The Belgian Pop Artist Evelyne Axell’s Career Was Cut Tragically Short. Now, Her Work Is Getting New Life in a Show at a Swiss Monastery
Museum Susch is spotlighting the feminist artist's daring career.
A 13th-century monastery in Switzerland’s sleepy Engadin Valley is a fittingly surreal place to show the sensual and feminist paintings of the Belgian Pop and Surrealist artist Evelyne Axell.
The old monastery, which became the private Museum Susch last year, is showing Axell’s forward-thinking works, which caused waves in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before she fell into relative obscurity. In the short time span of eight years, the unforgivingly hedonistic artist made work that championed female sexuality, civil rights, and environmentalism. But the life of the artist—known for “Erotomobiles,” her erotic depictions of the female figures in cars—was tragically cut short. In 1972, Axell died in a car accident in Ghent, Belgium, at just 37.
The cavernous galleries, which are owned by Polish billionaire collector Grazyna Kulczyk, are a transgressive setting for this large body of Axell’s work, which is on view until December 6. Spanning paintings, sculptures, collages, and film as well as archival material, the show, called “Body Double” as a nod to the female figures that appear on nearly every panel in the galleries, is one of the largest shows of Axell’s work outside of Belgium in decades.
Despite her untimely death, which came just as her career was reaching its peak, Axell left behind a relatively vast body of works ranging from collages to films, drawings, and large-scale paintings. But very few of them are circulating in the market, and none of those on view belong to Kulczyk.
“These eight short years yielded a completely crazy set of works,” said the show’s co-curator, Krzysztof Kościuczuk, who I met for a FaceTime tour of the exhibition. “This is an artist who was involved in the politics of her time, environmentalism, material experimentation,” he said, panning in and out of Axell’s plastic cut-out collages and figurative paintings, “and a radical, post-1968 vision of how we can inhabit the Earth.”
Heartbreakingly prescient female figures pose with seat belts snaring around them (Axell, like many Pop artists, had a fascination with cars and speed). Elsewhere, women appear to masturbate or float off in an “exit” into space. Axell often cut and layered plastic panels into female forms that she then spray painted. A projector flips through plans that Axell sketched out for a “museum of plastic.”
“It is completely nuts for its time,” Kościuczuk said. “She undertook a very radical experimentation with materials.”
Painting a Woman’s World
The show is grouped into loose themes, but the female figure—which was based on Axell’s own body, making the show largely one of self-portraits—triumphs throughout it. The exhibition catalogue shares a quote from one of the artist’s only interviews, from 1969, which sums up her views on femininity: “[T]he most extraordinary beings I ever met were almost all women, I find women most exquisite. They are everything at once: voluptuousness, luxury, frivolity, tenderness, courage, greed, and total selflessness. That is to say, the synthesis of the weaknesses and strengths of mankind.”
Born in Belgium in 1935, as a young adult Axell had a short stint in the film industry before deciding to take up art in 1964. Her former husband’s family friend, Rene Magritte, took Axell under his wing and she studied with the legendary Belgian Surrealist via bi-monthly visits for a year.
Already, as just a fledgling student, Axell was producing collages that radically depicted the female form in various states of exaltation or pleasure.
The exhibition includes a fragmentary piece of Axell’s short, avant-garde film career, which reveals that the artist was an activist for civil rights issues in parallel to the liberation of women’s desires. She wrote the script for The Plush Crocodile, the 1963 feature-length film that stars Axell as a single Belgian woman in a relationship with a Congolese student. The film—one excerpt of it is on view—explores the racial prejudices of both the young man’s friends as well as the Belgian woman’s conservative family, Kościuczuk says. (The film came out just around the time when the Congo had risen to independence from Belgian colonial rule.)
While Axell received relative acclaim in her short career, she was also faced with a fair amount of disregard and criticism from the male-dominated art world. As a result, she began to sign her paintings under the name “Axell” to try to obscure her gender.
As a poignant last look, the show ends on one of the artist’s final works, L’herbe folle, a painting from her series that champions the tropics and animal life. It depicts is a woman resting in foliage, basking in late sun, her sunglasses by her side.
“Evelyne Axell: Body Double” runs until December 6 at Museum Susch. See more views of the exhibition below.
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