Natalia LL, an artist whose boundary-pushing performances and films are credited with helping usher in a wave of avant-garde art in Poland, has died at 85, according to her Instagram.
Natalia LL’s most well-known works take on the male gaze with subversive imagery that is explicitly erotic. Their content has periodically proven controversial and has in some cases led her work to be censored.
When she began making these works during the 1970s, she was working to bring art into closer contact with reality, making conceptual work at a time when it was still relatively new. She made it her mandate to focus on activities that seemed banal.
“Art is in the process of becoming in every instant of reality: to the individual every fact, every second is fleeting and unique,” she wrote in 1972. “That is why l record common and trivial events like eating, sleeping, copulation, resting, speaking etc.”
Her series “Consumer Art” (1972–75), her most famous body of work, prominently features photographs and films of the artist licking and suggestively eating a bruised banana. In one film, she goes on to spoon melted ice cream into her mouth and then to spit it back out, letting it roll down her chin. These images, which are followed by shots of other women eating frankfurters, recall pornography with a feminist twist—she and the other women are now in charge.
Some have seen this series as being critical of a consumerist culture in the People’s Republic of Poland. Others have pointed out, however, there was a shortage of bananas at the time in Poland, which was then a Communist country. In 2019, Marisa Bellani, the founder of London’s Roman Road gallery, where Natalia LL showed, told the Art Newspaper that the work was about a “lack of consumption as opposed to the consumerist world.”
In 2015, “Consumer Art” was featured in the Tate Modern exhibition “The World Goes Pop,” which expanded the history of Pop art to include more figures based outside the U.S. and the U.K.
The artist was born Natalia Lach-Lachowicz in Żywiec, Poland, in 1937. She attended art school at what is now the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław, the city where she later founded the gallery PERMAFO with Zbigniew Dłubak and Andrzej Lachowicz. When she married Lachowicz, she changed her name to Natalia LL.
PERMAFO, where Natalia LL had some of her first shows, specialized in a kind of art that bore some connection to the everyday. “Knowledge of the present can only be approached by accumulating signals received from reality,” its founders wrote in a manifesto. Some have credited the gallery’s program with helping popularize conceptual photography to a scene still dominated by painting. PERMAFO remained active until 1981, when it shuttered as Poland came under martial law.
Among the works that Natalia LL showed at PERMAFO was Intimate Photography, a 1971 group of erotic pictures that were reproduced over and over in settings that were deliberately claustrophobic, making viewing them an uncomfortable activity. Due to its explicit content, the exhibition was shut down after just a few days.
During the late ’70s, Natalia LL began receiving treatment for a severe illness, the specifics of which she preferred not to discuss. Her sickness coincided with a turn in her work away from feminist subjects toward mythological ones.
In 1980, for example, she staged a performance called Pyramid, which involved the artist sleeping inside a structure modeled on an ancient Egyptian pyramid by Lachowicz. She claimed to have experienced dreams that brought her toward other realms.
Censorship has continued to follow Natalia LL’s work, most notably in 2019, when the National Museum in Warsaw showed Consumer Art. That film and another work by Katarzyna Kozyra were pulled from view by the museum’s director, Jerzy Miziołek. Miziolek claimed that these works “have a distracting influence on young people.” Many saw the controversy as one stemming from a larger attempt by a right-wing government to censor the arts in Poland.
As a result, mass protests over the removal ensued, with some terming the event #bananagate. Ultimately, the Natalia LL work made it back on view shortly after it was removed.