Mary Beth Edelson

1933Chicago, United States | 2021, United States

American photographer.

The work of Mary Beth Edelson is strongly marked by United States Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s, a period during which members of the movement – female artists– founded new schools, opened alternative galleries in the form of cooperatives, launched new magazines and fought against the lack of female representation in museums and other exhibition spaces. Her work is difficult to describe as it is multifaceted and rich with the experiences and struggles of this movement. In search of the lost histories of women, her photography draws on a diverse iconography spanning from Celtic myths to European Art History, Hollywood films, shamanic rituals, and religious spirituality. She also uses most mediums at her disposal: sculpture, painting, photography, posters, books, stamps, collage, installation, and performance. In 1947 she enrolled in Saturday courses at the Art Institute of Chicago. From very early on, she advocated for the abolition of racial segregation as part of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1958 she continued her studies at New York University, where she received a Master of Fine Arts in 1959, before teaching at Montclair State College (New Jersey). After marrying a lawyer, she moved to Indianapolis, where she founded the Talbot Gallery. Shocked by the sexist behaviour she encountered among her peers, she delivered her first Feminist speech in 1968 at the Herron Art Museum. She then left for Washington D.C., where she became professor at the School of Art and exhibited regularly at the Henri Gallery.

In 1971, after female artists protested the absence of women in the Corcoran Biennial in Washington, the Corcoran Gallery of Art asked her to organise the first conference on women in art, “Art women in visual arts,” as well as a series of seminars on the subject. For this occasion, she realised a poster that later became famous, Some Living Women Artists/Last Supper (1972). By manipulating the celebrated Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci through photomontage, she replaced the heads of Christ and his apostles with portraits of illustrious female artists – with Georgia O’Keeffe as Christ, and Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, herself and others representing the apostles. The work was framed by a frieze composed of more than 50 photographs of living female artists. In the work, she not only expressed her willingness to identify and commemorate her elders, but also protested against the ousting of women, notably from positions of power, by the Christianity. Published in many reviews and distributed in numerous Feminist art spaces, this poster has become a true icon. After returning to New York in 1975, the photographer was immediately invited to participate in the first cooperative gallery, A.I.R. (Artists in Residence), founded in SoHo in 1972 by women artists for their female peers. Since 1970, M. B. Edelson has studied myths, rituals, and feminine symbols, and has been interested in Jung’s psychoanalysis. This research led her, along with Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke, to highlight images of goddesses, the Great Mother, and figures such as Sheela-Na-Gig and Baubô, which she connects with contemporary feminine myths. In 1977 she made a pilgrimage to the prehistoric site of the Grapčeva cave on the island of Hvar in Croatia, where she delivered sacred ceremonies summoning the Energy Goddess. The photomontages of rituals that she organised sought to capture a pre-patriarchal spiritual power. Throughout the 1990s, she confronted the stereotypical image of the femme fatale in Hollywoodian cinema – Mae West, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe – transforming these glamourous seductresses into radical feminists brandishing firearms. During her thirty years of feminist artistic creation, and personal engagement and experiences, M. B. Edelson has dedicated herself to rewriting artistic codes to include all women in history, religion, culture, and politics.

Nathalie Ernoult

Translated from French by Katia Porro.

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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