East German artist Verena Kyselka’s “The News Anchor,” 1989 (cropped)

The Wende Museum revisits the Eastern Bloc feminist art underground

By Christina Campodonico

East Germany is long dead, but women who created subversive art under the suppression of Stasi espionage are still making universal statements about feminism and patriarchy through artwork that survives at the Wende Museum in Culver City.

“The Medea Insurrection: Radical Women Artists Behind the Iron Curtain” gives a long overdue spotlight to artists whose work has been overshadowed by male counterparts or interpreted only through the Cold War’s geopolitical context, asserts exhibit curator Susanne Altmann.

“I think we often make the mistake that we put the oppression and the restrictions and the censorship first, and then look at the artwork as if it was to confirm or illustrate our preconceptions,” she says. “The only way to rehabilitate or to make them visible is by not instrumentalizing the art as a full political history. I’m not illustrating the Cold War here. What I do is show their aesthetic and artistic achievements, and [how] they went against the grain of a then-dominant dogma.”

Altmann points me to the fabric art pieces of East Berlin artist Christa Jeitner, whose rippled cloth panels with abstract shapes could masquerade as an innocuous wall hanging even as it displayed abstract design, “which was otherwise really condemned,” she notes, or show up at a concert supporting a dissident writer as an unfettered display of “geometrical abstraction.”

“I think this is a wonderful example of how this kind of material with this feminine connotation — fabric — is being used as a medium to display power, energy, transgression, radicality,” Altmann says.
Other pieces make more lasting statements about the state of womanhood.

For instance, a series of photographs documents one Hungarian-Serbian actress’ answer to an erotic strip tease and the burden that many women feel to maintain hairless bodies, called “Black Shave Poem.”

“She strips down to bra and briefs but … still with another layer of this black whatever … turtleneck and leggings … And then, as if she was naked, she starts shaving herself,” recounts Altmann. “This is so universal.”

Like many modern women who struggle to “have it all” or put in a “second shift” of caretaking or housekeeping after a full day of work, Eastern European female artists of the Cold War era faced similar challenges, even if they weren’t consciously aware of them at the time.

“With hindsight, a lot of these women artists admit that they had been doubly or triply suppressed by a patriarchal society that claimed women’s liberation was no issue any longer because women had to work as hard as men, but [also] have children and the household,” says Altmann. “Then again in the subversive circles … the male artists were at the forefront. If they needed a model it would be their wife or their girlfriend. … It was a classical patriarchy seeping from high up … and then into the art circles.”

But not even the patriarchy could keep these artists and other Eastern European renegades from putting their art into the world, observes Wende Museum Executive Director Justin Jampol.

“Through the museum we know firsthand that no matter what kind of society you live in, people always find the cracks. Whether it’s the cracks in the wall or cracks to express themselves, human expression is an ‘unquashable’ force.”

“The Medea Insurrection” opens Sunday (Nov. 10) and remains on view through April 5 at the Wende Museum, 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City. Admission is free. See wendemuseum.org for gallery hours.