Interview mit Martina Pachmanová on her research in Czech Republic
In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?
In terms of women’s emancipation, since the end of the nineteenth century, Czech society belonged to the most progressive and liberal societies in Europe. By 1919, a year after the founding of Czechoslovakia (and the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), women had gained the right to vote. In the period between the World Wars, since Czech society had no significant ties to the Church and was relatively egalitarian, Czech women were not as strongly dominated by traditional patriarchal rules as in other parts of Europe. However, after the communist coup in 1948, the new political apparatus suppressed the feminist movement declaring it as a bourgeois anachronism-an obstacle to building a classless communist society. In order to create the semblance of female political representation, the Communist Party, in a sophisticated stroke, founded the Socialist Union of Women. The union’s members, however, only blindly followed the totalitarian practices of the Czechoslovakian government. Although women were guaranteed the right to work, and the socialist state provided a system of nurseries and kindergartens, women rarely attained high positions within the professional ranks; despite the popularity of 1950s socialist-realist imagery depicting female tractor-drivers, welders, etc., in reality women continued to occupy traditional “feminine” labor categories (secretaries, nurses, preschool- and elementary-school teachers, etc.). And women typically still had to bear the burden of family and domestic responsibilities. Thus traditional gender-based divisions of labor as well as public and private spheres remained relatively unchallenged. (Also, let’s not overlook the fact that state-guaranteed pre-school education and care, admired so much by Western women during the Cold War, was pervaded by communist indoctrination; it may have freed up women to work but it also deprived their children of the freedom to think and act independently.) What’s more, the traditional gender stratification of society was not only maintained by the official structures. The patriarchal gender “order” remained intact even among non-official-dissident, underground, or anti-establishment-circles allied against the regime, metaphorically speaking, as “one man.” Even women who were involved in various illegal groups did not question the inequality between genders; for them the biggest enemy was totalitarian ideology that oppressed women and men alike and which was therefore considered genderless.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czech society did not undergo a radical return to conservatism that would have impacted the gender agenda. Nevertheless, gender issues and feminism were either ignored or approached with distrust or even hostility (a popular opinion was that such an agenda wasn’t needed since Czech women were already emancipated enough). As a consequence transgressing traditional gender patterns on both socio-political and cultural levels was extremely difficult. And yet, the new generation of Czech artists who entered the scene during the first half of the 1990s included an unprecedented number of women that were interested in gender issues, mainly with regard to body politics and sexuality. Although very few of them admitted any link to feminism, their work started to subvert many gender clichés present in visual representation (including popular culture and advertising) and radically explored hitherto taboo issues of female sexuality and desire.
Compared to other Eastern Bloc countries, Czech art of the late 1960s and 1970s shows a conceptually and formally advanced language of assemblage (Běla Kolářová), sculpture (Eva Kmentová, Adriena Šimotová) and performance (Zorka Ságlová). What was the relationship between the gender-sensitive works of women artists and the contemporaneous local and Western feminist ideas? In your report you mentioned that Eva Kmentová’s attention to feminine experience coincided with the translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième sexe into Czech.
If any link existed between Czech women artists of this period and Western feminism it was a latent one. With the exception of Simone de Beauvoir, whose work was translated into Czech and discussed mainly because of her relationship to French existentialism admired by Czech intellectuals, knowledge about Western feminism was very limited-not only was it obstructed by the Iron Curtain but also by a prevailing disinterest in feminism among Czech women artists and intellectuals. Therefore if it is possible to trace a number of “gender-sensitive” art works by the above-mentioned Czech women artists and many others of their generation, this has less to do with their conscious political emancipation than it does with their growing reservations toward the dominancy of the canon of modernism. The critique of modernist universalism-albeit hardly defined in such an explicit way-allowed them to reflect on both their bodily as well as psychic experiences of the external and inner world; that this “embodied” experience also brought out a more feminine character in their work comes as no surprise.
During the 1990s it seems that contemporary art attracted a great deal of attention from researchers. Has the art produced by women artists of the 1960s and 1970s been examined lately via the methodologies of feminism and gender studies?
Unfortunately these methodologies are only rarely applied to the visual art of older periods, including the 1960s and 70s. It seems to me that this missing historical dimension is the primary factor preventing gender and feminist discourse in art in Eastern Europe from being as complex as it should be. Moreover, the dominance of the gender agenda in contemporary art, and the resulting deficit of examining older art history from a gender(ed) perspective, makes the issue more superficial and thus more likely to be ignored as redundant or even ridiculed as trendy.
Martina Pachmanová, Research Czech Republic
Martina Pachmanová is an art historian, independent curator, and writer. She is Assistant Professor at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, Czech Republic. Over the last ten years, she has curated more than twenty exhibitions. Her essays and articles on modern and contemporary art, many of them dealing with issues of gender, sexual politics and feminism, have been published in periodicals and exhibition catalogues in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She is the author of several books: Mobile Fidelities: Conversations on Feminism, History, and Visuality (Prague 2001, English version: www.ukonline.co.uk/n.paradoxa), Invisible Woman: Anthology of Contemporary Texts on Feminism, History, and Visual Culture in the U.S. (Prague 2002), Unknown Territories of Czech Modern Art: Through the Looking Glass of Gender (Prague 2004), and a monograph on a forgotten Czech female modernist Milada Marešová: Painter of New Objectivity (Prague, Brno 2008). Last year, she co-edited the book Artemis and Dr. Faust: Women in Czech and Slovak Art History (together with Milena Bartlová; Prague 2008).