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Gdańsk / Cracow: “The Womenal” – exhibition
April 27, 2019 - November 22, 2019
Artists: Agata Agatowska, Iwona Demko, Georgia Fambris, Urszula Kluz-Knopek, Natalia Kopytko, Katarzyna Kukuła, Ewa Kulka, Jasmin Lother, Małgorzata Markiewicz, Agata Norek, Anna Orbaczewska, Elena Provata, Ulrike Segerberg, Małgorzata Wielek-Mandrela + Günter Grass
Curators: Iwona Demko, Renata Kopyto, Marta Wróblewska
Part 1: Günter Grass Gallery in Gdańsk, 27.04-22.06.2019
Part 2: House of Nuremberg in Cracow w Krakowie, 11.10-22.11.2019
Special event at the opening in Gdańsk on 27.04 at 6 pm – performance by M.O.G (Mothers of God – Ulrika Segerberg & Katrin Plavčak)
The exhibition entitled The Womenal derived from Günter Grass’s novel called The Flounder. Its leading theme is the feminist history of the world according to Grass, the relation between men and women, as well as the criticism of patriarchy and male dominance.
The Flounder by Günter Grass was published in Germany in 1977, almost 10 years after social transformations which took place in 1968, during which the second wave of feminism went through West Germany. This book fitted into the atmosphere which was in the air in those times. And despite the harsh criticism it received from the contemporary feminist milieus, from today’s perspective it can be seen as prophetic.
The starting point for this tale about the history of mankind as the history of male emancipation from the power of matriarchy, is the well-known brothers Grimm story which in Polish version is entitled About the Fisherman and Golden Fish, and in German – About the Fisherman and His Wife. In the book two versions are interwoven: in the first one, the caught fish (Grass’s flounder in this case) makes all dreams of the greedy fisherman’s wife come true; in the second one, it is the man who keeps wanting more and more things and power to help him rule the world. Certainly, it leads to a catastrophe and final disaster.
The circle of history described by the author encompasses the primeval tribes from the matriarchy epoch, through the middle ages, after that renaissance, followed by Prussian State, up till contemporary times, that is the 70s of 20th century. Exactly then, three feminists catch the speaking flounder in the North Sea. The fish becomes the personification of the whole male-kind and tells a story how it inspired men to break free from the power of women. He appoints himself the director of the story of humankind and the author of the script for this narration. The book is divided into nine chapters parallel to nine months of pregnancy. The story that is being told is at the same time the interrogation of the big fish in front of a feminist tribunal, the so calledThe Womenal. The emancipation of the male-kind is at the same time the story of women’s subjugation and exclusion from active life. We can trace how they are deprived of the influence on their own lives, and how they are gradually undergoing the oppressive rules of functioning in the patriarchal society.
One of the places they were assigned, apart from bedroom and church, was the kitchen. Grass sees in cooking and perfecting this skill by introducing new ingredients and creating new dishes, a kind of magic, curing witchcraft, the power to control the strength and weakness of the body. Nine women cooks are the protagonists of the novel. They are, according to Grass, an integral part of the local history of Pomerania, and perhaps the global history too. In the prehistoric times women were born with the third breast to feed the men with their own milk, as this ritual had a sedative effect on them. Later on, thanks to introducing potato to the menu, women protected many people from famine, and with the help of warm thick soup they would disarm the tyrants. Enemies were eliminated by adding poisonous ingredients taken from the natural resources and included in the dishes. The Flounder contains numerous recipes and shows their evolution: from milk dishes, through meat and fish diet, up to the discovery of forest fruits and plant cuisine.
If women did not consider marriage as the biggest happiness in their lives, they could go to the nunnery. It was the place where they could finally renounce the sexual services like Dorothea of Montau who, according to Grass “was the first woman (in our region) to rebel against the patriarchal tyranny of medieval marriage” (The Founder, p. 166). Or, on opposite, they could enjoy full sexual freedom like Margarete Rusch. The promiscuous Abbess of Saint Bridget’s Convent “solved the bitterly earnest question of the century, the question of how to serve up the bread and wine, the Lord’s Supper, in her own way, to wit, bedwise, by acrobatically moving her twat into the vertical and offering is as a chalice, which was then filled with red wine” (The Flounder, p. 209).
Despite the considerable understanding for the political and social situation in Germany in the 70s, and the effort to understand and describe the situation of women with empathy, Grass’s novel contains fragments which were unacceptable for the feminist movements, nor for any women working in arts. Professor Maria Janion points out some of the controversial theses uttered by the Flounder, that “only men are equipped with the ability to experience metaphysical feelings”, “making art is only the male domain”, “woman with her ‘moist warmth’ can be at best the source of creative inspiration for men, his silent muse”, “woman should remain unmoved like the ‘mossy earth’ and be happy she can serve.”
Women, who have been able to study and make art at the academies only for the last 100 years, 40 years after The Flounder has been written are able to prove how Grass’s fish was wrong. Among the themes undertaken within the exhibition. The Flounder himself, held responsible for this state of affairs, and put to court, thus announces prophetically: “I gave you the knowledge and power, but all you wanted was war and misery. Nature was entrusted to you, and what did you do, you despoiled it (…). In short: you men are finished” (The Flounder, p. 453). From today’s point of view one can add: also within the domains which the author is willing to defend in the above quotes. One thing is certain though: in this exhibition art is the domain of women.