Miriam Cahn completed a demanding graphic design course at the Basel Gewerbeschule from 1968 to 1973, finding freedom of expression in drawing with her eyes closed, straight on the ground or on large sheets of paper on the floor. She found the technique gave her hand free rein. She also got into trouble with the law for painting the walls of a motorway bridge in Basel (mein frausein ist mein öffentlicher teil [my womanhood is my public part], 1979-1980). Her drawings – usually in charcoal or black chalk, sometimes in pencil – are laid down in powerful, energetic, broad strokes, as she is swept away by the process of developing shapes that often seem to emerge from chaos. They all bear the mark of her own body.
Cahn was active in feminist and anti-nuclear circles, uncompromisingly exploring the violence inherent in the world and human relationships. Sexuality and war are recurrent themes, as is the role of women in society and womanhood, shown as summarily fleshed-out nudes in the cycle das klassische lieben – femmes, represented at MCBA by a series dating from 1981. She categorises her motifs as female (the domestic sphere, houses, beds, tables etc.) and male (the public sphere, tanks, cannon, warships as in this Schiff, etc.). The divide between the private sphere and the military complex, between protection and destruction, was at the heart of the exhibition Cahn staged at the Basel Kunsthalle in 1983, forcing viewers to confront the social roles assigned to each sex.
Schiff is typical of this initial period of Cahn’s career through to the late 1980s, before she opened up her creative practice to paint and colour. The titular ship, resembling a coffin topped with five crosses, seems to be drifting towards the bottom left-hand corner of the sheet, dragging everything with it. It is an oppressive presence, dominating the surface of the paper, almost wholly covered with strokes of charcoal.
Annette Hüsch (ed.), Miriam Cahn. Auf Augenhöhe / At Eye Level, exh. cat. Kiel, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, 2016.
Klaus Gallwitz and Adam Szymczyk, Miriam Cahn. zeichnen/drawing/dessiner, Fribourg, Modo, 2014.
Jean-Christophe Ammann and Theodora Vischer, Miriam Cahn. Arbeiten 1979-1983, exh. cat. Basel, Kunsthalle, Basel, Basler Kunstverein, 1983.