Interview with Katrin Kivimaa on her research in Estonia

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?

Throughout the Soviet era, the Estonian art world cherished the idea of so-called “pure” art that was inherited from the artistic ideas of the interwar period and was reinforced by contemporary Western modernist criticism. After the decline of socialist realism, which was governed by strict ideological precepts, any deviation from this norm was perceived as a “breath of freedom” and, in terms of gender representations, included anything that countered the Soviet imagery of women. The continued liberation of artistic practices relied, foremost, on the national traditions of art that had developed during the interwar period of the republic-e.g. on the preference for the female nude genre, or the popularity of portraits of intellectuals and artists, which also included many women. The portraits of (Soviet) Estonian intelligentsia fit both Soviet and nationalist perspectives and, in the case of women’s portraits, represented women as active participants in the creation of national culture. The use of the naked body became one area of transgression. During the 1970s and 1980s, the re-feminization of women’s art was another visible trend that produced some obviously transgressive works but mostly tended to reinforce the idea of a separate women’s realm.

It is important to remember that while the Baltic states were famous for high numbers of women artists and intellectuals, the presence of many women in the art world was sometimes perceived as potentially harmful: it threatened to lead to the “feminization” of art. At the same time, the existing hierarchies of “feminine” art, established during the first republic (1918-1940), were never truly challenged. So-called feminine arts-such as the applied arts, graphic arts, or watercolor painting-were found to be more “appropriate” for women and the high numbers of women artists were due to their engagement with these particular practices. Quite understandably, most women artists themselves sought to locate their practice within the modernist frame of a presumably gender-neutral, universal artistic idiom and rejected the idea of a separate sphere of “feminine” art.

In your research report you problematize the “dialectics” of gender representation in official and oppositional art in Soviet Estonia. You also point out “the gap between official and semi-official discourses on gender” where “the most interesting visualizations of identity and sexuality emerge.” Could you briefly address this topic and point out exemplary artistic practices?

What I intended was to draw attention to the differences in the representation of gender that emerge when we look at the artistic practices that were mainly in conformity with the official Soviet morality code and requirements of the official art doctrine, on the one hand, and avant-garde practices, on the other. Since the 1960s, a whole array of practices emerged that dealt more explicitly with issues of sexuality, bodily identity, and politics of representation: some of those were publicly displayed, although most radical examples of performance and happening were only known in closed artistic circles. When dealing with eroticism, these practices adopted most readily the imagery of earlier Western avant-garde art, thus reproducing gender hierarchies and reconfirming the space of artistic radicalism as predominantly masculine. In official exhibitions, the genre of the female nude-denoting Art (or private identity) in painting and decorative sculpture, widely used by both male and female artists-was treated as a counter-balance to the official requirements designated most visibly by the body of the Soviet woman. I will also discuss the multiple meanings of the female nude in non-conformist or avant-garde art in Soviet Estonia in the catalog article.

Could you sketch out the emergence of the gender debates in Estonia in the 1990s?

Feminist issues entered the Estonian art scene only in the early 1990s: in 1991 several Estonian art and architectural historians were invited to participate in a feminist conference in Alborg organized by Nordic countries. According to art historian and curator Reet Varblane, this was for her an inspiration to engage with feminist art history and curatorship, which lead to a 1994 exhibition Code-Ex (co-curated with Ando Keskküla). The next important step was the 1995 exhibition EST.FEM, the first Estonian feminist exhibition, curated by Eha Komissarov, Reet Varblane and Mare Tralla. This exhibition displayed the entire range of interpretations of what feminism in art might be: although many artists continued to work within an essentialist understanding of female biology, psychology, and so-called women’s concerns, others started to question stereotypical constructions of gender and introduced representations of gay and lesbian identities into contemporary Estonian art. I should emphasize, however, that explicit gay and lesbian representations have hardly figured in contemporary Estonian art, and their absence reflects the marginalization of gay and lesbian issues in public debates as well. In the mid-1990s, a younger generation of textile and photo artists also emerged who engaged with issues of feminine identity and desire in a more complex manner than the Soviet-era withdrawal into the feminine private sphere.

The development of Estonian feminist-or post-feminist as it is sometimes called-art has, from the very beginning, been characterized by transdisciplinary and transnational undertakings: one of the few feminist exhibitions, also accompanied by a publication, was Private Views (1998); exhibitions and debates organized in collaboration with NGOs and the Ministry of Social Affairs have also taken place; cyberfeminist positions are being pursued in international networks and meetings, etc. Recently, however, the project of building up a feminist approach in art has been criticized for its mono-ethnic bias in failing to address the double-marginalization of women from non-ethnic Estonian communities. In the essay for the Estonian project at the 2009 Venice Biennale, cultural theorist Airi Triisberg claimed that, in this respect, feminist art did not differ from “the concatenation of contemporary art and nationalist ideology” prevalent in the 1990s-and I would agree with her that most attempts to introduce feminist viewpoints were dressed in an ethnic-national garb. On the other hand, feminist theory and praxis were among the first areas where the dominant nationalist ideology, as well as its representative and performative practices, were critically examined and questioned, even if this critical questioning took place from within the mono-ethnic nation space.


Katrin Kivimaa, Research Estonia

Now head of the Institute of Art History and acting professor of Art History at the Estonian Academy of Arts, Katrin Kivimaa received her PhD in Art History from the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She also holds an MPhil in Gender Studies from the Program on Gender and Culture of the Central European University in Budapest and the Open University, UK (1997-1999). Her research focuses on Estonian 20th century and contemporary art, feminist art history, nationalism and art, visual culture. She has written extensively about women’s and feminist art in Estonia and is co-editor of a collection of Estonian translations of key texts of feminist art history. Her latest book deals with representations of national and modern femininities in Estonian 19th and 20th century art (Tartu University Press, 2009). Other edited publications include: So Communication: Translating Each Other’s Words (together with Clare Charnley, 2007) and Opening Acts: New Media and Art in Estonia / Avalöök: uus meedia ja kunsti Eestis (2004).