Hand-to-hand with Miriam Cahn

14.02.2020 |

Miriam Cahn, b.t. 10.05.2012, 2012, pastels and graphite on papier, 84 x 70 cm, Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, Warsaw

The monographic exhibition Miriam Cahn: I as Human at Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej in Warsaw1 demonstrates institutions’ renewed interest in figurative painting and its ability to tackle contemporary issues from a subjective and sensitive perspective. Far from being a simple assessment, the artist’s approach prompts an awkward sense of solidarity in the viewers, mixed with strong feelings of solitude.


Hand-to-hand with Miriam Cahn - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Exhibition view: Miriam Cahn. I as Human, Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, 29 November 2019 – 1 March 2020, © Photo: Daniel Chrobak

We find ourselves drawn into the inner space of the museum on the banks of the Vistula – in fact a large warehouse on the right bank of the river.2 This unique, simple rectangular venue is covered from floor to ceiling in drawings and canvases, like an extension of the artist’s studio, and resembles a bunker buried in the depths of a valley in the Swiss Alps. Miriam Cahn (b. 1949) and curator Marta Dziewańska have made the radical choice of simplicity: no added scenery, no scenography, no distractions, no separation between the public and the works, which are presented unframed and hanging in the space’s colossal volume. A group of wooden sculptures huddles in a corner of the room, like a herd of cattle. It is up to us to embrace the artist’s work, to perform our role as spectators in a museum that has become an arena. We find ourselves alone, facing these frontal figures, watching them while they in turn stare at us with their perpetually wide-open eyes. What are we to do with our own bodies in this panopticon?

Hand-to-hand with Miriam Cahn - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Exhibition view: Miriam Cahn. I as Human, Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, 29 November 2019 – 1 March 2020, © Photo: Daniel Chrobak

The constellated layout of the exhibition highlights the extraordinary consistency of M. Cahn’s production. The large site-specific drawings in black chalk she made in the 1970s have since been erased,3 but are given new life on monumental sheets of paper and incolourful, diaphanous paintings. While the mediums have changed – the artist now also uses film, photography and sculpture – the energy and focus at the moment of creation remain the same. Whether working on paper laid on the floor or on a canvas on the wall, her body is central to the process and used as the primary tool. “I paint as if I were doing a performance.”4 M. Cahn consistently follows this method – “diving in, working, emerging”5 – and only works on her art for two hours a day at most. This personal approach, the regularity of which is reminiscent of journaling, imbues her work with a sense of intimacy and a distinctive intensity.

Hand-to-hand with Miriam Cahn - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Miriam Cahn, To the right, quick!, 2005+23.9.17, 2005-2017, oil on canvas, 205 x 185 cm, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff / Meyer Riegger, Courtesy Miriam Cahn

The body that M. Cahn depicts is both schematic and naturalistic. The grotesque faces and exaggerated genitals of her figures owe as much to children’s drawings as to classical painting and pornography. The artist often uses her own morphology to address the themes that haunt her work: sex, violence and death. “Half of art history doesn’t exist because we weren’t part of it. Now, women artists have to make up for that missing half of culture.”6 In the 1970s she joined feminist and antinuclear movements and, two decades later, became a pacifist activist against the wars in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. More recently, she took part in the debate on the refugee crisis and the #MeToo movement. M. Cahn’s drawings and paintings emerge from a place of anger. She wants the public to feel involved; she does not want it to turn a blind eye. Surprise! You’ve been sucker-punched!

Hand-to-hand with Miriam Cahn - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Miriam Cahn, kuessenmuesen, 8.4.+2.5.18, 2018, pastel on paper, 68 x 90 cm, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff / Meyer Riegger, Courtesy Miriam Cahn

At the Warsaw exhibition, the world’s chaos suddenly becomes embodied. The result is a “strange, sinister collective pietà”.7


Miriam Cahn: I as Human, 29 November 2019 – 1 March 2020, Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, Warsaw, Poland.

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

A travelling exhibition co-produced by Kunstmuseum Bern (22 February–16 June 2019), Haus der Kunst Munich (12 July–27 October 2019) and Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej Warsaw (29 November 2019–1 March 2020).

The building was designed by Austrian architect Adolf Krischanitz for the Berlin Kunsthalle (2008–2010). It was loaned by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Foundation for free as a temporary exhibition space during the construction of the Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej in Warsaw.

The exhibition documents her interventions in public spaces in Paris (during her residency at the Cité internationale des arts in 1979) and in Basel.

Miriam Cahn, in conversation with Patricia Falguières, Élisabeth Lebovici and Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez on the occasion of the seminar “Something You Should Know : artistes, productrices et producteurs aujourd’hui” at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, 12 November 2014. This conversation went hand in hand with the artist’s exhibition Corporel at the Centre culturel suisse in Paris. Falguières Patricia, Lebovici Élisabeth, and Petrešin-Bachelez Nataša, “ ‘In My Work, Each Day Is Important’: Conversation with Miriam Cahn”, in Dziewańska Marta (ed.), Miriam Cahn: I as Human, exh. cat., Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, Warsaw, 29 November-1 March 2020, Warsaw, Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, 2019, p. 164.

Ibid., p. 167.

Filmed interview of the artist on the occasion of her exhibition at Haus der Kunst:

Dziewańska Marta, “Stone-Words, Stone-Images: Memoirs from a (Mad)House”, in Dziewańska Marta, op. cit., p. 206.

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How to cite this article:
Matylda Taszycka, "Hand-to-hand with Miriam Cahn." In Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions magazine, . URL : Accessed 22 July 2024

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