Strong, productive, capable women were the ideal in Soviet-era art.
There are no “babes” in Soviet art, says Dr. Masha Zavialova, a curator at The Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis. She would know. As she put together TMORA’s latest exhibition, Women in Soviet Art, Zavialova spent a lot of time looking at how women are represented in Soviet-era paintings.
“Women were not turned into objects of the male gaze but rather the gaze of the state,” says Zavialova. They were portrayed as strong, powerful workers, she says, even if they didn’t always embrace the role wholeheartedly. The exhibition features approximately 60 large-scale paintings from the late Stalinist period through the fall of the Soviet Union.
“In the early Soviet era, women’s rights was way ahead of its time,” says Zavialova. Equality for women had been a radical feature of the Soviet Constitution of 1918. But by the mid-1930s, with birth rates falling, Stalin was pushing for a return to the traditional family. The freedoms gained in the early Soviet era were increasingly tempered by retrograde social expectations. A typical rendering of a family scene—father and son playing chess, daughter watching, mother cleaning dishes—might look like a scene from 1950s America, says Zavialova, yet almost all women at the time were involved in production work outside the home. “The situation was more akin to that of African American women of that period,” she says. “Soviet women wanted less work, not more.”
The feminine ideal began to recede after Stalin’s death, when powerfully built goddesses of the industrial workforce—construction workers, factory workers, loggers—re-emerged in realistic, impressionistic, and conceptual styles. By the late 1980s, where Women in Soviet Art leaves off, sentiment had begun to shift in a different direction. Some artists began to question the strong worker ideal just as women themselves began questioning whether they wanted to be depicted as goddesses—or just women. Through November 11. The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave. S., Mpls., 612-821-9045, tmora.org