|By Dr. Alexander D.Borovsky Head of the Department of Contemporary Art State Russian Museum|
First of all, in discussing the Soviet - now Russian women''s art movement, one must recognize the fact that it has only itself to offer and does not represent any part of a strong femenist movement, as was not the case in the West during the 1970s when the women''s art movement reached its peak. The reason for this is elementary: there is no femenist movement in Russia today, and lethargy plagues even the most humble women''s energy is spent standing in humiliating lines in the desperate attempt, after a full day''s work, to procure the daily bread she and her men need to stay alive, you then have an accurate picture of Soviet reality. Do not be deceived if someone tries to show you various kinds of Soviet women''s organizations; these are elitist "bridge clubs" for women functionaries and the wives of party -today "democrats" apparatchicks.
Actually, the Soviet femenist movement, at least in the most rudimentary form of a women''s rights movement, came into being in Russia at the same time as in the West. In the very beginning of the Soviet era, it was crudely and latently mystified, and eventually did achieve equality, but what an equality it was! Equality with 8men in poverty and deprevation, involvement in selfless labor, almost without monetary compensation. This was an equality in terms of the loss of individuality, its dissolution within totalitarian structures, collective will, and the undertow of mass culture. Soviet art of the 1920s and 1930s, if examined in this regard, fixes this state of affairs even in its more elementary images such as in Lazer Lisitsky''s 1929 exhibit posters and in the sculpture, " Worker and Kolhoz Girl " by Vera Mukhina - in which both individuality and even sex are cast aside as unnecessary in the course of the selfless, energetic "progress" toward ever-elusive social mirages. In a word, if " being determines consciousness ", as the Marxists maintain, then what a long-standing and hopeless existence it''s been which has determined the absence of a Soviet feminist movement in the Western understanding. The overwhelming majority of Soviet women would prefer a "consumer society", albeit with rampant male hegemony and ritualistic worship of masculinity, to the difficult struggle to attain a true feminine identity. This deplorable overall context is responsible for the lack of confidence and at the same time, desperate audacity of the first steps of the Soviet women''s art movement.
These " furious young ladies " had a lot to overcome: inert surroundings, the dead weight of old traditions, and thoroughly masculine role models as artists. During the course of the past 70 years, women artists were compelled to continually prove that they were as good as, and ideally better, than their masculine counterparts, and just as capable of embodying party directives in artistic images.
Breaking down this barrier required heavy-duty equipment. In Russia the women''s art movement found erotic art to be just the right tool for the job. It is difficult for the Western reader to folly appreciate the shocking acuity of this set of circumstances.The very presence of eroticism or any hint of sensuality in the Soviet state was a fact as meticulously concealed throughout the course of several decades as was the dangerous stigma of having relatives living abroad. During the early years of the Soviet era, enthusiastic Marxist dogmatists attempted to exploit even the sex instinct itself in the name of class struggle, as they had done with the women''s rights movement, among other things. Circulating at that time were such brutal formulas describing, in all seriousness: "the sex life, as an indivisible part of the mighty fighting arsenal of the proletariate... for revolutionary and expedient organization of its pleasures, for combat readiness within intra-class relations." * Such proletarian-sexual extremism, however, could not satisfy the thirst of Stalinist pragmatics who were interested to an even greater degree in " organizing " the pleasures of the " new class ". While their work was ever more meticulously hidden from the eyes of" simple laborers ", the government gradually escalated its bitter struggle against any glimmer of sensuality in art. Poor Eros was lucky if he got off with exile and forced labor in Siberia; more often than not, however, he was executed on the spot.
Surprisingly, until quite recently, eroticism''s stigma as a regressive tendency was applied to the various of art forms (in official eyes, sensuality, eroticism, pornography, moral degradation,etc.,were all considered synonyms). Thus, one of the most outstanding Soviet dissident artists, Vladimir Sysoyev, was tried for pornography as recently as the early 1980s.
