I have been reading from the following site, http://www.escapeintolife.com and using passages from the text there to start of this post, influenced by the Russian female artist Zinaida Yevgenyevna Serebriakova (December 10, 1884 – September 19, 1967)
What then of the Serebriakova nudes? They are not in the sense of the modernist art canon really striking – there is no deconstruction of the female body, nor are they particularly provocative in their poses. One needs only have to compare them with the other nudes of the period by Henri Matisse or Amedeo Modigliani. But this might not be the whole truth because when she painted her nudes during the Silver Age period she did so as a challenge to the male dominated genre – as did Goncharova. The very act of a woman artist painting a nude of herself was a feminist act in that she became the subject rather than object.
This notion of the artist or even the model being able to engage in the same practices as men, without succumbing to alienation or gender heresy, is very contentious. Today in the era of post-pornography, where pornography as a cultural space of the male has been opened to feminist empowerment (through “cunt” power politics), the re-framing or re-figuring of women’s art on those terms has perhaps over emphasised the synchronic over the diachronic or historical context. They also often forget that women artists had to earn money, and this meant they had to negotiate with a male dominated art market. Consider by way of example, Anais Nin’s apparently duplicitous role in her writing pornography for a male orientated market, and her private-but-public erotic exposes in her autobiographical writings. What’s the difference? That’s at the heart of the problem of the nude.
This painting below would not have passed the Stalinist-run art institutions’ standards as the pose is 1) not maternal (connoting Mother Russia or Soviet Mother) 2) atheletic 3) ethnic or ethographical. But the head with rosy apple cheeks is typical of socialist realist women’s heads. The Soviet Union would have to wait many years until a nude like the below could be accepted – and now such paintings are in great demand, the market directed by the fact it is Russian and erotic to a certain extent. If we compare the painting with the 1911 nude, we see that it is altogether rougher in the outlines and the flesh tones, especially the pinks, are in the ascendant – exaggerating the nipples. Also note the pubic hair, something that troubled the censors for years.
What of Serebriakova’s pastels like this one:
Is the work beautiful because the “object” is different? Does her difference make the pastel more “desirable”? Again, the painting is anachronistic and similar to, say, the French and German Orientalists – the very artists who Edward Said deconstructed! An example of this is the Odalisque by Ingres:
This painting above actually provides us with an excellent point of departure for re-reading the Serebriakova nudes – because nearly all her nudes have an identical pose with the arms behind the head, and many have that generalised palette which gives the impression of a sculpture. The Ingres painting has often been interpreted as a male fantasy – the woman who is a slave and available whenever the man needs her. If we could in a rather flippant manner compare the erotics of art to drug addiction, then these nudes are like C class drugs or C class (soft) pornography with all the problems that entails. Does Serebriakova deserve her reputation? Can we criticize her art after the Silver Period as being anachronistic, and racist at times? Can a female nude painting by a woman of a different ethnic background be excused because the painting is by a woman?
These questions perplex and confront those campaigning to recover the woman artist and her canon. Does she “own” the female body when she paints it – or is the painting like all art open to arbitariness? When someone takes “an innocent” picture of themselves, where they sincerely believe that it is “beautiful”, the same photograph taken out of context becomes pornography. Can the body lose its carnality? The Soviet nude shows us that like the Nazi nude, she is at once a symbol of the power of the state, a mother, a symbol of healthiness, of racial supremacy (or dominance), and at the same time the object of carnal interest.