Carol Sawyer: The Natalie Brettschneider Archive

Review

Carol Sawyer: The Natalie Brettschneider Archive

By Shahrzade Ehya November 14, 2017

Currently on view at Vancouver Art Gallery, Carol Sawyer: The Natalie Brettschneider Archive is a conceptual art installation posing as a retrospective of the life and work of fictional Canadian artist Natalie Brettschneider (1896–1986). This multimedia installation represents the latest iteration of a decades-spanning project by contemporary Vancouver–based artist Carol Sawyer, interweaving Brettschneider’s (fictional) biography and art practice with those of the (real) 20th-century European and Canadian artists she supposedly came into contact with.

Wall text and the audio guide are key components of the work, supporting the Brettschneider fiction and contributing to her depiction as a well-rounded artistic figure. According to the installation, Brettschneider was an important but neglected avant-garde performer and musician whose formative travels through Europe (from 1913–1938), and subsequent years in Canada, brought her in close contact with both well-known and underrepresented artists—many of them women.

Carol Sawyer. "Unknown Photographer. Natalie Brettschneider performs Oval Matt, Paris, c. 1920; silver gelatin print." Carol Sawyer/Natalie Brettschneider Archive.

As Sawyer writes, the Brettschneider project was motivated by her “frustrat[ion]” at the ways in which “the narrative conventions of art history tend to…downplay or omit altogether the contributions of women.”1 The Natalie Brettschneider Archive counters this circumstance by rewriting traditional art-historical narratives and giving wall space to women artists who have remained outside the canon.

Therefore, for example, the text accompanying a photograph from Brettschneider’s European years—“Natalie Brettschneider performs Jacket”—explains that the photograph was “originally attributed to Man Ray, however was more likely taken by Lee Miller” (the accomplished photographer still better known as Ray’s lover and muse). Similarly, the description of the nearby “Natalie Brettschneider performs masque africain” states that while Brettschneider’s work “appears to reference Man Ray’s 1926 photograph Noir et Blanche…the reverse is also possible.” Such descriptions draw attention to the male bias within conventional art-historical narratives, while proposing alternate possibilities.

Carol Sawyer. "Unknown Photographer. Natalie Brettschneider performs Mirror, Paris, c. 1934; silver gelatin print." Carol Sawyer/Natalie Brettschneider Archive.

While The Natalie Brettschneider Archive showcases Brettschneider’s work—photographic and video “documentation” of the artist’s performances, in which Sawyer plays the part of Brettschneider, as well as other materials and proposed artifacts—the Brettschneider fiction also serves as a convenient framework for the display of work by women artists overlooked by art history.

The exhibition’s second room presents the work of artists with whom Brettschneider may have become acquainted following her return to Canada in 1938—specifically, paintings by graduates of the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, including Margaret Carter, Irene Hoffar Reid, and Vera Weatherbie. This commitment to recasting the scope of art history also emerges in the show’s vivid audio and textual accounts of Brettschneider’s diverse practice. These descriptions ask viewers to consider as part of Brettschneider’s artistic oeuvre activities and performances like her department store demonstrations of a throat antiseptic product, commercial performances that other contexts might deem peripheral to a “high art” practice.

Carol Sawyer. "Unknown Photographer. Natalie Brettschneider performs Profile Mask, c. 1952; archival ink jet print from original negative." Carol Sawyer/Natalie Brettschneider Archive, Acquired with the assistance of Kathleen Taylor, 2015.

Such excess of biographical detail paired with references elsewhere to a shortage of other information about the artist’s life makes Brettschneider seem believable as a real historical figure, even as viewers are aware from the outset of her fictional status. This dynamic between fact and fiction invites consideration of the ways in which history is always constructed by its authors, the product of a selection that has tended to exclude women and practices considered to be marginal.

Where the show lacks this compelling dynamic is in the crisp and glossy photographs of Brettschneider’s performances. Although most of these photographs are said to date from the earlier half of the 20th century, the photographs lack the convincing patina of age, instead unambiguously maintaining the Brettschneider fiction. Intentional or not, this visual discordance is fortunately eclipsed by the show’s other qualities. Ultimately, The Natalie Brettschneider Archive poses important questions—about what is and is not considered art, about whose work does and does not get to be included within the institutions of art history—setting the stage for alternate narratives, disrupting the conventional understanding of history, and inviting viewers to investigate a richer and more diverse art history.

Carol Sawyer: The Natalie Brettschneider Archive is on view at Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver through February 4, 2018.

Notes

  1. Carol Sawyer, “Bringing Forgotten Women Artists Back to Light,” Canadian Art, January 18, 2016, http://canadianart.ca/features/bringing-forgotten-women-artists-back-to-light/.

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