Evelyne Axell (1935-1972) was an actress and newsreader, an icon in the French-speaking world; for many, her beauty made her a sex symbol. But in 1963 she brought her film and television career to an end, reversing roles to become a painter. A key figure in Belgian pop art, she is among the artists whose work is just emerging from the shadow cast by male pop heroes for reassessment, for instance in the exhibitions "Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958—1968" at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of the University of the Arts, Philadelphia last winter or "Power Up—Female Pop Art" at the Kunsthalle in Vienna, as well in recent publications.
Axell experimented with various contemporary materials, combining plexiglas with enamel, with synthetic fur, foils, etc. to create substantively and visually seductive pictures. Her unusual material aesthetics combines mass-produced materials previously in advertising and industry rather than in the arts, which to some extent required considerable manual crafting. Axell used half-transparent plexiglas, painting sometimes on the front and sometimes on the reverse side in staggered compositions producing an interplay of transparent and opaque surfaces.
The principal figures are usually women, often nude and not infrequently
representing the artist―sometimes as a direct self-portrait, sometimes indirectly, where she posed for photos that provided the basis for her paintings. Her art thus revolves around her own person and the image of woman, and lays claim to an impetus for liberation. The self-chosen nudity affirms the pinup, rendering it a positive ex-pression of female sexuality and self-determination.
This is also the theme of the exhibition at the Kunstverein Hamburg, which shows a selection of later works from her very brief artistic career, which began in about 1964 and ended with her accidental death in 1972. Influenced by the 1960s and the social and political events of that period, her works penetrate taboo zones, compensating a new freedom that escapes all constraints imposed by the role of home-maker and by the stylisation of woman as the object of male desire.
As an institution for contemporary art, it is the task of the Kunstverein not only to show young art but also to place current art in its historical context, particularly in cases where what we consider an important position has long been neglected by general art historiography. For her time, Axell treated materials with remarkable freedom and had addressed feminist topics even before the advent of feminism. In times when the self-image is determined externally by advertising and other medial representations, her policy of self preoccupation is of enduring relevance.
The exhibition has been taken over from the WIELS (Brussels) and will later be shown in the context of a comprehensive presentation at the Museum Abteiberg (Mönchengladbach).