Suddenly here is an entire vanguard of artists who, without any constraints, have begun on their own to invade this territory mined with taboos. And a female vanguard at that. The audacity of this act is incomprehensible in the context of the high status of art in the Soviet public conscience. For sensuality, not only in the Soviet, but in the age-old Russian tradition as well, was perceived as shameful, secretive, dangerous,forbidden, all but non-existent - but most importantly - unequivocally male indulgence.
This is why the leaders of the women''s art movement decided to bring the war right into the enemy camp. In addressing the subject of sensuality they were able to kill several birds with one stone. Debunking the totems of the macho-heterosexual male artists as the sole equivalent for creative power was just one of those birds, albeit perhaps fattest and most tempting.
The visual practice of exploitation of the nude female body has long been a beloved technique and privilege exercised by male identities on behalf of both the producers and consumers of art. So why could not a woman do the same things? At least for starters in order to prove the postulate of cultural feminism: " Our experience is not the same as that of a man, and thus neither are our values, our visions, or our sensibility ". In this light let us examine the very characteristic experience (individuality notwithstanding ) of the young Liningrad artist Bella Matveyeva.who has already earned a name for herself at several exhibitions of feminist art.
The path to self-identity as a woman artist is always both individual and typological. This typology and the reasons for it are self-evident in light of the historic and cultural circumstances mentioned above; and, therefor, we will not dwell on them here. To talk about an artist''s individuality is more difficult, however. Obviously the personal, intimate, and emotional experience of the artist comes into play-and here the critic has no right to intrude. However, he is justified in examining the no-less personal and intimate experience of interrelation within the profession and cultural context which the artist acquires in the process of his/her development.
During her early period, Bella obviously gravitated toward the Leningrad artists'' group "The New Ones''.which was well-established by the mid-1900s. Primarily the attraction was toward Timur Novikov, a splendid master of interpretation and mystification, manipulating with ease the most varied contexts, and smooth crossing over the boundaries between the metaphysical and conceptual, on the one hand, and the "lower reaches" of conscience, i.e., the corporeal world on the other. Subsequently, Timur focused his attention more on conceptual themes, but at that time he willingly articulated "the corporeal" - all that was fleshy, tactile, and palpable, as for example, in his "Youth with an Oar." I believe this work had a great influence on several artists. Likewise, of course, on Bella.
Going on at the same time was a renewal of interest in Sots-Art, perceived rather as an impulse and not as a model. If Sots - artists de - constructed the most beloved Soviet mytholocisms and visual declarations with the blunt earnestness of children,then it was Bella who first considered the result. With fanatical seriousness they continued their attacks in total disregard of the obvious absurdity of the Soviet ideology picture of the world, while Bella willingly and without qualms takes this fact on faith and begins quite nonchalantly to play with the broken fragments of post¬modernism, who once wrote of history -"that amazing toy."
Thus,Bella re-plays the absurd, situations, the fractured splinters of heroic myths - in her own way of course, and discovers in them a great deal that is both funny and endearing. Indeed, the ears of Soviet citizens ring with the myths of revolutionary history, as when Kerensky supposedly ran around the city in a lady''s dress. However, to imagine it visually as Bella did in "Kerensky", complete to the very last detail - boots, skirt hem, sword and lace trim! It would seem, with compassion, too. As if to say "Go right ahead and run around in a dress, if that''s what you want to do. What is and ridiculous about it? I think it''s rather quaint. " Or to picture a theme as dear to Soviet cinema as the brainy force of a simple sailor.Why not? Only to depict it in the most adoral sense: the sailor halfnaked and looking like a professional wrestler,is both brutish and invincible.Here he is being poked by the prim officer''s moustache, pince-nez,and military decorations ("Crude Son of the People").
