Miriam Cahn - 20th Century to Now London Friday, June 30, 2023 | Phillips
  • ‘‘One can be enraged every day, no? Just look at the news. That’s the daily material that interests me.’’  
    Miriam Cahn

    Fuelled by a keen political conscience and passionate reaction to long-standing social injustice and more recent and increasingly dystopian events unfolding across our global media, Swiss-born artist Miriam Cahn imbues her enigmatic figurative canvases with controversial imagery, regularly and unapologetically striking a nerve in her audience as she materialises what many know but which few say. A visual and performance artist, writer, filmmaker, and photographer, Cahn is, at the core of her practice, an activist. From her early involvement with the feminist performing art scene of the 1970s alongside figures such as Marina Abramovic and Valie Export, Cahn’s career has been characterised by debate, modes of artistic action, and even moments of retaliation. As well as creating illegal murals on construction sites in her hometown of Basel, she even went so far as to remove her work from Documenta 7 in 1982 in protest of her treatment by the artistic director. Most recently this air of controversy has manifested in the legal action taken against her work by far-right censors when her work was hung at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, one of the largest retrospectives of the artist’s work to date.


    However raw and confrontational her imagery can be – depictions of sexual violence, war crimes, tragic deaths – her figures balance a powerful evanescence with a certain indistinct quality, breathing life into them through semi-translucent brushstrokes of delicate, hallucinatory tones. As in Untitled, which sits in contrast to her earlier monumental monochromatic drawings which dominate most of her artistic career, this gives her work an air of subtlety - generating a kind of quiet intimacy through which the viewer can develop a more empathetic relationship to the piece. 

    ‘‘The figures represent themselves. Everything else is interpretation.’’  
    Miriam Cahn

    Depicting a ghostly figure looming over a more diminutive one, the fine line which the artist sets between abstraction and figuration in Untitled decontextualises her compositions, placing an emphasis instead on emotional impact. Set against a sparsely rendered and denuded background, our eye is trained upon the interaction of the two figures, one that provokes intense emotional responses in the viewer. As in most of her work, body and gaze are pivotal to the painting’s affective power; here the manipulation of proportion creates a powerful physical expression of violence and victimisation. Alongside this narrative ambuiguity, Cahn's ethereal treatment of paint transform her figures into something more symbolic than specific - icons of universal oppression which through their own anonymity comment on the complexity of the many controversial issues to which they could relate. 


    Cahn first shot to prominence in the 1980s. She was the first woman to have a solo show at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1983 and represented Switzerland at La Biennale di Venezia in 1984. Having only turned to painting in middle age, she seems now to be at the beginning of a new renaissance. Winner of the Rubens Prize in 2022, the artist 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 - all since 2019. More recently, in 2023, the first major retrospective of Cahn’s work in a French institution took place at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Perhaps her most impressive show to date, the museum website included the warning: 'Some works are likely to offend the public’s sensibilities', a comment which was more than supported by over two hundred portraits, landscapes and history paintings dating from 1980 through to the present day which prove Cahn to be one of the few contemporary artists to candidly deliver the dark realities of our times to audiences, provoking new and vital conversations.i



    i Emma Lavigne, ‘Miriam Cahn: Ma pensée sérielle’, 2023, online.


    • Provenance

      Meyer Riegger, Berlin
      Acquired from the above by the present owner




signed with the artist's initial and dated 'M 13.5.08' on the stretcher
oil on canvas
135.3 x 81.2 cm (53 1/4 x 31 7/8 in.)
Painted on 13 May 2008.

Full Cataloguing

£40,000 - 60,000 

Sold for £114,300

Contact Specialist

Leonor de Osma
Head of Sale, 20th Century to Now
T +44 20 7901 7912
M +44 7584 086 052

20th Century to Now

London Auction 30 June 2023