Interview with Lilia Dragneva on her research in Moldova
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?
The formation of USSR was de facto based on a quasi-religious, communal social structure in which Moldova was just a piece in a puzzle. Women were represented as sterile characters, dressed in national costumes-an “imperial” indulgency promoting the “national values and identity” of limitrophe countries. Always a divided territory, Moldova couldn’t produce a strong artistic mainstream or even “mature” personalities capable of confronting the regime(s). The sterile gender archetype (both male and female) is present in the pre-war, inter-war, as well as post-war periods. Even the years of the “Khrushchev Thaw” didn’t bring any essential changes, however, slight transformations did appear at that time. The generation of Moldovan artists, among them Mihai Grecu, Valentina Rusu-Ciobanu, Glebus Sainciuc, Igor Vieru, Ada Zevin, Alexandra Picunov and others, managed to substantially emancipate the style, technique and subject matter of their works. From a chronological point of view this emancipation coincided with the emergence of the so-called Severe Style in the former USSR, which, within the limits of realism, was a reaction to the dogmatic Stalinist academism of the1940s and 1950s. Gradually, a generation of painters for whom the values of popular art held common significance consolidated, seeing in it an opposition to an increasingly evident denationalisation.
This proliferation of so-called “national art” was sustained by the local leaders of the art scene on the premise that art must be “national in form, socialist in content and international in character” (which is the legacy of Stalinist cultural policy). These convictions were controversial. The authorities knew how to “speculate” perfidiously and intelligently with the endeavors of a part of the intellectuals, anchoring them in the machinery of falsified “specificity” in each national republic.
A new group of visual artists experimenting with colour was founded at the beginning of the 1980s. Its members were Maia Cheptănaru-Serbinov, Inessa Ţâpina, Elena Bontea, Ada Zevin, Ludmila Ţoncev and Valentina Bahcevan among others. Representatives of this list of women artists, authors of a distinctive Basarabian color chromatism, formulated issues that deviated from ideological engagement, instead they constituted a model of new free-thinking based on a distinct stylistic and formal system.
Perestroika famously started with street marches and gatherings, calling for democracy and national independence. It ultimately lead to new democratic elections, a national language, a new flag, new symbols, raging wars, all leading up to the present-day political and economic chaos, corruption, huge social disparities and total disappointment in what is commonly called the “transition period.” Visual arts during the perestroika followed almost the same pattern: at first there were scandalous exhibitions, and then the artists began to splinter into groups and organize events. Defying an inheritance of traditional and historic conservatism, largely a legacy of the “traditions” of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova, the local artistic community in this isolated area has tested almost all contemporary artistic tools during the last twenty years-from street actions to digital media.
Acting as an implant, Moldovan contemporary art was an unconscious imitation of Western standards. “Artificially created” and stimulated by the Center for Contemporary Art in Chişnău, which was working within the framework of the Soros Foundation that was established in 1996, this new generation of artists focused mainly on new appropriated forms, rather than on theoretical discourse and self-positioning in a geo-socio-political context.
You mentioned changes in the representation of gender and sexuality in the Soviet Moldovan cinema. If in the 1960s image of woman – a worker, teacher, constructor, a suffering character was stripped of the sexuality then in the 1970s strong lyrical and sexual women characters enter filmic narrative. Could you describe these changes in iconography and subject matter?
An interesting topic is how issues of gender and sexuality were played out in Moldovan cinema. As in fine arts and literature, the female character is depicted as suffering and usually alone, waiting for a husband or son, who may have either left or died, moreover, femininity and female sexuality are erased leaving the figure absolutely sterile. She usually plays the role of a factory worker, a teacher or a constructor.
One of the basic tasks of cinematic mythmaking in the 1960s was the creation of a new humanistic myth about war, as well as country life versus urban life, focusing more on folkloristic themes, ceremonies and traditions. All destined to replace the imperial Stalinist myth. “Finally, one more important correction to the genre of melodrama in [Moldovan] Soviet cinema, although not directly related to historical cataclysms, took place in the 1960s-1970s, with the arrival of the period off ‘Stagnation.’ First the auteur film, and then mass cinema of these years, changed the gender dominant of the melodrama. The films of this period, [as] Mikhail Kalik’s Love (Liubov’, 1970) …, dethrone with logical consistency the figure of the man. The man turns out time and again to be unworthy of love. Love perishes as a result of his social non-viability in the sense that the man does not dare to make responsible decisions and shows himself to be a greater conformist than does the woman.”(1) Two films produced in the mid-1960s could serve as examples for a détournement in female “vocations”: Emil Loteanu’s Red Meadows (Poienile roşii, 1966) and Gheorghe Vodă’s Facing Love Alone (Singur în faţa dragostei, 1969). The first one is a romantic movie of rare poetic beauty in terms of the atmosphere created around the characters. In the second case we have a film which mirrors the realities of the Moldovan village from the 1960s. It shows the best parts of it: the landscapes, the fens in southern Moldova, which no longer exist today, as well as the house of a country intellectual, who played an important role in preserving a healthy morality. In both cases there is a “revolution” in the persona of the woman. Instead of a sterile, neutral, asexual “worker” we have two absolute opposites to the “established stereotypes”: beautiful, feminine, and sexual. They are played by the actress Maria Sagaidac in Facing Love Alone, and the actress Svetlana Toma in Red Meadows.
(1) Mikhail Trofimenkov, “Origin of the Species: Post-Soviet Melodrama,” KinoKultura 17 (2007). See http://www.kinokultura.com/2007/17-trofimenkov.shtml
Lilia Dragneva, Research Moldova
Lilia Dragneva was born in 1975 and studied Art and Fashion Design at the State University of Arts, Chişinău, Republic of Moldova. Since 1995 she has been working as an independent artist and curator. In 1999 she started her MA studies in Contemporary Arts in the Art History Department of the Academy of Science, Republic of Moldova. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions. Since 1999 Lilia has been heading the Center of Contemporary Art [ksa:k] in Chişinău and, since 2004, she has been curating the ALTE ARTE TV Programme project developed in collaboration with relations.