The Female Closet (1998)

The Female Closet
Director: Barbara Hammer
Seen on: 22.4.2022

Content Note: (critical treatment of) homomisia

The documentary looks at photographer Alice Austen, dada artist Hannah Höch and painter Nicole Eisenman, considering their lives and their sexual orientation, how that relates to their art and the way they are spoken about.

I wasn’t really familiar with any of the three artists portrayed in this documentary before, but The Female Closet serves as a nice introduction to their work as well as to the erasure queerness and queer people face in the art world, also suggesting a historic trajectory that may be questioned.

The film poster showing a photograph by Alice Austen with four women who are holding each other in pairs as if slowdancing.

The documentary is separated into three parts, treating each artist in a separate chapter, starting with the oldest – Alice Austen. There, the documentary relies most on conjecture as she was most deeply in the closet out of the three women. Using her art as indication as well as her personal relationships, they do make a convincing case though. The film also touches on the way the estate treats those suppositions – flat-out denying them, possibly destroying evidence about it and simply not wanting to hear a word of it.

In the second chapter, the documentary looks at Hannah Höch. Höch had three important relationships in her life, one of them almost a decade with a woman, poet Til Brugman. While Höch never called herself a queer, bisexual or lesbian woman (as far as I know or how the documentary tells it at least), there is no denying that the two were in a romantic relationship, and so Höch was one step further out of the closet.

A photograph by Alice Austen showing herself and a group of friends in dramatic poses around a tea table.

Finally Nicole Eisenman, who is still alive and could speak for herself in the documentary, is an out and proud lesbian, talking about how it was even a chance for her to gain a reputation and some recognition. It appears that the closet has no place here anymore, though her career was definitely not without difficulty for it.

Choosing these three artists and in that order seems to imply that things for queer women and non-binary people (Eisenman has since come out as genderfluid) get continuously better as visibility for them increases. I’d hesitate to a) consider history all the linear – there are bumps and breaks, steps backwards as well as sideways. And b) to think that the closet is all but done for in our days. There is still plenty of homomisia to go around and with it, plenty of reasons to stay in the closet.

Still, the documentary gives us a good introduction to the topic and to the three artists who are very different and make very different art, but all excellent and very engaging.

A photograph by Alice Austen showing her and two female friends dressed as men.

Summarizing: insightful.

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