Women in Revolt! review: a 'bracing' new show at Tate Britain

Exhibition showcases the largely overlooked feminist art from the UK between 1970 and 1990

Linder's 'Untitled' (1976, detail): 'trenchant' feminist collage
Linder's 'Untitled' (1976, detail): 'trenchant' feminist collage
(Image credit: © Linder/Tate)

Life could be bleak for women in 1970s Britain, said Mark Hudson in The Independent. They had "unequal pay, no statutory maternity rights, no legal right to say 'no' to their husbands in the bedroom". It was during this "proverbially grim and grotty" era that many women were drawn to feminist activism; and many feminist artists created trailblazing work that paired an inventive DIY ethos with anger, wit and "raw, funny, in-your-face slogans". Tate Britain's "bracing" new exhibition – subtitled "Art and Activism in the UK, 1970-1990" – is a long-overdue survey of a largely overlooked art movement, bringing together more than 700 exhibits to show how these pioneers communicated their message. Featuring everything from paintings and drawings to magazines and posters, from eccentric installation art to protest placards and documentary photography, it is a "marvellously rich" experience that will plunge visitors deep "into the atmosphere of 1970s Britain".

Many works were never intended to be seen in a museum, said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. The most "engaging" such piece is an installation by Bobby Baker, "An Edible Family in a Mobile Home", first created in 1976. Now on the Tate's lawn, it recreates her own prefab house, but occupied by a family made from edible materials: the fruitcake father "slumps" in front of the TV, while a daughter fashioned from meringues listens to music in a room plastered with Jackie magazine covers. The mother, meanwhile, is a refillable pink dummy, "ever giving, ever feeding". The show demonstrates how artists responded to the period's "casual everyday sexism". Jill Posener, for instance, gives us photos of "gleefully defaced" advertising billboards. "If it were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched," runs the slogan for a new Fiat. "If this lady was a car, she'd run you down," someone has scrawled in reply. Yet the show is decidedly uneven, at times less concerned with art than it is with women's activism. It feels like a "wasted opportunity".  

This is, unapologetically, a show about British social history, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. It touches on the Greenham Common protests, the miners' strike, pro-choice campaigns and the "Reclaim the Night" marches of the 1970s. But the art itself is "humorous, trenchant, furious, messy, visionary, riotous". Most of these artists worked with whatever materials came to hand: one "affecting" work is "just an egg box, tiny emblems of a terrible marriage in each compartment", such as a doll's arm or a police helmet. There are some powerful paintings, such as Lubaina Himid's of a white man standing erect, "his phallus a vicious dog"; while Linder's 1976 collage of a nude "with an iron for a head and smiling mouths for nipples" is "devastating". This is an "extraordinary" show that will force you to consider what has changed since 1970 – and what hasn't.

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Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888; tate.org.uk). Until 7 April, then touring to Edinburgh and Manchester

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