It isn’t often that an art documentary feels like a riot, but Rebel Women: The Great Art Fightback (BBC Four) manages to convey a real sense of anarchic joy. It offers an education in the explosion of feminist art in the 1970s, at a time when female artists produced boundary-busting work that still feels radical, and certainly revolutionary.
Commissioned as part of the BBC’s Hear Her season, marking 100 years of women’s suffrage, this tells the story of women who decided not to play along with the established order. Screeching in on a soundtrack of Janis Joplin, it acknowledges that change was in the air throughout the 1960s, but takes the infamous events of Miss World 1970 as its starting point and catalyst. I wasn’t completely convinced by the idea that this particular protest was responsible for the art made by women throughout the following decade but it is as good a place to start as any and a lovely bit of archival research. To see Miss World host Bob Hope leering over the “cattle market” while feminists waved football klaxons and threw flour bombs from the crowd, to hear their brilliant chant of “we’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry”, is a treat for the senses.
We see one woman who was there, Margaret Harrison, setting up for the first major retrospective of her work, in Bilbao, five decades after her early material was considered so explicit that police demanded it be removed from the walls of the gallery where it was being shown. Harrison is a magnetic character with a dry wit. She recalls the fun and playfulness of the Miss World protest, how a woman next to her had lightbulbs on her breasts and would flick them on and off with a switch held in her hand. When Harrison’s drawings of famous men in female garments – Captain America trying to save the world in high heels and a basque, penis out – were removed for running the risk of obscenity, her exasperation is still apparent. “Oh for God’s sake, I can’t win, whatever way I do it,” she recalls. The work wasn’t shown again for 25 years.
It is a common thread running through this story. Judy Chicago packed in the crowds to see The Dinner Party in 1979, her infamous triangular installation that paid tribute to women’s achievements throughout western civilisation, but it was slated by (mostly male) critics and was unable to find a permanent home until 2007. Chicago is a brilliant force and an essential voice; her stories of the feminist art course she ran in California are fantastically entertaining, from the cheerleaders who spelled out C-U-N-T at Fresno airport, to her explanation of how she taught women to introduce themselves, to make themselves louder, bigger, more of a presence. “My God, it was like I had taken the lid off a boiling pot,” she says.
It’s not all uproarious and gleeful disruption, though. One of Chicago’s students was Suzanne Lacy, whose work Three Weeks In May documented rape cases in Los Angeles. Lacy applied red stamps on a map to mark every location where an attack was reported, adding fainter marks to suggest the ones that had not been. There is also a fascinating interview with Carolee Schneemann, whose performance piece Interior Scroll saw her pulling a long piece of paper out of her vagina and reading from it. “It caused so much trouble in my life and probably prevented me from having lots of nice teaching jobs,” she says, drolly. Having been rejected by the male art establishment, some female critics turned against her, too, for being “unnatural, obscene and confusing”. It seems to haunt her still, though it is a real pleasure to see that much of this documentary focuses on women supporting each other, and working together for change that was much bigger than their own personal stories.
Other artists include Rose English, discussing Quadrille, in which she sent women in tails and hooves to trot around a horse show, and Lubaina Himid, who eventually won the Turner prize in 2017. It seems both a shame that Rebel Women is tucked away neatly on BBC4, given that it’s a story that hasn’t been told enough or to enough people, and also inevitable, given the explicit nature of some of the work. But perhaps it’s a triumph of sorts that many of the artworks it shows have the capacity to provoke today.