Women have always had a place in the history of art, particularly Soviet art. Stalin and his successors placed women in all kinds of roles from the political to the domestic, from artistic muse to industrial icon. Most of the perspectives, albeit sensitive and insightful, were male, but a number of women artists also managed to comment upon their gender’s place in Soviet society.
The Museum of Russian Art’s (TMORA) new exhibition “Women in Soviet Art” that opened Saturday, June 15, and runs through November 10, 2013, offers a fine survey of the roles and inspiration women provided to artists working in the Soviet state from the late Stalinist era to the years of Perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev. These 60 paintings by 50 major Soviet artists reveal not only what the exhibition program calls “the diversity of representation of the female protagonist” but also the importance of the “Soviet woman as dynamic cultural icon” during the final four decades of Soviet cultural history.
Women's roles as depicted in Soviet art reflected their place in the male psyche as well as their subservient status within the Soviet state. Geli Korzhev’s “Marusya,” for example, echoes the eroticism of Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” in form and subject matter, but the nude’s recumbent posture exudes the exhaustion Soviet women felt while earning their constitutional right to “rest and leisure.” For every painting that depicts women as war heroes or collectivist Amazons, others like Irina Vitman’s “Shower: Motherhood” return, in Gorbachev’s words, “women to their purely womanly mission” as madonnaesque mothers and nurturers.
Despite the political restrictions placed upon Soviet artists, many like Aleksei and Sergei Tkachev commemorated the real life hardships women endured to keep the Soviet state afloat during World War II and afterwards. And several such as Korzhev’s “Before a Long Journey” depict the vicissitudes of women’s life journeys rendered harsher by the conflicting demands of home, state, and workplace.
If this exhibit has a limitation, it is its relative lack of an iconoclastic female perspective on women’s place in Soviet art and society. State-sponsored artists as a rule were unlikely to criticize the bureaucracy that supplied art scholarships, so ethnic outsiders like Miriam Aslamazyan in her “Carpet Weavers of Armenia” were the likeliest candidates to broach aesthetic rules of form and color. Such lack of rebellion may seem strange to western sensibilities, but preserves Soviet ideology toward art in which the woman’s role was in novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s words, “a self-renouncing martyr for the Russian man.”