Lived and worked in Brussels, Belgium
Evelyne Axell (1935-72) invented a genuine proto-feminist perspective on Pop Art in the 1960s and early 70s. The female eroticism in Axell’s work pioneered art world conventions of her time.
Axell had started her career as an acclaimed theater and film actress and screenwriter in Paris and Brussels. In 1963 she was the female lead in Le Crocodile en peluche, directed by her husband, the filmmaker Jean Antoine. The film presented a daring subject for the time: the problems of a couple in which one partner is white and the other black. Inspired by Jean Antoine’s documentaries on the emerging Pop Art and the New Realism movements (e.g. “L’Ecole de New York” including women artists Marisol, Lee Bontecou and Yayoi Kusama), Axell decided to give up her acting career and to become a painter. She approached Surrealist René Magritte, a friend of the family, to tutor her.
Influenced by the new Pop Art milieu, Axell developed a repertoire of erotically provocative motifs. Her central interest was already fully realized in her early oil paintings Erotomobiles (1964-65). By this time she had shortened her name to the gender-neutral “Axell”.
The artist soon developed her groundbreaking signature technique using transparent and translucent plastic sheets from which she cut the silhouettes of her voluptuous females and self-conscious heroines absorbed in (homo)erotic poses and activities. She enamel painted these contoured-cut sheets and mounted them on background panels to create low-relief images of the figures. With the bright colors, new materials, intense surface qualities and upfront sexual imagery, Axell’s work had the immediacy of Pop Art. Then though, her paintings transcended the very same style milieu with her tender yet radical vision of surrealism, – opening a new dimension of artistic stylization which still today looks unparalleled.
Axell was in close exchange with the critic Pierre Restany, advocate of the Nouveau Réalisme, Marcel Broodthaers, Alina Szapocznikow, Pauline Boty, Marcel Duchamp and Arturo Scharz, among many others. In 1969 Pierre Restany had declared Axell’s works icons of the “sexual revolution in art”. The women portrayed in Axell’s world are sexually evocative and self-contained. Axell claimed female sexuality as her own to escape the mass media objectification of her male Pop Art contemporaries. She slyly transformed the appropriated eroticism of her Pop nudes into images of self-conscious presence.
Shortly before her untimely death, Axell reached a pivotal stage of her work. She began portraying her solitary females in a utopian setting: a paradise circle of dense jungle landscape with exotic vegetation, idyllic waterfalls and rare animals. The artist made this elegiac vision of nature untouched by environmental destruction a hidden realm for the free enjoyment of female desire. In L’Herbe Folle (1972) a woman languorously sunbathes, her glasses (Axell’s signature sun glasses indicating a likely self portrait) dropped beside her. The artist finally presents herself resting peacefully, her body framed by a tropical forest that is both comforting and ominous. Soon after completing this work, Axell was killed in a car crash in Belgium.
2015 Global Pop, Tate Modern, curated by Jessica Morgan
2011 EVELYNE AXELL. THE GREAT JOURNEY INTO SPACE, BROADWAY 1602, NY
2010 Axelleration at the Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach, Germany; Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968, Rosenwald-Wolf Galler, Philadelphia and Brooklyn Museum, NY; POWER UP – Women Pop Artists, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria
2009 AXELL’S PARADISE. Last works (1971-72) before she vanished, BROADWAY 1602, NY
Centre Pompidou, Paris
Les Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels
Musee D’Ixelles, Brussels
Le Plasticarium, Brussles
Le Provinciaal Musuem voor Moderne Kunst, Ostende