Penny Slinger: the feminist surrealist who was too erotic for the art world
Penny Slinger is the British feminist surrealist whose work in the 1960s and 70s was groundbreaking – but then she disappeared. Now living in Los Angeles, she talks to The Last Bohemians about her incredible life: being pals with Lee Miller, living in a turret with pet falcons, finding her way in a male-dominated art world, how tantra revitalised her life and work, performing a real-life sex scene in the only feature film directed by a woman in the 1970s, sensual and sexual liberation – and why desire doesn't diminish with age. She just hopes she lives to see her first retrospective.
Among these were her “full frontal collages”, including ones where Penny appears inside a wedding cake, the slice between her legs removed. Her 1977 collage masterpiece, An Exorcism, meanwhile, evoked the darkness of the English psyche, stitching together ghoulish images of the countryside, genitals, nuns and manor houses.
In the UK, Penny counted the photographer Lee Miller among her friends and, at one point, lived in a turret in Soho, where her boyfriend – the counterculture film-maker Peter Whitehead – kept falcons. How’s that for bohemian!
Penny appeared in experimental films and wrote a number of books on themes of sex, mysticism, eroticism and inner goddesses, including groundbreaking books of her collages and poetry, such as 50% The Invisible Woman. But after a solo show in New York in 1982, she abandoned the art world, tired of its sexism and narrow-mindedness. She moved first to the Caribbean, then to Northern California and finally settled in LA.
It isn’t until recently that Penny’s work has been rediscovered. In 2009, she was included in the Angels of Anarchy show of female surrealists in Manchester and she was the subject of a 2017 documentary by Richard Kovitch.
In this episode of The Last Bohemians: LA, supported by Audio-Technica, Penny covers a range of topics, including her sexual and sensual liberation, finding her voice in a male-dominated art scene, starring in the only feature film directed by a woman in the 1970s, how she hopes to see a retrospective in her lifetime and how desire doesn’t diminish with age...
Presenter: Kate Hutchinson
Producer: Holly Fisher
Photography: Lisa Jelliffe.
With thanks to Zoe Flowers.
Theme music: Pete Cunningham, Ned Pegler and Caradog Jones
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ABOUT THE LAST BOHEMIANS
Journalist and broadcaster Kate Hutchinson launched The Last Bohemians in 2019, pairing the audio with stunning portraits by photographer Laura Kelly. It featured 86-year-old Molly Parkin’s stories of self-pleasuring, LSD countess Amanda Feilding’s trepanning tales and Pamela Des Barres’ reflections on supergroupiedom. The series won silver for Best New Podcast at the 2020 British Podcast Awards and was a finalist at the 2021 Audio Production Awards.
Season two featured folk legend Judy Collins; British fashion icon Zandra Rhodes, dealing with the aftermath of losing her lover while celebrating 50 years in fashion; anarcho-punk innovator and illustrator Gee Vaucher; and the controversial witch at the heart of the 1970s occult boom, Maxine Sanders. In 2021, The Last Bohemians launched a lockdown special with performance artist Marina Abramović; it returned in 2022 with the UK’s greatest living painter, Maggi Hambling, as well as Bowie’s former best friend Dana Gillespie and theatre actor Cleo Sylvestre, and launched an LA series, supported by Audio-Technica, in summer.