Women's Art versus Feminist Art: Categories and Contradictions in Practices of Armenian Art

As the officially promulgated top-to-bottom policy line of the Soviet Union endorsed the equality of all the strata of Soviet society, it also embraced the equality of the two sexes. A powerful and extensively popularized myth about women born in the Soviet Union was disseminated (and still seems to be in circulation). However, this supposedly universal respect for women’s rights and freedoms was, in fact, a camouflage shrouding the reality of the suppression of women by society, by men, as well as by the double standards in the division of labor, which granted women access to all spheres of public life and professional employment, but which did not free women from the burdens of back-breaking commitments in their private lives.

In fact, as is highlighted in V. Aristov’s research, Soviet women were often put to work on tough, low paid and low prestige jobs. A select few female candidates were granted access to positions of power by the male segment of society, but these female “islands” among the nation’s political elite had tenuously little in common with the greater proportion of female society in the Soviet Union.

The women in the Soviet Union were considered emancipated (for the official policy line forced this image of women into public life), but this emancipation was an external mask that covered, and even justified, the patriarchal economy of relations prevalent within society. This so-called equality was in no way indicative of an actual free competition between the two sexes.

The leadership belonged to men and the overall sexist structure (i.e., the stereotypes and practices discriminating one sex in favor of the other) prevailed without even being noticed, with the great majority of Soviet people simply taking it for granted (1).

Of course, by virtue of the adopted policy of equality, Soviet Armenian women were not refused the opportunity to engage in artistic processes. However, the Academic School was established and led by men. The work of female Armenian artists was detached from gender and similar considerations. Their artwork, rooted in the traditions of classical academic school and “national fine arts,” was entitled to be a mere auxiliary to the “rightful trends” of male artists. As such, they were seen and perceived as women loyal to the “school” and as women skillful in their mastery of public crafts as opposed to needlework, crocheting, patchwork, and others,  habitually viewed as the private domain of women’s activity.

It would not be superfluous to note that some women artists were the protagonists of a style characterized as strongman painting, one heavily invested with simulations of male artistic practices, and which adhered to the aesthetic models common to Armenian traditional painting and art. This does not mean, however, that the art of Soviet Armenian women was devoid of Western influences of, say, fauvist-style, cubism, or of “analytical structuring a-la-Cézanne.”  Put it otherwise, in Soviet Armenia, and especially ever since the period of Stalin’s regine of “punishment and liquidation,” female artists stood completely disconnected from any participation in processes that involved the deconstruction of the traditional stereotypes on women – be it in art or in social life. Importantly, there are no preserved records on the earlier Soviet women artists.   Their names have been almost or completely erased from the pages of representational historiography of Armenian Art.  Yet, it is highly important that rigorous research is conducted on this particular period.

Since 1950s, as women artists came on the artistic scene through their active participation in various events, they also became visible to the public at large which learned the names of artists such as sisters Yeranuhi and Mariam Aslamazyans, Knarik Vardanyan, Armine Kalents, Lavina Bazhbeuk-Melikyan, Dekhdzanik Mkhitaryan, Qnarik Hovhannisyan, and others. This notwithstanding, the pages of Soviet Armenian art historiography, and especially those of smaller-scale manuals, i.e. those that claim to present the select peaks of Armenian art history, usually “glare” with constellations of names comprised of male artists only.  Such is the state of affairs also in the cases when those anthologies are authored or complied by Soviet women art historians. Particularly exemplary is the active-in-the-late-Soviet-period art historian Nona Stepanyan’s book entitled Survey of Fine Arts in Armenia, where the author takes up the task of presenting the selected names of Soviet Armenian male artists, including Hakob Hovnatanian, Gevorg Bashindjaghian, Vardges Sureniantz, Hakob Kojoyan, Martiros Saryan, Ervand Kochar, Hovhannes Zardaryan, Haroutiun Kalents, Minas Avetisyan, Robert Elibekian, Hakob Hakobian, Sargis Muradian, and others. Surprisingly, the manual, which covers a time span as protracted as 1910 to 1980s, features not a single female artist.  They stand outside the pecking order of “geniuses.” (2)

