Female nude in Soviet-era art: hidden eroticism, politicized gesture or protofeminist image?

Katrin Kivimaa

The aim of the article is to study the use of the female nude in examples drawn from the unofficial art and visual culture created in the Soviet cultural space in the 1970-80s. Using examples from Estonian, Latvian and Russian art, the article asks what gendered images are being produced in the artistically innovative and/or socially radical avant-garde art produced in the late-Soviet period and what their relationship is with both Soviet and Western gender ideology. Our art-historical memory carries a deeply entrenched belief that the use of the female nude was hindered in Soviet-era art both by official sanctions on art and wider public morals. Restrictions and opportunities were different, depending on the era, the medium or artistic language used and whether the approach followed official norms. However, the control of the images of the naked body was one of the main reasons why the female nude came to be associated with the free expression of the artist and the democratization of visual culture. The use of the nude genre as a symbol of resistance proved to be a different practice for female and male artists. When we look at the late-Soviet avant-garde art or art photography, we can see the dominance of the male gaze in the processes of the representation of and looking at the female nude. If the dominant meaning of the (erotic) female nude as an expression of artistic freedom was constructed by male artists and photographers, what options did it leave to women artists? In the 1970s and 1980s we can speak about the emergence of the so-called feminine figurative language, which for example in Estonian art was most notable in the work of women graphic artists. One of the examples of this approach is Marju Mutsu, whose work focused on the formation of female identity in relation to the people and events surrounding her. The use of the female nude in Mutsu’s work stresses the erotic-bodily being of the woman and hints at lesbian sexuality. Innovations in avant-garde art (performance, happening, use of photography) led to the use of the artists body as a medium of art. While independent women performance and body artists emerged in many socialist countries (Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary), nothing of the kind happened in the Soviet Union. This can be explained by more strict social and artistic rules, as well as the internal gender relations of the avant-garde circles. However, there are numerous examples in the history of Russian, Latvian and Estonian late-Soviet avant-garde of the radicalization of the female artist in co-operation with a male partner in life and art. In Estonian art, one of the exciting examples in which the female artist was the one to take the first step, is a pair of nude autobiographic images by Sirje Runge and Leonhard Lapin. The analysis of the work allows us to shed light on not only the importance of the artists biography but also on the link between the social circumstances and gender ideology on the one hand and the act of creating a work of art and its later reception on the other.