter five), and écriture feminine and “soft art” (chapter six).
Chapters one through three of Counterpractice trace the emergence of the MLF and its practices and ideas from the May 1968 protests, through its evolution and activities in the 1970s, to its dissolution by 1981. The MLF, which Balaram emphasizes was a heterogenous, conflicted, and dispersed movement, mobilized as a reaction to marginalization of women in the May 1968 protests. But it was the dissatisfaction with their role in them that catalyzed their formation of the MLF, which sustained radical activities long after their male counterparts had ceased being active. The 1970s was the most active period for the MLF, with a proliferation of subinterests and groups under its umbrella which, Balaram shows, gained a kind of culturally mythical status despite its ambiguous relationship to politics and its internal strife. If the MLF was divided internally over whether to focus on class, radical feminism, or psychoanalysis and politics, the one issue all agreed on was abortion rights. Yet after securing them in 1975, the MLF could not sustain a unified platform and went into decline despite the many cultural and artistic experiments it helped nourish, to which Balaram devotes the later chapters.
Chapter four, “Instase” (stasis) is a fascinating consideration of how women engaged with psychoanalysis and sexual identity in the 1970s (Cixous features prominently here), the implications this had politically, and how it affected and opened up artistic spaces for women. If the more militant expressions of the body traced in earlier chapters was public, here women’s bodies appear as more personal, sexual, and biological. This engendered more subjective spaces for women and a focus on collective organization amid the male-dominated art world. Balaram devotes a large part of this chapter to female writers engaged with psychoanalysis and écriture feminine, betraying the problem art history has had with applying the writing of the female body to visual art; she makes up for this in the final chapter on soft art.
It is only with chapters five and six that Balaram turns her attention primarily to artists, artistic practice, and exhibitions, which despite the richness and much needed context of the preceding chapters, comes a bit late. Chapter five surveys the women art collectives that formed during the 1970s such as the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs (UFPS) and later groups such as La Spirale and Femmes en Lutte, introducing the development of artistic and exhibitionary collective practice. These often overlooked activities are laid out in detail, and inform the final chapter, “Hard Politics, Soft Art: Subversive Practices from écriture feminine to Soft Art.” This chapter is one of the most outstanding of the book since it lends both new readings to écriture feminine and art as well as reevaluates the significance of the “soft” or “domestic” arts like textile, weaving, and embroidery while continuing to show how the corporeality of the body discussed in the previous chapters remains an important focus for artists. Here Balaram most visibly engages an “elliptical traverse in of and from the feminine” by putting works in dialogue with the practices of earlier avant-garde women such as the Surrealists, as well as concurrent male dominated movements such as Nouvelle Figuration and Supports-Surfaces, and “hard” politics of contemporary institutional policies. A range of artists and works are considered in this context, from ORLAN’s Embroidery of Trousseau Sheets (ca. 1968) and Shelia Hicks’s textile work in Opus International (1977), to Annette Messager’s My Knitting Manual (1973). A notable contribution here is the consideration of écriture feminine to the rehabilitation of women’s daily domestic work and the interest in women’s soft arts.
The conclusion of Counterpractice encapsulates the overall mission of Balaram’s exceptional book when addressing the institutionalization of feminism in the 1980s, arguing that the apparent failure of radical feminism will affect its eventual success, since feminists kept—and keep—working for long term change.
Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Copenhagen