History Is a Warning in Neue Nationalgalerie’s Collection-Based Exhibition

BERLIN — The title Extreme Tension couldn’t better epitomize Germany’s current cultural climate, as politicians censor artists’ free speech and museums scramble to respond to constantly shifting polycrises. In light of this, the Neue Nationalgalerie casts a critical view on its collection, recontextualizing art history told by the museum’s collection through the lenses of colonialism and underrepresentation, including reconsidering works by women artists, some of which have not been on view for some time. While its 2023 exhibition Art and Society 1900–1945 highlighted the biographies of Modernist artists’ female models and a small number of Western women painters such as Hilma af Klint and Hanna Höch, Extreme Tension: Art between Politics and Society devotes ample space to art by women from former East and West Germany, as well as Austria, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

The exhibition gains momentum with a section headlined by a video that shares its title. “Extreme Tension” (1965), a record of a live performance by Viennese Actionist Günter Brus, embodies Actionism’s mystical and political edge. It’s hard not to see the work as a metaphor for the risks that some artists are taking today in using their physical presence to draw attention to the crises outside the museum space, such as the artists who protested Israel’s attacks on Gaza by occupying the Museum of Modern Art, or those who attacked their own works at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Those artists protesting in Germany, for instance, have always faced threats of violence, as was the case recently with Israeli filmmaker Yuval Abraham, who received death threats after he spoke against the war during the Berlin International Film Festival.

Installation view of Extreme Tension: Art between Politics and Society, featuring a work by Günter Brus (video Ela Bittencourt/ Hyperallergic)

Though Actionism’s ethos is often described by critics as decidedly masculine, many women artists recognized its potential to oppose realpolitik, censorship, and oppression. Indeed, the exhibition features Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT, who expanded the movement to encompass video art. Her “Touch Cinema” (1968) is an expanded cinema performance in which artist Peter Weibel encouraged passersby to touch EXPORT’s breasts, which are enclosed by a box, mimicking a cinema room. The performance is both a sardonic retort to the exploitative history of the female nude and a critique of the reductive ways in which the female body and sexuality were used to market products, an expression of sexism echoed in entertainment.

In a section dedicated to the 1970s are works by other famous female artists, including Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramović, and Martha Rosler, as well as women who worked under oppressive regimes that prevented their art from reaching a wider audience. In two works, both titled “Self-Staging in Hüpstedt” (1982), Cornelia Schleime’s naked torso and head are bound with a rope, echoing German artist Rebecca Horn’s “Unicorn” (1970–72), in which a woman walks bare-breasted, clad only in strips of white cloth and a giant unicorn headpiece (the latter is also included in the exhibition). Like EXPORT, the two artists use imagery often associated with bondage — at times to absurdist effect — to draw attention to social subjugation, but also to stage their bodies in contexts suggesting a defiance of social norms.

Ewa Partum, one of Poland’s first feminist artists, who now lives in Germany, is rightfully highlighted. In “Women, Marriage is against You!” (1980), she appeared on stage at a gallery dressed in a wedding gown and foil, holding a sign that read “For Men.” She then cut her dress with scissors until she emerged naked, articulating a feminist art platform at a time when the counter-communist struggle that united the country’s opposition left little room for a debate on women’s rights. Her art resonates particularly today: Polish women have taken to the streets to oppose the ultra-right’s stringent anti-abortion laws. 

In her most striking work on view, “Selfidentification” (1980/1989), comprised of six photocollages, Partum pastes her naked portrait into cityscapes, from pedestrian crossings and entrances to government buildings. In one, she stages herself in a pose of confrontation against another woman wearing an anti-riot police uniform, a symbol of repression rising from the brutal 1981 clampdown of the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in Poland. Seen today, against a backdrop of global conflicts and wars, increasing ideological polarization, and a collapse of civic dialogue, the image of past histories of radical feminist positionality and liberational struggle reverberates with stinging intensity.

Extreme Tension: Art between Politics and Society is on view at Neue Nationalgalerie (Potsdamer straße 50, Berlin) through September 28, 2025. 

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