Editors' pick

Behind the Velvet Curtain: Contemporary Art from the Czech Republic

Painting/Drawing
'

Editorial Review

Putting a Twist On Female Views

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 10, 2009

A pair of exhibitions spotlighting women -- one a demure survey of Hungarian photographers in the early 20th century, the other a sharp look at contemporary artists from the Czech Republic -- will shake third-wave feminists from their slumber. If these shows be our measure, a hundred years of political inroads haven't erased women's distorted images of themselves.

"Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographers 1900-1945" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts chronicles 21 largely unknown women for whom opening a studio amounted to a radical move.

They found opportunity in a medium that, in Hungary at least, was slow to gain traction as an art form. The Hungarian men who forged careers as major-league photographers -- Lszl Moholy-Nagy, Robert Capa (n Endre Friedmann), Brassai and Andr Kertsz -- found success elsewhere.

These women also scattered to Paris, Berlin, Weimar and Vienna, seeking training and work. Yet most circled back to their homeland, building careers through networking and cunning.

With 80 works on view and dense wall text to accompany them, "Picturing Progress" arrives to rewrite the past and tell the untold stories of these photographic pioneers. We learn of the strivings, family connections and dumb luck that made up for lack of education, training and exhibition opportunities.

Yet slowly -- sometimes too slowly -- "Picturing Progress" reveals an underhanded radicalism in the simplest of gestures: the prospect of owning a studio of one's own, making money taking pictures, mentoring younger artists.

The show's matriarch, Olga Mate, turned out dewy portraits of mothers and daughters with Whistler-like flourishes of velvety soft-focus. These early efforts, produced in the 1910s and '20s, please the eye and the psyche -- they are baby steps into the new medium. Eventually, Mate found jobs in advertising, too, shooting biscuit ads by the mid-1930s.

Though represented by only three works in this show, Marian Reismann influenced countless younger artists. Following in the steps of her brother, she enrolled in a Munich photo school by 1929; upon returning to Budapest in the 1930s, she opened "Foto Marian." It was in that shop -- and her later businesses -- that Reismann trained a handful of young women who would go on to produce more radical work.

In the late 1930s, Reismann acolyte Kata Sugr trod the Hungarian hinterlands in the name of social justice, snapping pictures of peasant girls and bakers. Her pictures monumentalize the countryside's poor just as Gustave Courbet aggrandized stone breakers in 19th-century France. For Sugr and her contemporaries, the camera offered avenues for activism without overstepping the bounds of propriety.

While the activist images in "Picturing Progress" keep to the right side of respectable, the artists of "Behind the Velvet Curtain" rarely do. Their works in this Embassy of the Czech Republic-organized exhibition at the Katzen Center are loud, aggressive and wry -- and nearly impossible to make a century ago.

These seven women, all in their 30s and 40s, were born into communism but spent the latter half of their lives in a capitalist Czech Republic. They grew up with images of Stalinist women (undersexed, under wraps and under control) only to see them replaced after the Eastern Bloc's fall with their opposite: accessible female bodies (in pornography, strip clubs, lad mags) that came to signal free-market economics.

As their artworks tell it, today's "liberties" aren't cause for celebration.

Milena Dopitov's video "M.M.D." takes issue with women as puppets of the new regime. A three-channel installation set to the frantic beats of rave music, the video shows three sets of women's shoes -- ballet-style flats, slightly worn -- dancing furiously, their erratic moves controlled by invisible hands. The images and their merciless soundtrack create an unnerving sense of coercion. Though her metaphor isn't subtle, Dopitov's images lodge in the brain.

A stark sculpture series by Erika Bornov called "I Will Do Everything" takes female prostitutes as its subject. Ten Plexiglas boxes hang along a wall; each vitrine holds a grotesque: a nude or nearly nude woman in a provocative pose and a ghastly, skull-like face. The artist based the figures on advertisements that proliferated after the Iron Curtain was lifted. In these, women touted their services alongside photographs of themselves dressed in various undergarments with their faces blurred. For Bornov, the women are ciphers born of new economic imperatives, their prisonlike vitrines mimic dead-end lives.

The notion of women as puppets, props and symbols pops up in nearly every piece here. Lenka Klodov installs the same naked female torso in a variety of domestic scenes, likening women's bodies to domesticated sex toys. Katerina Vincourov offers a dynamic sculpture where inflatable beach balls fill women's girdles close to bursting, signaling figures -- and identities -- stretched beyond capacity. Regardless of regime, these artists remind us, female bodies remain tools of the state.