As Linda Nochlin, the leading expert on feminist art history, puts it in her seminal and by now paradigmatic article entitled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” the “mythologies of the divine creator” – the artist as he-man,  who sodden with his genius, overcomes all possible hardships, do not correspond to our conceptions of the housewife, the mother, or that of a salon hostess. (3)

Nochlin concludes that the formation of generalized or traditional corpora of art is a “white” man’s monopoly. The pages of this history, saturated with male frivolities, have neglected, and do to date neglect, the “endowments” of the Other, those of the woman – she is absolutely incompatible with, nor can she have access to the concept of the Genius, and that of Great Art. These assertions, so firmly stigmatized in history, have traditionally been perceived as natural, as given truths of divine ordering not subject to a critical glance, which, as Nochlin has it, lead to an intellectual death.

Nochlin argues that “underlying the question about woman as artist, then, we find the myth of the Great Artist--subject of a hundred monographs, unique, godlike--bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence…” Nochlin raises the question why have there been no great women artists as prominent as, say, Michelangelo, or Rafael, or Van Gogh, or Jackson Pollock, for despite their obvious artistic differences, they all fall under the rubric of “genial” note that no single woman has ever enjoyed.  To provide an answer, Nochlin refers to the status quo in the fundamental social, political, cultural structures underlying societies, and to the ideologies guiding those structure which she claims create non-horizontal opportunities for men and women in art, education, and elsewhere.  Even to date, stereotypes and expectations of male and female social roles, and of their behavioral tactics prevail. One of the examples Nochlin quotes is the state of affairs in the academic fine art schools throughout the first two decades of 20th century when women were even bereft of the opportunity to paint nude models – what was then considered the ABC of  mastering fine arts:

“As late as 1893, "lady" students were not admitted to life drawing at the Royal Academy in London… A brief survey of representations of life-drawing sessions reveals: an all-male clientele drawing from the female nude in Rembrandt's studio… Far more believable, unfortunately, was the complete unavailability to the aspiring woman artist of any nude models at all, male or female.”(4)

All of it being equal, and along with various texts and problems on the presence/absence of women artists, feminist criticism also hones at yet another phenomenon – the emergence of the ever-increasing practice of depicting female nudity since 19th century which reveals a consummate dominance in numbers over male nudes. Here, I would like to make recourse back to Soviet Armenian art by quoting cultural critic Hrach Bayandyan’s observation:

“Nude bodies appear to be a very rare occurrence in the works of Armenian painters. At the dawn of 20th century their preferred medium for aesthetic expression was landscape painting…. Not only were they, the nude body and the landscape, set off against one another as opposites in Armenian painting, but also, under the imperative of the specific logic of constructing a contemporary cultural identity, the national landscape had somehow appropriated/absorbed the female body, wherein the latter, identified with mother-nature, signified both woman’s dispossesive nature subject to domination, and her motherhood entitled to breed and nurture a nation.” (5)

In her programmatic postulates, Nochlin, along with with several other feminist theorists and critics, calls for a feminist revision of  “apprehensions” about women in art, and for the creation of a chain reaction which inspired by this example, would extend this highly important labor outward to embrace also literature, social, economic and political fileds.  This would be in an attempt to abandon women’s and women artists’ millennial feeling of guilt which accrues to the many indisputable hardships they undergo in their lives. For even at moments of most vigorous and unapolegetic masculine protest՛, women tend to dedicate themsleves to unabashed assertions of basic “femininity”. (6)

An exemplary case in which the diversity of gender conflicts, intrinsic contradictions, and  gender battles are particularly articulate, is the life and work of paintress Arminé Kalents, the wife of painter Haroutiun Kalents, “the acclaimed master with the brush,” to put it in a parlance common in Soviet times. Arminé’s case is notorious also because, unlike other Soviet Armenian artists, she took the plunge  to put her life story in writing which was published in 1997 in the form of an autobiography – Arminé on Haroutiun Kalents; Forgive Me, Haroutiun; Memories. (7)

