Renate Bertlmann is a trailblazer feminist artist who has been fearlessly confronting societal norms and challenging gender stereotypes through her provocative sculptures and installations. Born in 1943 in Austria, Bertlmann's work has spanned decades and mediums, but they have always delved into themes of sexuality, gender, and power dynamics, such as her sculpture of weaponized breasts that uplifts motherhood and her sculpture of a delicate phallus with butterfly wings, showcasing the feminine in the masculine and promoting their equity, a reflection of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality. 

In an interview with Sculpture Magazine, Bertlmann reflects on her artistic influences and the personal backstories behind her works. She particularly acknowledged the intense discussions surrounding male and female sexuality in the 1970s, which led her to explore sex shops and collect various objects that mirrored male sexual fantasies, all while questioning the validity of her own. Through her art, Bertlmann sought to subvert societal norms and challenge the suppression of women, drawing inspiration from feminist literature and the analysis of power structures.

Photograph of Renate Bertlmann by Irina Gavrich. Image courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery and Vogue Magazine.

One of Bertlmann's most striking works is the 1984 sculpture Brus(t)kasten which translates to “breast incubators.” The sculpture takes the shape of two breasts with razor blades as nipples placed within an incubator. This piece, which diverts the symbology of breasts from symbols associated with a nurturing mother to that of violence, boldly challenges society's expectations of motherhood. Here, Bertlmann critiques the idealized image of motherhood as selfless and docile, highlighting the unpaid labour and emotional toll often overlooked in mothers' various roles in their children’s and families' lives.

Brus(t)kasten by Renate Bertlmann. Image courtesy of Cura Magazine.

Similarly, in Farphalla Impudica 4, exhibited in 1985, Bertlmann subverts the phallic symbol by incorporating a dildo as the body of a butterfly, with pink plexiglass wings. This playful yet profound piece, whose title translates to “irrelevant butterfly” dismantles toxic masculinity by showcasing that a phallus, a traditionally masculine symbol, can coexist with traditionally feminine forms like the colour pink and butterflies. By reducing the almighty phallus to a tacky embellishment, Bertlmann challenges the societal constructs that have long upheld male superiority and shunned all things feminine.

Bertlmann's use of phallic sex toys and sexually explicit imagery drew criticism from some feminist thinkers in the early stages of her career, as they found that her artworks were yet again sharing phallic symbols that already existed aplenty in art, as opposed to portraying feminine symbols which still lacked representation. However, Bertlmann remained steadfast in her belief that women should fight against oppressive forces through any means possible, including using unconventional methods that meant utilizing symbols of their oppressors. 

Farphalla Impudica 4 by Renate Bertlmann. Image courtesy of Sammlung Belvedere.

At the core of Bertlmann's work is her motto, Amo Ergo Sum (I love, therefore I am) which also became the title of her artwork for the 2019 Venice Biennale. The piece is an installation of 312 glass roses with thorns sharp enough to prick anyone. This mantra and piece reflect her unwavering commitment to exploring the fragile themes of love, desire and autonomy, which can be read in the sheer number of glass roses available. 

Western society views roses as symbols of women’s sexualities, notably recorded in Guillaume de Lorris’ poem, Romance of the Rose. But Bertlmann's prickly sculpture, serves as a testament to the power of female expression and resilience, challenging viewers to confront their preconceived notions of gender and sexuality that have been viewed as fragile and taboo.

Amo Ergo Sum by Renate Bertlmann. Image courtesy of The Stylemate.

Throughout her career, Bertlmann has experimented with diverse materials and mediums, ranging from latex and polyurethane foam to silicone rubber and glass. Whether through sculptures of phallic figures, breasts, or roses, Bertlmann's art provokes thought and encourages dialogue about gender equality and female empowerment.

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