Interview with Mara Traumane on her research in Lativa

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?

Many researchers have already noted the discrepancy between the theory and practice of what was considered “gender equality” in the Soviet Union. In reviewing the situation in Latvia two seemingly contradictory features should be acknowledged. On the one hand, we find the continuation of the rules of patriarchal society inherited from the First Republic (1918-1940) where, despite strong emancipatory tendencies in society, the romanticism-inspired nationalist state ideology of the authoritarian period (1934-1940) was promoting the active achievements of men and the passive and the loving support of women in building national wealth and family. On the other hand, during the Soviet period from the 1970s onward, some women artists (Džemma Skulme, Maija Tabaka) were highly visible and occasionally occupied roles of influence within the cultural establishment.

Critical examination of this period reveals how the traditional acceptance of the above-mentioned contradiction: a society with a patriarchal structure in which some women were granted “iconic” status has contributed to the more recent lack of examination of the art field through the lens of feminism and gender studies, giving rise to the oft-repeated affirmation that traditionally “skirts are not an issue” in Latvian art. (1)

In visual art during the second half of the 1990s (around 1997) a younger generation of artists took a conscious approach to addressing themes of gender and identity as cultural constructs. Artists like Izolde Cēsniece, Arnis Balčus, and the LN Women’s League employed the medium of photography and emerging Internet platforms to draw attention to the issues of feminism or gender identity. LN Women’s League should be noted for bringing the issues of feminism to the fore in art and in media discussions, and for attempting to question the relevance of Western feminist theory for Latvian women, proposing instead their own program of what they’ve labeled as feminine “weakness management.” Since 2000, despite the presence of projects with a focus on feminism and bringing women artists together (organized by the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art), there has been little direct engagement with gender issues by artists.

In your research you oppose a thesis-which is particularly widespread in Russian literature-that views socialism in terms of an “androgynous and genderless” society. Would you elaborate on that?

It was interesting to note the frequent “gender separation” in artworks of the 1960s. For instance, in the subjects and themes of figurative works (social realist and Severe Style paintings and documentary films dedicated to Soviet workers) men and women are often portrayed separately on canvas and in film-sequences despite the official declaration of equality between the sexes and male and female worlds. This happens most frequently where it is possible to read the works from a gender point of view. For instance, whereas women are depicted working in a textile factory or awaiting their men returning from sea, men are grouped separately as steel factory workers, construction workers, partisans, or Red Riflemen.(2)

I would like to argue that this pattern of separating the spheres of “men” and “women,” their respective psychologies, and tasks remains present in the narrative of figurative works through the late 1980s. As researcher Aivita Putniņa notes gender in Latvia is viewed as separate but “complementary.”(3) Gender “interaction” is rarely the subject of paintings and diminishes even more during the 1970s-a period centered on the individual and a retreat into the “private sphere.” An exception to this is the interplay between the sexes portrayed in theatrical performances (Andris Grīnbergs, Inta Grīnberga) and represented in photography (Māra Brašmane) by “unofficial” artists inspired by the ideals of the Hippie era and European cinema. In this light the accepted “egalitarian” reading of Latvian art appears to be an enduring myth and construct. It’s also not really possible to speak of an “androgynous” or “genderless” society. While what we see is only a very limited and restricted interaction between the sexes, often asexuality, it articulates at the same time a specific vision of identity. Interestingly, in my view, this is especially the case in painting where the subject matter chosen by the artist (for instance, groups of female or male workers, the depiction of motherhood, or images of woman) often points to the artist’s own gender.

In the West, the painting “boom” and resurrection of the art market in the 1980s was primarily marked by the presence of male artists. In contrast, in Latvia (as well as in Croatia), many women painters brought about the “return to painting.” Could you elaborate on this phenomenon?

Since the 1960s the presence of women artists in the Latvian art scene, and in painting, has grown steadily. The early 1980s were marked by an active younger generation of women painters (Dace Lielā, Frančeska Kirke, Sandra Krastiņa, Leva Iltnere, and Aija Zariņa). Symptomatically, this “stepping in” is always described as a group phenomena, and certainly stands in contrast to the male “great masters” scene of the 1960s. Still, to speak of the “young” generation and a “group phenomena” suggests that these (women) artists did not yet threaten the institutional positions of their male colleagues. Their visibility coincides with several factors: the dissolution of the Soc-Realist canon in the “associative pictorialism,”(4) an increased number of female students at the art academy, and the growing role of women in the cultural elite. It also coincides with the new “postmodern” paradigm in figurative painting: individual, but abstract narratives, articulation of sexuality, self-reference, pastiche, and carnival-esque shifts in time and space. The most challenging works were paintings by Helēna Heinrihsone and Aija Zariņa that broached the “new” themes-not only related to female sensitivity but also sexuality. Interestingly, some art historians (Aleksis Osmanis) talk here about the general “feminization” of Latvian painting, tracing this tendency to the generation of the 1960s, associating it with a certain kind of “post-modern” decadence and describing it as “decoratively sentimental and ornamentally garrulous.”(5) In my view, these works, as well as how they are viewed, continue to powerfully represent the separation of male and female domains in works of Latvian art. Sometimes the language of contemporary art criticism also reflects the late-Soviet “gender-crisis” in the discourse about the “feminization of man” and the “masculinization of woman.”(6)


(1) A paraphrase of the chapter title (“Skirts: Not an Issue”) of an article devoted to the role of women artists in the art of the socialist period, from: Mark Allen Svede, “Many Easels, Some Abandoned,” in Art of the Baltics, ed. Alla Rosenfeld, Norton T. Dodge (Piscataway/NJ: Rutgers University, 2002), p. 185-274, here: p. 241.

(2) Latvian miltary units, formed in 1915, from 1917 largely on the side of the Bolsheviki. [editor’s note]

(3) Aivita Putniņa, “We Aren’t Feminists?” in Archaeology of Reality, ed. Solvita Krese, Agnese Luse, (Riga: Latvian Center for Contemporary Art, 2006), p. 51.

(4) In certain ways this is a euphemism for the word to be avoided “Surrealism.” See on this Svede, pp. 228 ff. [editor’s note]

(5) Aleksis Osmanis, “Ideology of Power and Transformations in Latvian Painting,” in Painting. Witnesses of an Age, ed. Inese Baranskova, Sandra Krastina (Riga: Latvian Artist’s Union, 2002).

(6) Bankovskis Pēteris, “Die Frauenfrage,” in RIGA: Lettische Avantgarde, ed. Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1988), 19-22.

Mara Traumane, Research Latvia

Mara Traumane is a researcher, art critic and curator working in Berlin and Riga. Her main research focus is contemporary art and neo avant-garde in Eastern Europe. She is currently writing her PhD on “Interdisciplinary art collectives in Riga and Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s,” and is editing an anthology of the Latvian artists group Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings (NSRD). In summer 2008 she conducted the Latvian research for Gender Check, and is currently assisting curator Bojana Pejić with research on the project.