In a proliferate stream of recollections, where the sequential order of her chronological narrative is at times disjoined, re-narrated or disrupted (also suggestive of the author’s emotional agitation), Arminé’s memoirs reveal some “bits of feminism.”  This is not to say, however, that her work had lines of convergence with the feminist art, or a leaning for it since after all, this was unimaginable in the context of Stalinist ideological regime in post-1920s. In fact, throughout her text, she time and again labors the point that her artistic path has always been invested heavily with social tenets. Women, also women artists, feel the constant urge to justify themselves in the face of expectations springing from family, and society at large.  This creates insurmountable obstacles for them for their complete dedication to their profession of the artist.  On the other hand, her book is imbued with feelings of “guilt,” and at times with the impasse of her feminine subjectivity.  This drained her obviously and ruined her internal confidence as a woman and as an artist, her beliefs, her commitment to her professional and aesthetic mission – all so essential for an artist's ability to pursue work intensively and innovatively. On one occasion, she recalls, Yervand Kochar, who earned recognition as the prominent sculptor and artist in Soviet Armenia, came out with a reproving commentary that Arminé lacked “the femininity that makes a woman a woman:”

“[Arminé], you are ingenuous, candid, and also you have depth as a personality… Virtues acceptable in men, but not – in women. You are likely to feel sorry one day about having failed to be a real woman.”(8)

Arminé, as she confesses, lingers over this “truth,” so uttered by Kochar, only at a later point in her life, at a moment of depression, when, demurred and dispirited, she muses over the causes of her many defeats as a woman in her family and personal life. And was that not her passion for art, she posits.

Arminé Kalendz had an unadulterated belief in Haroutiun Kalents’ extraordinary talent and his abilities:

“I loved Kalents, and I had no doubts whatsoever that he was a grand artist with exceptional abilities. Never did my eyes grow weary with watching his paintings – every stroke of his brush was no doubt a truth in art.” (9)

At the opening of Arminé's first solo show at the Union of Painters in Yerevan, Martiros Saryan, another prominent Soviet Armenian artist, murmurs to Arminé ear that she is superior to Haroutiun in art. She takes it as an insult: “I know it all too well what standing H. Kalents has in art, and this is a belief never to be shattered.” (10)  In other words, it is beyond her to admit that a woman can have primacy, or else superiority, over a man in art. On the other hand, she makes an aggrieved mentioning that her husband, at moments of kind disposition, all too often asserted that Arminé, had she done his bidding, might have evolved into a really good artist. (11)

There are also sections in the book where, despite her admiration with Kalents, Arminé does not hesitate to characterize the domineering posture of masculinity and its methods of subjugating women, and she does so by quoting examples also from her husband’s behavior.

“I don't know what I had within me.  I was normally tender and soft in my temperament – a pensive girl who flied... This is perhaps what attracted him [Haroutiun Kalents], but a virile spirit dwelled deep inside him – rebellious, agonistic, freedom-loving.  And the more he oppressed me, the more these features beefed up in him. And perhaps this poor girl, who would, like a schoolgirl,  soundlessly retire into a secluded corner and burst out into tears, made him feel manlier. He manned up more when I was wretched, and less so, when I was cheerful and active... He liked to see me ruined. In a footnote, I have observed it throughout my life that men feel more attracted to ruined women... Yes, probably because they feel more of a man, in the position of the defender...”(12)

It is important to also note that another important feature in the work of the Kalents couple is the fact that they are repatriates who moved to Armenia from Syria in 1946. Their dramatic passage into Soviet Armenia and the fact of their “Otherness” did often contribute to their life in the margin (read the metaphor of the margin in its negative signification here). The Kalentses did their best to alienate themselves from the perceptions of art that followed Soviet ideologies – the figurativeness of socialist and party realism. In her book quoted above, Arminé labels “political Soviet” art as a “pot-boiler.” One can only imagine under what double oppression and what double “Otherness” Arminé  led her life, both as a woman artist and as a repatriate, an alien.