Indeed, such historical myths are absurd, and the Dick-and Jane situations instilled into the Soviet conscience are preposterous. But there has been enough said about all that. One cannot continue beating an old horse to death. Would not it be better to poke fun at them instead by turning it into a game of charades? This feminine, perhaps slightly affected version of post-Sots-Art is intriguing while at the same time being a completely logical reaction to the ideological nature of even the most de-ideologized Soviet art. While working with the material of Sots-Art, Bella has acquired a functional understanding of the plastic form, with the conscious inclusion of elements of eclecticism. Likewise, the visual resources are rich and varied.More often than not.one senses the spicy style of the pre-raphaelites,or even art deco. Having learned to reconstruct in a playful key the de-constructed situations of sots-art, Bella has been striving to apply this experience to a totally different direction in art. Socio-historic themes as a subject for interpretation do not interest her as much as historical-sexual themes. If, in her "historical-revolutionary" interpretations, Bella treats her deposed heroes with a quaint sympathy and compassion, then later,in her many versions of"Unequal Marriage" and"Jealous Woman",these feelings are given free reign. From a specialist''s point of view of the surroundings and accessories presentation in her works,Bella would seem to choose canonized themes from"history"quite arbitrarily. These themes, or " positions " in and of themselves are "not elaborated". They may be fundamental, taken "from great literature" or as fleeting as "Lieutenant Rzhevsky''s jokes"(* Rzhevsky Is a famous to this day as the teller ol rude Jokes with sexual overtones).Elaboration of these themes does not seem to interest the artist in the least. With a kind of somnambulistic aloofness, she plunges directly into the emotional content and captured moment of the situation depicted.This moment, as it develops into a series of paintings,takes on more erotic tones. At first glance, the "historical" accessories - dress uniforms and luxurious toilets - seem to indicate a sort of game. However, ultimately they take on a completely different function. In contrast to the ever-increasing areas of exposed skin, they directly enhance the sensual facet of the image.
Throughout the second half of the 1980s, Bella has set about mastering the technique of textile collage. She is evidently attracted not only by the softness,warmth,and feminine nature of the material, but also by its specific compositional qualities.such as the repetitiveness and mirror reflections of images.which serve to" condense" and concentrate the time dimension of the image. Bella prefers a very dense, viscous, and sticky kind of time. For only then does the image acquire vitality and an almost tactile, palpable quality.
In her most recent works, such as "Czarevich" and numerous " Sleepers " , with their unmistakable sexual languor, sensuality, and sweet bliss, Bella seems to be conducting an important experiment. For purity''s sake, all playful and "historical" elements, and even that distracts from the main theme, which is the ultimate embodiment of intimate femininity. The artist is testing herself. Will her images become the metaphors of this feminine world, with its conscious and sub-conscious anxieties, attractions and desires?
In this way a series of male nudes was created in which the figures adopt the voluptuous poses which male artists have always attributed to female models. Thus, through self-identification and self-provocation, Bella is feeling the way toward female identity.
Bella has intuitively chosen a course analogous to that of the Western feminist tradition in art, whose direction was set by Alice Neel in such works as "John Perreault" (1972) and Sylvia Sleigh''s "Imperial Nude" (1975). Considering the Soviet situation, this seem to be an effective means of " breaking the barrier ". In their installations and environments, as well as in their conceptual and narrative works, Russian women artists have fixed and continued to explore the circumstances of women''s lives and fates. Thus, after a gap of several years, they are following, roughly speaking, in the footsteps of Judy Chicago in her" Womanhouse" (1972) and "Dinner Party" (1973). One way or another, the women''s art movement has finally gained a firm foothold in the Soviet Union, and all indications foretell that it will go far.
Dr. Alexander D.Borovsky Head of the Department of Contemporary Art State Russian Museum, Leningrad Translated from Russian by Kathleen Carroll.
* Quoted trom A. B. Zalkin. Revolution and Youth.Moscow, published by the Communist University named for Y. Sverdlov, 1924
"Композиция с двумя девушками"
Белла Матвеева, 1998.
Холст, масло 150х250 см