Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe


Shows that examine the roles we play as men and women in contemporary society are fairly common in the West, but prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, little was known about how Eastern European artists were handling this topic. Social realism depicted men and women in Eastern Europe in the role of the heroic worker; in the 1960s, “unofficial art” began to question that reality. Gender Check, at Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art, considers the development of male and female roles in art since that time.

Following artists’ rejection of social realism and embrace of unofficial art, feminine art concerns that were sweeping the world in the ‘70s made their way to Eastern Europe and spurred male artists to also question role-playing and identity. New forms of expression, such as photography, video, and performance art, arose to deal with the new ideas. As more and more educated women took up art, men were no longer able to dominate the field.

After the wall fell, nationalist trends and neoliberal influence gained ground in Eastern Europe. At the same time, artistic criticism of militaristic and misogynistic ideologies increased. The subject of homosexuality was openly discussed for the first time and religious concepts about femininity and patriarchal authority were questioned.

Elzbieta Jabłonska (Poland), Super Mother, 2002, Photography / Fotografie, 100 x 150 cm, Courtesy of the artist, © Elzbieta Jabłonska

Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe presents 400 works by 200 artists from 24 countries in Eastern and Southeast Europe. The massive exhibition, which is spread out over four floors of MUMOK Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, features painting, sculpture, installations, photography, posters, films, and videos. Most of the work has never been exhibited before in the West and rarely seen in shows in Eastern Europe.

Standouts in the exhibition include Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe’s self-portrait as Marilyn Monroe; Marina Abramovic video Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, in which she forcefully brushes her hair; Boris Mikhailov‘s tender photographs from his 1960s Suzi et Cetera series of common women in the Ukraine; and Elzbieta Jabłonska’s Super Mother series, in which the mother is Superman, Batman, and Spiderman.

Nearly impossible to fully comprehend in even a whole day of viewing, Gender Check is accompanied by a 400-page catalogue that delves deeper into the issues.

Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe is on view at MUMOK Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna through February 14.

Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe (Russia), Monroe, 1996, Offset print, 75 x 60 cm, Courtesy XL Gallery, Moscow © Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe

Rovena Agolli (Albania), In All My Dreams, It Never Is Quite as It Seems, 2002 Digital print, 80 x 60 cm, Courtesy of the artist, © Rovena Agolli

Marina Abramovic (Serbia), Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975, Video performance, 14:14 min, © Marina Abramovic

Katarzyna Kozyra (Poland), Olympia, 1996, 1 Photo, 120,5 x 180 x 2 cm, Courtesy Collection of Barbara Kabala-Bonarska and Andrzej Bonarski, on deposit in the National Museum in Cracow © Katarzyna Kozyra

Petra Varl (Slovenia), Zvezda and Odeon, 2009, Wallpainting, 205 x 137cm, © Petra Varl

Izabella Gustowska (Poland), Sacrifice I - from the cycle Relative Similarities, 1989-1990, Mixed technic on canvas (photograph, oil) / 223 x 166 x 12 cm, Courtesy Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu © Izabella Gustowska

Boris Mikhailov (Ukraine), Photo from the series: Suzi et cetera, 1960s, Courtesy of the artist, © VBK Wien, 2009