The attempts of critiquing Soviet- Armenian and even Soviet women’s art at large during 1960s, the so-called Khrushchev thaw era, and even up to 1980s, would also end up in associating and analogizing it with the practices of male artists: “like a man, her arms are strong and her strokes are powerful;” “she is not a paintress, but a genuine painter;” and so on. Many female artists in those years were the wives of art critics and painters or representatives of artistic families, a crucial factor allowing them access into the artistic scene.

Female artists in those years were divested of their originality and self-sufficiency and were instead viewed as pale copies subordinate to the genius of he-man. Characteristic descriptions, in consonance with the typical generalizations unifying “femininity” in art under specific formal and stylistic insignia, identified the locus of female art inside categories such as “lyricism,” “lyric psychologism,” and so on.

The preeminence of male-chauvinist interpretations of female art endured for so many long years that it established a massive grip on the pages of Soviet-Armenian cultural historiography. In turn, Armenian women artists either believed in this, or in a passive non-action, and they ceded to the myth of the divine creator that the painter is a real he-man.

This “state of the art” perpetuated its unquestioned legitimacy up until approximately mid post-Soviet 1990s, a period that marked the abandonment of the grand Soviet narratives and  prohibited topics, and saw the introduction of translations of Feminist/Gender Studies.  These theories, in their lively and heterogeneous (albeit at times contradictory) conceptual insights, allowed deconstructions within the traditional apparatus of thought and in the methodological presuppositions underlying the prevailing art history discourses.  This momentum also opened a door for some particularly interested and unfortunately only a few artists, curators, critics, and art historians in Armenia to pursue a new agenda of cultural and critical (self) analysis and (self) determination which, among other things, was also calibrated around the conceptual female and gender nexus.

The artistic scene in Armenia, especially the one that we call Contemporary Art scene, perhaps much in line with the other similar contexts in post-Soviet countries, welcomed those attempts as “exceptionally heretical.” And yet, those transitory years became the period when a newly emerging contemporary art scene in Armenia was quick to assert that: […] art is not the free, autonomous activity of the super-endowed individual. Rather, the situations and the social field, in which the art work is evolving, is part and parcel of social structures and is mediated and defined  by specific social institutions (13). In those years in Armenia the underlying theme in the works of men and women alike was the break with existing traditional art forms, and because those forms tended to preserve their status quo, breaking with them was itself viewed as a radical movement. The works of progressive Armenian women artists were often anchored on a single axis – the contraposition of the feminine to the masculine, in a kind of essentialist strategy.

Women artists did not make definite references to Feminism in their art. Instead, their growing self-awareness refused to respond to the “traditional” expectations of their audiences, and this act was revolutionary in itself. On the other hand, after the downfall of the Soviet Empire, women artists made active efforts to achieve a fully-fledged participation in the artistic life on the contemporary art scene. In those years the international art community had only started paying attention to the contemporary art in the post-Soviet space, and female artists tried actively to gain access to full participation and equal representation at local and international galleries and institutions. This process was, in one way or the other, positive in that it marked the beginning of women’s struggle in the field of art aimed at gaining equal rights with men in terms of overall creative legitimization, representation of artistic works, and engagement in broader artistic practices around the world.

Although the works of  female artists were not particularly influenced by the classical feminist and gender theories (these texts attracted the interest of only a small proportion of Armenian curators and art critics, only few female artists, but never male artists), several women artists in Armenia were “visually” inspired by the experiences of some international feminist artists – of Valie Export (Austria); Guerilla Girls (and their famous slogan questioning the fact of unequal involvement and representation of women’s art in national, international museums, galleries and other art events:  “Do Women have to be naked to get to the Museums?”), and others.

