The Logger — Konstantin P. Frolov, 1958 — Image via tmora.org

Women in Soviet Art

The Museum of Russian Art

Although avant-garde art flourished in the early, revolutionary days of the Soviet Union, by the end of Stalin’s reign in the 1950s, the boundaries of the acceptable had narrowed considerably. From this point on, until the collapse of the Soviet state, paintings were expected to be not only figurative but also “realistic” — that is to say, conforming to a publicly acknowledged version of reality. The Museum of Russian Art’s current exhibit, Women in Soviet Art, focuses on these last four decades of Soviet history, revealing subtle shifts in how the reality of women’s lives could be acknowledged by painters working within the officially recognized art world.

Most of the paintings in the exhibit portray women performing various forms of labor (in the home, the factory, the fields, etc.), emphasizing their pivotal role in the Soviet economy. Some of the most striking images on display, though, are exceptions to this general rule. Aleksei P. and Sergei P. Tkachev’s Evening (1955) depicts a woman leaning against a wooden fence, her hand on her chin and an ambiguous look on her face. The entire scene is rendered in splotches of color, making the woman and the country scene behind her somewhat indistinct. In Arkadi I. Vychugzhanin’s Winter: By the Window (1960), a pale girl sits clutching herself, gazing out a giant window at an abstract winter scene that takes up more than half of the painting.

On the Eve of the October Holiday — Aleksei P. & Sergei P. Tkachev, 1970-75 — Image courtesy The Museum of Russian ArtSeveral other paintings similarly portray moments of reflection, but more clearly set in the context of women’s labors. Ekaterina S. Zernova’s The Road Into Life (1956) depicts the artist’s daughter, Viktoria, wrapped up in a book in the middle of her transition from her old life as a student, indicated by the books behind her and the university in the distance, and her new life as a marine biologist, indicated by the bags she has packed for her journey to her first posting. In Vasili A. Arlashin’s Mama (1952), a young mother in a peasant outfit poses uncomfortably with her tightly wrapped infant, seemingly uncertain about where parenthood will take her. The Tkachev brothers’ On the Eve of the October Holiday (1970-75) (pictured at right) portrays a former member of the Communist Party’s revolutionary-era Women’s Sections deep in thought as she carefully irons her red banner. And in Geli M. Korchev’s Before a Long Journey (1970-76), a young soldier maintains a stoic expression while gazing into a mirror.

Unsurprisingly, the exhibit also includes more unambiguous glorifications of women’s work in support of the Soviet system. These include two massive canvasses depicting women in the logging industry: Konstantin P. Frolov’s A Logger (1958) (pictured at top), in which a lone woman drives logs down a river, and Aleksei P. Bulykh’s Young Woodcutters (1961-68), in which a woman strikes a heroic pose while presiding over a group of men with chainsaws. Another notable example is Nikolai P. Koracharskov’s They’re Writing About Us (1969), a brightly lit, energetic painting portraying Chuvash plaster workers taking a break to read a newspaper article about their efforts.

Worker — Igor A. Razdrogin, 1970 — Image courtesy The Museum of Russian ArtThough still existing within the boundaries of official Soviet art, some of the works on display appear to be reactions against traditional, romanticized portrayals of women. The exhibit includes several examples of the Severe Style, which sought to depict the harsh reality of life and work, including Igor A. Razdrogin’s Worker (1970) (pictured at left), in which a glum-faced woman poses in front of a rack of gutted fish. Separately, another departure from the theme of the ideal Soviet woman is Nikolai K. Levenstev’s Portrait of a Musician (1969), which portrays an elderly piano teacher of aristocratic bearing, leaning back in her chair and enjoying a cigarette.

While Women in Soviet Art is clearly concerned with and organized around the shifting representation of women during different periods within the second half of Soviet history, that is not to say that the paintings are merely of historical or ethnographic interest. Rather, the ostensibly common subject matter of these paintings allows visitors to encounter and compare a variety of creative takes on that subject matter, including many compelling and beautifully rendered images.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.