From the beginning, the Soviets understood how crucial visual culture was, and that control of it reinforced ideology and molded minds. Though the USSR and its client states insisted on sexual equality and women’s liberation, they minimized gender differences and effectively erased sensuality in visual representations. The ideal Socialist Realist woman was a muscular laborer (and a good mother, too), and both men and women were depicted as generic types, because the communist utopia was sexless and the collective body the only one worth considering. Eros and individualism threatened authority by suggesting thatâ?¯private lives—hence dissident voices—were possible. The Russian photographer Boris Mikhailov lost his job in the late 1960s when the KGB found nude photographs he had taken—of his wife.
But sex and the drive for artistic freedom can survive almost anything. By the 1970s, artists began opening doors to the forbidden; after 1989, many more such explorations became possible. “Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe,” curated by Bojana Peji´c, at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, presented a dizzying, fascinating record of a half-century of changes, with 400 works by more than 200 artists, many unknown in the West.
The show began with Socialist Realist paintings, though there were occasional detours along the revolutionary road, some of them perplexing. The women were mostly “heroines of labor,” but Postaci (Figures, 1950), by the Polish painter Wojcieh Fangor, articulated differences between Soviet and Western ideals, perhaps ambivalently. A hefty Soviet woman and a manly laborer study a shapely, elegantly attired woman wearing big sunglasses and a stylish white dress that bears little written inscriptions, including “Coca-Cola,” “Wall Street” and “London.” Is she the envy or the enemy of the people? The workers’ stares are neutral. As the scholarly exhibition catalogue makes clear, understanding Communist art requires knowledge of history, economics, the original audience (public or “alternative”) and which Eastern European country produced it, under what circumstances.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, artists seemed to discover—tentatively—both political criticism and the body. Female artists tried to wrest control of “the gaze” from its governmental and male masters by looking at women, including themselves. After 1989, they become freer to depict the female body as both real (rather than ideal) and sexual. In Katarzyna Kozyra’s photographic triptych Olympia, 1996, one of many appropriations of canonic works, the Polish artist presents herself first as Manet’s prostitute, then as a hospital patient attached to an IV pole, and finally as an ancient, naked woman with deflated breasts—less a sex object than a suffering, aging human being. From the early ’90s on, male and female artists alike tore up gender prescriptions and prohibitions in favor of destabilized identities, picturing men with less-than-ideal bodies, or done up in drag as dancing girls or as Marilyn Monroe.
Nudity had been so thoroughly suppressed that, in the 1970s and early ’80s, it signified political dissent as much as artistic license. By 2000 Tanja Ostoji´c, of Serbia, could distribute posters that said, “Looking for a Husband with EU Passport.” Unlike the typically sexy husband-wanted appeal, Ostoji´c’s photograph is a straightforward image that shows the artist nude, fully frontal and shaved at head and crotch. The naked body no longer belonged to the art world alone but to the community at large, and Ostoji´c’s posters, which sardonically attacked the widespread female unemployment and desperation that followed the transition to a capitalist economy, gave evidence that critique had become less perilous. The consumerism and the sex trade that also accompanied Westernization are targeted in such works as Anetta Mona Chisa and Lucia Tkácová’s Porn Video (Slovakia, 2004), which shows two women performing a graphic sexual scenario while fully clothed.
At the same time, Communist repression—including that directed at homosexuality, a crime in the USSR—were boldly challenged. In 1981, Metka Krašovec, a Slovenian artist, drew My Boy Has Red Socks, a picture of two naked men with erections embracing. The new freedom incited a fierce backlash in the conservative, aggressively masculine cultures of the former Communist sphere. In 2008, Igor Grubi´c, of Croatia, pieced together frightening footage of a gay pride parade that ended with gunfire. Among a number of depictions of explicit sex is Jelena Radic’s 2006 image of fellatio, which the Serbian artist rendered in needlepoint.
On the evidence here, the history of feminism, and of challenges to conventional gender identities, needs to be rewritten with greater attention to the East. With this exhibition, it has already been re-presented.
Photo: Left, Anetta Mona Chisa and Lucia Tkácová: Porn Video, 2004, video, approx. 31⁄4 minutes. Both in “Gender Check” at Mumok. Right, Katarzyna Kozyra: Olympia, 1996, one of three color photographs, 401⁄4 by 703⁄4 inches.