Inteview with Laima Kreivytė on her research in Lithuania

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?

Gender representation in the Lithuanian art of the socialist period (especially after World War II) was shaped by the requirements of socialist realism. The most important genre of the time was so-called “theme painting,” which served as a means of disseminating Soviet ideology. In these paintings men and women were represented as groups of strong, “gender-blind” people devoted to new ideas. Women were shown together with men, or separately, enjoying “masculine” activities (women workers, combatants, sportswomen, doctors, artists, etc.).

However, gender equality was implemented only superficially while deeper social and artistic structures of the old patriarchal system remain unchanged. In the interwar period, images of the mother (symbolizing motherland, suffering, victory, memory, and family) and young girls, often portrayed in national costumes (symbolizing freedom, future, innocence, and devotion) continued the traditions of the neoclassical canon and Lithuanian folk art (sculptures by Juozas Mikėnas, paintings by Antanas Gudaitis, Vytautas Mackevicius, and Augustinas Savickas). This was even more evident in sculpture. Soviet ideology replaced national and religious values but hadn’t changed the traditional gender roles and hierarchical structure of society. Socialist realism’s short definition: “National in form, international in content,” meant that Soviet women dressed in national costumes obeyed (patriarchal) orders, and repressed their personalities for the sake of male-imposed collective ideals.

In the 1960s gender equality was understood as unity of the sexes. Prominent women artists were rare. Sofija Veiverytė painted group portraits of workers, film actors, architects, swordsmen, and doctors. She portrayed men as professionals in positions of power and women as poetic incarnations of beauty. Galina Petrova focused more on female representations, for instance Oarswomen at the Waterfront depicts strong athletic women in swimming costumes. Marija Teresė Rozanskaitė was among the first artists to introduce assemblage to Lithuanian art. Her assemblages were composed not by adding things to the surface, but by opening up the inner spaces of the picture.

In the 1970s, the idealized image of the woman (mother, wife, worker, or muse) was replaced by the ironic one of “ordinary women” carrying out trivial activities-eating sausage, vomiting, carrying garbage, or sitting on public toilets (in works by male painters Kostas Dereškevičius, Arvydas Šaltenis, and Algimantas Kuras). This trend was described as de-heroization, but contemporary art historians also point out traces of misogyny and fetishism.

In the 1980s the figure of the woman became a kitschy-surreal projection of male frustration and anxiety (in paintings by Mindaugas Skudutis, Raimundas Sližys, and Šarūnas Sauka). Gender representations became more flexible and complex-femininity and masculinity were depicted as a masquerade.

In the 1990s a new generation of artists began to question traditional gender patterns from a feminist point of view. Gender issues became an object of critical investigation. Karla Gruodis, Eglė Rakauskaitė, and Jurga Barilaitė, addressed the female body and experiences in their performances and video works. Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas investigated female roles and the victim-syndrome in numerous ways in their project Transaction (2000).

Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less-known subjects of local histories. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?

In Soviet-era art magazines (especially Dailė, the art review published by the Lithuanian Artists’ Association from 1960 onwards) women artists were featured almost as frequently as men. However, only very few women artists were accorded similar recognition later on. The patriarchal canon implies that artistic traditions are passed down from one great male artist to another. Art and state institutions still support this invisible gender hierarchy. In the 16 years between 1989 and 2005, the National Award for Culture and Art was awarded to 110 men and only 17 women.

Your research illustrates how Soviet-era Lithuanian art was dominated by a generalized representation of women, i.e. women as the ideological, religious, poetic, or psychological symbol in contrast to the specified image of the-usually male-author. Could you address the importance of photography in revealing issues of gender and sexuality in Lithuanian art? How were these works received and in which contexts did they appear?

Since the 1960s photography has made a tremendous impact on Lithuanian art. But it was only recognized during the last two decades of the twentieth century as an equally important part of contemporary art and culture. Before the 1990s only a single female photographer used her own naked body as the subject of her photographs. Violeta Bubelytė photographed herself from different angles, carefully determining light and distance. In the context of the flourishing tendency of her male colleagues to photograph female nudes in natural environments-emphasizing the symbolic and metaphoric unity of forms (and suggesting the consumption of the female body as an erotic object)-Bubelytė’s photographs represented a conscious detachment from the desiring male gaze.

Whereas Bubelytė turned the camera on herself, Snieguolė Michelkevičiūtė confronted the objectifying male gaze by choosing the naked man as the subject of her photographs. This approach represents not only a reversal of the viewer’s position, it also re-articulates the classical genre of the male nude. The photographer focuses her attention on aging and unbeautified bodies. When photographs from this series were shown at the 1996 exhibition Bread and Salt (Contemporary Art Center, Vilnius) the public reacted disapprovingly; the subversion of stereotypical, “normative” masculinity was still too difficult to handle.

During Soviet times homosexuality was considered a crime, therefore it is difficult to find explicit examples of a queer gaze or experience. Virginijus Šonta is perhaps the only photographer who dared to reveal his admiration for the male body and sense of alienation toward-or indifference to-the female one (In the Studio, 1992, Evening Presentiment, 1990). Nevertheless, the homoerotic aspects of his works have not been discussed publicly.

Laima Kreivytė, Research Lithuania

An art critic and curator based in Vilnius, Laima Kreivytė, born in 1972, lectures at the Vilnius Academy of Arts and the Gender Studies Centre of Vilnius University. From 1999 to 2000 she attended the PhD support programme in Gender and Culture at the Central European University of Budapest. From 1997 to 2007 she was an editor of the visual arts section of the cultural weekly 7 meno dienos (7 Days of Art). The exhibitions she has curated include Baltic Mythologies, III. Prague Biennale (together with Luigi Fassi, 2007), 1907:2007. Private Conversations (2007), and Suspended E-motion: Contemporary Finnish Art (2006). Laima has published various articles on art and visual culture.