Exhibition review: Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe in Vienna

"Does a Group of More than Three Women Make It Feminist?"

Review of exhibition Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig (MUMOK), Vienna, November 13, 2009 — February 14, 2010; and at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, March 19 — June 13, 2010.

Published in Studija 70, no. 1 (2010): 54-63.

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View the article on Studija magazine online archive.

About the exhibition:

Gender Check was the first comprehensive exhibition featuring art from Eastern Europe since the 1960s based on the theme of gender roles. 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the curator Bojana Pejić, along with a team of experts from 24 different countries, put together a selection of over 400 works including paintings, sculpture, installations, photography, posters, films and videos. With over 200 artists, the exhibition painted an exceptionally diverse picture of a chapter in art history that until recently had been largely unknown and that could also act as an important addition to contemporary gender discourse.

Learn more about Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe on the exhibition online archive here.

Petra Varl. Zvezda and Odeon. Mural. 205x137cm. Courtesy of the artist. From Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe

"Does a Group of More than Three Women Make It Feminist?"


The European commemoration of the symbolic “fall” of the Berlin Wall, on 9 November 1989, is also significant as one of those rare opportunities, occurring once a decade at least, for art from Latvia and other former republics of the USSR to break into the Western art scene. Here I am referring to the fact that the curator of the Gender Check exhibition, Bojana Pejič (b. 1948), born in Belgrade and resident in Berlin, was also the curator of the 1999 exhibition After the Wall1. That event, marking the tenth anniversary of the “fall”, likewise was an introduction to art created in Eastern Europe, or on the other side of the wall (i.e., from our point of view – on this side).

The Gender Check exhibition of Eastern European art is based on research carried out, on behalf of curator Pejič, by art historians in 24 countries of what was formerly known as the Communist Bloc (including art historian Māra Traumane in Latvia), seeking out works of art relating to gender issues, and identifying approaches to the depiction and interpretation of femininity and masculinity that relate closely to political power in the countries of Eastern Europe before and after 1989. The thematic direction of the exhibition was laid down by the organization that commissioned and sponsored it, namely the ERSTE Stiftung, which promotes gender studies in Europe. Hence it was a logical choice for the foundation to look at the events of 1989 in the light of gender studies and in the framework of an art exhibition.

So as to avoid misunderstandings, it is essential to explain from the outset what Gender Check is not: it’s not an exhibition of women’s art, it’s not an exhibition of feminist art, and it’s not a general retrospective of East European art. Gender Check is actually the curator’s view of the history of East European art through the prism of gender studies and feminist theory, assessing the representation of gender and sex in works of art. The division between the sexes is examined, as are their roles and opportunities in society before and after the fall of the wall. It’s the divide between “us” (so-called Eastern Europe, the former Communist Bloc countries) and “them” (so-called Western Europe). (Bojana Pejič quotes Boris Groys (b. 1947), who has said: “it is surely quite evident to all concerned that the true specificity of Eastern Europe can only reside in its communist past”5). These and other possible divides create confrontation and introduce an element of dynamism, since feminism is one of those words that often tends to elicit a reaction of suspicion or ambivalence. For example, one of the exhibition’s researchers, Bulgarian art expert Maria Vassileva, recalls an episode relating to a league of Bulgarian women artists: “...my failed attempt to explain to several intellectuals in New York that a group of female artists does not necessarily make it a feminist one. Firing back promptly they assured me that a group is already feminist when more than three women gather together. By the way, this is the impression we create in Bulgaria as well. Which is kind of weird, because feminism, be it political or cultural, simply never happened in our country.”

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On my way to see Gender Check at the MUMOK, Vienna. Photo: © Zenta Dzividzinska.

At the exhibition Gender Check at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw. Photo: © Zenta Dzividzinska.