She started with the tights, the underwear, and then the bra. The sensuality of it all drove the audience crazy,” said the film-maker Jean Antoine about his wife Evelyne Axell’s performance at her opening in Ghent’s Galerie Foncke on April 26, 1969. Contrary to what one might expect when a naked female body, lingerie, and a sensual atmosphere are involved, this happening did not aim to satisfy males desire; it was an ambitious artistic concept. A striptease à rebours to quote Joris-Karl Huysman’s epochal 1884 novel (Against Nature in the English): Axell reversed the idea of a striptease and clothed a naked woman, who wearing only an astronaut’s helmet initially stood in the middle of a crowd of people.
One spectator said of the per former’s disguise: “The best thing about it was that the astronaut in question, who was the wife of a famous collector, had been in the audience before that divinely seductive performance and rejoined it again afterwards unrecognized.” This reveling in nakedness, the uninhibited treatment of the body, and the right of women to take control of their own bodies—by no means a given in those days—all reveal a proto-feminist approach consistent with the sexual liberation of the age. Even despite the times, this performance was seen as pioneering within the context of second-wave feminism in art, which reached its zenith in the 1970s.
The performance was a conscious and provocative reenactment of established gender stereotypes; the naked female body attracting the male gaze and focusing it as if by magnifying glass, turning the woman into an object and the man into a voyeur. Transfixed, the audience followed the artist’s every move: firstly, Axell helped the woman into her underwear, followed by knee-high tights, bra, and vest; by the end of the performance the woman was fully dressed like everyone else in the room. Axell took the actual purpose of striptease to arouse the male viewer to an absurd extreme: instead of slowly and sensuously revealing the female body, she covered it up. The artist expressed women’s autonomous relation-ship with their own bodies through aesthetic means and made both the visual regime of seeing and of being seen, with its gender-
specific connotations and conventional strategies of seduction, her central concern.
Adopting a gender-neutral name, Axell’s reversed striptease performance exposed gender roles propagated over centuries and codified by art history. Even the then-popular Pop art was no exception, often reducing female identity to a caricature-like transfer picture, and portraying women as erotic pinups, male muses, or simply housewives and mothers.

Dedicated to the representation of the female body, female desire, and sensuality in general, Axell’s artistic agenda fought against such one-dimensional patriarchal perspectives: “Despite all the aggression, my world is bursting with an unbridled lust for life. My motive is clear; the naked body and femininity represent a utopian idea of biological freedom, a freedom that’s immune to frustration and progressive constraint, and only tolerates the boundaries it sets for itself.”

The artist assertively stated cause was to put forward a body politic freed from repressive male expectations: female empowerment through aesthetic affirmation. Her aim, as she once put it, was to “create free images that portray every kind of passion and at the same time are so brilliant that they spark the interest of the masses.”

It is at least questionable whether cultural philosopher Pierre Restany, art critic Jean Dypréau, writer Hugo Claus, and lawyer Karel Geilandt—whose heated debate on sexual revolution in art closed the evening of that spring day in 1969—fully understood the critical potential of the performance. Some of Axell’s pieces (based on photographs like so many of her works) ironically comment on the male dominance of those who vehemently voiced their critique back then.
The drawing Projet pour Pierre Restany et son harem (1969) portrays Restany, a prominent representative of Nouveau réalisme, as always seeking to be at the center of the debate with his “preaching” on cultural theory—like angels in the Christian iconography of saints, naked women sunbathe in his halo. And in the work L’Assemblée libre (1970), Axell asks if and to what extent the sexual liberation of women can even take place under the supremacy of the male gaze and the intellectual sovereignty of men. At times, her work affirms these existing conditions, rather cynically and with increasing aggression, only to reveal their shortcomings in bold hypostasis.
The performance attracted a lot of attention and was deemed to be so scandalous and so shocking that it led to a court case, which Axell eventually won. Evelyne Axell’s oeuvre is not only interesting as a document of her time but as an aesthetic proposal. It mines the critical potential of art and engages with a sense of urgency in the project of improving the world under the conditions of a gender inequality, an urgency that remains unresolved to this day.

© Text Angela Stief
© Black/white photography Raymond Ceuppens
© Photos of artworks Paul Louis