01 Feb 2021

*The guided tour series "Inspired by her" on current female positions at the Kunstmuseum Basel presents Miriam Cahn's painting "alt/zornig (old/angry)".

The life-size, naked female figure is presented frontally on a nearly square canvas. The woman radiates in a fine mist of pale pink shades and appears lonely, ruthlessly exposed in front of a dark wasteland. The brightly tinted breasts seem heavy, the face frozen, almost mask-like. Her eyes are empty, her lips form a mere line while her fingers are curled up into rigid claws. Do they visualize the anger mentioned in the title “old/angry”? Is the woman letting off “steam”? A light blue cloud seams to emerge from her head. During an interview the artist insisted that women are not gentle creatures, adding that they are still not perceived as humans that can react in an angry and aggressive manner.

Aggression is a strong source of energy and Miriam Cahn makes this visible within her oeuvre. While painting, the artist surrenders her body to the painting. Her works challenge us, provoke an emotional reaction. They seem as though painted with irrepressible verve. The topic of existential threats makes the confrontation ever more intense.

The theme of being human and female as well as her wild rebellion against political conditions and male connotations within art have been important topics since her creative beginnings. In the 1970s Miriam Cahn created expressive black chalk drawings on large pieces of paper. As an act of protest against the soulless planning of the highway construction “Nordtangente” she painted coal images onto the concrete pillars. Later she expressed herself in more colorful works. Luminous plants, animals and people stare at the viewer through shady eyes. In the 1990s, Cahn took an artistic position on the Balkan and Gulf wars, drawing and painting her deepest concerns. Her figures speak of anger and desperation, violence and sexuality, of tender desire and pain. This is not done in an illustrative or narrative manner, but in a very direct and formally reduced style.

More recently, the finitude of life has become a central motive in her painted and written work. She reflects on this topic in her lyrical text “We were old”. At the age of 63 Miriam Cahn painted “old/angry”, further works dealing with ageing and finitude followed. She is not interested in the naturalism of frailty, but rather in the emotional mood associated with it. The anger of being at the mercy of the body’s slow decline as well as the awareness of the limitations of life motivate her.

During her exhibition in Bern in 2019, where the topic of ageing appeared in several of her works, she explained that anger is an important driving force and that we should not expect any kind of gentleness of age from her side. While the painting in Basel shows a figure frozen in anger, the woman in a comparable composition in Bern, “altekriegerinch”, who is armed with primitive weapons, a stick and stone, emphasizes the woman’s willingness to fight.

Miriam Cahn was always steadfast, while aging she takes an ever more challenging position. She confronts the inevitability of ageing and death as well as the ambivalent feelings associated with them and expresses them in her work.

The figure in the Basler painting seems ghostly and distant, while at the same time very close to us – the feet, cropped by the edge of the canvas, are in the space of the viewer. A dangerous counterpart! Miriam Cahn doesn’t just confront us with her lonely anger. Against the background of an eschatological landscape, she holds up a mirror and reminds us of our own finitude.

Autorin: Iris Kretzschmar, Kunsthistorikerin, Kunstvermittlerin und freie Autorin