Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Night Witches, Soviet Amazons and the Red Venus

“Women in Soviet Art” Exhibition at the Museum of Russian Art (“MORA”), Minneapolis, through November 10, 2013

The MORA has put on another great show of Soviet art, this time centering on feminist and female proletarian themes.  The only museum of its kind in the U.S., MORA is curated by Masha Zavialova, a former top translator in the USSR.  It has the largest collection of Soviet art outside Russia.  This show can lead to a re-evaluation of Soviet art in general – at least to people who completely scoffed at it in the past.  Unlike present bourgeois art, which does not focus on people or work, but perhaps day-glo refrigerators packed in tea leaves, this show does not avoid reality, labor or humanity.

The exhibit is structured on a time-line, from the initial revolutionary period, to art under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev – of women during the war, at work, at play, and also painting – as the show includes Soviet women artists too.  Of particular interest are five great paintings by Gely Korzhev, who was born in 1927 and just died last year.  This is one of them – an activist ironing a banner for a celebration of the October revolution, “On the Eve of the October Holiday.” 

Another Korzhev work, “Adam & Eve,” shows a disabled Russian worker and former soldier waiting for his working wife to decide if he should have his vodka apple – the Russian version of the fall.  Another smacks of the grotesques of Goya – ugly Russian politicians gather under the dissected body of a female Russia, though this ‘mother’ Russia still dominates the picture. In another, the paint takes on the feel of the rough skin of an elderly Soviet solider and his daughter.  In another, the working-class “Red Venus” is revealed – head scarf and boots, naked.  (More of his work here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfXHH84GV4c)

These monumental canvases capture Soviet women – Russian, Armenian, Uzbek – working as loggers, machinists, road workers, plasterers and painters, engineers, child-care workers, military pilots, astronauts, fishmongers, human plow animals, soldiers, young girls and students.  Two depict giant women wielding log spikes, aptly called ‘Soviet Amazons” by Zavialova.  One, Razdrogin’s “Worker,” done in 1970, shows a somber young woman in front of a wall of fish – wearing the same white uniform and wings as the headless white fish behind her.  Anyone who has read “The Jungle” will see the symbolism here.  (“The Jungle,” reviewed below.) Other paintings are of the 'Night Witches’ – young Soviet women pilots who flew bi-planes at night over Nazi lines to drop bombs, sometimes 10 sorties a night – with just maps, no radar, no high speeds, just guts.  There are also lighter pictures of private families at the beach, nervous schoolgirls frolicking in the snow in Moscow or reading by a window or listening to the words of their grandmother.  The pictures show women not to just be ‘workers’ but to also have a personal, private side – even at work.  Of course, work is not as glamorous in real life as it is in a painting – it is much harder, dirtier and more dangerous.  Though NOT being pictured at all is hardly an improvement – yet that is the tack bourgeois and petit-bourgeois artists take.   The working classes in capitalist countries are truly the invisible men and women.  This art, at least, makes them 'present.'

The text, written by Zavialova, is a mini-history of Russia, explaining the role of women in the USSR. (See also “Soviet Women – Walking The Tightrope,” reviewed below.)  In 1917 the new Soviet Constitution allowed the vote, divorce, abortion, the right of women to work, to education, to be in the military – in effect a complete ERA - an ERA that does not yet exist even in the U.S.  It details the efforts of Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai in setting up communal crèches, kitchens and laundries.  These steps led to a doubling of female life expectancy and 90% reduction in child mortality. 

The texts also detail the work of the “Zhenotdel” – the womens' section of the Communist Party.  Elected women went to work-sites, hospitals, schools and other institutions and weighed in on issues from a working-class feminist point of view.

The text details the later backwards steps taken by Stalin, who declared the womens' question ‘solved.’  The state began sending women back to the kitchen and home, reintroducing sex segregation, banning abortion - a sort of Soviet Victorianism.  Pictures of working women were less and less frequent.  Yet women had to flood into the workforce, partly because so many men died during the Civil War and especially during and after World War II.  Eventually, at a certain point in the ‘50s, 100% of new workers were women, and with it, more depictions of women workers as someone worthwhile.  However, this new-found freedom carried a cost for women: working both at home and at work, the double-shift.  Exhaustion, anger, alcoholism and unhappiness came in its wake.  This caused the first Soviet feminists to begin to organize in 1979.  Later, the great ‘liberal’ Gorbachev was quoted as saying that the ‘excesses’ of womens' liberation in the USSR had to be corrected, and so the USSR should ‘return women to their womanly mission.' Perhaps he was anticipating bourgeois restoration.

The exhibit is especially interesting because it includes more than paintings.  There are displays of Constructivist and other fabrics, original Russian feminist Samizdat printings on onion paper, posters about ending “Kitchen Slavery” commissioned by Kollontai, the first and very popular color Soviet cookbook, Constructivist wallpaper, the legend of Baba Yaga, photos of female Soviet self defense units, even a rather bad bust of Angela Davis in wood!

Putting this art next to desiccated American ‘post-modernism’ is instructive.  One speaks to and of the majority of people in the country.  The other ignores them.

Red Frog
July 16, 2013
I visited the MORA on Bastille Day, a celebration of the victory of the French People over monarchy, the church and the army.