As mentioned in the introduction to the Anthology of Gender Theory and Art, in the West, feminist art emerged and developed hand in hand with Western feminist theories and Gender Studies. This then became the basis for numerous texts on gender and feminism, exerting a decisive influence on contemporary artistic practices. The term “politics of representations,” coined by Western feminist critique, stood for the non-optionality and high reflexiveness of the aesthetic and political constellations within which women can potentially discern, constitute, and identify themselves. Self-representation is the next step in the politics of representation. “The personal is political” is an expression connoting that the coordinates of already established representational politics in the social, scientific, psychic, and artistic spheres arise from the personal, and which therefore can and should be rethought. Indeed, feminist art is developed through theoretical reflections about representation, about how the representation of women is carried out, how they are understood, and about the specific social conditions that come to shape them.(14)

In my opinion, the main part of more progressive women artists in Armenia position themselves not so much as producers of feminist art, but as producers of a specific category of art which refuses the works of traditional women artists as androcentric and patriarchal. My experience as a curator in the contemporary Armenian artistic context has allowed me to observe a phenomenon I find quite interesting – the existence of a kind of “uninformed or unconscious feminism” in the works of Armenian women artists who do not try to supply their work with feminist definitions or commentaries.The visual texts of the artists often repeat the kind of radical strategies of women’s art-making which Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis have grouped into a typology comprised of several categories – essentialist, separatist, feminist approaches which envision “a specific relation between strategy and action.” (15)

One type/category the authors have identified is the “glorification of an essential female art power.”  This orientation finds expression in emphasizes of vagina forms.  It can also be associated with the ritual and the postulation of a female mythology.  Thus, instead of the male supremacy of patriarchal culture, the female (the essential female) is elevated to the primary status. The other category of women’s art making views the latter as a form of sub-cultural resistance through showing appreciation for crafts (sewing, ceramic, implications with fabric, etc.). The third category is divided into two groups or subcategories by Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis. The first group regards the dominant cultural order as a monolithic construction in which women’s cultural activity is either submerged or placed entirely outside its boundaries. For the second group or subcategory the feminist struggle is not necessary, since its more strident forms of artistic careerism make the assertion that women’s art has outgrown of  its need for feminism. The final category of artistic practice emphasizes that meanings are socially constructed and demonstrates the importance and functioning of discourse in the shaping of social reality…

Echoing certain feminist questions, one can then ask: is a work of art feminist when the artist sees it as such, or is it feminist when it is perceived to be such by a collector, a curator, an art critic, or an institutional arbiter?

I recall a conversation I once had with woman artist Mara Mirzoyan about a piece in her massive multimedia series (1996). Her work could well fit into those categories of feminist art which praise real feminine sexuality or which, through a strategy of reversal, replace phallocentrism with the symbol of female origin, the vagina.  Mara’s reaction to this observation was one of astonishment, while for me, as an art curator, the work was clearly invested with feminism as “glorification of an essential female power” was defined by Barry and Flitterman-Lewis. In fact, many female artists remained quite remote from feminist discourses, or else, they preferred to avoid the notion “feminism” or “feminist art” when defining their work.  This is why it is probably more accurate to label these works as “congruent” with feminist strategies, than as being part of feminist art.

The works of two other female artists from Armenia, Karine Matsakyan and Astghik Melkonyan, are also congruent with feminist strategies – this time with the strategies of female representation and self-representation. In this type of art, woman's character is not perceived as a given, but is constructed in and through artwork, thereby emphasizing the socially constructed nature of meaning.

Another  Armenian female artist, Diana Hakobyan, also avoids characterizing her work in term of feminism or gender, though her work, in my opinion, does indeed raise important questions  on women’s equal representation in the world of art, as well as other gender-specific problems. This notwithstanding, she simply mentions in her short bio that what she seeks in her artistic practices is “the formation of new visions, especially about the role of woman, and that of family, in contemporary society.”  Focusing mainly on new forms of art, she rejects the social and cultural values of the industrial era which she claims are based on exploitation.  If the task were to draw a line of demarcation between “art by women” and “feminist art,” one would situate the work of the above artists within the first category. It is therefore important to underline that there is indeed art by women that works within, in peace and in concord with the patriarchal society, and there is art that works against patriarchalism. The works of the latter artists are exactly such, although they may not verbalize their position in feminist terms. What is apparent in their work, however, is the articulation of a difference, the difference of the specifically female subjectivity and the subversion of the traditional representation of woman.

