Miriam Cahn - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, October 6, 2023 | Phillips
  • Boldly unapologetic throughout her impressive career spanning across five decades, Swiss-born artist Miriam Cahn does not shy away from the depiction ofcontroversial imagery in her thought-provoking body of work. Taking inspiration from the world around her under the influence of the feminist movements of the 1970s and 80s, Cahn’s enigmatic figurative canvases are often set in nightmarish dreamscapes, filled with visceral depictions of violence, horror, and tragedy. Both raw and confrontational at once, these dystopian scenes are unpleasantly mesmerising, evoking strong physical, mental, and emotional feelings in viewers and often, provoking discomfort. Rather than pursuing shock value blindly, it is not the artist’s intention to glorify trauma or normalise oppression. Instead, rooted in her view of ethics that people in our age and time should act humanely among fellow humans, Cahn’s works not only form a deep probe into the human condition in response to current events, but also act as feminist critiques of the patriarchy and misuses of power, advocating for a larger role for women in the wider realm.


    Painted in 2017, the same year that the artist was featured at documenta 14, o.t., 19.07.+31.09.2017 is a dazzling large-scale example of her multi-standing nude figures. While the present work does not reference a specific moment in time, it showcases a powerful physical expression of violence and victimisation that could be compared to recent tragedies of our time and age. Set against a barren landscape composed of predominantly dark hues, three nude figures face the viewer, all of whom appear phantom-like due to their semi-translucent skin, Cahn sets the scene and strikes a nerve. The figure on the left, visibly more prominent than the other two in bold swathes of iridescent white, throws a strong punch forward; with the deranged figure in the middle, bruised in a myriad of auburns and sickly-limes with a missing arm, taking the brunt of the punch, almost as though itssoul was knocked out of itsbody whilst the figure on the far right, with feminine features and lifeless dots for eyes, appears to stand in solitary. Although the depiction of nude bodies is very much present in the present composition, any hints of carnal pleasure are instantaneously overshadowed by the one-sided explicit brutality presented on the canvas. Intentionally not identifying her characters and keeping them gender-ambiguous, Cahn relentlessly awakens viewers to the horrors that plague our humanity, as well as its fragility.



    The Artist’s Working Method: From the Feminist Movements to an Age of Correctness


    Detail of the current lot


    At the beginning of her artistic career, Cahn was deeply inspired by the performance art scene of the 1970s and 80s, and its focus on the female body. In her own words, she recalls, “it was something else, something totally new, and there were a lot of women in those movements.” [Miriam Cahn, quoted in conversation with O. Zahm, Purple Magazine, Issue 35, Spring/Summer 2021.] Beyond the artistic realm at the time, the feminist activism movement also exploded in the United States and around the world, changing society forever by expanding women’s rights, opportunities, and identities. Evoking the activist spirit of this very period, Cahn became involved in a number of feminist and anti-nuclear movements, and frequented highway bridges in Basel to create murals. She had devised a unique working method early on: a fast-working pace, in that her works are dated to the day they are made. Like the essence of performance art in which speed is key, Cahn uses her entire body during her artmaking process. “The body dictated more or less the speed or duration of a performance and I found that very interesting.” From painting on the ground of her studio floor crawling on her hands and knees, sometimes even in the nude or with her eyes blindfolded to reduce the influence of the mind on her creative process, Cahn’s treatment of the body radiates beyond its physical condition, becoming not only a motif in her paintings, but also as a medium of its own.


    In the pictorial worlds that she conjures up, similar to the present work o.t., 19.07.+31.09.2017, the artist counters the traditional representation of the female and gender-specific roles. Deliberate portrayals of her figures with androgynous features reflect an awareness of gender fluidity, whilst amputated or disfigured limbs addresses the themes of global conflict, exile, and refuge. The female figure that seems to cover her genitalia in shame or fear is a recurrent pose in her body of work and evokes female empowerment. Though in fear, she stands very much alive with her eyes meeting the viewer directly, and her form palpitates with a sense of totemic power. Rebuking the cancel culture of society today, Cahn represents all the complex worldly issues that we face in a raw yet empathetic way, one that is truly unique and unpretentious.


    “Female artists have a lot to do. Because art history is mostly done by men. So they have their vision on females, which means females are to be erotic […] It’s a tradition in art history. So we have a lot to do. Because we have to rewrite the art history.”
    — Miriam Cahn


    When interviewed by Purple Magazine in 2021, Cahn spoke to Oliver Zahn about gender and the status of women in art history.


    Oliver Zahn: One can sense that, with you — beyond gender positions, beyond sexual organs, the individual with his phallus, the other with her clitoris — there is this possibility of exchange, that in the end, we’re all the same, getting beyond this imposition of gender. Do you agree?


    Miriam Cahn: Naturally, we are all the same, and that is sexuality! But not in the history of art. If you look at how women are shown, I mean, these individuals with a clitoris and a vagina, I really like what men did, but then, that’s the thing — it was done mainly by men! That’s why, in art, woman is reduced to sexualized, even pornographic representations. Her identity is also reduced to the mother figure, to the Virgin Mary, or model, or muse. This is changing hugely at the moment, and I think it’s really very interesting. I’m a feminist, and as women artists, we have the opportunity to invent new images. New images, not new paintings, and all that shit. With these images, you have to start showing true sexuality. And I do it from my own point of view, with my body as my instrument. This is my commentary on sexuality and on how it can be shown nowadays.


    OZ: It’s a combat for you, as a woman, against representations of the female that are imposed by men.


    MC: But that’s not enough. If women and men really are equal in life, like in art, and also in the art world, you have to start doing a lot more as a woman artist. And that is highly political. I wouldn’t like to be a man artist because they’ve done it all from their point of view already.


    Read the full interview here.



    Collector’s Digest


    • Trained at the Gewerbeschule in Basel from 1968 to 1973, Miriam Cahn experimented with performance art, writing, murals and graphic design before fully directing her practice towards monochromatic, large-scale, charcoal drawings to painting with colour in the 1990s.

    • She became the first woman to have a solo show at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1983 and represented Switzerland at La Biennale di Venezia in 1984.

    • She has had a long history of key exhibitions, including early presence in European institutions.

    • Cahn has realised numerous solo shows at major institutions such as the Kunstmuseum Bern, Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.

    • She has gained wider recognition relatively recently, including a large installation on view with Cecilia Alemani’s group show The Milk of Dreams at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022.

    • Most recently, her works were exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris from 17 February to 14 May 2023. Titled Ma pensée sérielle, it is the artist’s first major retrospective in a French institution.

    • Her works are in the collections of Tate Modern, London; the Museo Reina Sofia; and the Pinault Collection in Paris, among others.Prices for Cahn’s works have increased, with medium-sized works now costing from $50,000 to $105,000, or over $1 million.


     Miriam Cahn speaks about her works at her studio in Switzerland

    • Provenance

      Meyer Riegger, Basel
      Private Collection, Asia
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Karlsruhe, Meyer Riegger, LACHEN MÜSSEN: Miriam Cahn, 3 March - 5 May 2018
      Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, everything is equally important, 5 June - 14 October 2019



signed with the artist's initial and dated 'M 19.7.+31.9.17' on the stretcher
oil on canvas
194.8 x 180 cm. (76 3/4 x 70 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,000,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for HK$2,286,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 6 October 2023