I also want to make a special mentioning of the Queering Yerevan initiative, established in Yerevan several years ago (16). The topic of queer identities is an exceptional taboo in Armenia, and what they did required some courage, since their move went well beyond the universal concepts of woman's Otherness, which undermine other forms of female subjectivity, say, lesbianism. The move was also an attempt to overcome the separatism and individualism splitting lesbian identities on the Armenian art scene and, more broadly, female society as a whole.

One of the pioneering attempts in addressing the dilemma of queer identities and other gender issues in Armenia came in the form of monumental installation “Human Doors” performed by Raffie Davtian, an Armenian-Iranian male artist, exhibited first in Yerevan in 2007. In this project, the artist creates a space of corporal figurativeness, which he arranges as a metaphoric “public space,” in which  through artistic expression, he not only revitalize the gender discourse, but also brings to the forefront the discourse of gender exclusion. The installation emerges as a scale model featuring a “multitude” of figure-objects, which are caught up in a “gender trouble” and in a spectacular outburst, and introduce the scene of their impregnation with their own subjectivity. Pictured in a “troubled” dynamic, each figure appears as the carrier of the truth of a specific character which can be linked to hetero-, homo-, bi-sexual, and transgender identities. The project also renders as problematic the imaginary in self-identification, the personal mechanism of experiencing one’s own Self, which is bound to be linked to various systems of boundaries, oppression, discoursed gender politics, sexual exclusions, and all other cultural and social taboos arising from them. The artist also includes in the corpus of the installation figures of old wo/men, thus putting the problem of “ageism” alongside with those of discrimination and social exclusions in Armenia. (16)

Unfortunately, due to lack of space, it is impossible to further elaborate on the practices of artists on the contemporary artistic scene in Armenia whose works feature a marked gender accentuation.

To conclude, I want to emphasize that men would never give up their power position without struggle – be it in art or other spheres. And if we, women, want to have some, at least, scanty hope for  societal reform in “different” or “other”  thinking, we are to link it to women's participation, their activism, thinking, and intervention. Of course, this would be possible, to quote  Hrach Bayadyan again, “if women themselves wanted to see changes in whatever is degenerated in different spheres and relations in Armenia... as women are part of today's society which tolerates and also sanctifies all these vices as the pivotal components of its singularly trustworthy ‘national project.’”


Notes and Bibliography:

1. Vladimir Aristov, “Sovetskaya “matriarkhaika” i sovremennye gendernye obrazy” ([Soviet “matriarchy” and contemporary gender images]), in A. Al’chuk (ed.), Zhenschina i Vizual’nye znaki ([Woman and Visual Signs]), (Moscow: Ideya-Press, 1999), pp. 3-16.

2. Nonna Stepanyan, Survey of Fine Arts in Armenia (Moscow: Sovetsky Khudozhnik, 1985).

3. Linda Nochlin, Why HaveThere Been No Great Women Artists? (New York: 1st publication in ARTnews, 69, 1971).

4. ibid.

5. Hrach Bayadyan, “The Naked Body and the National Landscape” in New Figurative Art in Armenia (Yerevan: Printinfo, 2010).

6. Nochlin, Why Have There…

7. Kalents, Armine, Arminen Haroutiun Kalentsi masin: Nerir indz Haroutiun. Husher ([Armine about Haroutiun Kalents: Forgrive me Haroutiun, Memories]), (Yerevan: Nairi, 1997).

8. ibid, p.89

9. ibid, p.166

10. ibid, p.171

11. ibid, p.146

12. ibid, p. 119

13. Nochlin, Why Have There

14. L.Bredikhina and K. Deepwell (eds.), Gendernaya Teoriya i Iskusstvo: Antologiya: 1970- 2000 ([Gender Theory and Art: An Antology]), (Moscow: Rosspen, 2005)
15. Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “Textual Strategies: The Politics of Art-Making” in L.Bredikhina and K. Deepwell (eds.), Gender Theory and Art: Anthology, 1970-2000 (Rosspen, 2005), pp.146-161

16. http://queeringyerevan.blogspot.com.

17. Susanna Gyulamiryan, “All Others” in Human Doors Artistic Project (artist: Raffie Davtian), Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory (ACSL), (Yerevan, 2007).